John Newton's Letters

Separated from the ungodly world

May 24, 1774
Dear sir,
What a mercy it is, to be separated in spirit, conversation, and interest—from the ungodly world! Where all are alike by nature—but grace makes a happy and unspeakable difference! Believers were once under the same influence of that evil spirit who still works in the children of disobedience; each pursuing different paths—but all equally remote from truth and peace; some hatching cockatrice eggs, others weaving spiders' webs. These two general heads, of evil and vanity, include all the schemes, aims, and achievements of which man is capable—until God is pleased to visit the heart with his grace.

The busy part of mankind are employed in multiplying evils and miseries. The more retired, speculative, and curious, are amusing themselves with what will hereafter appear as unsubstantial, unstable, and useless, as a cobweb! Death will soon sweep away all which the philosophers, the scientists, the mathematicians, the antiquarians, and other learned triflers, are now weaving with so much self-applauded address. Nor will the fine-spun dresses, in which the moralist and the self-righteous clothe themselves, be of more advantage to them, either for ornament or defense, than the web of a spider.

It is given only to a few, to know their present state and future destination. These build upon the immovable Rock of ages for eternity. These are trees springing from a living root, and bear the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. These alone are awake, while the rest of the world are in a deep sleep, indulging in vain dreams; from which likewise they will shortly awake. But, O with what consternation, when they shall find themselves irrecoverably divorced from all their delusive attachments, and compelled to appear before that God to whom they have lived strangers, and to whom they must give an account! O for a thousand tongues, to proclaim in the ears of thoughtless mortals, that important aphorism of our Lord, "Only one thing is needful!" Yet a thousand tongues would be, and are, employed in vain—unless so far as the Lord is pleased to send the watchman's warning, by the power and agency of his own Spirit.

I think the poet tells us, that Cassandra had the gift of truly foretelling future events; but she was afterwards laid under a painful embarrassment, that nobody would believe her words. Such, with respect to the bulk of their hearers, is the lot of Gospel ministers. They are enlightened to see, and sent forth to declare, the dreadful consequences of sin; but, alas, how few believe their report!

To illustrate our grief and disappointment, I sometimes suppose there was a dangerous river in the way of travelers, over which there is a bridge, which those who can be prevailed upon may pass with safety. By the side of this bridge watchmen are placed, to warn passengers of the danger of the waters; to assure them, that all who attempt to go through them inevitably perish; to invite, entreat, and beseech them, if they value their lives—to cross the bridge. Methinks this should be an easy task—yet if we should see, in fact, the greater part stopping their ears to the friendly importunity, many so much offended by it, as to account the watchman's care impertinent, and only deserving of scorn and ill-treatment, hardly one in fifty betaking themselves to the friendly bridge, the rest eagerly plunging into the waters, from which none return, as if they were determined to see who would be drowned first—this spectacle would be no unfit emblem of the reception the Gospel meets with, from a blinded world.

Gospel ministers are rejected, opposed, vilified; they are accounted troublers of the world, because they dare not, cannot stand silent, while sinners are perishing before their eyes. And if, in the course of many sermons, they can prevail but on one soul to take timely warning, and to seek to Jesus, who is the way, the truth, and the life—they may account it a mercy and an honor, sufficient to overbalance all the labor and reproaches they are called to endure. From the most, they must expect no better reception than the Jews gave to Jeremiah, who told the Prophet to his face, "As to the word you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord—we will not hearken to you at all; but we will certainly do whatever goes forth out of our own mouth!"

Surely, if the Lord has given us any sense of the worth of our souls, any compassion towards them, this must be a painful exercise; and experience must teach us something of the meaning of Jeremiah's pathetic exclamation, "O that my head were waters, and my eyes fountains of tears—that I might weep day and night, for the slain of the daughter of my people!" It is our duty to be thus affected.

Our relief lies in the wisdom and sovereignty of God. He reveals his salvation to whom he pleases, for the most part to babes; from the bulk of the wise and the prudent—the gospel is hidden. Thus it has pleased him—and therefore it must be right. Yes, he will one day condescend to justify the propriety and equity of his proceedings to his creatures; then every mouth will be stopped, and none will be able to reply against their Judge. Light has come into the world—but men prefer darkness. They hate the light, resist it, and rebel against it. It is true—all do so! And therefore, if all were to perish under the condemnation, their ruin would be their own act. It is of grace that any are saved; and in the distribution of that grace, God does what he will with his own—a right which most are ready enough to claim in their own concerns, though they are so unwilling to allow it to the Lord of all.

Many perplexing and acrimonious disputes have been started upon this subject; but the redeemed of the Lord are called not to dispute—but to admire and rejoice, to love, adore, and obey! To know that he loved us, and gave himself for us, is the constraining argument and motive to love him, and surrender ourselves to him; to consider ourselves as no longer our own—but to devote ourselves, with every faculty, power, and talent, to his service and glory. He deserves our all—for he parted with all for us. He made himself poor, he endured shame, torture, death, and the curse, for us—that we, through him, might inherit everlasting life! Ah! the hardness of my heart, that I am no more affected, astonished, and overpowered, with this thought!