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.
January 4, 1768. Innumerable are the trials, fears, complaints, and temptations which the Lord’s people are beset with; some in one way, some in another: the minister must, as it were, have a taste of all, or it might happen a case might come before him to which he had nothing to say. And we need them likewise to bring our hard hearts into a feeling disposition and sympathy with those who suffer, otherwise we should be too busy or too happy to attend unto their moans… But, the old weather-beaten Christian, who has learnt by sorrowful experience how weak he is in himself, and what powerful subtle enemies he has to grapple with, acquires a tenderness in dealing with bruises and broken bones, which greatly conduces to his acceptance and usefulness (VI, 130).
August 17, 1776. 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 pleases us, we shall be pleased every day, and from morning to night; I mean, with respect to his dispensations (II, 227).
Criticizing Brother Ministers
November 27, 1767. I approve and rejoice in your faithfulness, but in some things, perhaps, you would do as well to keep your mind more to yourself; I mean in your free and unreserved manner of speaking of ministers, &c. Our Lord’s direction to his disciples, in something of a similar case, was, Let them alone. So far as it is needful to withstand them, do so in the Lord’s strength; but in mixed conversation, it is a good rule, to say nothing without a just call to the disadvantage of others. We are sometimes mistaken in our own spirits, and though it becomes us to be plain and open upon proper occasions, it is not our duty to be very busy in disturbing a nest of hornets. I was once in a large company where very severe things were spoken of Mr. W, when one person seasonably observed, that though the Lord was pleased to effect conversion and edification by a variety of means, he had never known any body convinced of error by what was said of him behind his back. This was about thirteen years ago, and it has been on my mind as a useful hint ever since (VI, 167).
On Being Disappointed with Our Preaching
July 15, 1768. But to be made, in a measure, submissive to the Lord’s will, to appear to a disadvantage at those times and places when, perhaps, we should particularly desire to do our best; I say, to be content to appear weak and poor, from a real sense of our weakness and poverty in his sight, to see his wisdom and love in appointing us such humbling dispensations, and to submit to them, is a nobler attainment than to be able to speak with the tongue of an angel (VI, 168).
July 7, 1770. But it seems, you think other people preach better than you. I hope you will always think so; if you should be mistaken, it is a fault on the right side… I believe you are as free from a fear of being outshone by others as most men; but there is some of this leaven in our hearts: let us watch and pray against it, and heartily wish and pray, that all who preach Jesus, may do it with more power and success than we can ourselves. We shall not be the poorer for their riches; but our Lord and theirs will take it well of us; and if he sees us simply content to take the lowest place, he will raise us up higher; for it is a standing law in this kingdom, that he that humbleth himself shall be exalted (VI, 175).
Concerning Personal Spiritual Struggles
December 6, 1772. You seem to think yourself better at one time than at another; now I believe that we, as in and of ourselves, are always alike. Look at the sea; sometimes it rages and tosses its waves, at another time it is calm and smooth. But the nature of the sea is not changed; it is not grown more gentle in itself than it was before; wait but till the next storm, and you will see it rage again as much as ever. Our unrenewed part is as untamable as the sea. When temptations are at a distance, or the Lord is present, it may lie quiet, but it is always deceitful and desperately wicked. Or like a lion, which may be sometimes awake, sometimes asleep; but whether asleep or awake, it is a lion still, and a little matter will rouse it from its slumber, and set it roaring; though, while sleeping, it may seem as harmless as a cat (VI, 181).
Date Unknown. My preaching seems, in some respects, contrary to my experience. The two points on which I most largely insist, are, the glories of the Redeemer, and the happiness of a life of communion with God. I can often find something to say on these subjects in the pulpit; but, at some other times, my thoughts of Jesus are so low, disjointed, and interrupted, that it seems as if I knew nothing of him but by the hearing of the ear. And answerable to this, is the sensible communion I have with him. Alas! How faint, how infrequent! I approach the throne of grace, encumbered with a thousand distractions of thought, each of which seems to engage more of my attention than the business I have in hand (VI, 179–80).
November 18, 1778. I have observed, that most of the advantages which Satan is recorded to have gained against the Lord’s servants have been after great and signal deliverances and favours; as in the cases of Noah, Lot, David, and Hezekiah. And I have found it so repeatedly in my own experience. How often, if my history were written by an inspired pen, might this proof of the depravity of my heart be inserted; But John Newton rendered not again according to the benefits received; for his heart was lifted up (VI, 194).
On the Assistance of the Holy Spirit
September 6, 1768. How comfortable and encouraging is it to reflect, that God has given us his infallible word, and promised us his infallible Spirit, to guide us into all necessary truth; and that in the study of the one, and in dependence upon the other, none can miss the way of peace and salvation, who are sincerely desirous to find it. But we are cautioned to keep our eye upon both; and the caution is necessary, for we are too prone to separate what God hath joined together, Isaiah, viii. 20, 1 Corinthians, ii. 10, 11. What strange mistakes have been made by some who have thought themselves able to interpret Scripture by their own abilities as scholars and critics, though they have studied with much diligence! (VI, 202)
We are directed to expect the teaching and assistance of the Holy Spirit only within the limits, and by the medium of the written word. For he has not promised to reveal new truths, but to enable us to understand what we read in the Bible: and if we venture beyond the pale of Scripture, we are upon enchanted ground, and exposed to all the illusions of imagination and enthusiasm. But an attention to the word of God, joined to humble supplications for his Spirit, will lead us to new advances in true knowledge (VI, 203).
January 11, 1769. Next to the word of God, I like those books best which give an account of the lives and experiences of his people… Some of the letters and lives in Fox’s Acts and Monuments, in the third volume, have been very useful to me. But no book of this kind has been more welcome to me than the Life of Mr. Brainerd, of New England, re-published a few years since at Edinburgh, and I believe sold by Dilly, in London… I suppose you have read Augustine’s Confessions. In that book I think there is a lively description of the workings of the heart, and of the Lord’s methods in drawing him to himself. It has given me satisfaction to meet with experiences very much like my own, in a book written so long ago. But nature and grace have been the same in every age (VI, 211–12).
1784. I know no author who is worthy the honour of being followed absolutely and without reserve (V, 86).
On Successful Preaching
Letter to a Young Minister. It is a poor affair to be a stageplayer in divinity, to be able to hold a congregation by the ears, by furnishing them with an hour’s amusement, if this be all. But the man who is what he professes to be, who knows what he speaks of, in whom the truth dwells and lives, who has not received the gospel from books, or by hearers only, but in the school of the great Teacher, acquires a discernment, a taste, a tenderness, and a humility, which secure to him the approbation of the judicious, qualify him for the consolation of the distressed, and even so far open his way to the hearts of the prejudiced, that, if they refuse to be persuaded, they are often convicted in their own consciences, and forced to feel that God is with the preacher. When Philip preached, the Eunuch rejoiced; when Paul preached, Felix trembled. The power of the truth was equally evident in both cases, though the effects were different. One criterion of the gospel ministry, when rightly dispensed, is that it enters the recesses of the heart (VI, 400–401).
May 20, 1769. I have no reason to complain of a want of liberty in public, but I wish I could be more concerned for success, and more affected to see poor sinners hardening under the sound of the gospel. I am afraid that if I am enabled to fill up my hour, and to come off with tolerable acceptance, I am too easily satisfied. Indeed, this is a mercy which demands my thankfulness; but the great concern should be, that neither my preaching, nor their hearing, may be in vain. However, the Lord grant me to be faithful! (VI, 137)
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.)