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

The Leading Principle of a Faithful Minister (Newton)

One of John Newton’s lesser known works is called “A Review of Ecclesiastical History.” It’s a book that basicaly summarizes church history from Christ’s birth until the end of the apostolic era. I’ve really enjoyed it so far, and I do recommend it.

In one section, Newton discusses the character of the apostle Paul (book 2, chapter 2). This is a great chapter for pastors to read! Here’s a helpful quote by Newton on Paul’s love for Christ – applied to Christian pastors today:

Supported and animated by this love [for Christ], he [Paul] exerted himself to the utmost, in promoting the knowledge of Him whom he loved, and bearing testimony of His power and grace. Nothing could dishearted, or weary or terrify, or bribe him from his duty: and this must and will be universally the leading principle of a faithful minister.

Should a man possess the tongue of men and angels, the finest genius, and the most admired accomplishments, if he is not constrained and directed by the love of Christ, he will either do nothing, or nothing to the purpose; he will be unable to support either the frowns or the smiles of the world. His studies and endeavors will certainly be influenced by low and selfish views. Interest or a desire of applause may stimulate him to shine as a scholar, a critic, or a philosopher – but til the love of Christ rules in his heart, he will neither have inclination nor power to exert himself for the glory of God or the good of souls.

The inseparable effect, and one of the surest evidences of love to Christ, is a love to his people. Of this likewise our apostle exhibits an instructive and an affecting example….”

John Newton, Works, III, p. 220-221

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

Considering Pastoral Ministry? (Newton)

  If you’re a man considering the pastoral ministry, you’ll want to read John Newton’s words on this topic  from his sermon called “The Publication of the Gospel.”  To be sure, this is also helpful for those who are currently serving as a pastor.  By the way, the pastoral call and ministry is not just about doctrinal knowledge!  Here’s Newton:

The first lesson received and learned by those who are taught of God, is a conviction of guilt, ignorance and misery — and then they begin to learn the importance, necessity, and design of the Gospel. The man who is thus instructed, if the Lord be pleased to call him to the office of teaching others, will in due time proceed to deliver to the people, what he has himself learned; not with hesitation, uncertainty or indifference, not what he has acquired by hearsay or from books, but he has the witness in himself (I John 5:10) . His heart teaches his mouth (Proverbs 16:23). He believes, therefore he speaks. He simply and freely declares that which he himself has known and seen, and tasted of the word of life. And speaking from the fulness of his heart, with an earnestness inspired by the greatness and importance of his subject, he speaks to the heart and feelings of his hearers, and impresses a manifestation of the truth upon their minds.

That the desire of preaching this Gospel when known, if it be a right desire, must likewise be given. If a man should attempt the service, without counting the cost, or considering the consequences, he will most probably be disgusted and wearied. And if, beforehand, he seriously and properly considers what he is about to engage in, and has a due sense of his own weakness, he will tremble at the prospect, and direct his thoughts to some other employment, unless his call and support be from on high. What courage, wisdom, meekness, and zeal appear requisite, in the view of such an inquirer, to qualify a man for preaching, and continuing to preach, a doctrine so unpleasing to the world, as the doctrine of the cross has in all ages proved! What opposition, snares and difficulties, what fightings from without, what fears within , may be expected! Surely, he will be ready to shrink back, and to say, Who is sufficient for these things? But the Lord, by the constraining sense of His love, and by giving a deep impression of the worth of souls, and by exciting in the mind a dependence upon His all-sufficiency, can and does encourage those whom He calls and chooses to serve Him in the Gospel. In themselves they are quite unequal to what is before them, but they obey His voice; they trust in His promises for guidance and protection, and are not disappointed. We are therefore directed to pray that the Lord of the harvest would send, or rather (according to the force of the Greek word), thrust forth labourers into His harvest (Matthew 9:38)

John Newton, “The Publication of the Gospel,” in Newton’s Works, vol. IV.

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

Definite Atonement, the Gospel Call, and Rejecting Christ (Newton)

 In a sermon on John 1:29, John Newton discussed definite atonement and the free offer of the gospel.  He admitted there is mystery in this area of Scripture’s teaching:

“I am not disheartened by meeting with some things beyond the grasp of my scanty powers in a book which I believe to be inspired by Him whose ways and thoughts are higher than ours, ‘as the heavens are higher than the earth.’

Later in the sermon, Newton said that the biblical command for “all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30) implies a “warrant to believe in the name of Jesus, as taking away the sin of the world.”  It’s a serious call to repentance and faith, a kind summons for sinners to receive free forgiveness in Christ.

Let it not be said that to call upon men to believe, which is an act beyond their natural power, is to mock them.  There are prescribed means for the obtaining of faith, which it is not beyond their natural power to comply with, if they are not wilfully obstinate.  We have the word of God for our authority.  ‘God cannot be mocked,’ neither doth he mock his creatures.  Our Lord did not mock the young ruler when he told him that if he would sell his possessions on earth, and follow him, ‘he should have treasure in heaven.’  Had this ruler no power to sell his possessions?  I doubt not but that he himself thought he had power to sell them if he pleased….

…We cannot ascribe too much to the grace of God [in the salvation of sinners], but we should be careful that, under a semblance of exalting his grace, we do not furnish the slothful and unfaithful with excuses for their wilfulness and wickedness.  God is gracious; but let man be justly responsible for his own evil, and not presume to state his case so, as would, by just consequence, represent the holy God as being the cause of the sin which he hates and forbids.

These are some excellent points to remember.  The teaching of Scripture is that it is right and proper to call all people to repentance and faith, sincerely promising them that if they come to Christ, they will receive forgiveness and eternal life.  It’s also true that salvation is all of grace, yet God is not to blame when sinners reject the gospel call.

The entire sermon – which is very much worth reading! – is called “The Lamb of God, the Great Atonement” and it is found in volume four of Newton’s Works.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54014

Doctrinism and Antinomianism (Newton)

 Here’s a section from one of John Newton’s sermons on those who are orthodox in doctrine but destitute of good works.  Or, in other words, their doctrine is right, but they have no deeds that show their faith to be true.  Maybe we could call this “doctrinism,” when a person is only concerned about doctrine and not practice.  Notice below how “doctrinism” goes hand in hand with antinomianism.

It is very possible, yea, very easy, by the help of books, sermons, and conversation, to acquire an orderly and systematic knowledge of divine truths.  It may be learned thus, like any other branch of human science, and the head be well stored with orthodox sentiments.  There may also be an ability to prove and defend them, in a way of argumentation, while the heart is utterly a stranger to their salutary influence.

Such characters are too common. None make a greater parade and boast of seeing than these persons. None are more fatally blinded. They smile, with disdain, when they speak of a self-righteousness founded upon prayers, alms-deeds, and sacraments but are not aware that they themselves live in the very spirit of the Pharisees (Lk 18:2) so clearly described and so expressly condemned in the New Testament. Their supposed knowledge of the doctrines which they misunderstand and abused is the righteousness on which they base their hopes.  And trusting to this, they despise all those who are stricter in practice than themselves, as ignorant and legal.  They discover, almost as great a dislike to close and faithful preaching, as they could do to poison.

Though the doctrines of the Gospel, when rightly received, are productive of godliness, it is to be feared, there are people who espouse and plead for them, to quiet their consciences, by furnishing them with excuses for the sins they are unwilling to forsake. It is not surprising, that they who are displeased with the yoke of our Lord’s precepts, should seem friendly to the idea of salvation without the works of the law.

In other words, there are some people who have their doctrine straight but they do not live godly lives.  It’s one strain of antinomianism: I know my doctrine, so I can live how I want.  Newton continues his discussion about those people who are doctrinally sound but lacking in good works:

The notion of the final perseverance of believers, may afford a pillow for those to rest on, who being at present destitute of all feeling of spiritual life, labour to persuade themselves that they are Christians, because they had some serious thoughts, and made some profession of the truth, many years ago. So, likewise, in what the Scriptures teach, of the total inability of fallen man, they think they have a plea to justify their negligence and sloth, and therefore are not disposed to contradict the testimony. They evade the invitation and command to wait, and watch, and strive, in the ways and means of the Lord’s appointment, as they think, with impunity, by confessing the charge, and saying, ‘I am a poor creature indeed, I can do nothing of myself aright, and therefore to what purpose should I attempt to do any thing?’

A minister may preach upon these points, in general terms, and obtain their good word. But if he speaks plainly and faithfully to conscience; if he bears testimony not only against dead works, but against a dead faith, against spiritual pride, evil tempers, evil speaking, love of the world, and sinful compliances; if he insists that the branches of the true vine should bear grapes, and not the same fruit as the bramble, hearers of this stamp will think they do God service by censuring all he can say, as low and legal trash. How awful(!) that people should be blinded by the very truths which they profess to believe!

Yet I fear such cases are too frequent. God grant a delusion of this kind may never be found amongst us! For if the salt itself should lose its savor, wherewith shall it be salted? (Mt 5:13). May we come simply to the light, with a desire of seeing more of ourselves, and more of our Savior; that we may be more humble and spiritual, more afraid of sin, more watchful and successful in striving against it; and, in our whole conversation, more conformable to our glorious Head!

John Newton, Works, volume 4 pages 145-146.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

Social Media and the Subtle Brag

 No mature Christian would say it is okay to brag about oneself.  We know from Scripture that pride is a terrible sin; in fact, the child of God should hate pride and arrogance (Prov. 8:13). Paul even mentions bragging and boasting among those heinous sins in Romans 1:30.  The Christian knows he or she should not go around bragging about themselves, their fortunes, their fame, their family, or their figure (to name just a few).  If someone in a room of 100 people would hold up a big sign that said, “I ran a marathon yesterday and am totally sore today!” or “I’m learning how to roast my own coffee beans,” we’d most likely think it odd and boastful.   Drawing attention to oneself like that can also be called a form of pride.

Social media does have some positives.  However, one negative is that it has made the subtle brag common and acceptable.  Quite often on social media people point out things they have done or are doing.  They post pictures of themselves after a marathon, they put up a photo of themselves struggling to cross a rushing river, and they let everyone know they just experienced fifteen minutes of fame somehow.  Or they post (a humble brag) about something funny that happened to them (which also happens to make them look good).  Many people do this: moms, dads, teens, pastors, teachers, students, and so on.  One effect of these types of posts is that it makes other people jealous or envious.  These posts are also not accurate because they only display a fraction of a person’s life: few people post about their truly embarrassing failures, dark sins, and ugly parts of their lives.  Again, I don’t think social media is bad in and of itself, but I do think one weakness of social media is that it has made the subtle brag acceptable; actually, it might reveal the weakness of humans more!

I appreciate what John Newton said about pride and arrogance in his “Review of Ecclesiastical History”:

“A desire of pre-eminence and distinction is very unsuitable to the followers of Jesus, who made himself the servant of all; very unbecoming the best of the children of men, who owe their breath to the mercy of God, have nothing that they can call their own, and have been unfaithful in the improvement of every talent.  We allow that every appearance of this is a blemish in the Christian character, especially in the Christian minister….”

There’s more to discuss, for sure, but those are good words to ponder as we consider what to post on social media and what not to post!

The above quote is found on page 67 of volume three of John Newton’s Works.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

That Rebel Self (Newton)

 John Newton knew what it meant to be a saint and a sinner at the same time.  Here’s part of a letter he wrote to a Christian friend in April 1776:

I do not ask you if you are always filled with sensible comfort; but do you find your spirit more bowed down at the feet and will of Jesus, so as to be willing to serve him for the sake of serving him, and to follow him, as we say, through thick and thin; to be willing to be anything or nothing, so that he may be glorified?

I could give you plenty of good advice upon this head [topic], but I am ashamed to do it, because I so poorly follow it myself.  I want to live with him by the day, to do all for him, to receive all from him, to possess all in him, to live all to him, to make him my hiding-place and my resting-place.  I want to deliver up that rebel Self to him in chains; but the rogue, like Proteus, puts on so many forms, that he slips through my fingers: but I think I know what I would do if I could fairly catch him.

My soul is like a besieged city: a legion of enemies without the gates, and a nest of restless traitors within that hold a correspondence with them without – so that I am deceived and counteracted continually… Indeed it is a miracle that I still hold out.  I trust, however, I shall be supported to the end, and that my Lord will at length raise the siege, and cause me to shout deliverance and victory.

John Newton, Wise Counsel, p. 87-88.

Shane Lems