Category Archives: John Newton
In the course of writing a book on John Newton (1725–1807), I read all of his 1,000 published letters at least twice. He was a brilliant pastor, and in his pastoral letters I often discovered lines too good, too funny, too challenging, too humbling, or too Christ-centered not to be shared on Twitter instantly.
While I should probably explain my process more in the future, I can say Twitter mostly serves as a platform where I drop research fragments to be later collected for future projects. Today I trolled my Twitter archive and collected my Newton tweets from the past two years of research and organized them into an alphabetical list of quotes to give you a taste of what you’ll find in my book and what you’ll read in Newton’s letters (like those in this wonderful collection).
Newton: “A knock at the door, a turning a corner, may be events which lead to important consequences. There’s no such thing as accidents.”
Newton: “A man learns to preach by learning to acquire confidence, not in himself, but in his cause, and in him in whose name he speaks.”
Newton: “A minister full of comforts and free from failings as an angel, though he would be happy, wouldn’t be a good or useful preacher.”
Newton: “A minister’s hands are strengthened when he can point to his people as living proofs of the doctrine he preaches.”
Newton: “Abominations, like nests of vipers, lie quietly in us, til the rod of affliction rouses them; then they hiss and show their venom.”
Newton: “Alas! how difficult is it to draw the line exactly between undervaluing and overvaluing the gifts of God.”
Newton: “All my hopes and comforts may be summed up by saying, I have a rich and gracious Savior.”
Newton: “All wisdom, righteousness, holiness, and happiness, which does not spring from and center in Christ, my soul desires to renounce.”
Newton: “As desirable and precious as sanctification is, it is not, I trust it never will be, the ground of my hope.”
Newton: “As Jesus appears in your view, / As he is beloved or not; / So God is disposed to you, / And mercy or wrath are your lot.”
Newton: “Be cautious you do not degenerate into a mere hearer, so as to place your chief stress on running after preachers.”
Newton: “Blessed be my Lord and Savior, who saved me from destruction in defiance of myself.”
Newton: “Christ is not only the object, but the author, and finisher of faith (Hebrews 12:2).”
Newton: “Cold as I feel this heart of mine, / Yet since I feel it so, / It yields some hope of life divine.”
Newton: “Colleges can never make up for a lack of the knowledge of Christ.”
Newton: “Dangerous and inveterate diseases are seldom cured by cakes and candies.” #sanctification #trials
Newton: “Dear Lord, the idol self dethrone / And from our hearts remove / And let no zeal by us be shown / But that which springs from love”
Newton: “Deuteronomy 32:9–12 is a passage which exhibits the history of a believer in miniature, an Iliad in a nutshell.”
Newton: “Disappointment is the grumblings of self-will against the will of God.”
Newton: “Dread whatever grieves the Spirit of God.”
Newton: “Even now, while I write, and while you read, they are praising the Lamb that was slain.”
Newton: “Every drop of rain hits its appointed target.”
Newton: “Every new day is filled up with new things, new mercies on the Lord’s part, new ingratitude on mine.”
Newton: “Every semblance of religion that is not derived from Christ, by faith in his name, is, at the best, like a lamp without oil.”
Newton: “Everything is necessary that God sends our way; nothing can be necessary that he withholds.”
Newton: “Experience and observation proves that no doctrine but Jesus Christ and him crucified will withstand the stream of the world.”
Newton: “For about six weeks I have had occasion to spend several hours of almost every day with the sick and the dying.”
Newton: “Gifts are like riches: if well improved, they give a man fairer opportunities of service.”
Newton: “Gladly would I receive more of comforts, but it is more necessary for me now, both as a Christian and minister, that I be humbled.”
Newton: “God formed us for himself, and has given the human such a vastness of thirst for happiness as He alone can answer.”
Newton: “Grace cherishes the smoking flax into a flame.”
Newton: “He does all things well. It is never ill with us but when our evil hearts doubt or forget this plainest of truths.”
Newton: “He found us when we sought him not. Then we began to seek him, and he was pleased to be found by us.”
Newton: “He has given us a capacity and thirst for happiness which, both experience and observation demonstrate, the world cannot satisfy.”
Newton: “He who is duly sensible of the importance and difficulty of winning souls, will find but little leisure for sorting shells.”
Newton: “He will put his silver into the fire to purify it; but he sits by the furnace as a refiner, to direct the process.”
Newton: “Hearers are disposed to be pleased with the preacher if he says nothing to make them displeased with themselves.”
Newton: “How different were Christ’s sufferings from ours? There is no sting in our rod, nor wrath in our cup.”
Newton: “How happy is it to know the Lord, the Fountain of living waters! Every other acquisition without him will prove a broken cistern.”
Newton: “How seldom do we think how much we are indebted to Christ living in us!”
Newton: “I advise you by all means to keep close to the atonement. The doctrine of the cross is the sun in the system of truth.”
Newton: “I am a riddle to myself.”
Newton: “I am afraid we have been, and still are, too guilty of idolatry; and the Lord might justly blast our boasted paradise.”
Newton: “I am neither whig nor tory, but a friend to both. I am a stranger, and a pilgrim.”
Newton: “I am prone to puzzle myself over twenty things which are out of my power, and equally unnecessary, if the Lord be my Shepherd.”
Newton: “I am so totally depraved; but not discouraged.” (hint: 1 Corinthians 1:30–31)
Newton: “I could not live comfortably a day, or an hour, without the doctrines of grace.”
Newton: “I feel like a man who has no money, but is allowed to draw from one infinitely rich. I am at once both a beggar and rich man.”
Newton: “I have felt impatience in my spirit, utterly unsuitable to my state as a sinner and a beggar.”
Newton: “I have often wished we had more female pens employed in the service of the sanctuary.”
Newton: “I have reason to praise him for my trials, for, most probably, I should have been ruined without them.”
Newton: “I have seldom, if ever, been five minutes late for anything, unless unavoidably prevented, for the past 50 years.”
Newton: “I hope to die like the thief upon the cross. I have no hope, no comfort in myself.”
Newton: “I live by miracle.”
Newton: “I want nothing of that ‘knowledge’ that has not a tendency to make sin more hateful and Jesus more precious to my soul.”
Newton: “I want to deliver up that rebel Self in chains, but the rogue, like Proteus, puts on so many forms he slips through my fingers.”
Newton: “I’m a slow scholar, and make bungling work at my lessons to apply the gospel to the common concerns of every hour.”
Newton: “If believing and repenting are proper condition of my salvation, I can no more fulfill them than I can touch the stars.”
Newton: “If communion with God affords the greatest happiness we are capable, whatever indisposes us for this must be our great loss.”
Newton: “If I was not a Calvinist, I think I should have no more hope of success in preaching to men, than to horses or cows.”
Newton: “If I’m redeemed from misery by the blood of Jesus; and if he is preparing a mansion that I may drink rivers of pleasure forever!”
Newton: “If millions of millions of distressed sinners seek to Christ for relief, he has a sufficiency for them all.”
Newton: “If we could hear all that is said of us, it would not flatter us much.”
Newton: “If you walk closely with God forty years, you will have a much lower opinion of yourself than you have now.”
Newton: “In London I’m in a crowd of temptations, but in the country there is a crowd of temptations in me. My mind is a Vanity Fair.”
Newton: “It behooves us to keep a clear distinction in our minds between gifts and grace.”
Newton: “It is never ill with us but when our evil hearts doubt or forget the plainest of truths.”
Newton: “It is the triumph of grace to make the rich humble and the poor thankful.”
Newton: “It will be vain for ministers to declare the doctrines of grace unless our testimony is supported by the conduct of our people.”
Newton: “It will not be laid to my charge that I thought too highly of Jesus or expected too much from him. On the contrary.”
Newton: “It’s unnecessary to raise a hurricane to destroy us. Were he to withdraw his arm for a moment some unthought evil would overwhelm.”
Newton: “Let me always rejoice in him, or mourn after him. I will leave the alternative to him, who knows best how to suit my state.”
Newton: “Let me endeavor to lead you out of yourself: let me invite you to look unto Jesus.”
Newton: “Like the sun, Christ has sufficiency to fill innumerable millions of eyes with light in the same instant.”
Newton: “Look unto Jesus. The duty, privilege, safety, the unspeakable happiness, of a believer, are all comprised in that one sentence.”
Newton: “Lord, save us from our golden calves.”
Newton: “May Christ be our theme in the pulpit and in the parlor.”
Newton: “May we sit at the foot of the cross; and there learn what sin has done, what justice has done, what love has done.”
Newton: “My heart is like a country but half subdued. Mutinies and insurrections are daily happening.”
Newton: “My heart is vile, and even my prayers are sin. My soul is very sick, but my Physician is infallible.”
Newton: “My hope is built, not upon frames and feelings, but upon the atonement and mediation of Jesus.”
Newton: “My soul is very sick, but my Physician is infallible.”
Newton: “My soul, ask what thou wilt, / Thou canst not be too bold; / Since his own blood for thee he spilt, / What else can he withhold?”
Newton: “My usefulness was the last idol I was willing to part with, but the Lord has enabled me to give even this up.”
Newton: “‘None but Jesus’ is my motto.”
Newton: “O precious, irrecoverable time!”
Newton: “O the excellency of the knowledge of Christ! It will be growing upon us through time, yea, I believe through eternity.”
Newton: “O what a mercy to see all power in heaven and earth exercised by Him who was nailed to the cross for sinners.”
Newton: “One ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ ought to have more weight and authority with us, than a thousand arguments.”
Newton: “One view of the brazen serpent (Christ) will do you more good than poring over your own wounds for a month.”
Newton: “Opposition has hurt its thousands. Careless popularity has slain its ten thousands.”
Newton to pastors: “Our work is great; our time is short; the consequences of our labors are infinite.”
Newton: “Overlong sermons … call off the thoughts from the sermon to the pudding at home that is in danger of being overboiled.”
Newton: “People do their country more service by pleading for it in prayer than by finding fault with things they have no power to alter.”
Newton: “Prosperity may cause us to rise in the world, but affliction is needful to raise us above the world.”
Newton: “Rejoice in Christ and resist every temptation to doubt his love as you would resist a temptation to adultery or murder.”
Newton: “Reproof should be in season, in secret, and in love.”
Newton: “Satan will preach free grace when he finds people willing to believe the notion as an excuse and a cloak for idleness.”
Newton: “Self likes to do great things; but grace teaches us to do little things with a great spirit — that is, for the Lord’s sake.”
Newton: “Sin cannot be hated for itself, till we have seen the malignity of it in Christ’s sufferings.”
Newton: “Some persons are so weak, that, if their favorite minister is absent, they hardly think it worth their while to hear another.”
Newton: “Sooner shall a tender mother sit inattentive to her crying infant than Jesus be an unconcerned spectator of his suffering children.”
Newton: “Sovereignty is but another name for the unlimited exercise of wisdom and goodness.”
Newton: “Talk to children about God abstractly, and it is all in vain.”
Newton: “That monster Self has as many heads as Hydra, and as many lives as a cat.”
Newton: “The atonement, power, and grace of Christ, is a sufficient answer for all. You only lack more faith.”
Newton: “The Babe of Bethlehem, the Man who once hung dead and forsaken upon the cross, is now the Lord of glory.”
Newton: “The best advice I can give you: Look unto Jesus, beholding his beauty in the written word.”
Newton: “The cross of Christ is the tree of life and the tree of knowledge combined.”
Newton: “The cross of Jesus Christ, my Lord, / Is food and medicine, shield and sword. / Take that for your motto.”
Newton: “The doctrine of Jesus Christ, and him crucified, is the Sun of the intellectual world. It can only be seen by its own light.”
Newton: “The fear of man, under the name of prudence, like a chilling frost nips everything in the bud.”
Newton: “The firmament of Scripture is spangled with promises as the sky is with stars, perceptible to us only in the night of affliction.”
Newton: “The life of a Christian is a life of faith in the Son of God.”
Newton: “The Lord Christ, and the world that crucified him, are competitors for our hearts.”
Newton: “The Lord does not give us our arms and regimentals only to strut about in. We must expect blows.”
Newton: “The Lord is my strength; yet I am prone to lean on reeds.”
Newton: “The love I bear him is but a faint and feeble spark, but it is an emanation from himself; he kindled it, and he keeps it alive.”
Newton: “The more simply we commit the how, when, and where, to God’s wisdom and will, the more we shall be free from heart-eating anxiety.”
Newton: “The storms are guided by the hands which were nailed to the cross.”
Newton: “There are abominations which, like nests of vipers, lie quietly within, till the rod of affliction rouses them.”
Newton: “There is a peace passing understanding, of which the politicians cannot deprive us.”
Newton: “There is but one Physician / Can cure a sin-sick soul!”
Newton: “There is one political maxim which comforts me: ‘The Lord reigns.’”
Newton: “This is God’s way: you are not called to buy, but to beg; not to be strong in yourself, but in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”
Newton: “This is the worst enemy we have to deal with—self-will—self-wisdom—self-righteousness—self-seeking—self-dependence—self-boasting.”
Newton: “Though my disease is grievous, it is not desperate. I have a gracious and infallible Physician.”
Newton: “To behold the glory and the love of Jesus is the only effectual way to participate of his image.”
Newton: “To see him as he is, and to be like him! This is worth dying for, and worth living for.”
Newton: “To take a glimpse within the veil, / To know that God is mine, / Are springs of joy that never fail, / Unspeakable! divine!”
Newton: “Too much of my time passes in busy idleness.”
Newton: “Trouble excites prayer, prayer brings deliverance, deliverance produces praise (Psalm 116:1–2).”
Newton: “Until we are reconciled to God by the blood of Jesus everything to which we look for satisfaction will fully disappoint us.”
Newton: “We are never more safe than when we are most sensible that we can do nothing without Christ.”
Newton: “We are too much attached to our own petty concerns, and too little concerned for the glory of God.”
Newton: “We have a mighty Savior, a compassionate Friend, a prevailing Advocate.”
Newton to pastors: “We have work to do in the world, more to do in the Church and in our homes, but most of all, in our own hearts.”
Newton: “We need to bring our hard hearts into sympathy with those who suffer, lest we be too busy or too happy to attend their moans.”
Newton: “We serve a gracious Master who knows how to overrule even our mistakes to His glory and our own advantage.”
Newton: “We should never grow weary of writing and reading about Jesus.”
Newton: “What a privilege to possess God in all things while we have them, and all things in God when they are taken from us.”
Newton: “What will it profit a man if he silences his adversary and loses that humble spirit in which the Lord delights?”
Newton: “While you are unfit to die, you can have no true enjoyment of life.”
Newton: “With pleasing grief and mournful joy / My spirit now is fill’d, / That I should such a life destroy, / Yet live by him I kill’d.”
Newton: “Wonderful are the effects when a crucified, glorious Savior is presented to the eye of Faith. This sight destroys the love of sin.”
Today Newtcation ends. It’s been a wonderful several days spent mostly off-line and with a lot of time with the family at the local pool and lakes, and bowling, and attending little league softball and baseball games.
Two weeks steeped in Newton’s letters have been a tremendous blessing to my own soul. On most mornings I awoke to make new discoveries in the pages of the rarest published letters of Newton, many of them made available by the generosity and ingenuity of friends who volunteered university library credentials and iPad cameras to the cause. A lot of my Newtcation mornings looked something like this:
I’m now emerging out of the 18th century and find myself playing catch-up on DOMA, Tsarnaev, Randy Travis, Metta World Peace, Trayvon, Chris Weidman, Sharknadoes, plane crashes in Alaska and SFO, unrest in Egypt, and wildfires in Arizona. So much has happened in the last two weeks.
Going off-line has been worth it. Yesterday I finished the first draft of the Newton book, which I began writing 9 months, 25 days ago. Over these past two weeks I’ve had time to write the final 20% of the book. At 87,606 words, the draft is far too long and will need to be trimmed in the next phase of re-writing (and re-re-writing) that begins now. In the coming months I will be trimming content, tightening sentences, and sharpening the language of the book. From my experience, this is the most enjoyable stage in the writing process.
The manuscript, in its present form, has been passed along to Pastor John, who has kindly offered to read it (gulp) and pen the foreword. Piper’s enthusiasm over the years for Newton, and his popular biographical sketch, have all become significant factors in the enduring legacy of Newton and his works in the Church today. Irrespective of whether my book is any good, to have a foreword from him is not only an honor, but will also provide a push behind Newton’s legacy to extend its life for at least one more generation.
And of course Newtcation has reminded me of the amazing blessing I have been given in my wife. She was up before the kids to edit chapters, kept the kids busy after they awoke so I could write, and then served us all afternoon as we enjoyed family time together. The back of our minivan is a drink and snack taxi, stocked for whatever adventure we filled our afternoons with. I would post a picture of my precious wife here, but, in her words, “Your pictures of me are always so horrible.”
Alas, a lot of great memories will stay with me from Newtcation, but I look forward to getting back to work tomorrow. Thank you to everyone who prayed for me over these past two weeks as I completed research and writing the first draft of Newton on the Christian Life. I was sustained by God’s amazing grace all along.
A letter from John Newton to a friend, on prayer (August 15, 1776):
I sometimes think that the prayers of believers afford a stronger proof of a depraved nature than even the profaneness of those who know not the Lord. How strange is it, that when I have the fullest convictions that prayer is not only my duty — not only necessary as the appointed means of receiving these supplies, without which I can do nothing, but likewise the greatest honor and privilege to which I can be admitted in the present life — I should still find myself so unwilling to engage in it.
However, I think it is not prayer itself that I am weary of, but such prayers as mine. How can it be accounted prayer, when the heart is so little affected — when it is polluted with such a mixture of vile and vain imaginations — when I hardly know what I say myself — but I feel my mind collected one minute, the next, my thoughts are gone to the ends of the earth.
If what I express with my lips were written down, and the thoughts which at the same time are passing through my heart were likewise written between the lines, the whole taken together would be such an absurd and incoherent jumble — such a medley of inconsistency, that it might pass for the ravings of a lunatic.
When he points out to me the wildness of this jargon, and asks, is this a prayer fit to be presented to the holy heart-searching God? I am at a loss what to answer, till it is given to me to recollect that I am not under the law, but under grace — that my hope is to be placed, not in my own prayers, but in the righteousness and intercession of Jesus. The poorer and viler I am in myself, so much the more is the power and riches of his grace magnified in my behalf.
Therefore I must, and, the Lord being my helper, I will pray on, and admire his condescension and love, that he can and does take notice of such a creature — for the event shows, that those prayers which are even displeasing to myself, partial as I am in my own case, are acceptable to him, how else should they be answered?
And that I am still permitted to come to a throne of grace — still supported in my walk and in my work, and that mine enemies have not yet prevailed against me, and triumphed over me, affords a full proof that the Lord has heard and has accepted my poor prayers — yea, it is possible, that those very prayers of ours of which we are most ashamed, are the most pleasing to the Lord, and for that reason, because we are ashamed of them. When we are favored with what we call enlargement, we come away tolerably satisfied with ourselves, and think we have done well.
I thought I’d drop a personal update as a means of soliciting your prayers. For the next few weeks I’ll be taking some time off from work to devote focused attention on my John Newton book, and to enjoy a staycation with the family. My wife is calling it Newt-cation. The family schedule has been cleared, and I hope to write in the mornings and early afternoons, and then laugh and veg and swim and tan with the fam the rest of the day.
These precious weeks will give time to really narrow my writing focus. I started the Newton book on September 16 of last year, and by researching and writing on Saturdays alone (as time allowed), I’ve managed to rough out 10 of the 14 chapters and to pen about 75% of the total 85,000 words. These next two weeks will give me the time necessary to finish up these four last chapters and to invest substantial time in refined research on a few areas of particular interests in Newton’s letters.
And unless the editors read my book, cringe, and change their minds, it’s scheduled to be published in the summer of 2015 in Crossway’s Theologians on the Christian Life series. There’s nobody I would rather write on (Newton), nobody I would rather write for (Crossway), and nobody I would rather write under (editors Justin Taylor and Steve Nichols).
Here’s how the growing TCL series is shaping up (so far):
- B.B. Warfield on the Christian Life by Fred Zaspel (March 2012)
- Francis Schaeffer on the Christian Life by William Edgar (February 2013)
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life by Stephen Nichols (June 2013)
- John Wesley on the Christian Life by Fred Sanders (August 2013)
- John Calvin on the Christian Life by Michael Horton (June 2014)
- John Owen on the Christian Life by Michael Haykin and Matthew Barrett (June 2014)
- Martin Luther on the Christian Life by Carl Trueman (August 2014)
- Jonathan Edwards on the Christian Life by Dane Ortlund (February 2015)
- John Bunyan on the Christian Life by Derek Thomas (April 2015)
- John Newton on the Christian Life by Tony Reinke (June 2015)
- Herman Bavinck on the Christian Life by John Bolt (August 2015)
- J. I. Packer on the Christian Life by Sam Storms (October 2015)
- Charles Spurgeon on the Christian Life by Michael Reeves (unknown)
The great delight in working on a project like this one is the opportunity to get intimately acquainted with a great Christian thinker from the past, especially when it comes to studying how they processed the intricate dynamics of the Christian life. Having been discipled by Newton for years now, and more rigorously for the past year, I find myself more and more thinking like him and applying the gospel to my everyday life in ways he models from his own life. I find it easy to get excited about Newton and I am eager to share the results of my research with you as soon as possible.
But for now I need patience, and discipline to write clearly, and so I would greatly appreciate your prayers as I try and wrap up the majority of the Newton manuscript in July. And so (as Newton would say it), I earnestly entreat all who know how to draw near to the Throne of Grace by Jesus Christ, to strive mightily in prayer for me, that I may stand fast in the faith, and increase in the knowledge of Jesus the Savior; and that for his sake I may labor, without fear, in the service to which he has been pleased to call me.
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all!
I am your affectionate friend, and servant in the Gospel of Christ,
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.