John Newton to Rev. Scott, Letter V: Reason and Scripture, Faith and works, God not the Author of sin, Fruits of faith

20130220-102108.jpgDecember 8, 1775.

“My dear Friend–Are you willing that I should still write you so–or are you quite weary of me? Your silence makes me suspect the latter. However, it is my part to fulfill my promise, and then leave the outcome to God. As I have but an imperfect remembrance of what I have already written, I may be liable to some repetitions. I cannot stay to comment upon every line in your letter–but I proceed to notice such passages as seem most to affect the subject in debate. When you speak of the Scripture’s maintaining one consistent sense, which, if the Word of God, it certainly must do–you say you read and understand it in this one consistent sense; nay, you cannot remember the time when you did not. It is otherwise with me, and with multitudes; we remember when it was a sealed book, and we are sure it would have been so still–had not the Holy Spirit opened our understandings. But when you add, “Though I pretend not to understand the whole–yet what I do understand appears perfectly consistent,” I know not how far this exception may extend, for perhaps, the reason why you do not understand some parts, is because you cannot make them consistent with the sense you put upon other parts.

You quote my words, “That when we are conscious of our depravity, reasoning stands us in no stead.” Undoubtedly, reason always will stand rational creatures in some stead; but my meaning is, that when we are deeply convinced of sin, all our former reasonings upon the ways of God, while we made our conceptions the standard by which we judge what is befitting him to do, as if He were altogether such a one as ourselves, all those cobweb reasonings are swept away, and we submit to his authority without reasoning, though not without reason. For we have the strongest reason imaginable to acknowledge ourselves vile and lost, without righteousness and strength–when we actually feel ourselves to be so.

You speak of the gospel terms of justification. This term is faith. Mark 16:16; Acts 13:39. The gospel propounds, admits no other term. But this faith, as I endeavored to show in my former letter, is very different from rational assent. You speak likewise of the law of faith; by which, if you mean what some call the remedial law, which we are to obey as well as we can, and that such obedience, together with our faith, will entitle us to acceptance with God. I am persuaded the Scripture speaks of no such thing. Grace and works of any kind, in the point of acceptance with God–are mentioned by the apostles, not only as opposites or contraries–but as absolutely contradictory to each other, like fire and water, light and darkness; so that the affirmation of one is the denial of the other. Romans 4:5, and 11:6. God justifies freely, justifies the ungodly, and him that works not.

Though justifying faith is indeed an active principle, it works by love–yet not for acceptance with God. Those whom the apostle exhorts “to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling”–he considers as justified already; for he considers them as believers, in whom he supposed God had already begun a good work; and if so, was confident He would accomplish it. Philippians 1:6. To them, the consideration, that God (who dwells in the hearts of believers) wrought in them to will and to do, was a powerful motive and encouragement to them to work, that is, to give all diligence in his appointed means, as a right sense of the sin that dwells in us, and the snares and temptations around us, will teach us still to work with fear and trembling.

When you desire me to reconcile God’s being the author of sin with his justice, you show that you misunderstand the whole strain of my sentiments: for I am persuaded you would not misrepresent them. It is easy to charge harsh consequences, which I neither allow, nor, indeed, do they follow from my sentiments. God cannot be the author of sin in that sense you would fix upon me; but is it possible that, upon your plan, you find no difficulty in what the Scripture teaches us upon this subject?

I conceive that those who were concerned in the death of Christ were very great sinners; and that, in nailing him to the cross, they committed atrocious wickedness. Yet, if the apostle may be believed–all this was according to the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, Acts 2:23: and they did no more than what his hand and purpose had determined should be done, chapter 4:28. And you will observe, that this wicked act (wicked with respect to the perpetrators) was not only permitted–but fore-ordained in the strongest and most absolute sense of the word: the glory of God and the salvation of men depended upon its being done, and just in that manner, and with all those circumstances which actually took place. And yet Judas and the rest acted freely, and their wickedness was properly their own.

Now, my friend, the arguments which satisfy you, that the Scripture does not represent God as the author of this sin, in this appointment will plead for me at the same time; and when you think you easily overcome me by asking, “Can God be the author of sin?” your imputation falls as directly upon the Word of God himself.

God is no more the author of sin–than the sun is the cause of ice; but it is in the nature of water to congeal into ice when the sun’s influence is suspended to a certain degree. So there is sin enough in the hearts of men to make the earth the very image of hell, and to prove that men are no better than incarnate devils, were He to suspend his influence and restraint. Sometimes, and in some instances, He is pleased to suspend it considerably; and so far as He does, human nature quickly appears in its true colors.

Objections of this kind have been repeated and refuted before either you or I were born; and the apostle evidently supposes they would be urged against his doctrine, when he obviates the question, “Why does he yet find fault? Who has resisted his will?” To which he gives no other answer than by referring it to God’s sovereignty, and the power which a potter has over the clay.

You ask that if man can do nothing without an extraordinary impulse from on high–is he to sit still and careless? By no means. I am far from saying man can do nothing, though I believe he cannot open his own eyes, or give himself faith. I wish every man–to abstain carefully from sinful company, and sinful actions, to read the Bible, to pray to God for his heavenly teaching. And if he perseveres thus in seeking, the promise is sure, that, he shall not seek in vain. But I would not have him mistake the means for the end; that is, to think himself godly because he is preserved from gross vices and follies, or trust to his religious course of duties for acceptance with God, nor be satisfied until Christ is revealed in him, formed within him, and dwells in his heart by faith.

True faith, my dear sir, unites the soul to Christ, and thereby gives access to God, and fills it with a peace passing understanding, a hope, a joy unspeakable and full of glory; teaches us that we are weak in ourselves–but enables us to be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. To those who thus believe–Christ is precious, their beloved. They hear and know his voice; the very sound of his name gladdens their hearts, and He manifests himself to them as He does not to the world.

Thus the Scriptures speak, thus the first Christians experienced; and this is precisely the language which, in our days, is despised as enthusiasm and folly. For it is now as it was then, though these things are revealed to babes, and they are as sure of them as that they see the noon-day sun–they are hidden from the wise and prudent, until the Lord makes them willing to renounce their own wisdom, and to become fools–that they may be truly wise. 1 Corinthians 1:18, 19; 3:8; 8:2.

Still I find I am not done: you ask my exposition of the parables of the talents and pounds; but at present I can write no more. I have only just time to tell you, that when I begged your acceptance of Omicron, nothing was further from my expectation than a correspondence with you. The frank and kind manner in which you wrote presently won upon my heart. In the course of our letters, I observed an integrity and unselfishness in you which endeared you to me still more. Since our discussions have taken a much more interesting turn; I have considered it as a call, and an opportunity put in my hand, by the especial providence of him who rules over all. I have embraced the occasion to lay before you simply, and rather in a way of testimony than argumentation, what (in the main) I am sure is truth. I have done enough to discharge my conscience–but shall never think I do enough to answer the affection I bear you.

I pray that the good Spirit of God may guide you into all truths. He only is the effectual teacher. I still retain a cheerful hope that some things you cannot at present receive, will hereafter be the joy and comfort of your heart; but I know it cannot be until the Lord’s own time.

I am still in a manner lost amidst more engagements, than I have time to comply with; but I feel and know that I am, dear sir,

your affectionate friend and servant,

John Newton”

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, the Gospel, Human Depravity
Letter IVa: Predestination
Letter IVb: Divine Sovereignty
Letter V.–Reason and Scripture–Faith and works–God not the Author of sin–Fruits of faith.

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