Newton: 26 Letters to a nobleman. Letter 1


image “…would a gardener throw away a fine nectarine, because it is green and has not yet attained all that beauty and flavour which a few more showers and suns will impart?”

In 1781 John Newton, repentant slave trader and author of “Amazing Grace” published “Cardiphonia.” The book consisted of letters he had written.

Thanks to the wonders of the software bundled with my cheap and cheerful Epson multifunction – (OCR software that actually does what it says on the tin!) and given the fact that it doesn’t take much more effort to correct them – than to read them…

Here is the first of his TWENTY-SIX LETTERS TO A NOBLEMAN

In this letter, Newton ponders what he calls a “decline in grace” That is to say "how it happens that we lose that warm impression of divine things.” He reflects on how our affections change as we grow in Christ. His last paragraph is worth noting!

Here is the first letter

Letter 1

March, 1765

My Lord,

I remember, when I once had the pleasure of waiting on you, you were pleased to begin an interesting conversation, which, to my concern, was soon interrupted. The subject was concerning the causes, nature, and marks of a decline in grace; how it happens that we lose that warm impression of divine things, which in some favoured moments we think it almost impossible to forget; how far this change of frame is consistent with a spiritual growth in other respects; how to form a comparative judgment of our proficiency upon the whole; and by what steps the losses we sustain from our necessary connection with a sinful nature and a sinful world may be retrieved from time to time. I beg your Lordship’s permission to fill up the paper with a view to these inquiries. I do not mean to offer a laboured essay upon them, but such thoughts as shall occur while the pen is in my hand.

The awakened soul (especially when, after a season of distress and terror, it begins to taste that the Lord is gracious) finds itself as in a new world. No change in outward life can be so sensible, so affecting. No wonder then, that at such a time little else can be thought of. The transition from darkness to light, from a sense of wrath to a hope of glory, is the greatest that can be imagined, and is oftentimes as sudden as wonderful. Hence the general characteristics of young converts are zeal and love. Like Israel at the Red Sea, they have just seen the wonderful works of the Lord, and they cannot but sing his praise; they are
deeply affected with the danger they have lately escaped, and with the case of multitudes around them, who are secure and careless in the same alarming situation; and a sense of their own mercies, and a compassion for the souls of others, is so transporting, that they can hardly forbear preaching to every one they meet.

The emotion is highly just and reasonable with respect to the causes from whence it springs; and it is doubtless a proof, not only of the imperfection, but the depravity of our nature, that we are not always thus affected; yet it is not entirely genuine. If we examine this character closely, which seems at first sight a pattern and a reproof to Christians
of longer standing, we shall for the most part find it attended with considerable defects.

  1. Such persons are very weak in faith. Their confidence arises rather from the lively impressions of joy within, than from a distinct and clear apprehension of the work of God in Christ. The comforts which are intended as cordials to animate them against the opposition of an unbelieving world, they mistake and rest in as the proper evidences of their hope. And
    hence it comes to pass, that when the Lord varies his dispensations, and hides his face, they are soon troubled, and at their wits’ end.
  2. They who are in this state of their first love, are seldom free from something of a censorious spirit. They have not yet felt all the deceitfulness of their own hearts; they are not well acquainted with the devices or temptations of Satan; and therefore know not how to sympathise or make allowances, where allowances are necessary and due, and can hardly bear with any who do not discover the same earnestness as themselves.
  3. They are likewise more or less under the influence of self-righteousness and self-will. They mean well; but not being as yet well acquainted with the spiritual meaning, and proper use of the law, nor established in the life of faith, a part (oftentimes a very considerable part) of their zeal spends itself in externals and nonessentials, prompts them to practise what is not commanded, to refrain from what is lawful, and to observe various and needless austerities and singularities, as their tempers and circumstances differ.

However, with all their faults, methinks there is something very beautiful and engaging in the honest vehemence of a young convert. Some cold and rigid judges are ready to reject these promising appearances on account of incidental blemishes. But would a gardener throw away a fine nectarine, because it is green and has not yet attained all that beauty and flavour which a few more showers and suns will impart? Perhaps it will hold for the most part in grace as in nature (some exceptions there are), if there is not some fire in youth, we can hardly expect a proper warmth in old age.

But the great and good Husbandman watches over what his own hand has planted, and carries on his work by a variety of different and even contrary dispensations. While their mountain stands thus strong, they think they shall never be moved; but at length they find a change. Sometimes it comes on by insensible degrees. That part of their affection which was purely natural, will abate, of course, when the power of novelty ceases; they will begin, in some instances, to perceive their own indiscretions; and an endeavour to correct the excesses of imprudent zeal will often draw them towards the contrary extreme of remissness; the evils of their hearts, which, though overpowered, were not eradicated, will revive again; the enemy will watch his occasions to meet them with suitable temptations; and, as it is the Lord’s design that they should experimentally learn and feel their own weakness, he will, in some instances, be permitted to proceed. When guilt is thus brought upon the conscience, the heart grows hard, the hands feeble, and the knees weak; then confidence is shaken, the spirit of prayer interrupted, the armour gone; and thus things grow worse and worse, till the Lord is pleased to interpose. For though we can fall of ourselves, we cannot rise without his help. Indeed every sin, in its own nature, has a tendency towards a final apostasy; but there is a provision in the covenant of grace, and the Lord, in his own time, returns to convince, humble, pardon, comfort, and renew the soul. He touches the
rock, and the waters flow. By repeated experiments and exercises of this sort (for this wisdom is seldom acquired by one or a few lessons), we begin at length to learn that we are nothing, have nothing, can do nothing but sin. And thus we are gradually prepared to live more out of ourselves, and to derive all our sufficiency of every kind from Jesus, the fountain of grace. We learn to tread more warily, to trust less to our own strength, to have lower thoughts of ourselves, and higher thoughts of him; in which two last particulars I apprehend what the Scripture means by a growth in grace does properly consist. Both
are increasing in the lively Christian; every day shows him more of his own heart, and more of the power, sufficiency, compassion, and grace of his adorable Redeemer; but neither will be complete till we get to heaven.

I apprehend, therefore, that though we find an abatement of that sensible warmth of affection which we felt at first setting out; yet, if our views are more evangelical, our judgment more ripened, our hearts more habitually humbled under a sense of inward depravity, our tempers more softened into sympathy and tenderness, if our prevailing desires are spiritual, and we practically esteem the precepts, ordinances, and people of God, we may warrantably conclude, that his good work of grace in us is, upon the whole, on an increase.

But still it is to be lamented, that an increase of knowledge and experience should be so generally attended with a decline of fervour. If it was not for what has passed in my own heart, I should be ready to think it impossible. But this very circumstance gives me a still more emphatical conviction of my own vileness and depravity. The want of humiliation humbles me, and my very indifference rouses and awakens me to earnestness. There are,
however, seasons of refreshment, ineffable glances of light and power upon the soul, which, as they are derived from clearer displays of divine grace, if not so tumultuous as the first joys, are more penetrating, transforming and animating. A glance of these, when compared with our sluggish stupidity when they are withheld, weans the heart from this wretched state of sin and temptation, and makes the thoughts of death and eternity desirable. Then this conflict shall cease. I shall sin and wander no more, see him as he is, and be like him for ever.

If the question is: ‘How are these bright moments to be prolonged, renewed, or retrieved?’ we are directed to faith and diligence. A careful use of the appointed means of grace, a watchful endeavour to avoid the occasions and appearances of evil, and especially assiduity in secret prayer, will bring as much of them as the Lord sees good for us. He knows best why we are not to be trusted with them continually- Here we are to walk by faith, to be exercised
and tried; by and by we shall be crowned, and the desires he has given shall be abundantly satisfied.

I am, etc.


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