West London Alliance Church

Newton’s Wisdom in the Midst of Change

The following letter from John Newton to an undisclosed, recently married, lady known only as Mrs. C is below in its entirety as it appears in the 6th volume of The Works of John Newton. Newton’s writings in general, and his letters in particular, are a wealth of wisdom. There is much to be gleaned in even this one letter; Newton has hundreds of them still available for us to read. I encourage you to read the letter, making note of the section I have emphasized, and consider a few nuggets of wisdom Newton bestows on those experiencing change.

To Mrs. C****.
May 2, 1771

Dear Madam,

I spent about five weeks at London lately, which has occasioned me to delay answering your letter something longer than usual. But I have not forgotten you. The change of your situation, will probably change the methods of Satan in his unwearied attempts to disturb the peace of those who love the Lord; for he knows how to suit himself to our circumstances, whatever they be. It may likewise draw forth the weakness of indwelling sin, in ways different from your former experience, and give you new views of the evil and deceitfulness of the heart. But, as I trust, you had an eye to the Word, Spirit, and Providence of God—when you entered into the marriage relation, and sought his blessing by repeated prayer—you need not fear but his grace will be sufficient for you.

The more the Lord blesses you in earthly things, the more sensible you will be (if your heart is kept alive) that true happiness is only to be found in himself; for sin and vanity are closely connected with everything beneath the skies! In this view I trust he will enable you to number your troubles among your mercies, as necessary to keep your soul from cleaving to the dust, and to quicken your prayers and desires heavenwards. Our necessary relationships in this life, especially those which are most pleasing, are attended with many snares. May the Lord keep you sensible of the danger, that you may be continually crying, "Hold me up—and then I shall be safe!" and be watchful against the first appearances of a decline in the power of the life of faith. I am, however, fully persuaded that a due attention to the concerns of our relative duties and callings in this world, can never be properly hindrances to us, of walking with God. These earthly things may require some of our thoughts, and much of our time; but if we can manage them in obedience to His will, and with a reference to his glory, they are then sanctified, and become pious actions. And I doubt not but a believer, acting in a right spirit, may be said to worship God in the shop or kitchen, no less than when waiting on him in prayer and Scripture meditation.

But he must teach us to do this, for we have no sufficiency of ourselves; yes, he must teach us and strengthen us continually, for we cannot live by past experience, without a new supply of grace from hour to hour—and this he has promised, see Isaiah 27:3. It is not the action, (if lawful,) but the spirit with which it is performed, which the Lord regards. We are naturally desirous to do some great thing; but all the law is fulfilled, evangelically, by love. A person called by providence to sweep the streets, if he does it to the Lord, performs as acceptable a service as another who should preach the Gospel to thousands.

As to cares and anxieties which are unnecessary, and therefore sinful, you will not be wholly without them while there is any unbelief and sin remaining in the heart. Your great mercy will be to be humbled for them, and to take occasion from all that you feel amiss, to adore the free grace of God, to rejoice in the perfect work, boundless compassion, and prevailing intercession of Jesus. He knows our frame, and remembers that we are but dust. And though many evils arise in our hearts which are new to us, they are not new to him. He knew what we were, and what we would be, before he called us; and yet it pleased him to make us his people!

I am sorry to hear that you have uneasiness and differences in your church—for, through mercy, I wish well to all the Lord's assemblies without respect to names and parties. I shall be glad to hear that the Healer of breaches is pleased to settle you comfortably again. In the mean time, I trust you will account it a privilege that you live in a place where the preaching of the Gospel is not confined to one denomination.

I bless God, we are still favored with peace here. May we prize it—it is that to the soul, or to a church, which health is to the body. There may be life—but there can be no comfort without it. While Satan can prevail to break a church's peace, there is usually a full stop put to edification. There may be preaching, and hearing, and praying; but everything will be weak and languid. For the Holy Spirit, whose emblem is the peaceful dove, will not dwell in the midst of strife and contention. It is an awful token that he is withdrawn already, when these evils are greatly prevalent. When ordinances are powerful, and both ministers and people taste that the Lord is gracious, things may arise, through human infirmity and Satan's subtlety, to threaten the continuance of peace; but then it will be as at the breaking out of a fire, where everyone exerts himself to extinguish it before it can get to a head. We have many combustibles in our hearts, and the enemy will throw sparks upon them to set all in a flame; but happy are those who so value peace, as to be willing to give up anything but truth to preserve it. We join in love to you both. Pray for us.

I am affectionately yours,

John Newton

First, we see that change in our life—in the case of Mrs. C the change was her recent marriage—gives opportunity to both Satan and our sinful nature to bring us under new attacks and temptations. Newton’s wisdom reminds us to be vigilant in regards to these challenges in the midst of change. He reminds Mrs. C, before moving on, that “his grace will be sufficient for you.”

Second, that perhaps in times of upheaval our duties may become burdensome and seem like mundane tasks which we both lack motivation for and of which we may think that they are a hindrance to our walk with God. We must again take care. Our duties are nothing less than worship if, in doing them, we remain obedient in their execution and have the goal of glorifying God through them. In times of tumult, we should remain steadfast in doing what God has called us to.

Third, if we desire greatness we need only do things in love. Simple. Not simple in the execution because we still have indwelling sin, but simple and straightforward as to our aim in all we do. When the changes that are inevitable in life come, we can endeavour to love God and love our neighbour and thereby participate in greatness.

Finally, no matter how much change unsettles us and no matter how much we fail in the midst of it, we can take great comfort and courage in these words: “And though many evils arise in our hearts which are new to us, they are not new to him. He knew what we were, and what we would be, before he called us; and yet it pleased him to make us his people!”

Such wonderfully wise instruction from Newton. What other nuggets of wisdom do you see here?

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