Every pastor occasionally feels the need for wise counsel. Unfortunately, he’s not always able to get it from a busy contemporary. But happily I’ve discovered that it’s often available at my leisure on the shelves of my library. For instance, how about an hour or so with John Newton?
We remember Newton primarily for writing hymns— “Amazing Grace,” “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” and “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds,” to name some of the better known. But Newton also pastored for over forty years, and not the least of his ministries during that time was counseling brother ministers by letter. Many are reprinted throughout the six volumes of his collected works (published by Banner of Truth). I’ve frequently profited from thumbing through them. Every time I return to them I find something I’d missed before. Here’s a potpourri of excerpts from his letters to preachers that I’ve highlighted in the past.
On the Privilege of Being a Minister
None but He who made the world can make a minister of the Gospel (The Works of John Newton, V, 62).
May 31, 1775. Oh, the honour, the blessedness, of being an instrument in his hands, of feeding his gathered sheep and lambs, and bringing wanderers into his fold! That is a striking and beautiful thought of the apostle, as poor, yet making many rich. When I feel my own poverty, my heart wandering, head confused, graces languid, gifts apparently dormant; when I thus stand up with half a loaf, or less, before a multitude, and see the bread multiply in the breaking, and that, however it may be at the time with myself, as to my own feelings, the hungry, the thirsty, the mourners in Zion, are not wholly disappointed; when I find that some, in the depth of their outward afflictions, can rejoice in me, as the messenger by whom the Lord is pleased to send them a word in season, balm for their wounds, and cordials for their cases; then indeed I magnify mine office. Let who will take the lead in the cabinets of princes; let those whom the Lord permits shine the eyes of men as statesmen, generals, or favourites. He has given me the desire of my heart, and I am more disposed to pity than to envy those whom the world admires. On the day when the Lord admitted me into the ministry, and I received ordination, I thought he had then ennobled me, and raise me to greater honour and preferment, than any earthly king could have bestowed; and blessed be his name, I think so still (VI, 271–72).
Concerning Using Time
June 29, 1757. The less we have to do with the world the better; and even in conversing with our brethren, we have been, and unless we watch and pray shall often be, ensnared. Time is precious, and opportunities once gone are gone forever. Even by reading and what we call studying, we may be comparatively losers. The shorter way is to be closely waiting upon God in humble, secret, fervent prayer (II, 61).
February 15, 1762. I recommend to you to be very choice of your time, especially the fore part of the day: let your morning hours be devoted to prayer, reading, and study; and suffer not the importunity of friends to rob you of the hours before noon, without a just necessity: and if you accustom yourself to rise early in the morning, you will find a great advantage… Let the morning hours be sacred… Especially remember (what you well know, but we cannot too often remind each other), that frequent secret prayer is the life of all we do (II, 76-77).
January 27, 1778. Too much of my time passes in busy idleness, too much in waking dreams. I am at something, but hindrances from within and without make it difficult for me to accomplish anything… I have seldom one hour free from interruption… O precious, irrecoverable time! O that I had more wisdom in redeeming and improving thee (II, 233–34).
On Angry Preachers
Letter to a Young Minister. There is a strain of preaching, which, though it wears the garb of zeal, is seldom a proof of any power but the power of self. I mean angry and scolding preaching. The gospel is a benevolent scheme, and whoever speaks in the power of it, will assuredly speak in love. In the most faithful rebukes of sin, in the most solemn declarations of God’s displeasure against it, a preacher may give evidence of a disposition of good-will and compassion to sinners, and assuredly will, if he speaks under the influence of the power of truth. If we can indulge invective and bitterness in the pulpit, we know not what spirit we are of: we are but gratifying our own evil tempers, under the pretence of a concern for the cause of God and truth. A preacher of this character, instead of resembling a priest bearing in his censer hallowed fire taken from God’s altar, may be compared to the madman described in the Proverbs, who scattereth at random firebrands and arrows and death… Such persons may applaud their own faithfulness and courage … but they must not expect to be useful, so long as it remains a truth, that the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God (VI, 404).
Two Dangers, but Popularity the Greater
April 13, 1767. You will have two counter-streams to withstand, either of which is sufficient to bear us off our feet, unless the Lord upholds us; I mean, opposition and popularity. The former is troublesome, and in some respects perilous, as we are too prone to catch something of the same spirit. But the latter is much more dangerous. Our friends are often eventually our worst enemies. It is not easy to find a preacher that has been honoured with much popularity, who has not been, at some times, greatly hurt by it. It is apt to make us forget who, and what, and where we are; and if we are left to suppose ourselves persons of consequence, but for a single hour, it will surely prove to our loss, and may expose us to a wound that may leave a lasting scar (VI, 115).
November 9, 1767. If we meet with opposition, it has hurt its thousands. If we are exposed to caresses and popularity, they have slain their ten thousands. Jesus alone is able to preserve us, and he is able to preserve us fully; in the lion’s den, in the fiery furnace, in the swellings of Jordan, if he be with us, and maintain in us a sense of our unworthiness, and our entire dependence upon him we shall be safe (VI, 128).
Dependence upon the Holy Spirit
Letter to a Divinity Student. It seems to me a point of more curiosity than use, to inquire too nicely into the modus of the Holy Spirit’s assistance in the composure and delivery of sermons. If we cannot exactly state the boundaries between what we may deem the result of our own thoughts, and the needful influence of the Holy Spirit, it seems a safe way to give him the honour of the whole, and to attribute nothing to ourselves but our infirmities. If we have a capacity, means for improvement, diligence to make use of those means, and if that diligence is attended with any degree of success; may we not acknowledge that the former links of this chain are the effect of his goodness and favour, no less than the latter? (I, 140)
Unity with Brethren
November 9, 1767. The gifts, the views, the services of those who are sent and taught by the same Spirit, may be, and are in many respects, different; but if they are sent and taught by him, they will preach the same Jesus, they will equally confess their dependence on the Holy Spirit for their ability and success, and, more or less, he will own their ministrations, and give them living witnesses and seals that he has employed them in his work. Those who agree in these essentials, would do well to agree among themselves, and to wish each other prosperity in the name of the Lord (VI, 126).
August 31, 1757. If you should be numbered among the regular Independents, I advise you not to offend any of them by unnecessary singularities. I wish you not to part with any truth, or with anything really expedient; but if the omitting anything of an indifferent nature will obviate prejudices, and increase a mutual confidence, why should not so easy a sacrifice be made? (II, 63).
To be continued tomorrow…
Dr. Mark Minnick is the pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and serves as adjunct professor of preaching and exposition at Bob Jones Seminary.
(Originally published in FrontLine • July/August 2004. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)