There’s much to learn from eighteenth-century pastor and hymnwriter John Newton. Newton’s autobiography was a bestselling hit. And we sing his hymns today. His whole life is a testament to God’s sovereign grace in saving a wretched sinner, a story captured well in his most famous hymn, “Amazing Grace.” And we celebrate John Newton’s birthday today. So, the day has me thinking about him, his hymns, and his living legacy. It’s a rich legacy he left behind. I was honored to write a whole book on his pastoral counsel, and that gave me the chance to soak in his pastoral letters for about three years. He wrote amazing letters to people in need. And Pastor John has a wonderful biographical message looking at the life of Newton, titled “John Newton: The Tough Roots of His Habitual Tenderness.” Particularly, Newton has a lot to teach us on the topic of controversy, and how to argue like a Calvinist. Here’s Pastor John in that 2001 biographical message, talking about John Newton’s approach to controversy. Speaking to a room full of pastors, here’s what he said.
Now, maybe the most illuminating way to get at this man’s pattern of tenderness is to talk about the way he handled his Calvinism and his doctrine and controversies of his day and so on. This is something I’m very, very interested in for us and for myself in particular. At this point, we’re going to see the root bearing fruit in tenderness — the root of truth bearing fruit in tenderness, called love. I think his patience and his perception guided him between a doctrinaire intellectualism on the one side, and a doctrinal indifference and carelessness on the other.
Let’s talk for a minute about his patience and tenderness as it relates to his doctrine. I’ve been at Bethlehem Baptist for twenty years now, so I’m starting to feel old, and people are starting to treat me that way. And so, I get asked a lot about, What did you do at this point, and this point, and this point? Here’s what Newton says:
I have been thirty years forming my own views; and, in the course of this time, some of my hills have sunk, and some of my valleys have risen: but, how unreasonable within me to expect all this should take place in another person; and that, in the course of a year or two. (The Works of John Newton, 1:101)
“The embrace of many glorious, precious truths requires supernatural, spiritual illumination from God.”
Some of you have been on your way theologically for twenty, thirty, or forty years, and you might have a thing or two figured out, and you start preaching and teaching as though this class should have fixed the atonement for these people. “Predestination — we’ve got this now. You’ve been to two of my classes.” But it took you twenty years to settle in on where you are. So, Newton is calling for us with tenderness and patience to realize that that’s the case. It’s not going to happen for our people any faster than it did for us — and for some slower.
Yes, he had a passion for propagating the truth, the whole Reformed vision of God as he saw it. But he did not believe controversy served the purpose. Here’s what he said: “I see the unprofitableness of controversy in the case of Job and his friends: for, if God had not interposed, had they lived to this day they would have continued the dispute” (Works, 1:106).
So, he labored to avoid controversy and replaced it with positive demonstrations of truth. Here’s what he said: “My principal method of defeating heresy is by establishing truth. One proposes to fill a bushel with tares: now, if I can fill it first with wheat, I shall defy his attempts” (Works, 1:100).
He knew, given his Calvinism, that the embrace of many glorious, precious truths required supernatural, spiritual illumination from God on the inside. And therefore, he made his approach patient and unobtrusive. Here’s the way he said it:
I am a friend of peace; and being deeply convinced that no one can profitably understand the great truths and doctrines of the gospel any farther than he is taught of God, I have not a wish to obtrude my own tenets upon others, in a way of controversy; yet I do not think myself bound to conceal them. (Works, 3:303)
He said in the introduction to the Olney Hymns,
The views I have received of the doctrines of grace [Calvinism] are essential to my peace; I could not live comfortably a day, or an hour, without them. I likewise believe . . . them to be friendly to holiness, and to have a direct influence in producing and maintaining a gospel conversation; and therefore I must not be ashamed of them. (Works, 3:303)
But he also believed
that the cause of truth itself may be discredited by an improper management. . . . The Scripture, which . . . teaches us what we are to say, is equally explicit as to the temper and Spirit in which we are to speak. Though I had knowledge of all mysteries, and the tongue of an angel to declare them, I could hope for little acceptance or usefulness, unless I was to speak “in love.” (Works, 5:131)
Listen to this. He says,
Of all people who engage in controversy, we, who are called Calvinists, are most expressly bound by our own principles to the exercise of gentleness and moderation. . . . The Scriptural maximum, that “The wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God,” is verified by daily observation. If our zeal is embittered by expressions of anger, invective, or scorn, we may think we are doing service to the cause of truth, when in reality we shall only bring it into discredit. (Works, 1:271)
He noticed one of the most Calvinistic texts in the New Testament calls for patient tenderness. Do you know which one I’m thinking about? One of the most Calvinistic texts in the New Testament is 2 Timothy 2:24–26. Notice what Paul brings together here. Newton noticed it, and it had a huge impact on him.
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.
“Prayer is asking God to do what only God can do. Man can’t do it. God has to do it.”
Wow. That’s a very powerful text. God brings repentance. God brings people to know the truth. So, what’s our part? Not quarrelsome, being kind to everyone, being able to teach, patiently enduring, correcting in gentleness: There’s the Calvinistic agenda. Isn’t that amazing what he puts together there? Newton saw it. Have you seen it? Do you do it?
What Only God Can Do
And given that Calvinistic truth — that God’s the one who grants repentance; God’s the one who opens the eyes of the blind to see the truth — prayer became utterly crucial for him. Prayer is asking God to do what only God can do. Man can’t do it. God has to do it. You preach to people on Sunday. You’re not going to change anybody in an evangelical, deep, heartfelt way. God’s got to do that. You have your role; it’s described right there. But God’s got to do it. So, if you don’t bathe that thing in prayer, you’re missing one of the great means of grace that God has appointed for you.
And this is what Newton said about prayer and controversy. He writes to a friend,
As to your opponent, I wish that, before you set pen to paper against him, and during the whole time you are preparing your answer, you may commend him by earnest prayer to the Lord’s teaching and blessing. This practice will have a direct tendency to conciliate your heart to love and pity him; and such a disposition will have a good influence upon every page you write. . . . [If he is a believer,] in a little while you will meet in heaven; he will then be dearer to you than the nearest friend you have upon earth is to you now. Anticipate that period in your thoughts. . . . [If he is an unconverted person,] he is a more proper object of your compassion than your anger. Alas! “He knows not what he does.” But you know who has made you to differ. (Works, 1:269)
Namely, not you. You didn’t make you to differ. God made you to differ (1 Corinthians 4:7).