Category Archives: John Newton
The following story was shared by John Newton in a letter to his friend, a theological liberal minister, Thomas Scott, on November 17, 1775. Newton’s role in the theological formation (transformation) of Scott is a remarkable story worth studying in itself. But for now, here’s the story Newton shared with Scott, as published in Newton’s Works (1:596-98):
A most valued friend of mine, a Clergyman now living, had for many years given a rational assent to the Gospel. He labored with much earnestness upon your plan; was very exemplary in his whole conduct; preached almost incessantly (two or three times every day in the week for years), having a parish in the remote parts of Yorkshire, of great extent, and containing five or six different hamlets at some distance from each other.
He succeeded likewise with his people so far as to break them off from outward irregularities; and was mentioned, in a letter to the Society for propagating the Gospel (which I have seen in print) as the most perfect example of a parish priest which this nation, or perhaps this age, has produced. Thus he went on for many years, teaching his people what he knew, for he could teach them no more. He lived in such retirement and recess, that he was unacquainted with the persons and principles of any who are now branded as enthusiasts and methodists.
One day, reading Ephesians 3 in his Greek Testament, his thoughts were stopped by the word ανεξιχνιαστον [unsearchable], in verse 8. He was struck, and led to think with himself to this purpose: The Apostle, when speaking of the love and riches of Christ, uses remarkable expressions; he speaks of heights, and depths, and lengths, and breadths, and unsearchables, where I seem to find every thing plain, easy, and rational. He finds mysteries where I can perceive none. Surely, though I use the words Gospel, faith, and grace, with him, my ideas of them must be different from his.
This led him to a close examination of all his Epistles, and, by the blessing of God, brought on a total change in his views and preaching. He no longer set his people to keep a law of faith; to trust in their sincerity and endeavors, upon some general hope that Christ would help them out where they came short; but he preached Christ himself, as the end of the Law for righteousness to every one that believeth.
He felt himself, and laboured to convince others, that there is no hope for a sinner but merely in the blood of Jesus; and no possibility of his doing any works acceptable to God, till he himself be first made accepted in the Beloved. Nor did he labor in vain. Now his preaching effected, not only an outward reformation, but a real change of heart, in very many of his hearers. The word was received, as Paul expresses it, not with a rational assent only, but with demonstration and power, in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance; and their endeavors to observe the Gospel precepts were abundantly more extensive, uniform, and successful, when they were brought to say, with the Apostle, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me; and the life I live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God.”
John Newton (Works, 6:271):
When I feel my own poverty, my heart wandering, my head confused, graces languid, gifts apparently dormant; when I thus stand up with half a loaf, or less, before a multitude, and see the bread multiply in the breaking, and that, however it may be at the time with myself, as to my own feelings, the hungry, the thirsty, the mourners in Zion, are not wholly disappointed; when I find that some, in the depth of their outward afflictions, can rejoice in me, as the messenger by whom the Lord is pleased to send them a word in season, balm for their wounds, and cordials for their cases; then indeed I magnify mine office.
Early this year a publisher kindly approached me to write a book about John Newton, the slave ship captain turned pastor and hymn writer. At the time I was well on my way to developing a series of blog posts inspired by the letters of Newton (see the “Reading Newton’s Mail” series), and the book idea seemed to fit. So I began running with initial research to determine how I would organize a book about Newton’s understanding of the Christian life, the focus of the book.
I quickly discovered the challenges of organizing Newton’s thoughts on the Christian life, mostly because so much of his teachings have endure in volumes of collected letters addressing a wide variety of practical topics. Those letters are rich and deeply edifying, but they’re also hard to organize into a comprehensive scheme. So I sought a more creative angle.
I was aware that Newton had penned a preface to an annotated edition of Puritan John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress published by one of Newton’s friends in London in 1776. At that point Bunyan became a critical piece in my research on Newton.
I was also aware that for a season Newton lectured on PP on Wednesday nights (though those lectures apparently were not recorded!). Rumors through the years suggested the 1776 annotated edition of PP featured application notes in the bottom margin written by Newton himself. There were two evidences for it.
First, in his catalog of editions of PP, Bunyan’s esteemed editor George Offor wrote this:
There is no indication of who the notes are by; but there can be little doubt but that they are from the pen of the Rev. J. Newton, the friend of Cowper. The Editor has four editions of this interesting volume—1776, 1782, 1789, and 1797.
My hopes were high. Could these notes provide me with a more systematized narrative by which to organize Newton’s thoughts on the Christian life?
In January I bundled up and set off for a few days in the rare book wing at the Library of Congress looking for clues that would indicate that Newton was the author of the footnotes. There for a few days I scanned through every fragile 18th century edition of PP they had in storage.
Eventually I uncovered a copy of the 1776 edition and sat down to read it. It was something of a holy moment for me. There in the text of Newton’s preface I read these words:
As many persons who have read this allegory, though they find benefit from the whole, are at a loss to determine the author’s meaning in some particular parts of his representation, an edition containing some brief notes to illustrate the more difficult passages, has been long desired. An attempt of this kind is now submitted to the public. The annotator does not pretend to be positive that he has always precisely taken up the thought the author had upon his mind at the time of writing, though he thinks there are but few places in which he is in danger of greatly missing it.
Was this further proof that Newton authored of the marginal notes? Surely “the annotator” is a reference to Newton himself!
From my reading – and from emailing every known Bunyan and Newton scholar – I failed to prove that all of those marginal notes were penned by Newton. In fact I now believe that is very unlikely. So once again I was left with the question of how to structure Newton’s thoughts. At the same time I was about to begin the final stages of editing Lit! so I decided to decline the Newton project (a most difficult decision). Nevertheless, for a book nerd/researcher, those few days at the LOC were precious.
From that experience I came away with a treasure: Newton’s preface.
To my knowledge it has never appeared online. So I’ve taken the liberty to transcribe (and to slightly modernize) Newton’s preface as it originally appeared in the rare 1776 edition of the Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s quite an honor to share it here on the blog.
Note particularly how Newton turns his attention from praise to the author to the soul of the reader near the end. Such direct pastoral words of care and warning are very Newtonian.
Here it is. Enjoy!
The writings of Mr. Bunyan need no recommendatory preface. The various editions they have passed through, and the different languages into which many of them have been translated, sufficiently prove that the gifts of God which were in him, have, by the divine blessing, been made very acceptable and useful to the churches. Though he was called to the knowledge and ministry of the gospel from a low state of life, as well as from a vicious course of conversation, and was unfurnished with human literature, the Lord, the great, the effectual, the only effectual teacher, made him, in an eminent degree, an able and successful minister of the New Testament. It is probable that only the people to whom he personally preached would have been benefited by his zeal and experience, had not the Lord permitted the rage of his enemies to prevail against him for a season. He lived in more trying days than those in which our lot is fallen. For preaching the word of life to sinners, he was sentenced to perpetual banishment, but what he actually suffered was imprisonment for more than twelve years. But his spirit was not bound. Though secluded from his public work, he could not be idle. He applied himself to writing books, and most of the treatises, by which being dead he still speaketh (in number about threescore) were composed during his confinement in Bedford Goal [jail]. Thus his adversaries themselves contributed to extend his usefulness by the very methods they took to prevent it. And (as in the apostle’s case) the things that happened to him, proved rather to the furtherance than the hindrance of the gospel.
His books, though devoid of that art and those ornaments, on which writers who seek the praise of men lay so great a stress, have been, and still are highly esteemed by those who have a taste for divine truth; and greatly instrumental, in the hands of the Holy Spirit, to the awakening of the careless, and the encouragement of those who are seeking salvation. And we doubt not but they will be farther owned of God for these purposes, to many who are yet unborn. But as among the stars one exelleth another in glory, so of all our author’s writings, there is no one perhaps so universally and deservedly admired as his Pilgrim’s Progress, in which he gives a delineation of the Christian life under the idea of a journey or a pilgrimage, from the City of Destruction to the heavenly Jerusalem. In this treatise he appears not only as a writer well instructed in the mysteries of the kingdom, but a man of real genius. Though he had not a learned education, God had given him considerable natural abilities, a lively invention, a penetrating spirit, a strong judgment, and his style, though plain and simple, is remarkably clear, animated, and engaging. By the exercises through which the Lord led him, and a close study of the Word of God, he acquired a singular knowledge of the human heart, and its various workings, both in a state of nature and grace, and of the various snares and dangers to which a believer is exposed from the men and things of the world, and the subtlety of Satan. These fruits of his experience and observation he has exhibited in a very pleasing and instructive manner in his pilgrim, which may be considered as a map of the Christian profession in its present mixed state, while the wheat and the tares are growing in the same field. A map, so exactly drawn, that we can hardly meet with a case or character, amidst the vast variety of persons and incidents, that daily occur to our observation, to which we cannot easily point out a counterpart in the pilgrim. And he is peculiarly happy in fixing the attention of his readers: many have read this book with a kind of rapturous pleasure, though they have not understood the authors design, (which only they who have the eyes of their minds enlightened by the Spirit of God can fully enter into) and they who understand it best, and who have read it often, usually find fresh pleasure and instruction upon every perusal.
As many persons who have read this allegory, though they find benefit from the whole, are at a loss to determine the author’s meaning in some particular parts of his representation, an edition containing some brief notes to illustrate the more difficult passages, has been long desired. An attempt of this kind is now submitted to the public. The annotator does not pretend to be positive that he has always precisely taken up the thought the author had upon his mind at the time of writing, though he thinks there are but few places in which he is in danger of greatly missing it. He hopes however that he has proposed no illustration but what will be found agreeable to the analogy of faith and the experience of believers.
The unusual demand for the Pilgrim’s Progress upon its first appearance, induced the author some time after to send forth a second part. In which there are many beautiful passages that sufficiently demonstrate it to be the work of the same masterly hand. But the plan of that which is now called the First Part, was so comprehensive, and so well executed, that the subject was too much exhausted to admit of a Second Part, capable of standing in competition with the former. It is upon the whole greatly inferior to it, though a few pages here and there might be selected, which, for their beauty, propriety, and energy, almost deserve the epithet of inimitable* [footnote: "* See the character of Mr Fearing, and Standfast's discourse when in the river."]. The first part therefore is only published with notes, which it is hoped may afford a sufficient key to the second.
There is a small book in print which bears the title of the third part of the Pilgrim’s Progress. It can hardly be necessary to inform any but those who have not read it, that this pretended third part, with Mr. Bunyan’s name, is a gross imposition on the public, and that the title is almost the only part of it which bears any resemblance to Bunyan’s Pilgrim, excepting when the writer has borrowed the same names. But Bunyan’s spirit and manner he could not borrow, and his principles he openly contradicts. A common hedge-stake deserves as much to be compared to Aaron’s rod, which yielded blossoms and almonds, as this poor performance to be obtruded upon the world under the title of the third part of the Pilgrim’s Progress.
Thus much concerning our book: Let the preface close with a word to the reader’s heart. If you are not convinced of sin, and led by the Spirit to seek Jesus, notwithstanding the notes, the Pilgrim will still be a riddle to you. A well-wisher to your soul assures you, that whether you know these things or not, they are important realities. The Pilgrim is a parable, but it has an interpretation in which you are nearly concerned. If you are living in sin, you are in the City of Destruction. O hear the warning voice! “Flee from the wrath to come.” Pray that the eyes of your mind may be opened, then you will see your danger, and gladly follow the shining light of the word, till you enter by Christ, the straight gate, into the way of salvation. If death surprise you before you get into this road, you are lost forever.
If you are indeed asking the way to Zion with your face thitherward, I bid you good speed. Behold an open door is set before you, which none can shut. Yet prepare to endure hardship, for the way lies through many tribulations. There are hills and valleys to be passed, lions and dragons to be met with, but the Lord of the hill will guide and guard his people. “Put on the whole armor of God, fight the good fight of faith.” Beware of the Flatterer. Beware of the Enchanted Ground. See the Land of Beulah, yea, the city of Jerusalem itself is before you:
There Jesus the forerunner waits.
To welcome travelers home.
Tomorrow marks the 286th birthday of John Newton, a blaspheming slave ship captain turned Christian, who would pastor for over 40 years, play a role in the abolition of the British slave trade, and of course author a little hymn we call “Amazing Grace.”
Newton’s life story is an amazing testimony of God’s grace from beginning to end and in my opinion there isn’t a better biography of that life than the one written in 2007 by Jonathan Aitken: John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace.
I highly recommend it.
This time I have 2 copies to give away to 2 random winners, all thanks to our generous friends at Crossway Books.
Here’s how to enter:
- This time you can enter only through a comment on this post. Leave a brief comment here and that’s it, you’re entered!
- Please include your email address in the form field on that comment (which will not be published).
- Entries will be received until 5 pm EST tomorrow (Sun). Winning entries will be randomly selected and I’ll announce winners at that time.
- The winning books can be shipped within the continental United States only.
Thanks for entering the contest!
And for an excellent introduction to Newton’s life and ministry, I highly recommend John Piper’s 90-minute biographical message which can be downloaded for free from the DG website here.
For the past few months I’ve been writing a blog series titled “Reading Newton’s Mail.” The series features edifying excerpts from the precious pastoral letters penned by John Newton (1725–1807). I muse on the excerpts a bit and then publish my thoughts in a series that runs on Fridays over on C.J. Mahaney’s blog. Today I posted #12:
- Reading Newton’s Mail (introduction to Newton)
- Aiming High, Missing Low, Aiming High Again
- When Humility Is Pride
- The Value of Spiritual Simplicity
- What to Do When Your Pastor Preaches a Sermon Dud
- How NOT to Listen to Sermons
- The Weight of Preaching
- Pray for Your Pastor
- Newton’s Theology of Revolution
- Spiritual Depression: An Interview with John Newton
- The Worst Sinner in the Room
- A Vacationers’ View of the Ocean
John Newton, in a letter dated July 26, 1776 and published in The Christian Correspondent (1790), pages 131–132:
How fast the weeks return—we are again upon the eve of a Sabbath. May the Lord give us much of his own Spirit on his own day. I trust I have a remembrance in your prayers. I need them much—my service is great.
It is, indeed, no small thing to stand between God and the people—to divide the word of truth aright—to give every one portion—to withstand the counter tides of opposition and popularity—and to press those truths upon others, the power of which, I, at times, feel so little of in my own soul. A cold, corrupt heart is uncomfortable company in the pulpit.
Yet in the midst of all my fears and unworthiness, I am enabled to cleave to the promise, and to rely on the power of the Great Redeemer. I know I am engaged in the cause against which the gates of Hell cannot prevail. If He died and rose again, if He ever lives to make intercession—there must be safety under the shadow of his wings: there would I lie. In his name I would lift up my banner, in his strength I would go forth, do what he enables me, then take shame to myself that I can do no better, and put my hand upon my mouth, confessing that I am dust and ashes, less than the least of all his mercies.
John Newton, Memoirs of the Life of the Late Rev. William Grimshaw (London: 1799), pages 86–87:
They who avow the doctrines distinguished by the name of Calvinism, ought, if consistent with their own principles, to be the most gentle and forbearing of all men, in meekness instructing them that oppose. With us, it is a fundamental maxim, that a man can receive nothing but what is given him from heaven (John 3:27). If, therefore, it has pleased God to give us the knowledge of some truths, which are hidden from others, who have the same outward means of information; it is a just reason for thankfulness to him, but will not justify our being angry with them; for we are no better or wiser than they in ourselves, and might have opposed the truths which we now prize, with the same eagerness and obstinacy, if his grace had not made us to differ. If the man, mentioned in John 9, who was born blind, on whom our Lord graciously bestowed the blessing of sight, had taken a cudgel and beat all the blind men he met, because they would not see, his conduct would have greatly resembled that of an angry Calvinist.
John Newton, Letters of John Newton (Banner of Truth: 1869/2007), page 380:
I have no doubt you think others better than yourself: thus far you are conformed to the Scripture rule (Philippians 2:3 [“in humility count others more significant than yourselves”]). You should not therefore be displeased with yourself on that account. I shall not contradict you. But some of those you deem so were planted in the Lord’s garden many years before you. Why then should you complain that you are not so tall, nor your branches so wide, nor your root so deep, in two years’ growth, as others who have been growing twenty or thirty years? Should a little sapling, just springing up from an acorn ask, “Why am not I as large as the stoutest oak in the wood?” You would know how to answer it. …
Do not let Satan impose a false humility upon you. Depend upon it, there is more of self and self-righteousness in these complaints than we are usually aware of. It is better to be thankful for what you have received than impatient because you have no more. If you can make yourself better, do it by all means; but if you cannot, wait simply the Lord’s time, at the Lord’s feet. If your heart is upright, you have only to attend to the means and precepts of grace [private prayer and Scripture study].
The Lord must do the rest, and He will, otherwise it can never be done. Try to be thankful; it is both a utile [useful] and a dulce [pleasant]. You cannot be too humble, or think too little of yourself; but these views need not break your peace. You are to be strong, and to rejoice, not in yourself, but in Jesus Christ the Lord, and in the power of his might. One view of the brazen serpent will do you more good than pouring over your own wounds for a month [Numbers 21:4–9, John 3:14–15].
I am not what I ought to be. Ah, how imperfect and deficient!
I am not what I wish to be. I abhor what is evil, and I would cleave to what is good!
I am not what I hope to be. Soon, soon shall I put off mortality, and with mortality all sin and imperfection.
Yet, though I am not what I ought to be,
nor what I wish to be,
nor what I hope to be,
I can truly say, I am not what I once was;
a slave to sin and Satan;
and I can heartily join with the apostle, and acknowledge,
‘By the grace of God I am what I am.’
And check out this excellent church video made by the folks at Grace Community Church in San Antonio, Texas:
Last year I was a little surprised, and much encouraged, by the response to my blog posts featuring John Newton (1725–1807). I’ve since put more thought into how to expand these posts which led to a plan that should work out nicely. The plan is to publish these meditations each week on CJ’s blog, under the series title: “Reading Newton’s Mail.” Last Friday I published a brief intro to the series. Today I posted the first installment: “Aiming High, Missing Low, Aiming High Again,” highlighting Newton’s thoughts on the spiritual disciplines, both in our ambitious pursuit of them and in responding to personal failures. In all likelihood I will continue to post brief excerpts from Newton here on Miscellanies, but the meditations will now appear each Friday on Cheap Seats. Should be fun. Thanks for reading!