John Newton, William Law, Justification, and Sanctification

Near the end of 1768 John Newton exchanged a series of letters with a pastor friend who had been reading William Law’s writings.  Law, who died in 1761, was a priest in the Church of England who later became a private teacher.  Law’s popular work focused on things like devotion, holiness, sanctification, and perfection.  Newton’s friend believed that righteousness and sanctification were synonymous.  In other words, in his reading of Law’s call to devotion, Newton’s friend thought his sanctification was his righteousness.  He believed that if he wasn’t devout enough, sincere enough, or zealous enough, God would not accept him.  In fact, he even was afraid that he would end up forsaking the Lord; he lacked peace, comfort, and assurance.

In these letters, Newton explained and applied the gospel by saying that our righteousness and sanctification are not the same.  In other words, he said that God does not accept us based on what Christ is doing in us, but what he has done for us; justification and sanctification are distinct.  Here are some slightly edited excerpts from Newton’s letters:

“…With respect to the grounds of a sinner’s acceptance in the sight of God, and the all-sufficiency, the alone-sufficiency of Jesus Christ to do all for, in, and by, those who believe on his name, I do have that conviction… and perhaps I sometimes seem to pass my proper bounds, and to speak in a too positive tone.  But I think that the views which constrain me to dissent from Mr. Law, Dr. Smith, and many other respectable names, would embolden me to contradict even an angel from heaven, if I should hear him propose any other foundation for hope than the person, obedience, sufferings, and intercession of the Son of God.”

“The desires we feel towards Him [the Lord], faint and feeble as they are, are the effect of His own operation on our hearts, and what He plants he will water.  He does nothing by halves.  Far be it from us to think that He should make us sensible of our need of Him, teach us to pray for assistance, make so many express promises for our encouragement, and then disappoint us at last.”

“…It is my prayer, that he [the Lord] may comfort you with those views of the freeness and riches of His grace, which enable me to maintain a hope in His mercy even though I feel myself polluted and vile.  For, when my state and acceptance with God is the point in question, I am in a measure helped not to judge of it by what He has done in me, so much as by what He has done for me.  I can find no peace but by resting in the blood of Jesus, His obedience to death, His intercession and fullness of grace; and so, claiming salvation under Him as my Head, Surety, and Advocate, answer all objections which my conscience or Satan interpose, with the Apostle’s arguments in Romans 8:33-34.”

“The admission of a mixed gospel [that is, equating righteousness with sanctification], which indeed is no gospel at all, will bring disquiet into the conscience.  If you think you are in the same circumstances, as to choice and power, as Adam was, I cannot blame you for fearing lest you should acquit yourself no better than he did.”

“…It appears to me necessary for our comfort, when we know what [evil] is in our hearts, and necessary likewise to give the Redeemer the glory due His name, that we be sensible that our sanctification is not the cause, but the effect of our acceptance with God.  …The precise reason why we are saved, is not because we are changed, …but simply and solely because He lived and died for us, paid the ransom, and made the atonement on our behalf.  This is our plea and hope when we first come to Him (John 3:14-15), when we have finished our course upon earth (2 Tim. 1:12), and when we appear in judgment (Rom. 8:34).”

“…My hope is built, not upon what I feel in myself, but upon what He felt for me; not upon what I can ever do for him, but upon what has been done by Him upon my account. …It appears to me, therefore, that though the blessings of justification and sanctification are coincidental, and cannot be separated in the same subject (a believing sinner,),yet they are in themselves as distinct and different as any two things can be.”


These letters can be found in Volume 6 of Newton’s Works.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

4 comments on “John Newton, William Law, Justification, and Sanctification

  1. […] Presbyterian Church and services as pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Hammond, Wis. This article appeared on his blog and is used with […]


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