John Newton's Letters
A letter from John Newton, which he had printed and distributed to every family in his church in Olney, in 1768
My dear friends,
Every person in our church has a place in my heart and prayers—but I cannot speak to each of you individually. Yet I am desirous to give full proof that I watch for the welfare of your souls; and likewise, (if it is possible,) to have a witness in every conscience, that none may plead ignorance of those things which it highly concerns them to know. I hope you will receive this paper in good part, as a token of my love, and read it with attention.
The great God, who appoints to all people "the bounds of their habitation," (Acts 17:26) has been pleased to fix your place in a place favored with the light of the gospel. This is a great and distinguishing privilege in itself; but it may be abused, and, if it is—will certainly aggravate your guilt and condemnation!
"JESUS CHRIST CRUCIFIED!" (1 Corinthians 2:2) is preached among you! This foundation (1 Corinthians 3:11) which GOD Himself has provided, whereon poor sinners may build their eternal hope, is set before you. You are warned of the evil of sin, of the wrath of God denounced against transgressors, and of the impossibility of being saved without that true faith, which, being of the operation of GOD, purifies the heart, "and works by love." And the great blessings of salvation, immortality, pardon, justification, adoption, holiness, perseverance, and eternal glory—are preached among you, as the sure and inseparable effects of a living faith in the Son of God. (Col. 2:12. Act. 15:9. Galatians 5:6)
In a little time we must all give an account of our improvement of the opportunities we are favored with. This thought, joined to a consideration of the state of our church, leads me to offer a word in season to each of you. Perhaps there is hardly a single person who will not be more or less concerned under one or other of the following particulars.
1. If God has taught you the truths I have mentioned above, if you have true faith in His Son Jesus Christ, or if, convinced of its necessity, you are humbly and diligently seeking it in the use of the means He has appointed; I may address you in the angel's language to Mary, "Hail, you who are highly favored!" (Luke 1:28) for if you have this faith, you have the promise and pledge of everlasting life; (John. 6:47) or if you account yourself but a seeker, the word of the living God is engaged for your success; for He has said, "Those who seek—shall find." (Mat. 7:7)
I trust that you will readily receive this word of exhortation. You are called with a "high and holy calling;" (Phi. 3:14, 2 Timothy 1:9) watch and pray, therefore, that you may be preserved from the snares of the world, and the devices of Satan. That no errors in judgment, no sinful indulgence in practice, nothing contrary to the spirituality, love, gentleness, and patience, which befit the gospel of Christ, may defile your conscience, rob you of your comfort, or "cause the way of truth to be evil spoken of" (2 Peter 2:2) through your miscarriage.
You are called out of darkness into marvelous light," (1 Peter 2:9) that by your profession God may be glorified. Therefore keep close to His Word as your rule; be constant in your application at the throne of grace; attend diligently upon His public ordinances, that thus by waiting upon the Lord—your strength may be renewed, (Isaiah 40:31) and "your light" may shine before men" (Mat. 5:16) to His praise.
That justice, truth, fidelity, sobriety, and diligence, may adorn the exercise of your ordinary calling; and that you may fill up your relations in life as a master or servant, a husband or a wife, a parent or a child, in such a manner as may and will be expected from one who has "tasted that the Lord is gracious." (1 Peter 2:3) Beware of a worldly, or selfish, or proud, or peevish, or passionate spirit! If you give way to any of these evils, you will walk uncomfortably yourself, you will grieve or discourage others, and you will open the mouths of the wicked to "blaspheme that worthy name by which you are called." (Jam. 2:7)
2. But if you are one of those who account the gospel of Christ as a burden, and can hardly be brought to give it a patient hearing; what can I say to you? You are already prejudiced against all I can offer, and perhaps account me "an enemy because I tell you the truth." Yet I would gladly persuade you of my good-will for you. I have no complaint to make of you upon my own account; having received no personal incivility even from those who are dissatisfied with my ministry. Though you are unwilling to hear me from the pulpit—yet let me expostulate a minute with you in this way. If I cannot prove my doctrine by the Scripture, and even by the articles and public offices of our own church—you have reason to be displeased with me. But why will you venture to reject, what you must confess may at least possibly be the truth? I am sure you cannot disprove the general subjects of my ministry, not even to the satisfaction of your own minds, if you will sit leisurely down, and examine them by the New Testament.
It is, indeed, easy to turn off my inquiry with a laugh, while you are in health and good spirits; but if you can remember a time when you have been sick, and apprehensive of the approach of death, probably you then felt your confidence fail, and was not so sure of the safety of your state as you once thought yourself. Such a time will come again. You may be cut off by a sudden stroke, and you must eventually die. You must experience that untried moment, and render up your soul to the solemn tribunal of God. Oh, then, beware of resting your eternal hopes upon any less authority than God's Word! You may now be supported by others; but no teacher, or friend, or favorite author, can or will stand between you and your eternal Judge. You may live in a crowd—but you must die alone. What you think of yourself, or what others may think of you—is of small consequence; the main question is, "What you are in the sight of the Great Judge, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden!" (1 Corinthians 4:3.) For, according to His unalterable sentence—you must stand or fall to eternity. Alas! if our gospel is true, and you live and die a stranger to it—it will be more tolerable in that day for those who never heard of the name of Jesus, than for you! (Mat. 11:22).
3. There are too many people among us who abstain from the public worship, not so much from any particular objection they have to the doctrines of the gospel—as from an inconsiderate and worldly turn of mind, which keeps them in a general neglect of true religion.
Many associate for drink and worldly pleasures, to the grief of all serious people, and in defiance to the commandments of God. If I could have suppressed these enormities, I would. But, I can only give notice as a minister and a watchman, that "for these things the wrath of God comes on the children of disobedience!" (Ephesians 5:6.) If you, my reader, are concerned in these practices, let me entreat you to consider what you are doing. Why will you "provoke the Lord to jealousy?" (1 Corinthians 10:22.) Are you stronger than He? If your whole dependence was upon what we call a great man, you would not dare to willfully and publicly disobey him! And can you think it safe to trifle with the great God! Do you not know that your life, your health, the peace of your family, and the success of your labor—all depend upon Him? Are you not afraid, lest by openly affronting His Majesty—that you should provoke Him to send a curse upon all your concerns, and to blast all your endeavors? (Hag. 1:6-9)
Every rebellion against God makes our state more desperate, sin being in its nature, progressive. How many have made a confession to this purpose—at the gallows? And how many families may be found that are as full of misery, dissension, and confusion, as they are destitute of the fear and worship of God? Alas! I shall tremble for you if you do not lay this admonition to heart! I shall fear lest you provoke the Lord to give you up to a reprobate mind, or lest, in the course of His providence, He should set some mark upon you, to teach others by your example, that it is a dreadful thing to sin against the Lord! (Romans 2:4) But, though His patience should bear with you to the last—and to the last you should despise it, yet death will finally summon you to judgment, unless by His grace you are brought to repentance! Though you may say, "Peace, peace" to yourself—sudden destruction will then come upon you, and you shall not be able to escape! (1Th. 5:3)
If you are one of those who do not wholly neglect the public worship of God—but accustom yourself to attend only once on Sundays, give me leave to ask you, or rather to desire that you would ask your own conscience, whether you have sufficient excuse for not attending twice? I know the circumstances of many families, such as sickness, young children, etc. will necessarily confine some people at home. But a due allowance for these impediments, will by no means account for the great difference between our congregations in the morning and in the afternoon of the same day.
Now, if you have not a lawful hindrance to plead, consider whether the same reasons that require your presence at the public worship once, are not equally strong for your being there both parts of the day. Why do you go at all? Is it not to join with others in paying homage to the great God? But by doing this once only, where opportunity and the example of others invite you twice—you contradict yourself, and act as if you thought it was sometimes your duty to join in worship, and sometimes not worth your while. Or, do you go with a hope of receiving good for your souls? Why then should you at any time be willing to stay away? Perhaps the opportunity you miss might have been made peculiarly useful to you. At least the Lord may justly punish your frequent neglect, by withholding His blessing when you do attend. And this may be one reason why you have attended morning worship so long—yet to so little purpose.
4. It is with grief that I observe how generally the Word of God is disregarded among us, though few can plead ignorance of His will. The Scripture denounces a woe against those "who are mighty to drink strong drink," (Isaiah 5:22) and against "him who urges strong drink upon his neighbor to put him to shame." (Hab. 2:15) The Scripture declares, "Everyone who swears shall be cut off with a curse." (Zec. 5:3, Exo. 20:7) These threatenings are frequently repeated in the ears of those who have not entirely cast off the mere form of religion. Yet I fear that intemperance, riot, and profaneness, visibly gain strength from year to year. If you will go on in those practices— remember I this day take God and your consciences to witness, that "I am innocent of your blood!" (Acts 20:26) As I have forewarned you before, so I tell you again, "The wrath of God hangs over you! Unless you repent—you will surely perish!" (Luke 13:3-5) It will be a great aggravation if you perish "with your eyes open!"
Think, I beseech you, before it is too late, of that awful passage, "Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from the Lord our God to go and worship the gods of those nations! When such a person hears the words of this oath, he invokes a blessing on himself and therefore thinks, "I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way." The Lord will never be willing to forgive him; His wrath and zeal will burn against that man. All the curses written in this book will fall upon him, and the Lord will blot out his name from under heaven!" (Deu. 29:18-20)
There is one sin too frequent in the parish, which upon this occasion I think it especially necessary to mention. Paul assures us, (agreeably to many other passages of Scripture,) that "God will surely judge people who are immoral and those who commit adultery!" (Hebrews 13:4) Adultery, which implies a breach of the marriage-contract, is so dreadful, so irreparable an evil, and as such condemned even by the heathen who know not God—that I would hope none of you are chargeable with it! If you are, however you may conceal your wickedness from your fellow-creatures, you cannot hide it from God! His eye is upon you, and His justice will surely overtake you! Indeed, if He is pleased to give you faith in the name of Jesus, and a sincere repentance of your crimes, there is yet hope, for "the blood of Christ cleanses from all sin!" (1Jo. 1:7) Otherwise I testify to you from His Word, that "you shall surely perish!" He who said, "You shall not commit adultery," (Exo. 20:14) will not hold you guiltless in the day of His wrath!"
The apostle joins whoredom with adultery, and has expressly inserted fornication in the black list of those sins which will certainly exclude from a place in the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9, Galatians 5:19) If you have been guilty, may the Lord fix a sense of your sin upon your conscience while you are reading, that you may not think it a light matter—but may instantly humble yourself before Him, and flee to the Refuge provided for helpless sinners in the gospel! (Hebrews 6:18) If by His restraining grace and providence, you have been hitherto preserved from this iniquity, you have reason to praise Him. And oh, pray to Him, (I speak more especially to young people,) that you may be enabled to "abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul." (1 Peter 2:11)
It is your duty and interest to flee from this hateful evil, and to watch against the temptations which lead to it, as you would avoid a pestilence! By complying with it, you hazard all your peace and comfort in this life, as well as sin against the great God. If an immoral relationship between single people does not issue in marriage, a long train of mischiefs is the usual consequence; shame, remorse, misery, and very often total ruin, especially on the woman's part. And, even if the parties are afterwards married, though this may lesson the scandal in the sight of men—the sin committed against God remains the same. And an occasion is opened for such reflections and suspicions, as frequently embitter the peace and destroy the confidence and affection—in which they might otherwise have lived.
5. I observe likewise, with great concern—a spirit of open impiety and infidelity which spreading among some people. They are bold to "proclaim their sin as Sodom;" (Isaiah 3:9) they cannot be content with the practice of wickedness, or with tempting others to partake of their evil deeds—but they are prompted to scoff at the truths of the gospel, and to ridicule and revile those who will not "run with them into the same excess of sin." (1 Peter 4:4) If anyone, of this unhappy turn, should read this paper, I would take the opportunity to tell you—that I pity you, and pray for you. I well know the gall and wormwood (Lam. 3:19) of your state—for it was once my own. I am not surprised at anything you say or do. You sin against the light, and this makes you desperate! "It is hard to kick against the goads." (Act. 9:5) I can tell from my own past experience, that your heart and your language do not always agree. You are sometimes constrained to reverence the people you affect to despise; and often, when you boast of jollity and pleasure, you feel something within which makes you wish you could change conditions with a dog or a toad! You understand what I mean.
Why then should you remain in this miserable bondage, where there is One who is able to set you free? Perhaps you have concluded that you have gone too far to stop; that you have sinned with too high a hand to be forgiven. A secret despair of this kind, is Satan's great engine, by which he hurries many sinners to the most dreadful sins! But may I not give my own case for your encouragement against such a conclusion? You have probably heard that I was once "a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man!" (1Ti. 1:13-16) I was so, indeed, to a degree I cannot express! But I obtained mercy! The exceeding abundant grace of our Lord Jesus Christ brought me out of that dreadful state, and in His providence He has placed me among you, that you may have a proof before your eyes, of His gracious declaration, that "Every sin or blasphemy can be forgiven!" "There is forgiveness with Him, that He may be feared!" (Mat. 12:31, Psalm 130:4)
Oh, that I could prevail with you to seek Him while He is to be found, to submit to Him before the gate of mercy is quite shut! Then "I am sure iniquity should not be your ruin!" (Ezekiel. 18:30) for "He is able to save all who come unto God by Him—to the uttermost!" (Hebrews 7:25)
Let me give you one caution: do not make the Scripture, or the people who love it, the subjects of your wanton mirth. "Scoff no more—or your punishment will be even greater!" (Isaiah 28:22) A common proverb says, "It is harmful to play with sharp-edged tools!" I am sure it may be applied in the present case. If the cause you despise is the cause of God, it will be a dreadful thing to be found fighting against Him!
6. There remains a considerable number to whom I have not yet spoken; who may know they are not true believers, yet are tolerably regular in their attendance upon the means of grace, and are not habitually guilty of gross and open sins. I commend you for your readiness to hear the gospel, and rejoice that it has some influence upon your conduct. But I would caution you against resting in religious privileges, or thinking yourself safe, because you have escaped the wicked abominations in which you see some others live. Every sin—though not so heinous in the judgment of man—is sufficient to damn the soul. If you "love the world—the love of the Father is not in you. (1Jo. 2:15) "To be carnally-minded is death." (Romans 8:6) "Covetousness is idolatry." (Col. 3:5) If you are under the prevailing power of passion, pride, and resentment, you are strangers to the grace of God. (Galatians 5:20) In a word, "if you have not the Spirit of Christ, you do not belong to Him." (Romans 7:9) A mere form of godliness, without the power, (2 Timothy 3:5) will leave you helpless and hopeless!"
Can you be content to be no more than chaff among the wheat, (Mat. 3:12) to converse and worship with the people of God for a season here on earth—and then to be separated from them forever? Can you be content to see those whom you know and love, your friends and relatives, received into the kingdom at last—and you yourselves shut out! (Luke 13:2, 5-30) How awful will your disappointment be! May the Lord awaken you to a diligent search into your own hearts, and into His holy Word, and not allow you to take up with anything short of a real and saving conversion!
Look to Jesus, the Author and Finisher of faith, (Hebrews 12:2) who is exalted to be a Prince and a Savior, to give repentance and pardon, life and immortality! (Act. 5:31) And remember you have His faithful promise, "Him who comes unto me, I will never cast out." (John. 6:37)
I can truly say, my dear friends, that "my heart's desire, and prayer to God for you, is that you may be saved!" (Romans 10:1) As some, I fear, have hitherto heard in vain, and some will not hear me at all—I have chosen this method to address you all. I hope none will be offended, for I would not willingly offend even a child. I hope I can appeal to yourselves, that God has given me a desire to live peaceably with all men, and to the utmost of my power, to promote your eternal welfare. "What I want is not your possessions —but you!" (2 Corinthians 12:14)
In a little while "we must all appear before the judgment-seat of Christ." (2 Corinthians 3:10) There I must give an account of my ministry—and you must account for the privileges with which you have been favored. When I think of the solemnities of that day, and the worth of your immortal souls—I am at a loss for words suitable to my desires on your behalf. "I beseech you by the tender mercies of our God," (Romans 12:1) I warn you by His approaching terrors, (2 Corinthians 5:11) that you do not receive the gospel of God in vain! (2 Corinthians 6:1) And, though I cannot expect to prevail on you all, yet I write in hope, that the blessing from the Lord will make the reading of this paper useful to some. And, if it is so, even one to person—I esteem it an over-payment for all the labors of my whole life.
And now I commend you to God, to the Word of His grace, and to the teaching of His Spirit. (Act. 20:32) I make it my earnest request to the favored few who know the Lord, and have received the spirit of prayer, that in your supplications at the throne of grace, you will frequently bear in remembrance,
Your affectionate friend and servant in the gospel of Christ,