John Newton to Rev. Scott, Letter III: The new birth, The gospel, Human depravity August 11, 1775.

20130318-103916.jpgAugust 11, 1775.

“My dear friend,

Your objections neither displease nor weary me. While truth is the object of your inquiry–the more freedom you use with me the better. Nor do they surprise me; for I have formerly made the like objections myself. I have stood upon your ground, and I continue to hope you will one day stand upon mine. As I have told you more than once–I do not mean to dictate to you, or to wish you to receive anything, just because I said it; but, in the simplicity of friendship, I will give you my thoughts from time to time upon the points you propose, and leave the outcome to the divine blessing.

I am glad you do not account the Socinians as master builders. However they esteem themselves so, and are so esteemed, not only by a few, (as you think,) but by many. I fear Socinianism spreads rapidly among us, and bids fair to be the prevailing scheme in this land, especially with those who profess to be the intellectual part.

The term Arminian, as at present applied, is very indiscriminate, and takes in a great variety of people and sentiments, among whom, I believe there are many who hold the fundamental truths of the gospel, and live a life of faith in the Son of God. I am far from supposing that God will guide every sincere person exactly to adopt all my sentiments. But there are some sentiments which I believe essential to the very state and character of a true Christian. And these make him a Christian, not merely by being his acknowledged sentiments–but by a certain peculiar manner in which he possesses them.

There is a certain important change which takes place in the heart, by the operation of the Spirit of God–before the soundest and most orthodox sentiments can have their proper influence upon us. It is sometimes called a new birth, sometimes a new creature or new creation, sometimes the causing light to shine out of darkness, sometimes the opening the eyes of the blind, sometimes the raising the dead to life. Until a person has experienced this change, he will be at a loss to form a right conception of it. It has nothing to do with being proselyted to a theological opinion–but receiving a principle of divine life and light in the soul. And until this is received, the things of God, the truths of the gospel, cannot be rightly discerned or understood, by the utmost powers of fallen man, who with all his wisdom, reason and talents-is still but what the apostle calls the natural man, until the power of God visits his heart. 1 Corinthians 2:14.

This new birth is sometimes wrought suddenly, as in the case of Lydia, Acts 16:14, at other times very gradually. A person who before was a stranger even to the form of godliness, or at best content with a mere form of religion–finds new thoughts arising in his mind, feels some concern about his sins, some desire to please God, some suspicions that all is not right. He examines his views of religion, hopes the best of them, and yet cannot rest satisfied in them. Today, perhaps, he thinks himself fixed; tomorrow he will be all uncertainty. He inquires of others–he weighs, measures, considers, meets with sentiments which he had not attended to, thinks them plausible–but is presently shocked with objections, or supposed consequences, which he finds himself unable to remove.

As he goes on in his inquiry, his difficulties increase. New doubts arise in his mind; even the Scriptures perplex him, and appear to assert contrary things. He would sound the depths of truth–by the plummet of his reason; but he finds that his line is too short. Yet even now the man is under a guidance which will at length lead him right. The importance of the subject takes up his thoughts, and takes off the relish he once had for the things of the world. He reads, he prays, he strives, he resolves; sometimes inward embarrassments and outward temptations bring him to his wits’ end. He almost wishes to stand where he is, and inquire no more. But he cannot stop.

At length he begins to feel the inward depravity–which he had before owned as an opinion: a sense of sin and guilt cut out new work for him. Here reasoning will stand him in no stead. This is a painful change of mind; but it prepares the way for a blessing. It silences some objections better than a thousand arguments, it cuts the web of his own wisdom and attainments, it makes him weary of working for salvation, and teaches him, in God’s due time, the meaning of that text, “To him that works not–but believes on him that justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.”

Then he learns, that scriptural faith is a very different thing from a rational assent to the gospel; that it is the immediate gift of God, Ephes. 2:8; the operation of God, Colossians 2:12; that Christ is not only the object–but the author and finisher of faith, Hebrews 12:2; and that faith is not so properly a part of that obedience we owe to God, as an inestimable benefit we receive from him, for Christ’s sake, Philippians 1:29; which is the medium of our justification, Romans 5:1; and the principle by which we are united to Christ, (as the branch to the vine,) John 17:21.

I am well aware of the pains taken to put a different sense upon these and other seemingly mysterious passages of Scripture; but thus far we speak that which we know, and testify that which we have seen. I have described a path in which I have known many led, and in which I have walked myself.

The gospel, my dear sir, is a salvation appointed for those who are ready to perish, and is not designed to put them in a way to save themselves by their own works. It speaks to us as condemned already, and calls upon us to believe in a crucified Savior, that we may receive redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of our sins. And the Spirit of God, by the gospel, first convinces us of unbelief, sin, and eternal misery; and then by revealing the things of Jesus to our minds, enables us, as helpless sinners, to come to Christ, to receive him, to behold him, or in other words, to believe in him; and expect pardon, salvation, and grace from him; renouncing every hope and aim in which we once rested, “and accounting all things loss and dung–for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ.” John 6:35; Isaiah 45:22, with John 6:40; Colossians 2:6.

Though we have not exactly the same view of human depravity–yet as we both agree to take our measure of it from the Word of God, I trust we shall not always differ about it. Adam was created in the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness. Ephes. 4:24. This moral image, I believe–was totally lost by sin. In that sense, he died the day, the moment he ate the forbidden fruit. God was no longer his joy and delight; he was averse from the thoughts of his presence, and would (if possible) have hid himself from him.

His natural powers, though doubtless impaired, were not destroyed. Man by nature is still capable of great things. His understanding, reason, memory, imagination, etc., sufficiently proclaim that the hand that made him is divine. He is, as Milton says of Beelzebub, majestic though in ruins. He can reason, invent, and by application attain a considerable knowledge in natural things. The exertions of human genius, as specified in the characters of some philosophers, poets, orators, etc., are astonishing.

But man cannot know, love, trust, or serve his Maker–unless he is renewed in the spirit of his mind. God has preserved in him likewise some feelings of benevolence and pity; some sense of natural justice and truth, etc., without which there could be no society; but these, I apprehend, are little more than instincts, by which the world is kept in some small degree of order. But, being under the direction of pride and self–do not deserve the name of virtue and goodness; because the exercise of them does not spring from a principle of love to God, nor is directed to his glory, nor regulated by the rule of his Word–until a principle of grace is superadded.

You think, I will not say, “that God, judicially, in punishment of one man’s sin, added these corruptions to all his posterity.” Let us suppose, that the punishment annexed to eating the forbidden fruit had been the loss of Adam’s rational powers, and that he should be degraded to the state and capacity of a brute. In this condition, had he begotten children after the fall in his own likeness, his nature being previously changed, they must have been of course brutes like himself; for he could not convey to them those original powers which he had lost. Will this illustrate my meaning?

Sin did not deprive him of rationality–but of spirituality. His nature became earthly, sensual, yes devilish; and this fallen nature, this carnal mind, which is enmity against God, which is not subject to this law, neither indeed can be, Romans 8:7–we universally derive from him. Look upon children; they presently show themselves averse from good–but with an exceeding propensity to evil. This they can learn even without a master; but ten thousand instructors and instructions cannot instill holiness into them, so as to teach them to love their Creator–unless a divine power co-operates.

Just as it is with the earth, which produces weeds spontaneously; but if you see an orange tree or an apple-tree, you are sure it was planted or sown there, and did not spring from the soil. I know many hard questions may be started upon this subject; but the Lord in due time will clear his own cause, and vindicate his own ways. I leave all difficulties with him. It is sufficient for me that Scripture asserts, and experience proves, that it is thus in fact. Romans 3:9-21; Job 14:4.

Thus we have not only forfeited our happiness by transgression–but are by our depravity incapable of it, and have no more desire or taste for such a state as the Scripture describes heaven to be, than a man born deaf can have for a concert of music. And therefore our Lord declares, that except a man be born again, he not only shall not–but cannot see the kingdom of God. Hence a twofold necessity of a Savior–his blood for the pardon of our sins; his life, spirit, and grace to quicken our souls, and form us anew for himself, that we may feel his love, and show forth his praise.

Paul, before his conversion, was not sincere, in the sense I hope you to be: he thought himself in the right, without doubt, as many have done when they killed God’s servants. John 16:2. He was blindly and obstinately zealous: I think he did not enter into the merits of the cause, or inquire into facts with that attention which sincerity would have put him upon. You think that his sincerity and zeal were the very things that made him a chosen instrument; he himself speaks of them as the very things that made him peculiarly unworthy of that honor, 1 Corinthians 15:9: and he tells us, that he was set forth as a pattern of the Lord’s long-suffering and mercy, that the very chief of sinners might be encouraged, 1 Tim. 1:15, 16.

Had he been sincerely desirous to know whether Jesus was the Messiah, there was enough in his character, doctrines, miracles, and the prophecies concerning him, to have cleared up the point; but he took it for granted he was right in his opinion, and hurried blindly on, and was (as he said himself) exceedingly mad against them. Such a kind of sincerity is common enough. People believe themselves right, and therefore treat others with scorn or rage; appeal to the Scriptures–but first lay down their own pre-conceived sentiments for truths–and then examine what Scriptures they can find, to countenance them. Surely a person’s thinking himself right, will not give a sanction to all that he does under that persuasion.

Ignorance and obstinacy are in themselves sinful, and no plea of sincerity will exempt from the danger of being under their influence. Isaiah 27:11; Luke 6:39. It appears to me, that though you will not follow any man implicitly, you are desirous of discovering your mistakes, supposing you are mistaken in any point of importance. You read and examine the Word of God, not to find arms with which to defend your sentiments at all events–but to know whether they are defensible or not. You pray for God’s light and teaching, and in this search, you are willing to risk what men are commonly much afraid of hazarding–character, self-interest, preferment, favor, etc. A sincerity of this kind I too seldom meet with; when I do, I account it a token for good, and am ready to say, “No man can do this–except God be with him.” However, sincerity is not conversion; but I believe it is always a forerunner of it.”

About John Newton

John Newton was born 24 July 1725, and died 21 December 1807. He was a former shipmaster and slave trader, turned minister of the gospel, and author of the famous hymn, Amazing Grace. I have published five letters that he wrote to a fellow clergyman by the name of Rev. Thomas Scott, who held to Socinian beliefs.

“Socinianism denies the full deity of Christ, predestination, original sin, total inability (of man to convert himself), the atonement as a penal satisfaction, and justification by faith alone.” (Theopedia)

Through these thoughtful and gracious letters Reverend Scott received from John Newton, He accepted the gospel in its fulness, and was born again. The story of his conversion and shift from Socinianism to embracing the good news as expressed in Evangelical Christianity can be read in his brief autobiography, The Force of Truth.

Letter I: Religious knowledge Gradual
Letter II: Sincerety, the Trinity, the Way of Salvation
Letter III.–The new birth–Its fruits–The gospel designed for man as a sinner–Human depravity–Error respecting the apostle Paul.
Letter IVa: Predestination
Letter IVb: Divine Sovereignty
Letter V: Reason and Scripture, Faith and Works

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