Reigning Grace (Or: Cast Your Idol Works Away)

 John Newton’s hymns cover many different Scripture texts and themes.  One biblical theme that often comes up in his hymns is grace – the fact that salvation from start to finish, beginning to end is all of grace, only by grace, and of grace alone (Eph. 2:5).  Here are a few selections from various hymns that talk about grace:

Not of Works
1) Grace, triumphant in the throne,
Scorns a rival, reigns alone!
Come, and bow beneath her sway,
Cast your idol works away.
Works of man, when made his plea,
Never shall accepted be;
Fruits of pride (Vain-glorious worm!)
Are the best he can perform

Reigning Grace
1) Now may the Lord reveal his face,
And teach our stamm’ring tongues
To make his sov’reign, reigning grace,
The subject of our songs!
No sweeter subject can invite
A sinner’s heart to sing,
Or more display the glorious right
Of our exalted King.

3) Grace reigns, to pardon crimson sins,
To melt the hardest hearts;
And from the work it once begins
It never more departs.
The world and Satan strive in vain
Against the chosen few;
Secur’d by grace’s conqu’ring reign,
They all shall conquer too.

4) Grace tills the soil, and sows the seeds,
Provides the sun and rain;
Till from the tender blade proceeds
The ripen’d harvest grain.
‘Twas grace that call’d our souls at first;
By grace thus far we’ve come;
And grace will help us through the worst,
And lead us safely home.”

The Power of Grace
5) O thou whose voice the dead can raise,
And soften hearts of stone,
And teach the dumb to sing thy praise,
This work is all thine own!

7) Grace bid me live, and taught my tongue
To aim at notes divine;
And grace accepts my feeble song,
The glory, Lord, be thine!

Quite a few other hymns of Newton also magnify God’s electing, justifying, sanctifying, and preserving grace.  Newton knew it from Scripture and experience: a sinner is saved by grace alone.  By grace alone the Lord began a good work in me, and by grace alone he’ll finish it.  Salvation is not by works, performance, spiritual attempts, religious emotions, or proper feelings.  Salvation is all of grace, and only of grace!

The above hymns of Newton are found in volume 3 of his Works.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

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Causes of Spiritual Decline (Newton)

Sadly, there is such a thing as backsliding in the Christian life.  It’s also called wandering from the path of following Jesus.  Indeed, we are prone to wander!  There are various reasons why Christians do sometimes wander or backslide.  We could put it in the form of a question: What are some of the causes of spiritual decline in the Christian life?  John Newton gave a few helpful answers.  I’ll summarize them below:

  1. One of the chief causes of spiritual decline is error.  There are some errors that may be compared to poison.  Thus the Galatians, by listening to false teachers, were seduced from the simplicity of the gospel.  The consequence was that they quickly lost the blessedness they had once spoken of.  Poison is seldom taken alone, but if it is mixed with food, it is not suspected until it is discovered by the effect.  Whoever is prevailed upon to believe what is false, though it is mixed with the truth, is already infected with a disease; and his religion, unless the Lord mercifully interposes, will degenerate into either licentiousness or formality.  [We live in a day when too many people are tossed to and fro by various winds of doctrine.  Therefore those who want what is best for their own souls must be on their guard against that spirit of curiosity and adventure, which the apostle describes as having itching ears – which is a desire of hearing every new and novel teaching.]
  2. Spiritual pride and a high regard for self is also a cause for spiritual decline.  Even if a person believes right doctrine and has experienced the power of the gospel, pride causes spiritual decline.  If our knowledge and gifts give us a good opinion of ourselves, as if we were wise and good, we are already ensnared and in danger of falling with every step we take unless the Lord mercifully interposes by restoring us to a spirit of humility and dependence.  It is the invariable law of his kingdom that everyone who exalts himself will be humbled.  We have nothing but what we have received from God, and therefore to be proud of titles, wealth, or any temporal advantages we enjoy by the providence of God, is sinful.
  3. A third prevailing cause for spiritual decline is an inordinate desire and attachment to the things of the world, or worldliness.  Unless this evil principle be mortified in its root, by the doctrine of the cross, it will in time prevail over the most splendid profession.  The love of the world manifests itself in two different ways.  The first is covetousness or greed, which can be seen in Judas and Demas.  The second is not hoarding, but squandering money under the power of a worldly spirit.  In whatever degree the love of the world prevails, the health of the soul will proportionably decline.

Newton does say quite a bit more about these three causes for spiritual decline, and he gives a few others as well.  He shared them – as I’m sharing them – to help Christians avoid and fight spiritual decline: “It is sometimes said that the knowledge of a disease amounts to half a remedy.”  This is the case in spiritual decline as well: if you and I do suffer from any of these “diseases,” thankfully we can go to the Great Physician for help and cure!

This entire essay, called On a Decline in the Spiritual Life, is found in volume 6 of Newton’s Works.

Shane Lems

 

Good That I Was Afflicted? (Newton)

Sometimes during a hard and heavy trial there doesn’t seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel.  Just when you think the trial may be going away like a storm passing, just when you think the sun might finally be coming out, another dark cloud blows in and the trial is back – sometimes with a vengeance.  That’s when you think, “What’s it all worth?”  That’s when you don’t want to get out of bed in the morning.  That’s when tears come at random during the day.  That’s when you can sort of understand why people might want to just give up and die.

God’s promises speak to this.  Although they don’t take the storm of trial away, they do provide shelter during the storm of trial.  God’s promises don’t always immediately show us the light at the end of the tunnel, but they do give us a firm reminder that there is a Light at the end of it!  God’s promises give us reason to get up and go on with life by his grace and strength.  John Newton talked about this well in a letter he wrote to a Christian friend facing a hard trial.  These words are for all Christians facing affliction:

“Many are the trials and exercises we must expect to meet within our progress; but this one consideration outweighs them all: the Lord is on our side.  And if he be for us, none can be against us to harm us.  In all these things we shall be more than conquerors through him that loved us. Afflictions, though not in themselves joyous, but grievious, yet, when sanctified, are among our choice mercies.  In due time they shall yield the peaceful fruits of righteousness, and even at present they shall surely be attended with seasonable and sufficient supports.”

“One great desire of the believer is to understand the great word of God more and more; and one principal means by which we advance in this knowledge is the improvement we are enabled to make of our daily trials.  The promises are generally made to an afflicted state, and we could not taste their sweetness, nor experience their truth, if we were not sometimes brought into the circumstances to which they relate.  It is said, ‘I will be with them in trouble’; but how could we know what a mercy is contained in these words unless trouble was sometimes our lot?  It is said to be the believer’s privilege to glory in tribulation.  But we never could know that this is possible unless we had tribulation to glory in.”

“However, this is a matter of joy and glory indeed, to find peace and comfort within when things are disagreeable and troublesome without.  Then we are enabled to set our seal that God is true, then we learn how happy it is to have a refuge that cannot be taken from us, a support that is able to bear all the weight we can lay upon it, a spring of joy that cannot be stopped by any outward events.”

“A great part of the little we know of our God – his faithfulness, compassion, his readiness to hear and answer our prayers, his wisdom in delivering and providing when all our contrivances fail, and his goodness in overruling everything to our soul’s good – I say, much of what we know of these things we learned in our trials, and have therefore reason to say, ‘It was good for us to be afflicted’ (Ps. 119:71).”

And, as the Lord has brought us safe through thus far, we have good ground to trust him to the end.  We know not what is before us.  Perhaps we may meet greater difficulties by and by than we have ever yet seen.  But if we keep in mind who has delivered us from the lion and the bear, we may face the Philistine also without terror.  God will be with us, and strengthen us with strength in our souls.  It is our wisdom to keep close to him, that, when the evil day comes, we may have confidence before him in all our troubles.”

John Newton, Works Volume 6, p. 35-6.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Various Ways to Faith

I’ve often heard it said that though there is only one way to the Father – through Jesus – there are many ways to Jesus.  In other words, there are various ways people come to faith in Christ.  Therefore, we should never make our experience of coming to Christ a paradigm for others when they come to Christ.  Nor should we rigidly follow others when they make their experience of coming to Christ a paradigm.  The stories in Scripture prove that conversion experiences are quite different!

Now, it does sometimes happen in Christian circles, when a preacher talks about his feelings and experience of coming to Christ and he makes it sound like you must have the same feelings and experience or you might not be a true Christian.  This kind of emotional preaching can leave Christians depressed since they don’t share the same feelings and experiences as the preacher does.  I’ve even had it myself years ago when listening to a popular preacher share his Christian feelings; mine didn’t match, so I wasn’t sure what to do with that.  Thanks to  John Newton I have a better idea about it now:

“It would be well if both preachers and people would keep more closely to what the Scripture teaches of the nature, marks, and growth of a work of grace instead of following each other in a track (like sheep) confining the Holy Spirit to a system, imposing at first the experience and sentiments of others as a rule to themselves, and afterward dogmatically laying down the path in which they themselves have been led, as absolutely necessary to be trodden by others.”

“There is a vast variety of the methods by which the Lord brings home souls to himself, in which he considers (though system-preachers do not) the different circumstances, situations, temperament, etc. of different persons.  To lay down rules precisely to which all must conform, and to treat all enquiring souls in the same way, is as wrong as it would be in a physician to attempt to cure all his patients who may have the same general disorder (a fever for instance) with one and the same prescription.  A skilful man would probably find so many differences in their cases, that he would not treat any two of them exactly alike.”

These are wise words.  If you don’t have the exact same emotions, feelings, and experiences as others in coming to Christ (and following him), don’t doubt your faith and repentance.  Don’t try to get the same emotions, feelings, and experiences of others, even if they are of a popular preacher.  Here’s Newton’s advice:

“I hope the Lord has made me willing to learn (if I can) from all, but ‘Nullius in verba jurare’ is my motto (take no one’s word as final; examine for yourself).  If you read Scripture and your own heart attentively, you will have greatly the advantage of those who puzzle themselves by too closely copying the rules they find in other books.”

John Newton, Wise Counsel, p. 120-121.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54002

Cage Phase Calvinists (Newton)

Sometimes Calvinists are arrogant jerks.  They learn about predestination, limited atonement, etc., and this leads them to arrogantly think they know it all.  They don’t show much love, patience, or tenderness when talking about the things of God.   This is what has been called the “cage phase” Calvinist because a person like that belongs in a cage to keep him from doing more harm than good.

In his typical winsome and pastoral way, John Newton talked about this many years ago:

“I believe a too hasty assent to Calvinistic principles, before a person is duly acquainted with the plague of his own heart, is one principle cause of that lightness of profession which so lamentably abounds in this day, a chief reason why many professors are rash, heady, high-minded, contentious about words, and sadly remiss as to the means of Divine appointment.”

Newton wrote that in 1775, but could it also be said of the present?

This quote is found in Josiah Bull’s biography of Newton, But Now I See, p. 212.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

My Evil Thoughts (Newton)

 For me, one difficult part of the Christian life is the troubling sinful thoughts that burden my mind daily.  Sometimes I know why a sinful thought arose in my mind; other times I have no clue why and no idea where a thought came from.  Satan is for sure to blame for at least some of our evil thoughts!  Speaking of horrifying thoughts, wouldn’t it be a terrible nightmare if other people knew all of our sinful thoughts?  If thoughts were crimes, I’d have been tried, found guilty, and executed long ago!

John Newton wrote a letter to a certain Miss W who had talked to him about her anxiety over sinful thoughts.  Newton’s pastoral note is outstanding; this comforted me today.

As to evil thoughts, they as unavoidably arise from an evil nature, as steam from a boiling tea-kettle. Every cause will have its effect, and a sinful nature will have sinful effects. You can no more keep such thoughts out of your mind than you can stop the course of the clouds. But, if the Lord had not taught you, you would not have been sensible of them, nor concerned about them. This is a token for good. By nature your thoughts would have been only evil, and that continually. But you find something within you that makes you dislike these thoughts; makes you ashamed of them, makes you strive and pray against them. These evil thoughts convince you, that, though you do not willfully speak or do evil, yet upon the account of your evil thoughts alone, you are a sinner, and stand in need of such great forgiveness; that if there were not a precious, compassionate, and mighty Savior, you could have no hope.

Now, this something that reveals and resists your evil thoughts—what can it be? It cannot be human nature; for we naturally have vain imaginations. It is the grace of God! The Lord has made you sensible of your disease, that you might love and prize the great Physician. The knowledge of his love shall make you hate these thoughts; and faith in his blood shall deliver you from the guilt of them; yet you will be pestered with them more or less while you live in this world, for sin is wrought into our bodies, and our souls must be freed from our bodies—before we shall be fully freed from the evils under which we mourn!

Later in the letter Newton talked about how Satan temps God’s people.  He then wrote:

Be thankful, my dear, that he treats you as his enemy; for miserable is the state of those to whom he behaves as a friend. And always remember that he is a chained enemy! He may terrify, but he cannot devour those who have fled for refuge to Jesus. And the Lord shall over-rule all for good. “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies and tricks of the Devil!” Ephesians 6:10-11.

Sinful thoughts are difficult to deal with; I hate them!  But, as Newton noted from Scripture, there is forgiveness now and in the future there is victory in Christ!

The above quote is found in volume 6 of Newton’s Works (p. 254-5).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Truly Successful Preaching (Newton)

Sometimes we think that a successful preacher is one who is well-known, is the pastor of a large church, whose sermons are downloaded by the thousands, whose conferences are always sold out and books are bestsellers.  The truth is, these things don’t necessarily mean a preacher is successful in the biblical sense of the term.  Heretics and unorthodox preachers can have all these things!

What makes for a successful preacher, biblically speaking?  What is truly successful preaching?  Well, it doesn’t depend upon popularity, sermon download numbers, church size, or best-selling books and conferences.  John Newton described it well while discussing the sovereign grace of God in regenerating dead hearts:

“…We may observe the proper use and value of the preaching of the Gospel, which is the great instrument by which the Holy Spirit opens the blind eyes. Like the rod of Moses, it owes all its efficacy to the appointment and promise of God. Ministers cannot be too earnest in the discharge of their office; it behooves them to use all diligence to find out acceptable words, and to proclaim the whole counsel of God. Yet when they have done all, they have done nothing, unless their word is accompanied to the heart by the power and demonstration of the Spirit.”

Without this blessing, an apostle might labor in vain: but it shall be in a measure afforded to all who preach the truth in love, in simplicity, and in all humble dependence upon Him who alone can give success. This in a great measure puts all faithful ministers on a level, notwithstanding any seeming disparity in gifts and abilities. Those who have a lively talent that affects emotions, may engage the ear, and raise the natural passions of their hearers; but they cannot reach the heart. The blessing may be rather expected to attend the humble, than the talented speaker.”

These words – especially the ones I’ve emphasized –  are comforting for us preachers and applicable to everyone who hears the word proclaimed.   Don’t give pastors credit or fame; give it all to God!

John Newton, Works, volume 1 page 286-7.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015