It is no secret that I love John Newton. His wise counsel On Trusting God is ample reason for a deep love and respect for Newton. This may end up being a rather lengthy post but I want to slowly work through this letter to hopefully show you why the writings of Newton is a treasured jewel to me; and hopefully encourage you to read more of him.
This letter is the first in his 41 Letters On Religious Subjects. It appears that a young man, passionate about giving, has recently gotten married. This has caused a conundrum for him. He desires to continue giving but at the same time knows that he needs to provide for his wife. Should he lessen his giving to better provide for his new family?
Before, we begin going through this letter pause and consider how you would answer this young man…
Here is how Newton began:
There is doubtless such a thing as Christian prudence; but, my friend, beware of counterfeits. Self-love, and the evil heart of unbelief, will endeavor to obtrude upon us a prudence so called, which is as opposite to the former as darkness to light.
Newton wisely cautions the man that there is a type of prudence (wise use of resources) which is really not noble but rather selfish and miserly. There are some that would never be so bold to counsel in such a way. Newton has a deep knowledge of the depravity of man and he will not rule out that something that sounds holy is actually a guise for sin. But Newton is also a balanced man. He realizes that he could be wrong and he is also sensitive to living by gospel instead of Law. So Newton balances with this:
I do not say, that, now that you have a wife, and the prospect of a family, you are strictly bound to give to the poor in the same proportion as formerly. I say, you are not bound; for everything of this sort should proceed from a willing heart…if you find yourself very unwilling to be one sixpence in the year less useful than you were before, I could not blame you or dissuade you from it.
Then Newton writes the major thesis of this letter: “that when the Lord gives such a confidence [a heart to give], he will not disappoint it.” In other words if God has given you a passion to give then he will provide the means to do so.
After this Newton begins encouraging towards generosity. He speaks of “mere professors” and his picture of them seems to be an accurate picture of the American way (and this perhaps before there was an American way):
For the most part, we take care, first to be well supplied, if possible, with all the necessaries, conveniences, and not a few of the elegancies of life; then to have a snug fund laid up against a rainy day, as the phrase is, (if this is in an increasing way, so much the better), that when we look at children and near relatives, we may say to our hearts, "Now they are well provided for." And when we have got all this and more, we are perhaps content, for the love of Christ, to bestow a pittance of our superfluities, a tenth or twentieth part of what we spend or hoard up for ourselves, upon the poor! But, alas! what do we herein more than others? Multitudes, who know nothing of the love of Christ, will do thus much, yes, perhaps, greatly exceed us, from the mere feelings of humanity.
We make certain that we have everything we need, then that our kids are well supplied, then that we give to Christ. Do you see what Newton is doing here? He is considering the trajectory that this young man may be setting himself on. He is in danger of refusing to give because he is not trusting that God will provide for his family. But again Newton is a balanced man, so he considers the question at hand—is it not right to provide for my family?
Newton’s answer is quite simple—lending to the Lord IS a surefire way of providing for you wife. In a brilliant couple of sentences Newton shows how the Lord provides:
He has more ways to bless and prosper those who trust in him, than we are able to point out to him. But I tell you, my friend, God will sooner make windows in heaven, turn stones into bread, yes, stop the sun in its course, than he will allow those who conscientiously serve him, and depend upon him, to be destitute.
Knowing this Newton probably believes the man will continue in his present state of trusting the Lord and giving freely to the poor. But perhaps after weighing what Newton says “prudence will be heard”. Newton then offers two points to consider. First, buy nothing unnecessary. “You cannot, I trust, in good conscience think of laying out one penny more than is barely decent; unless you have another penny to help the poor”. Secondly, let your friends in good circumstances know that you can no longer entertain them. If you do not have enough money to help the poor then you do not have enough money to entertain your friends.
He then quotes Luke 14:12-14 and comments thus: “I do not think it unlawful to entertain our friends; but if these words do not teach us, that it is in some respects our duty to give a preference to the poor, I am at a loss to understand them.”
So as to prove that he is not just doling out theoretical advice Newton provides a testimony from his own life:
I was enabled to set out upon the plan I recommend to you, at a time when my certain income was much too scanty for my own provision, and before I had the expectation or promise of assistance from any person upon earth. Only I knew that the Lord could provide me with whatever he saw needful; and I trusted, that, if he kept me dependent upon himself, and desirous to live for his service only, he assuredly would do so. I have as yet seen no cause to repent it. I live upon his promise; for, as to any present ways or means, everything here below is so uncertain, that I consider myself in the same situation with the birds of the air, who have neither storehouse nor barn. Today I have enough for myself, and something to impart to those who lack: as to futurity, the Lord must provide; and for the most part I can believe he will. I can tell you, however, that now and then my heart is pinched: unbelief creeps in, and self would much rather choose a strong box, or what the world calls a certainty, than a life of absolute dependence upon the providence of God. However, in my composed hours I am well satisfied. Hitherto he has graciously taken care of me; therefore may my heart trust in him, and not be afraid.
He then places the man in a similar situation as himself and encourages him to “beware, therefore, of that reasoning which might lead you to distrust the Lord your God, or to act as if you did.”
We now learn that this young man is a minister. And he is a minister that has on occasion complained that those in his congregation have “much of an expensive taste”. Obviously, if this young man is going to be used of the Lord then he needs to set a good example:
If you set yourself to discountenance this, and should at the same time too closely shut up your hands, they will be ready to charge you with being governed by the same worldly spirit, though in another form. If you have been hitherto tender and bountiful to the poor, and should make too great and too sudden an alteration in this respect, if the blame should not fall upon you, it probably would upon your wife, who, I believe, would be far from deserving it. If the house which has been open to the poor in former times, should be shut against them, now that you live in it, would it not open the mouths of those who do not love your ministry, to say, that, notwithstanding all your zeal about doctrines, you know how to take care of your own selfish interest, the same as those whom you have thought indifferent and lukewarm in the cause of the Gospel? Would it not?—But I forbear. I know you need not such arguments. Yet consider how many eyes are upon you, watching for your halting.
Newton closes by showing his confidence in the young man to do what is right and he also encourages him to decide in his mind now what is fitting for him to do. “It is easier to begin well, than to make alterations afterwards.” And I think towards the end Newton (a very tender man) desires that this young man know his love for him and that even though he speaks with “much strictness” he does so out of deep love.
This is but one example of why I love John Newton. You can tell even in this letter that he has deep humility. He does not just give advice and say, “Follow my advice. I’m John Newton, fool. Booyah!” Neither does he shrink from giving hard advice. He loves deeply and because of that he rejoices in the truth. He has solid evangelical theology but it is married to a heart overwhelmed by grace. We would be wise to sit under such godly counsel.
And that is why I share insights from Newton every Thursday…