Many Christians are unaware of the life and ministry of John Newton. He is often known as “that guy who wrote ‘Amazing Grace.'” Newton was a highly influential and effective pastor in England in the 18th century. He wrote many hymns. He provided spiritual direction for many Christians, including William Wilberforce – who Newton helped persuade to fight against the African slave trade as a member of Parliment. One of his greatest ministries was letter-writing. Newton kept correspondence with scores of people throughout his life and ministry. His letters are a stunning blend of pastoral wisdom, piercing theological insight, evangelistic apologetics, and comfort to suffers.
I have been tremendously helped by Newton’s letters recently, found in the Banner of Truth publication, Letters of John Newton. My son has experienced health problems throughout his life, and the last several months have been especially trying. I write this post from his room in the Children’s Hospital. Newton’s words in multiple letters, regarding trials and suffering, have fed the gospel to my soul.
On Trials and Afflictions
Writing to his brother in-law, John Catlett, who was not a Christian, Newton challenges Catlett to consider that while he (Newton) had experienced the world’s pleasures, and found them wanting, he (Catlett) had not experienced the realities of the Christian. He writes,
“But I need not tell you, that the present life is not made up of pleasurable incidents only. Pain, sickness, losses, disappointments, injuries, and affronts, will more or less, at one time or other, be our lot. And can you bear these trials better than I? You will not pretend to it. Let me appeal to yourself: how often do you toss and disquiet yourself, like a wild bull in a net, when things cross your expectations? As your thoughts are more engrossed by what you see, you must be more keenly sensible of what you feel. You cannot view these trials as appointed by a wise and heavenly Father, in subservience to your good; you cannot taste the sweetness of his promises, nor feel the secret supports of his strength, in an hour of affliction; you cannot so cast your burden and care upon him, as to find a sensible relief to your spirit thereby, nor can you see his hand engaged and employed in effecting your deliverance. Of these things you know no more than the art of flying; but I seriously assure you, and I believe my testimony will go further with you than my judgment, that they are realities, and that I have found them to be so.”
To the pastor, Rev. Whitford, regarding how ministers can be an example to the flock in their trials, Newton writes,
“May you rather be an example and pattern to the flock; and in this view, be not surprised if you yourself meet some hard usage; rather rejoice, that you will thereby have an opportunity to exemplify your own rules, and to convince your people, that what you recommend to them you do not speak by rote, but from the experience of your heart.
Therefore be not discouraged: usefulness and trials, comforts and crosses, strength and exercise go together. But remember He has said, “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee; be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.” When you get to heaven, you will not complain of the way by which the Lord brought you.”
To Miss Medhurst, a local Christian in Yorkshire, Newton writes,
“When we can fix our thoughts upon him, as laying aside all his honors, and submitting for our sakes to drink off the bitter cup of the wrath of God to the very dregs; and when we further consider, that He who thus suffered in our nature, who knows and sympathizes with all our weaknesses, is now the Supreme Disposer of all that concerns us, that He numbers the very hairs of our heads, appoints every trial we meet with in number, weight, and measure, and will suffer nothing to befall us but what shall contribute to our good, this view, I say, is a medicine suited to the disease, and powerfully reconciles us to every cross.”
In a another letter to Miss Medhurst, he says,
Let us not be greatly discouraged at the many tribulations, difficulties, and disappointments which lie in the path that leads to glory, seeing our Lord has told us before, has made a suitable provision for every case we can meet with, and is himself always near to those that call upon him, a sure refuge and almighty strength, a never-failing ever-present help in every time of trouble; seeing likewise that He himself was a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief for our sakes.”
Lastly, in a letter to Captain Alexander Clunie, Newton writes these beautiful words,
“He knows how to manifest himself even here, to give more than He takes away, and to cause our consolations to exceed our greatest afflictions. And when we get safe home, we shall not complain that we have suffered too much in the way. We shall not say, Is this all I must expect after so much trouble? No, when we awake into that glorious world, we shall in an instant be satisfied with his likeness. One sight of Jesus as He is, will fill our hearts, and dry up all our tears. Let us then resign ourselves into his hands; let us gird up the loins of our minds, be sober and hope to the end.”
Newton’s words are pastoral gems of gospel truth. They are rich theological helps that speak to the depths of real human experience. Newton may be famous for penning the hymn ‘Amazing Grace,’ but his letters certainly qualify as an amazing grace. They are helps for the hurting, showing the profound hope that belongs to those who follow the Man of Sorrows.
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