John Newton (1725-1807) on God’s will and our ambitions



“It is indeed natural for us to wish and to plan, and it is merciful of the Lord to disappoint our plans and to cross our wishes. For we cannot be safe, much less happy, except in proportion as we are weaned from our own wills, and made simply desirous of being directed by His guidance. This truth (when we are enlightened by His Word) is sufficiently familiar to the judgment; but we seldom learn to reduce it to practice without being trained awhile in the school of disappointment. The schemes we form look so plausible and convenient that when they are broken we are ready to say: ‘What a pity!’ We try again, and with no better success. We are grieved, and perhaps angry and plan out another, and so on. At length, in the course of time, experience and observation begin to convince us that we are not more able than we are worthy to choose aright for ourselves. Then the Lord’s invitation to cast our cares upon Him and His promise to take care of us appear valuable; and when we have done planning, His plan in our favour gradually opens, and he does more and better for us than we could either ask or think.

I can hardly recollect a single plan of mine of which I have not since seen reason to be satisfied that had it taken place in season and circumstance just as I proposed, it would, humanly speaking, have proved my ruin. Or at least it would have deprived me of the greater good the Lord had designed for me. We judge of things by their present appearances, but the Lord sees them in their consequences. If we could do so likewise, we should be perfectly of His mind; but as we cannot, it is an unspeakable mercy that He will manage for us, whether we are pleased with His management or not. And it is spoken of as one of his heaviest judgments when He gives any person or people up to the way of their own hearts and to walk after their own counsels.

Indeed, we may admire His patience towards us. If we were blind, and reduced to desire a person to lead us, and should yet pretend to dispute with him and direct him at every step, we should probably soon weary him, and provoke him to leave us to find the way by ourselves if we could. But our gracious Lord is long-suffering and full of compassion; He bears with our impertinence, yet He will take methods both to shame and to humble us, and to bring us to a confession that He is wiser than we. The great and unexpected benefit He intends us by all the discipline we meet with is to tread down our wills and bring them into subjection to His. So far as we attain to this we are out of the reach of disappointment, for when the will of God can please us we shall be pleased every day and from morning to night – I mean with respect to His dispensations.

O the happiness of such a life! I have an idea of it; I hope I am aiming at it, but surely I have not attained it. Self is active in my heart, if it does not absolutely reign there. I profess to believe that one thing is needful and sufficient, and yet my thoughts are prone to wander after a hundred more. If it be true that the light of His countenance is better than life, why am I solicitous about anything else? If He be all-sufficient and gives me liberty to call Him mine, why do I go a-begging to creatures for help? If the smallest as well as the greatest events in which I am concerned are under His immediate direction, if the very hairs of my head are numbered, then my care (any further than a care to walk in the paths of His precepts and to follow the openings of His providence) must be useless and needless – yea indeed sinful and heathenish, burdensome to myself and dishonourable to my profession. Let us cast down the load we are unable to carry, and if the Lord be our Shepherd, refer all and trust all to Him. Let us endeavour to live to Him and for Him today and be glad that tomorrow, with all that is behind it, is in His hands.

It is storied of Pompey that when his friends would have dissuaded him from putting to sea in a storm he answered, ‘It is necessary for me to sail, but it is not necessary for me to live.’ A pompous speech, in Pompey’s sense! He was full of the idea of his own importance, and would rather have died than have taken a step beneath his supposed dignity. But it may be accommodated with propriety to a believer’s case. It becomes us to say: ‘It is not necessary for me to be rich, or what the world accounts wise; to be healthy, or admired by my fellow-worms; to pass through life in a state of prosperity and outward comfort. These things may be, or they may be otherwise, as the Lord in His wisdom shall appoint. But it is necessary for me to be humble and spiritual, to seek communion with God, to adorn my profession of the Gospel, and to yield submissively to His disposal in whatever way, whether of service or suffering, He shall be pleased to call me to glorify Him in the world. It is not necessary for me to live long, but highly expedient that whilst I do live I should live to Him. Here then I would bound my desires; and here, having His word both for my rule and my warrant, I am secured from asking amiss. Let me have His presence and His Spirit, wisdom to know my calling, and opportunities and faithfulness to improve them; and as to the rest, Lord, help me to say, ‘What Thou wilt, when Thou wilt, and how Thou wilt’.”

– John Newton (1725-1807), The Letters of John Newton, Two Letters to Miss P, Letter I, August 17, 1767.

John Newton (1725-1807): Saying vs. Doing


“The Christian calling, like many others, is easy and clear in theory, but not without much care and difficulty to be reduced to practice. Things appear quite otherwise, when felt experimentally, to what they do, when only read in a book. Many learn the art of navigation (as it is called), by the fire-side at home; but when they come to sea, with their heads full of rules, and without experience, they find that the art is only to be thoroughly learnt upon the spot. So, to renounce self, to live upon Jesus, to walk with God, to overcome the world, to hope against hope, to trust the Lord when we cannot trace him, and to know that our duty and privilege consist in these things, may be readily acknowledged or quickly learned; but, upon repeated trial, we find that saying and doing are two things. We think at setting out that we sit down and count the cost; but alas! our views are so superficial at first, that we have occasion to correct our estimate daily. For every day shows us some new thing in the heart, or some new turn in the management of the war against us which we were not aware of; and upon these accounts, discouragements may arise so high as to bring us (I speak for myself) to the very point of throwing down our arms, and making either a tame surrender or a shameful flight. Thus it would be with us at last, if the Lord of hosts were not on our side…. But if He is the Captain of our salvation, if his eye is upon us, his arm stretched out around us, and his ear open to our cry, and if He has engaged to teach our hands to war and our fingers to fight, and to cover our heads in the day of battle, then we need not fear, though a host rise up against us; but, lifting up our banner in his name, let us go forth conquering and to conquer; Rom. 16:20.”

– John Newton (1725-1807), The Letters of John Newton – To William Cowper, Esq., p. 153.

John Newton (1725–1807): And yet I will pray on


A letter from John Newton (1725–1807) to a friend, on prayer (August 15, 1776):

“I sometimes think that the prayers of believers afford a stronger proof of a depraved nature than even the profaneness of those who know not the Lord. How strange is it, that when I have the fullest convictions that prayer is not only my duty — not only necessary as the appointed means of receiving these supplies, without which I can do nothing, but likewise the greatest honor and privilege to which I can be admitted in the present life — I should still find myself so unwilling to engage in it.

However, I think it is not prayer itself that I am weary of, but such prayers as mine. How can it be accounted prayer, when the heart is so little affected — when it is polluted with such a mixture of vile and vain imaginations — when I hardly know what I say myself — but I feel my mind collected one minute, the next, my thoughts are gone to the ends of the earth.

If what I express with my lips were written down, and the thoughts which at the same time are passing through my heart were likewise written between the lines, the whole taken together would be such an absurd and incoherent jumble — such a medley of inconsistency, that it might pass for the ravings of a lunatic.

When he points out to me the wildness of this jargon, and asks, is this a prayer fit to be presented to the holy heart-searching God? I am at a loss what to answer, till it is given to me to recollect that I am not under the law, but under grace — that my hope is to be placed, not in my own prayers, but in the righteousness and intercession of Jesus. The poorer and viler I am in myself, so much the more is the power and riches of his grace magnified in my behalf.

Therefore I must, and, the Lord being my helper, I will pray on, and admire his condescension and love, that he can and does take notice of such a creature — for the event shows, that those prayers which are even displeasing to myself, partial as I am in my own case, are acceptable to him, how else should they be answered?

And that I am still permitted to come to a throne of grace — still supported in my walk and in my work, and that mine enemies have not yet prevailed against me, and triumphed over me, affords a full proof that the Lord has heard and has accepted my poor prayers — yea, it is possible, that those very prayers of ours of which we are most ashamed, are the most pleasing to the Lord, and for that reason, because we are ashamed of them. When we are favored with what we call enlargement, we come away tolerably satisfied with ourselves, and think we have done well.”

John Newton (1725–1807) on “church hopping”


This is pretty applicable to our situation today, when Christians hop from church to church and flock to celebrity pastors. This is also applicable in the case where some Christians prefer to stay at home and listen to mp3 sermons rather than attending church.

John Newton (1725–1807) starts by saying that one should stick with the pastor and church where his soul is best fed: “You will do well to make a point of attending his ministry constantly…the seldomer you are absent the better.”

“A stated and regular attendance encourages the minister, affords a good example to the congregation; and a hearer is more likely to meet with what is directly suited to his own case, from a minister who knows him, and expects to see him, than he can be from one who is a stranger.”

“Especially I would not wish you to be absent for the sake of gratifying your curiosity, to hear some new preacher, who you have perhaps been told is a very extraordinary man; for in your way such occasions might possibly offer almost every week.  What I have observed of many, who run about unseasonably after new preachers, has reminded me of Prov. 27:8, ‘As a bird that wandereth from her nest, so is a man that wandereth from his place’.”

“Such unsettled hearers seldom thrive; they usually grow wise in their own conceits, have their heads filled with notions, acquire a dry, critical, and censorious spirit; and are more intent upon disputing who is the best preacher, than upon obtaining benefit to themselves from what they hear.”

“If you could find a man, indeed, who had a power in himself of dispensing a blessing to your soul, you might follow him from place to place; but as the blessing is in the Lord’s hands, you will be more likely to receive it by waiting where his providence has placed you, and where he has met with you before.”

– John Newton (1725–1807), Works, Vol. I, Letter 13, p. 220-221

I have to admit that, for a short time when I was a younger Christian, I was an example of an “unsettled hearer” that Newton described.  Therefore, I’d encourage younger Christians readers and seminarians to reread these words of Newton and follow his wise counsel. As for the rest, read that last paragraph again where Newton ties together God’s sovereignty and providence as they have to do with preaching and the means of grace.