Five letters to a young man going into the Christian ministry | Letter 3 – John Newton

Letter 3
Oct. 20, 1767.

Dear Sir,
A concern for the perplexity you have met with, from objections which have been made against some expressions in my printed sermons, and in general against exhorting sinners to believe in Jesus, engages me to write immediately. I shall chiefly confine myself at present, to the subject you propose.

In the first place, I beg you to be upon your guard against a reasoning spirit. Search the Scriptures; and where you can find a plain rule or warrant for any practice—go boldly on; and be not discouraged because you may not be clearly able to answer or reconcile every difficulty which may either occur to your own mind, or be put in your way by others. Our hearts are very dark and narrow; and the very root of all apostasy is a proud disposition to question the necessity or propriety of Divine appointments. But the child-like simplicity of faith, is to follow God without reasoning; taking it for granted a thing must be right if he directs it—and charging all seeming inconsistencies to the account of our own ignorance.

I suppose the people who trouble you upon this head are of two sorts. 1st, those who preach upon Arminian principles, and suppose a free-will in man, in a greater or less degree, to turn to God when the Gospel is proposed. These, if you speak to sinners at large, though they will approve of your doing so, will take occasion, perhaps, to charge you with acting in contradiction to your own principles. So it seems Mr. **** has said. I love and honor that man greatly, and I beg you will tell him so from me; and tell him farther, that the reason why he is not a Calvinist, is because he misapprehends our principles.

If I had a proper call, I would undertake to prove the direct contrary; namely, that to exhort and deal plainly with sinners, to stir them up to flee from the wrath to come, and to lay hold of eternal life, is an attempt not reconcilable to sober reason upon any other grounds than those doctrines which we are called Calvinists for holding; and that all the absurdities which are charged upon us, as consequences of what we teach, are indeed truly chargeable upon those who differ from us in these points. I think this unanswerably proved by Jonathan Edwards, in his discourse on the freedom of the will; though the chain of reasoning is so close, that few will give attention and pains to pursue it. As to myself, if I was not a Calvinist—I would have no more hope of success in preaching to men, than to horses or cows!

But these objections are more frequently urged by Calvinists themselves; many of them, I doubt not, good men—but betrayed into a curiosity of spirit, which often makes their ministry (if ministers) dry and inefficacious, and their lives sour and unsavory. Such a spirit is too prevalent in many professors, that if a man reveals a warm zeal for the glory of God, and is enabled to bear a faithful testimony to the Gospel truths; yes, though the Lord evidently blesses him, they overlook all, and will undervalue a sermon, which upon the whole they cannot but acknowledge to be Scriptural, if they meet with a single sentence contrary to the opinion they have taken up! I am sorry to see such a spirit prevailing. But this I observe, that the ministers who give into this way, though good men and good preachers in other respects—are seldom very useful or very zealous. And likewise for those who are in private life, are more ready dispute dry theological points, at least harping upon a string of doctrines, than for experimental and heart-searching converse, whereby one may warm and edify another. Blessed be God, who has kept me and my people from this turn. If it should ever creep in or spread among us, I would write Ichabod upon our assembly!

I advise you, therefore, to keep close to the Bible and prayer. Bring your difficulties to the Lord, and entreat him to give you and maintain in you a simple and sincere spirit. Search the Scriptures. How did Peter deal with Simon Magus? We have no right to think worse of any who can hear us, than the Apostle did of him. He seemed almost to think his case desperate, and yet he advised him to repentance and prayer. Examine the same Apostle’s discourse, Acts 3, and the close of Paul’s sermon, Acts thirteen. The power is all of God; the means are likewise of his appointment; and he always is pleased to work by such means as may show that the power is his. What was Moses’s rod in itself, or the trumpets that threw down Jericho? What influence could the pool of Siloam have, that the eyes of the blind man, by washing in it, should be opened? or what could Ezekiel’s feeble breath contribute to the making dry bones live? All these means were exceedingly disproportionate to the effect; but He who ordered them to be used, accompanied them with his power.

Yet if Moses had gone without his rod; if Joshua had slighted the rams’ horns; if the prophet had thought it foolishness to speak to dry bones, or the blind man refused to wash his eyes—nothing would have been done. The same holds good in the present subject. I do not reason, expostulate, and persuade sinners, because I think that can prevail with them—but because the Lord has commanded it. He directs me to address them as reasonable creatures; to take them by every handle; to speak to their consciences; to tell them of the terrors of the Lord, and of his tender mercies; to argue with them what good they find in sin; whether they need a Savior; to put them in mind of death, judgment, and eternity, etc. When I have done all, I know it is to little purpose—unless the Lord speaks to their hearts. And he will speak to his own, and at his own time. I am sure he will, because he has promised it. See Isaiah 55:10-11; Mat. 28:20.

Indeed I have heard expressions in the warmth of delivery which I could not wholly approve, and therefore do not imitate. But in general, I see no preaching made very useful for the gathering of souls, where perishing sinners are shut out of the discourse. I think one of the closest and most moving addresses to sinners I ever met with, is in John Owen’s Exposition of the 130th Psalm, from p. 243 to 276. If you get it and examine it, I think you will find it all agreeable to Scripture; and he was a steady, deep-sighted Calvinist. I wish you to study it well, and make it your pattern. He handles the same point likewise in other places, and shows the weakness of the exceptions taken somewhere at large—but I cannot just now find the passage. Many think themselves quite right, because they have not had their thoughts exercised at large—but have confined themselves to one track. There are extremes in everything. I pray God to show you the golden mean.

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