Lessons from John Newton’s Letters

Lessons from Newton’s Letters to John Ryland[1]

John Newton (1725-1807), Richard Cecil (1748-1810), and Henry Venn (1724-1797) of the late eighteenth century are some of the most judicious men I have read. Though I have read more on Newton than the other two, there is something common to all three. They all possessed good sound judgment on Christian experience and on religious duties. On this side of the Atlantic, we could add another person and that would be Archibald Alexander (1772-1851). To me, these all demonstrated similar wisdom. They were balanced, measured, mature, and lighted with good sound wisdom.

These extracts convey something of Newton’s sound advice to young John Ryland (1753-1825). These letters immensely helped Ryland and others to whom Newton wrote. Many of them ended up being published. In the product description of this book, it says that John Newton

has rightly been called ‘the letter-writer par excellence of the Evangelical Revival’. Newton himself seems to have come to the conclusion, albeit reluctantly, that letter-writing was his greatest gift. In a letter to a friend he confessed, ‘I rather reckoned upon doing more good by some of my other works than by my ‘Letters’, which I wrote without study, or any public design; but the Lord said, ‘You shall be most useful by them,’ and I learned to say, ‘Thy will be done! Use me as Thou pleasest, only make me useful.’

These were some of the things that did my soul much good this past week. Meditating on these thoughts from his letters should help us all.


A Believer’s Frame[2]

This letter answers a question raised by John Ryland about what a person is to do when he finds himself “always still, quiet, and stupid” in spiritual terms. That is, what is one to do when he lacks spiritual earnestness? These are some of Newton’s answers to Ryland’s query. Since the matter is universal, Newton published his answer for the benefit of a larger audience.

1. A warning is given. What would happen if a believer never found himself “occasionally poor, insufficient, and … stupid?” If someone was always spiritually enlarged, he would be in danger of being “puffed up with spiritual pride.” In turn, he would be less aware of his absolute dependence of or need for Christ. Ryland, as a preacher, could not experimentally address others about these spiritual struggles if he never underwent these difficulties.

2. Similarly, Newton points out that the angel who appeared to Cornelius did not preach to him. One of the reasons for this is quite interesting: “For though the glory and grace of the Saviour seems fitter subject for an angel’s powers than for the poor stammering tongues of sinful men, yet an angel could not preach experimentally, nor describe the warfare between grace and sin from his own feelings.” (34)

3. Furthermore, this concern about one spiritual frame is actually good. A conscious desire for a taste of God’s presence and grieving over our lack of spiritual ardor suggests that the foundation is good. “And the heart may be as really alive to God, and grace as truly in exercise, when we walk in comparative darkness and see little light, as when the frame of the spirits is more comfortable. Neither the reality nor the measure of grace can be properly estimated by the degree of our sensible comforts.” (35)

Isn’t this one of the sad conditions of our soul? We thirst so little; we are so easily satisfied with so many lesser things. That a believer is concerned about his apathy and coldness is a good thing.

4. Newton says that the command to rejoice always means what it says. It is as if the Lord were saying, “I call upon you to rejoice, not at some times only, but at all times. Not only when upon the mount, but when in the valley. Not only when you conquer, but while you are fighting. Not only when the Lord shines upon you, but when he seems to hid his face.” (36)

5. There is also a requirement for us to submit to His will. That is we can earnestly call upon God to relieve us of this distress with “regulated by a due submission to his will” without the petition being “inordinate for want of such submission.” That is, God may have a purpose and sometimes our cries are simply our unwillingness to submit to him. “I have often detected the two vile abominations self-will and self-righteousness insinuating themselves into this concern.” (36) He unpacks these two “abominations” quite well.

6. Self-will. Some are unsuitably impatient and unwilling to yield themselves to God’s disposal. This is sin. God is the great physician, a wise infallible doctor to my soul. Too often we prescribe to him what the medicine ought to be. “How inconsistent to acknowledge that I am blind, to entreat him to lead me, and yet to want to choose my own way, in the same breath!”

Isn’t this all too often true? We say God is wise and our impatience and petition demands that He answer immediately in a prescribed manner. It is as if God can no good with me unless he lift this spiritual difficulty from me. Our sinful heart knows best though our lips may confess a differently theology.

7. Self-righteousness. “Again, self-righteousness has had a considerable hand in dictating many of my desires for an increase of comfort and spiritual strength. I have wanted some stock of my own. I have been wearied of being so perpetually behold to him, necessitated to come to him always in the same strain, as a poor miserable sinner. I could have liked to have done something for myself in common, and to have depended upon him chiefly upon extraordinary occasions.” (37)

Yet God would have us realize we can do absolutely nothing without him. We want our way so that we are no longer beholden to God for help. We want to be able to establish our own righteousness in one way or another. Our gracious Lord wants us to depend upon him for the most basic needs as well as the most spiritual.


Delusive Impressions[3]

It is not clear what it was Sally Luddington actually intimated from the impressions she received. She seems to have concluded that the Lord was leading her to do something by these spiritual impressions (or delusions). Newton’s comments on this are very instructive.

Texts of Scripture brought powerfully to the heart are very desirable and pleasant, if their tendency is to humble us, to give us more feeling sense of the preciousness of Christ, or of the doctrines of grace; if they make sin more hateful, enliven our regard to the means, or increase our confidence in the power and faithfulness of God. But if they are understood as intimating our path of duty in particular circumstances, or confirming us in purposes we may have already formed, not otherwise clearly warranted by the general strain of the word, or by the leadings of Providence, they are for the most part ensnaring, and always to be suspected. Nor does their coming to the mind at the time of prayer give them more authority in this respect. When the mind is intent upon any subject, the imagination is often watchful to catch at anything which may seem to countenance the favourite pursuit. It is too common to ask counsel of the Lord when we have already secretly determined for ourselves. And in this disposition we may easily be deceived by the sound of a text of Scripture, which, detached from the passage in which it stands, may seem remarkably to tally with our wishes. Many have been deceived this way. And sometimes, when the even has shown them they were mistaken, it has opened a door for great distress, and Satan has found occasion to make them doubt even of their most solid experiences. (55-56)

This is sound advice. Matters regarding marriage, job decisions, ministry opportunities, major financial purchases, new career paths, etc. have forced earnest Christians to seek the Lord’s counsel. In such circumstances, some professing believers have been “led” by strange means.

1. Whatever the impression, if they contribute to the above examples (love for Christ, etc.), then little or no harm can come from it and is most likely of God.

2. Newton recognizes that the heart is deceitful and if there is something upon which our hearts are really set, then “spiritual” or “scriptural” support can easily be found. He says they are “for the most part ensnaring, and always to be suspected.” Let us always doubt ourselves in these matters. Some look to the Word, read providence, seek counsel with a special bent to garner support for their precommitted decision.

3. Lastly, notice the dangerous result. If Satan misleads us or if we are simply misled by our foolish fancy, then Satan will cause us to “doubt even [our] most solid experiences.” There are some who are so gun shy after being duped by enthusiasm (“spiritual” emotionalism), they doubt all manner of solid Christian experience and thus fall into another error.


A Great Stroke

In this letter, Newton writes of a “great stroke” on the church by taking an eminent saint home (he already wrote about other dear saints recently taken home). This is one of his comments regarding that as he spiritually reflects on it:  “Thus the Lord is pleased to take of some of his most eminent servants in the height of their usefulness, to caution those who are left not to presume upon their fancied importance. He can do without the best of us.” (63)

In the church, in our lives, etc. God would have us lean on Him and not on the flesh. Nothing or no one is more important than our God. God will take all good things away so that our hearts would be wrapped up in Him.

[1] From John Newton, Wise Counsel – John Newton’s Letters to John Ryland Jr., ed. Grant Gordon (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2009).

[2] A very practical letter and one which addresses a common struggle of all believers. It can be found in his Works I:253-61.

[3] This letter is found on pp. 55-57; in Newton’s Works, 2:116-20.


[Adult Sunday School Lesson, Oct. 9, 2011]

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