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

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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

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

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