John Newton's Letters

Causes, nature, and marks of a decline in grace

March, 1765
My friend,
I remember, when I once had the pleasure of waiting on you, you were pleased to begin an interesting conversation, which, to my concern, was interrupted. The subject was concerning the causes, nature, and marks of a decline in grace; how it happens that we lose that warm impression of Divine things, which in some favored moments we think it almost impossible to forget; how far this change of frame is consistent with a spiritual growth in other respects; how to form a comparative judgment of our proficiency upon the whole; and by what steps the losses we sustain from our necessary connection with a sinful nature and a sinful world, may be retrieved from time to time. I beg your permission to fill up the paper with a view to these inquiries. I do not mean to offer a labored essay on them傭ut such thoughts as shall occur while the pen is in my hand.

The awakened soul (especially when, after a season of distress and terror, it begins to taste that the Lord is gracious) finds itself as in a new world. No change in outward life can be so sensible so affecting. No wonder, then, that at such a time little else can be thought of葉he transition from darkness葉o light; from a sense of wrath葉o a hope of glory, is the greatest change which can be imagined, and is oftentimes as sudden as wonderful. Hence the general characteristics of young converts are zeal and love. Like Israel at the Red Sea, they have just seen the wonderful works of the Lord, and they cannot but sing his praise; they are deeply affected with the danger they have lately escaped, and with the case of multitudes around them, who are secure and careless in the same alarming situation; and a sense of their own mercies, and a compassion for the souls of others, is so transporting, that they can hardly forbear preaching to everyone they meet.

This emotion is highly just and reasonable, with respect to the causes from whence it springs; and it is doubtless a proof, not only of the imperfection傭ut the depravity of our nature, that we are not always thus affected; yet it is not entirely genuine. If we examine this character closely, which seems at first sight, a pattern and a reproof to Christians of longer standing, we shall for the most part find it attended with considerable defects.

1. Such people are very weak in faith. Their confidence arises rather from the lively impressions of joy within葉han from a distinct and clear apprehension of the work of God in Christ. The comforts which are intended as cordials to animate them against the opposition of an unbelieving world葉hey mistake and rest in as the proper evidences of their hope. And hence it comes to pass, that when the Lord varies his dispensations, and hides his face-they are soon troubled and at their wit's end.

2. Those who are in this state of their first love, are seldom free from something of a censorious spirit. They have not yet felt all the deceitfulness of their own hearts; they are not well acquainted with the devices or temptations of Satan; and therefore know not how to sympathize or make allowances with others, where allowances are necessary and due預nd can hardly bear with any who do not reveal the same earnestness as themselves.

3. They are likewise more or less under the influence of self-righteousness and self-will. They mean well傭ut not being as yet well acquainted with the spiritual meaning and proper use of the law, nor established in the life of faith, a part (oftentimes a very considerable part) of their zeal spends itself in externals and non-essentials, prompts them to practice what is not commanded, to refrain from what is lawful, and to observe various and needless austerities and singularities, as their tempers and circumstances differ.

However, with all their faults, methinks there is something very beautiful and engaging in the honest vehemence of a young convert. Some cold and rigid judges are ready to reject these promising appearances on account of incidental blemishes. But would a gardener throw away a fine nectarine, because it is green, and has not yet attained all that beauty and flavor which a few more showers and suns will impart? Perhaps it will hold for the most part in grace as in nature (some exceptions there are) 擁f there is not some fire in youth, we can hardly expect a proper warmth in old age.

But the great and good Gardener watches over what his own hand has planted, and carries on his work by a variety of different, and even contrary dispensations. While their mountain stands thus strong, they think they shall never be moved; but at length they find a change. Sometimes it comes on by insensible degrees. That part of their affection which was purely natural, will abate of course when the power of novelty ceases. They will begin, in some instances, to perceive their own indiscretions; and an endeavor to correct the excesses of an imprudent zeal will often draw them towards the contrary extreme of remissness. The evils of their hearts, which, though overpowered, were not eradicated, will revive again. The enemy will watch his occasions to meet them with suitable temptations; and as it is the Lord's design that they should experimentally learn and feel their own weakness, he will in some instances be permitted to succeed.

When guilt is thus brought upon the conscience, the heart grows hard, the hands feeble, and the knees weak; then confidence is shaken, the spirit of prayer interrupted, the armor gone. And thus things grow worse and worse蓉ntil the Lord is pleased to interpose. For though we can fall of ourselves, we cannot rise without his help! Indeed, every sin, in its own nature, has a tendency towards a final apostasy! But there is a provision in the covenant of grace, and the Lord, in his own time, returns to convince, humble, pardon, comfort, and renew the soul. He touches the rock預nd the waters flow. By repeated experiments and exercises of this sort (for this wisdom is seldom acquired by one or a few lessons), we begin at length to learn that we are nothing, have nothing, call do nothing傭ut sin. And thus we are gradually prepared to live more outside of ourselves預nd to derive all our sufficiency of every kind from Jesus, the fountain of grace. We learn to tread more warily, to trust less to our own strength; to have lower thoughts of ourselves, and higher thoughts of Jesus! In which two last particulars, I apprehend what the Scripture means by a growth of grace does properly consist. Both are increasing in the lively Christian容very day shows him more of his own heart, and more of the power, sufficiency, compassion, and grace of his adorable Redeemer; but neither will be complete until we get to heaven.

I apprehend, therefore, that though we find an abatement of that sensible warmth of affection which we felt at first setting out; yet, if our views are more evangelical, our judgment more ripened, our hearts more habitually humbled under a sense of inward depravity, our tempers more softened into sympathy and tenderness; if our prevailing desires are spiritual, and we practically esteem the precepts, ordinances, and people of God; we may warrantably conclude, that his good work of grace in us is, upon the whole, on an increase.

But still it is to be lamented, that an increase of knowledge and experience, should be so generally attended with a decline of fervor. If this was not for what has passed in my own heart, I would be ready to think it impossible. But this very circumstance gives me a still more emphatic conviction of my own vileness and depravity. The lack of humiliation humbles me, and my very indifference rouses and awakens me to earnestness.

There are, however, seasons of refreshment, ineffable glances of light and power upon the soul謡hich, as they are derived from clearer displays of Divine grace, if not so elevating as the first joys, are more penetrating, transforming, and animating. A glance of these, when compared with our sluggish stupidity when they are withheld謡eans the heart from this wretched state of sin and temptation, and makes the thoughts of death and eternity desirable. Then this conflict shall cease; I shall sin and wander no more, see him as he is, and be like him forever!

If the question is幽ow are these bright moments to be prolonged, renewed, or retrieved? We are directed to faith and diligence. A careful use of the appointed means of grace, a watchful endeavor to avoid the occasions and appearances of evil, and especially assiduity in secret prayer, will bring us as much of them as the Lord sees good for us. He knows best謡hy we are not to be trusted with them continually. Here we are to walk by faith, to be exercised and tried; by and by we shall be crowned, and the desires he has given shall be abundantly satisfied!