A WORD TO PREACHERS AND WRITERS
The following comments form part of the Preface to the series of sermons which J. Newton preached from the scriptures used by G.F. Handel in his Oratorio The Messiah. They are printed with the hope that they will encourage that spirit of moderation and mutual respect which should previl amongst true believers who differ on secondary matters in religon
It may be expected, that in a large congregation there are always some persons present for the first time; with respect to these, an observation may be new, though perhaps the more regular hearers may recollect its having been mentioned before. For a similar reason, such repetitions are not improper in print. Many persons read part of a book, who may not have opportunity or inclination to read the whole. Should any one, by opening these Sermons at a venture, meet with a passage which, by a divine blessing, may either awaken a careless, or heal a wounded spirit, that passage will be exactly in the right page, even though the purport of it should be expressed in several other places. Farther, since we do not always so much stand in need of new information, as to have what we already know more effectually impressed upon the mind; there are truths which can scarcely be inculcated too often, at least until the design for which they were mentioned once be effectually answered. Thus, when the strokes of a hammer are often repeated, not one of them can be deemed superfluous; the last, which drives the nail to the head, being no less necessary than any of those which preceded it.
From those readers, whose habits of thinking on religious subjects are formed by a close attachment to particular systems of divinity, the author requests a candid construction of what he advances, if he ventures in some instances to deviate a little from the more beaten track. If he is sometimes constrained to differ from the judgement of wise and good men, who have deserved well of the church of God, he would do it with modesty. Far from depreciating their labours, he would be thankful for the benefit which he hopes he has received from them. It is a great satisfaction to him, that in all doctrinal points of primary importance, his views are confirmed by the suffrage of writers and ministers eminent for genuine piety and sound learning; who assisted him in his early inquiries after truth, and at whose feet he is still willing to sit. Yet, remembering that he is authorized and commanded to call no man master, so as to yield an implicit and unqualified submission to human teachers; while he gladly borrows every help he can from others, he ventures likewise to think for himself. His leading sentiments concerning the grand peculiarities of the Gospel were formed many years since, when he was in a state of almost entire seclusion from society; when he had scarcely any religious book but the Bible within his reach; and had no knowledge, either of the various names, parties, and opinions,
by which Christians were distinguished and divided, or of the controversies which subsisted among them. He is not conscious that any very material difference has taken place in his sentiments since he first became acquainted with the religious world; but, after a long course of experience and observation, he seems to possess them in a different manner. The difficulties which for a season perplexed him on some points, are either removed, or considerably abated. On the other hand, he now perceives difficulties that constrain him to lay his hand upon his mouth, in subjects which once appeared to him obvious and plain. Thus, if he mistakes not himself, he is less troubled with scepticism, and at the same time less disposed to be dogmatical than he formerly was. He feels himself unable to draw the line, with precision, between those essential points which ought to be earnestly contended for (in a spirit of meekness) as for the faith once delivered to the saints; and certain secondary positions, concerning which good men may safely differ, and wherein, perhaps, we cannot reasonably expect them to be unanimous during the present state of imperfection. But if the exact boundary cannot be marked with certainty, he thinks it both desirable and possible,
to avoid the extremes into which men of warm tempers have often been led.
Not that the author can be an advocate for that indifference to truth, which, under the specious semblance of moderation and candour, offers a comprehension, from which none are excluded, but those who profess and aim to worship God in the spirit, to rejoice in Christ Jesus, and to renounce all confidence in the flesh. Moderation is a Christian grace; it differs much from that tame, unfeeling neutrality between truth and error, which is so prevalent in the present day. As the different rays of light which, when separated by a prism, exhibit the various colours of the rainbow, form, in their combination, a perfect and resplendent white, in which every colour is incorporated; so, if the graces of the Holy Spirit were complete in us, the result of their combined effect would be a truly candid, moderate, and liberal spirit towards our brethren. The Christian, especially he who is advanced and established in the life of faith, has a fervent zeal for God, for the honour of His name, His law, and His Gospel. The honest warmth which he feels, when such a law is broken, such a Gospel is despised, and when the great and glorious name of the Lord his God is profaned, would, by the occasion of his infirmities, often degenerate into anger or contempt towards those who oppose themselves, if he was under the influence of zeal only. But his zeal is blended with benevolence and humility:
it is softened by a consciousness of his own frailty and fallibility. He is aware that his knowledge is very limited in itself, and very faint in its efficacy; that his attainments are weak and few, compared with his deficiencies; that his gratitude is very disproportionate to his obligations, and his obedience unspeakably short of conformity to his prescribed rule; that he has nothing but what he has received, and has received nothing but what, in a greater or less degree, he has misapplied and misimproved. He is therefore a debtor to the
mercy of God, and lives upon his multiplied forgiveness. And he makes the gracious conduct of the Lord towards himself a pattern for his own conduct towards his fellow-creatures. He cannot boast, nor is he forward to censure. He considers himself, lest he also be tempted; (Gal. 6.1.) and thus he learns tenderness and compassion to others, and to bear patiently with those mistakes, prejudices, and prepossessions in them, which once belonged to his own character;
and from which, as yet, he is but imperfectly freed. But then, the same considerations which inspire him with meekness and gentleness towards those who oppose the truth, strengthen his regard for the truth itself, and his conviction of its importance. For the sake of peace, which he loves and cultivates, he accommodates himself, as far as he lawfully can, to the weakness and misapprehensions of those who mean well; though he is thereby exposed to the censure of bigots of all parties, who deem him flexible and wavering, like a reed shaken with the wind. But there are other points nearly connected with the honour of God, and essential to the life of faith, which are the foundations of his hope, and the sources of his joy. For his firm attachment to these, he is content to be treated as a bigot himself. For here he is immoveable as an iron pillar; nor can either the fear or the favour of man prevail on him to
give place, no not for an hour (Gal. 2.5.). Here his judgment is fixed; and he expresses it in simple and unequivocal language, so as not to leave either friends or enemies in suspense, concerning the side which he has chosen, or the cause which is nearest to his heart.
The minister who possesses a candour thus enlightened and thus qualified, will neither degrade himself to be the instrument, nor aspire to be the head, of a party. He will not servilely tread in the paths prescribed him by men, however respectable. He will not multiply contentions, in defence either of the shibboleths of others, or of any nostrum of his own, under a pretence that he is pleading for the cause of God and truth. His attention will not be restrained to the credit or interest of any detached denomination of Christians, but extended to all who love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. On the other hand, knowing that the Gospel is the wisdom and power of God, and the only possible mean by which fallen man can obtain either peace or rectitude, he most cordially embraces and avows it. Far from being ashamed of it, he esteems it his glory. He preaches Christ Jesus the Lord, and Him crucified. He dares not sophisticate (2 Cor. 4.2) disguise, or soften the great doctrines of the grace of God, to render them more palatable to the depraved taste of the times. His disdains the thought. And he will no more encounter the prejudices and corrupt maxims and practices of the world with any weapon but the truth as it is in Jesus, (Eph. 4.21.) than he would venture to fight an enraged enemy with a wooden sword.
Such is the disposition which the author wishes for himself, and which he would endeavour to cultivate in others. He hopes that nothing of a contrary tendency will be found in the volumes now presented to the public. MESSIAH, the great subject of the Oratorio,
is the leading and principal subject of every sermon. His person, grace, and glory; His matchless love to sinners; His humiliation, sufferings, and death; His ability and willingness to save to the uttermost; His kingdom, and the present and future happiness of His willing people, are severally considered, according to the order suggested by the series of texts. Nearly connected with these topics, are the doctrines of the fall, and depravity of man, the agency of the Holy Spirit, and the nature and necessity of regeneration, and of that holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord. On these subjects the author is not afraid of contradiction from those who are taught of God.
With respect to some other points which incidentally occur, he has endeavoured so to treat them as to avoid administering fuel to the flame of angry controversy. He is persuaded himself, and shall be happy to persuade his readers, that the remaining differences of opinion among those who truly understand and cordially believe the declarations of Scripture on the preceding articles, are neither so wide nor so important as they have been sometimes represented. Many of these differences are nearly verbal, and would cease, if due allowance was made for the imperfection of human language, and the effects of an accustomed phraseology, which often lead people to affix different ideas to the same expressions, or to express the same ideas in different words. And if, in some things, we cannot exactly agree, since we confess that we are all weak and fallible, mutual patience and forbearance would be equally becoming the acknowledgements we make, and the Gospel which we profess. We should thereby act in character, as the followers of Him who was compassionate to the infirmities and mistakes of His disciples, and
taught them, not every thing at once, but gradually, as they were able to bear.
The author ought not to be very solicitous upon his own account, what reception his performance may meet with. The fashion of this world is passing away. The voice, both of applause and of censure, will soon be stifled in the dust. It is, therefore, but a small thing to be judged of man’s judgement (1 Cor. 4.6.). But conscious of the vast importance of the subject which he thus puts into the reader’s hands, he cannot take leave of him without earnestly entreating his serious attention. The one principle which he assumes for granted, and which he is certain cannot be disproved, is, that the Bible is a revelation from God. By this standard he is willing that whatever he has advanced may be tried. If the Bible be true, we must all give an account, each one of himself, to the great and final Judge. That when we shall appear before his awful tribunal, we may be found at his right hand, accepted in the Beloved, is the author’s fervent prayer, both for his readers and for himself.