Hymn: Of A Rebel Made A Son (Newton)

The Works of John Newton (4 Volume Set)  Although this hymn by John Newton might have a few titles, one line in it would be my choice for a title: “…Of a rebel made a son.”  Whatever it is called, here’s Newton’s wonderful hymn that exalts the grace and love of Christ.  Say it out loud!

Saved by blood, I live to tell
What the love of Christ hath done;
He redeemed my soul from hell,
Of a rebel made a son:
Oh I tremble still to think
How secure I lived in sin,
Sporting on destruction’s brink
Yet preserved from falling in.

In his own appointed hour,
To my heart the Savior spoke;
Touched me by his Spirit’s power;
And my dangerous slumber broke.
Then I saw and owned my guilt:
Soon my gracious Lord replied,
‘Fear not, I my blood have spilt,
Twas for such as thee I died.’

Shame and wonder, joy and love;
All at once possessed my heart,
Can I hope thy grace to prove
After acting such a part?
‘Thou hast greatly sinned,’ said he,
‘But I freely all forgive,
I myself thy debt have paid,
Now I bid thee rise and live!’

Come my fellow sinners try;
Jesus’ heart is full of love
Oh that you, as well as I,
May his wonderous mercy prove!
He has sent me to declare,
All is ready, all is free:
Why should any soul despair,
When he saved a wretch like me?

John Newton, “Hear What He Has Done For My Soul”, Book III, Hymn 54.

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

On Pastoral Humility (Newton)

Wise Counsel: John Newton's Letters to John Ryland, Jr.

Since a pastor is often in the spotlight, so to speak, it sometimes happens that he gets a big head. The old Adam in him loves to be noticed, loves the attention, and enjoys the publicity. And sometimes the pastor begins to covet more social media followers, retweets, and sermon “shares.” Along the way humility shrinks and pride grows.

All that to say a pastor needs to pray for humility and cultivate it in biblical ways. For example, he might have to constantly remind himself that his pride is a sin and that his calling is not a call to be popular. He might have to tell himself over and over that his desire for more followers is a tactic the devil can use to mess up his ministry. He needs to remember that his heart has its dark spots and corners.

On this topic, John Newton wrote a letter to his friend who was a Christian pastor. Another pastor they both knew had just suffered a stroke. Newton noted that he hoped the man would recover, since he was a blessing to the church. Then Newton wrote this:

“I hope that he and you and I shall all so live as to be missed a little when we are gone. But the Lord standeth not in need of sinful man. And he sometimes takes away his most faithful and honored ministers in the midst of their usefulness, perhaps (for this reason) among other reasons, that he may show us that he can do without them.”

It may sound harsh, but it’s true and it’s something that we pastors do well to remember.

John Newton, Wise Counsel, p. 280.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54002

A Captive Still[?!] (Newton)

 I’ve been studying a couple of the stories in the Gospels where Jesus powerfully casts out demons with a mighty word.  Since I was a little boy I’ve loved these stories since I know that the realm of darkness is real and it’s terrifying.  I’m so thankful that Jesus is a million times stronger than Satan and all the demons put together.  Here’s part of a hymn John Newton wrote based on Mark 5:18-19 (the story of “Legion”).  Although Newton wrote it from the perspective of the man with the “Legion”, I can’t help but think this hymn is also somewhat autobiographical.  (Note: “staid” means stood still or waited.)  Go ahead and read it out loud:

“Legion was my name by nature,
Satan raged within my breast;
Never misery was greater,
Never sinner more possessed:
Mischievous to all around me,
To myself the greatest foe;
Thus I was when Jesus found me,
Filled with madness, sin, and woe.

Yet in this forlorn condition
When he came to set me free,
I replied to my Physician,
‘What have I to do with Thee?’
But he would not be prevented,
Rescued me against my will;
Had he staid till I consented,
I would be a captive still.”

Later in the hymn, Newton does mention how Jesus changed the man’s heart to obey him, tell others about him, and live for his glory.  It is true that while we were sinners and enemies of God, he loved us, gave his Son for us, and changed our hearts to make us willing and ready from now on to live for him.  God be praised: sovereign grace can change the hearts of those who are enemies and haters of God and make them into loved and loving friends of God!

John Newton, Works, vol. 3, p. 408.

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

The Danger of Popularity/Celebrity for Preachers (Newton)

 In a 1767 letter to one of his friends who was a pastor, John Newton said that a pastor has “two counter-streams to withstand.”  Both of them, he said, will swipe the pastor off his feet unless the Lord upholds him.  What are these two counter-streams? Opposition and popularity.  Newton wrote that popularity is actually more dangerous than opposition.  After reading this, I think, “Why do we pastors desire popularity and even seek after it?”  [Note: Just because I’m a pastor doesn’t mean everything I desire and seek is good and wise.]

Our friends are often eventually our worst enemies. It is not easy to find a preacher that has been honored with much popularity, who has not been, at some times, greatly hurt by it.  It is apt to make us forget who, and what, and where we are; and if we are left to suppose ourselves persons of consequence, even for a single hour, it will surely prove to our loss, and may expose us to a wound that may leave a lasting scar, even though the Lord is pleased to heal it.

It behooves us, my dear sir, to keep up a clear distinction in our minds between gifts and graces.

I can say from experience that it is possible to have a tolerable degree of liberty for outward service, so as to hold a congregation pretty fast by the ears, to make them weep, yea, and perhaps to weep with them, when the heart is far enough from a right frame before the Lord.

These things you know; I did not have them in view when I began, but they occurred to me in writing, and I set them down as a humbling part of my experience.

John Newton, Works, vol. 6, p. 115-116.

(The above quote has been slightly edited)

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

Newton’s Critique of Edwards

Life of John Newton Near the end of Josiah Bull’s biography of John Newton, there’s a quote by Newton that is somewhat critical of the great American theologian, Jonathan Edwards. Here it is:

“Mr. Edwards was an excellent man, but some of his writings are too metaphysical, and particularly that book [The Freedom of the Will].  If I understand it, I think it rather establishes fatalism and necessity than Calvinism in the sober sense.  I could object likewise to his book on Original Sin, though there are many excellent things in it” (p. 328).

These statements really made me want to hear more from Newton on Edwards, since I too am somewhat critical of Edwards’ theology.

Reading through Wise Counsel: John Newton’s Letters to John Ryland Jr., I did find more.  In a letter Newton wrote to Ryland in 1778, he criticized New England theology.  Though Newton wasn’t writing of Edwards specifically, he was writing generally of the American divines in the late 1700s.  I realize this post is a bit longer than normal, but I didn’t want to leave any part of this quote out.  Here it is.

“Most of the New England divines I have met with have in my judgment one common fault: they abound with distinctions and refinements in experimental matters, which are suited to cast down those whom the Lord would have comforted. And in their long account of what they call a preparatory work, they include and thereby depreciate some real and abiding effects of true grace. They require such an absolute submission to the righteousness and sovereignty of God, before they will allow a person to be a believer, as I apprehend is seldom the attainment of a babe in Christ.  I think if Mr. Stoddard had been at Philippi, and the jailer had sprung trembling in to him (instead of Paul and Silas) with the same question he would have afforded him but cold comfort, and would have made him wait a few weeks or months to see how the preparatory work went on before he would have encouraged him to believe in Jesus.

“Some of the good advice he gives to those under temptation, leads me to think, he had not sailed much in those deep waters himself.  In short, it [Stoddard’s The Way to Know Sincerity] is a book which, notwithstanding the many important things it contains, I should not put into the hands of some of my poor people.”

“We say such a building is a house, not only when it is tiled, painted and furnished, but while the walls are yet unfinished, while it is encumbered with rubbish and surrounded with scaffolds, which though not a part of the edifice (but are designed in time to be removed) are helpful for carrying it on.  We speak of a field of wheat not only in harvest but in spring, and say ‘It is day,’ when the light is gradually increasing, though the sun be not risen.  I doubt much if those desires and workings in an awakened mind which are mixed with great legality and mistakes are the real effects of the Holy Spirit no less than the fruits of joy and peace in believing which he produces in due time, and therefore ought not hastily to be cast away in the lump, as mere strivings of corrupt nature.  It is true there are unsound convictions, and impressions which are not abiding, but the Lord’s labourers should weed with a gentle and cautious hand, lest in their attempts to pull up the tares, they should pluck up the wheat also.”

“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.

“I hope the Lord has made me willing to learn (if I can) from all, but Nullis in verba jurare [take no one’s word as final] is my motto.  If you read the 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.”

I wholeheartedly agree – and I appreciate Newton’s pastoral tone (go back and notice his illustrations about the house/building, sheep, wheat/tares, and physician).  I’ve tried to read Edwards’ Religious Affections but didn’t appreciate it because it didn’t really lead me to assurance at the foot of the cross.  I know Edwards wrote it for a particular audience at a particular time, but it seemed far too spiritually tedious to me.  For this and other reasons, and for the reasons Newton well noted above, the writings of Edwards are not typically on my recommended reading lists.  And by the way, this discussion also has to do with the judgment of charity (or charitable judgment).  But more on that topic later.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015