Rev. John Newton
On the snares and difficulties attending the ministry of the Gospel.
I am glad to hear that you are ordained, and that the Lord is about to fix you in a place where there is a prospect of your being greatly useful. He has given you the desire of your heart; and I hope He has given you likewise a heart to devote yourself, without reserve, to His service, and the service of souls for His sake. I willingly comply with your request; and shall, without ceremony, offer you such thoughts as occur to me upon this occasion.
You have, doubtless, often anticipated in your mind the nature of the service to which you are now called, and made it the subject of much consideration and prayer. But a distant view of the ministry is generally very different from what it is found to be when we are actually engaged in it. The young soldier, who has never seen an enemy, may form some general notions of what is before him; but his ideas will be much more lively and diversified when he comes upon the field of battle. If the Lord was to show us the whole beforehand, who that has a due sense of his own insufficiency and weakness, would venture to engage? But He first draws us by a constraining sense of His love, and by giving us an impression of the worth of souls, and leaves us to acquire a knowledge of what is difficult and disagreeable by a gradual experience. The ministry of the Gospel, like the book which the Apostle John ate, is a bitter sweet; but the sweetness is tasted first, the bitterness is usually known afterwards, when we are so far engaged that there is no going back.
Yet I would not discourage you. It is a good and noble cause, and we serve a good and gracious Master; who, though He will make us feel our weakness and vileness, will not suffer us to sink under it. His grace is sufficient for us: and if He favours us with an humble and dependent spirit, a single eye, and a simple heart, He will make every difficulty give way, and mountains shall sink into plains before His power.
You have known something of Satan’s devices while you were in private life; how he has envied your privileges, assaulted your peace, and laid snares for your feet: though the Lord would not suffer him to hurt you, He has permitted him to sift and tempt, and shoot his fiery arrows at you. Without some of this discipline, you would have been very unfit for that part of your office which consists in speaking a word in seasop to weary and heavy-laden souls. But you may now expect to hear from him, and to be beset by his power and subtilty in a different manner. You are now to be placed in the forefront of the battle, and to stand as it were for his mark: so far as he can prevail against you now, not yourself only, but many others, will be affected: many eyes will be upon you; and if you take a wrong step, or are ensnared into a wrong spirit, you will open the mouths of the adversaries wider, and grieve the hearts of believers more sensibly than if the same things had happened to you while you were a layman. The work of the ministry is truly honourable; but, like the post of honour in a battle, it is attended with peculiar dangers: therefore the apostle cautions Timothy, `Take heed to thyself, and to thy doctrine.’ To thyself in the first place, and then to thy doctrine; the latter without the former would be impracticable and vain.
You have need to be upon your guard in whatever way your first attempts to preach the Gospel may seem to operate. If you should (as may probably be the case, where the truth has been little known) meet with much opposition, you will perhaps find it a heavier trial than you are aware of; but I speak of it only as it might draw forth your corruptidons, and give Satan advantage against you: and this may be two ways; first, by embittering your spirit against opposers, so as to speak in anger, to set them at defiance, or retaliate upon them in their own way; which, besides bringing guilt upon your conscience, would of course increase your difficulties, and impede your usefulness. A violent opposition against ministers and professors of the Gospel is sometimes expressed by the devil’s roaring, and some people think no good can be done without it. It is allowed, that men who love darkness will show their dislike of the light; but, I believe, if the wisdom and meekness of the friends of the Gospel had been always equal to their good intentions and zeal, the devil would not have had opportunity of roaring so loud as he has sometimes done.
The subject-matter of the Gospel is offence enough to the carnal heart; we must therefore expect opposition: but we should not provoke or despise it, or do anything to aggravate it. A patient continuance in well-doing, a consistency in character, and an attention to return kind offices for hard treatment, will, in a course of time, greatly soften the spirit of opposition; and instances are to be found of ministers, who are treated with some respect even by those persons in their parishes who are most averse to their doctrine. When the apostle directs us, if it be possible, and as much as in us lies, to live peaceably with all men,’ he seems to intimate, that though it be difficult, it is not wholly impracticable. We cannot change the rooted prejudices of their hearts against the Gospel; but it is possible, by the Lord’s blessing, to stop their mouths, and make them ashamed of discovering it, when they behold
our good conversation in Christ. And it is well worth our while to cultivate this outward peace, provided we do not purchase it at the expense of truth and faithfulness; for ordinarily we cannot hope to be useful to our people, unless we give them reason to believe that we love them, and have their interest at heart.
Again opposition will hurt you, if it should give you an idea of your own importance, and lead you to dwell with a secret self-approbation upon your own faithfulness and courage in such circumstances. If you are able to stand your ground, uninfluenced either by the favour or the fear of men, you have reason to give glory to God; but remember, that you cannot thus stand an hour, unless He upholds you. It shows a wrong turn of mind when we are very ready to speak of our trials and difficulties of this kind, and of our address and resolution in encountering them. A natural stiffness of spirit, with desire to have self taken notice of, may make a man willing to endure those kinds of hardships, though he has but little grace in exercise: but true Christian fortitude, from a consciousness that we speak the truths of God, and are supported by His power, is a very different thing.
If you should meet with but little opposition, or if the Lord should be pleased to make your enemies your friends you will probably be in danger from the opposite quarter. If opposition has hurt many, popularity has wounded more. To say the truth, I am in some pain for you. Your natural abilities are considerable; you have been diligent in your studies; your zeal is warm, and your spirit is lively. With these advantages I expect to see you a popular preacher. The more you are so the greater will your field of usefulness be: but, alas! you cannot yet know to what it will expose you. It is like walking upon ice. When you shall see an attentive congregation hanging upon your words; when you shall hear the well-meant but often injudicious, commendations of those to whom the Lord shall make you useful; when you shall find, upon an intimation of your preaching in a strange place people thronging from all parts to hear you, how will your heart feel? It is easy for me to advise you to be humble, and for you to acknowledge the propriety of the advice; but while human nature remains in its present state, there will be almost the same connexion between popularity and pride, as between fire and gunpowder: they cannot meet without an explosion, at least not unless the gunpowder is kept very damp. So unless the Lord is constantly moistening our hearts (if I may so speak) by the influences of His Spirit, popularity will soon set us in a blaze. You will hardly find a person who has been exposed to this fiery trial, without suffering loss.
Those whom the Lord loves, He is able to keep, and He will keep them upon the whole; yet such means, and in a course of such narrow escapes, that they shall have reason to look upon their deliverance as no less than miraculous. Sometimes, if His ministers are not watchful against the first impressions of pride, He permits it to gather strength; and then it is but a small thing that a few of their admirers may think them more than men in the pulpit, if they are left to commit such mistakes when out of it, as the weakest of the flock can discover and pity. And this will certainly be the case, while pride and self-sufficiency have the ascendant. Beware, my friend, of mistaking the ready exercise of gifts for the exercise of grace. The minister may be assisted in public for the sake of his hearers; and there is something in the nature of our public work, when surrounded by a concourse of people, that is suited to draw forth the exertion of our abilities, and to engage our attention in the outward services, when the frame of the heart may be far from being right in the sight of the Lord. When Moses smote the rock, the water followed; yet he spoke unadvisedly with his lips, and greatly displeased the Lord. However, the congregation was not disappointed for his fault, nor was he put to shame before them; but he was humbled for it afterwards. They are happy whom the Lord preserves in some degree humble, without leaving them to expose themselves to the observation of men, and to receive such wounds as are seldom healed without leaving a deep scar. But even these have much to suffer.
Many distressing exercises you will probably meet with upon the best supposition, to preserve in you a due sense of your own unworthiness, and to convince you, that your ability, your acceptance, and your usefulness, depend upon a power beyond your own. Sometimes, perhaps, you will feel such an amazing difference between the frame of your spirit in public and in private, when the eyes of men are not upon you, as will make you almost ready to conclude that you are no better than an hypocrite, a mere stage-player, who derives all his pathos and exertion from the sight of the audience.
At other times you will find such a total emptiness and indisposition of mind, that former seasons of liberty in preaching will appear to you like the remembrance of a dream; and you will hardly be able to persuade yourself you shall ever be capable of preaching again: the Scriptures will appear to you like a sealed book, and no text or subject afford any light or opening to determine your choice: and this perplexity may not only seize you in the study, but accompany you in the pulpit. If you are enabled at some times to speak to the people with power, and to resemble Samson, when, in the greatness of his strength, he bore away the gates of the city, you will perhaps, at others, appear before them like Samson when his locks were shorn, and he stood in fetters. So that you need not tell the people you have no sufficiency in yourself; for they will readily perceive it without your information. These things are hard to bear; yet successful popularity is not to be preserved upon easier terms: and if they are but sanctified to hide pride from you, you will have reason to number them amongst your choicest mercies.
I have but just made an entrance upon the subject of the difficulties and dangers attending the ministry. But my paper is full. If you are willing I should proceed, let me know, and I believe I can easily find enough to fill another sheet. May the Lord make you wise and watchful! That He may be the light of your eye, the strength of your arm, and the joy of your heart, is the sincere prayer of &c.
Marks of a Call to the Ministry.
Your favour of the 19th February came to my hand yesterday. I have read it with attention, and very willingly sit down to offer you my thoughts. Your case reminds me of my own: my first desires towards the ministry were attended with great uncertainties and difficulties, and the perplexity of my own mind was heightened by the various and opposite judgements of my friends. The advice I have to offer is the result of painful experience and exercise, and for this reason perhaps may not be unacceptable to you. I pray our gracious Lord to make it useful.
I was long distressed, as you are, about what was or was not a proper call to the ministry; it now seems to me an easy point to solve, but perhaps will not be so to you, till the Lord shall make it clear to yourself in your own case. I have not room to say so much as I could: in brief, I think it principally includes three things:
1. A warm and earnest desire to be employed in this service. I apprehend, the man who is once moved by the Spirit of God to this work, will prefer it, if attainable, to thousands of gold and silver; so that, though he is at times intimidated by a sense of its importance and difficulty, compared with his own great insufficiency (for it is to be presumed a call of this sort, if indeed from God, will be accompanied with humility and self-abasement), yet he cannot give it up. I hold it a good rule to inquire in this point, whether the desire to preach is most fervent in our most lively and spiritual frames, and when we are most laid in the dust before the Lord? If so, it is a good sign. But if, as is sometimes the case, a person is very earnest to be a preacher to others, when he finds but little hungerings and thirstings after grace in his own soul, it is then to be feared his zeal springs rather from a selfish principle than from the Spirit of God.
2. Besides this affectionate desire and readiness to preach, there must in due season appear some competent sufficiency as to gifts, knowledge, and utterance. Surely, if the Lord sends a man to teach others, He will furnish him with the means. I believe many have intended well in setting up for preachers, who yet went beyond or before their call in so doing. The main difference between a minister and a private Christian seems to consist in these ministerial gifts, which are imparted to him, not for his own sake, but for the edification of others. But then I say, these are to appear in due season; they are not to be expected instantaneously, but gradually, in the use of proper means. They are necessary for the upon you. Be thankful for the grace that has made you to differ; be discharge of the ministry; but not necessary as pre-requisites to warrant ready to give a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear; our desires after it. In your case, you are young, and have time before but beware of engaging in disputes, without evident necessity, and some you; therefore I think you need not as yet perplex yourself with probable hope of usefulness. They tend to eat out the life and savour of inquiring if you have these gifts already: it is sufficient if your desire is religion, and to make the soul lean and dry. Where God has begun a real fixed, and you are willing, in the way of prayer and diligence, to wait work of grace, incidental mistakes will be lessened by time and upon the Lord for them: as yet you need them not. experience; where He has not, it is of little signification what sentiments
3. That which finally evidences a proper call is a correspondent people hold, or whether they call themselves Arminians or Calvinists. opening in Providence, by a gradual train of circumstances pointing out I agree with you, it is time enough for you to think of Oxford yet; and the means, the time, the place, of actually entering upon the work. And that if your purpose is fixed, and all circumstances render it prudent and till this coincidence arrives, you must not expect to be always clear from proper to devote yourself to the ministry, you will do well to spend a hesitation in your own mind. The principal caution on this head is, not year or two in private studies. It would be further helpful in this view to to be too hasty in catching at first appearances. If it be the Lord’s will to place yourself where there is Gospel preaching and a lively people. If bring you into His ministry, He has already appointed your place and your favourable opinion of this place should induce you to come here, I service; and though you know it not at present, you shall at a proper shall be very ready to give you every assistance in my power. As I have time. If you had the talents of an angel, you could do no good with them trod exactly the path you seem to be setting out in, I might so far perhaps till His hour is come, and till He leads you to the people whom He has be more serviceable than those who are in other respects much better determined to bless by your means. It is very difficult to restrain qualified to assist you. I doubt not but in this, and every other step, you ourselves within the bounds of prudence here, when our zeal is warm, a will entreat the Lord’s direction and I hope you will not forget to pray sense of the love of Christ upon our hearts, and a tender compassion for for, poor sinners is ready to prompt us to break out too soon; – but he that Sir, your affectionate friend, &c. believeth shall not make haste. I was about five years under this constraint: sometimes I thought I must preach, though it was in the streets. I listened to everything that seemed plausible, and to many Advice on the Work of the Ministry. things that were not so. But the Lord graciously, and as it were insensibly, hedged up my way with thorns; otherwise, if I had been left Dear Sir, to my own spirit, I should have put it quite out of my power to have been I would steal a few minutes here to write lest I should not have leisure brought into such a sphere of usefulness, as He in his good time has at home. I have not your letter with me, and therefore can only answer been pleased to lead me to. And I can now see clearly, that at the time I so far as I retain a general remembrance of the contents. would first have gone out, though my intention was, I hope, good in the You will, doubtless, find rather perplexity than advantage from the main, yet I over-rated myself, and had not that spiritual judgement and multiplicity of advice you may receive if you endeavour to reconcile experience which are requisite for so great a service. and adopt the very different sentiments of your friends. I think it will be I wish you therefore to take time; and if you have a desire to enter into best to make use of them in a full latitude, that is to correct and qualify the Established Church, endeavour to keep your zeal within moderate them one by another and to borrow a little from each without confining bounds, and avoid everything that might unnecessarily clog your yourself entirely to any. You will probably be advised to different admission with difficulties. I would not have you hide your profession, extremes, it will then be impossible to follow both; but it may be or to be backward to speak for God; but avoid what looks like practicable to find a middle path between them: and I believe this will preaching, and be content with being a learner in the school of Christ for generally prove the best and safest method. Only consult your own some years. The delay will not be lost time; you will be so much the temper and endeavour to incline rather to that side to which you are the more acquainted with the Gospel, with your own heart, and with human least disposed by the ordinary strain of your own inclination for on that nature: the last is a necessary branch of a minister’s knowledge, and can side you will be in the least danger of erring. Warm and hasty only be acquired by comparing what passes within us, and around us, dispositions will seldom move too slow, and those who are naturally languid and cool are as little liable to over-act their part. with what we read in the word of God. I am glad to find you have a distaste both for Arminian and With respect to the particulars you instance, I have generally thought Antinomian doctrines; – but let not the mistakes of others sit too heavY You warm and enterprising enough, and therefore thought it best to restrain you; but I meant only to hold you in, till you had acquired some further knowledge and observation both of yourself and of others, I have the pleasure to hope (especially of late) that you are become mere selfdiffident and wary than you were some time ago. And, therefore, as your years and time are advancing, and you have been for a tolerable space under a probation of silence, I can make no objection to your attempting sometimes to speak in select societies; but let your attempts be confined to such, I mean where you are acquainted with the people, or the leading part of them, and be upon your guard against opening yourself too much amongst strangers; – and again, I earnestly desire you would not attempt anything of this sort in a very public way, which may, perhaps, bring you under inconveniences, and will be inconsistent with the part you ought to act (in my judgement) from the time you receive Episcopal ordination. You may remember a simile I have sometimes used of green fruit: children are impatient to have it while it is green, but persons of more judgement will wait till it is ripe. Therefore I would wish your exhortations to be brief, private, and not very frequent. Rather give yourself to reading, meditation, and prayer.
As to speaking without notes, in order to do it successfully, a fund of knowledge should be first possessed. Indeed, in such societies as I hope you will confine your attempts to, it would not be practicable to use notes; but I mean, that if you design to come out as a preacher without notes from the first, you must use double diligence in study: your reading must not be confined to the Scriptures; you should be acquainted with church-history, have a general view of divinity as a system, know something of the state of controversies in past times and at present, and indeed of the general history of mankind. I do not mean that you should enter deeply into these things; but you will need to have your mind enlarged, your ideas increased, your style and manner formed; you should read, think, write, compose and use all diligence to exercise and strengthen your faculties.
If you would speak extempore as a clergyman, you must be able to come off roundly, and to fill up your hour with various matter, in tolerable coherence, or else you will not be able to overcome the prejudice which usually prevails amongst the people. Perhaps it may be as well to use some little scheme in the note way, especially at the beginning; but a little trial will best inform you what is most expedient.
Let your backwardness to prayer and reading the scripture be ever so great you must strive against it. This backwardness, with the doubts you speak of, are partly from your own evil heart, but perhaps chiefly temptations of Satan: he knows, if he can keep you from drawing water out of the wells of salvation, he will have much advantage. My soul goes often mourning under the same complaints, but at times the Lord gives me a little victory. I hope He will over-rule all our trials, to make us more humble, dependent, and to give us tenderness of spirit towards the distressed. The exercised and experienced Christian, by the knowledge he has gained of his own heart, and the many difficulties he has had to struggle with, acquires a skill and compassion in dealing with others; and without such exercise, all our study, diligence, and gifts in other ways, would leave us much at a loss in some of the most important parts of our calling.
You have given yourself to the Lord for the ministry; His providence has thus far favoured your views; therefore harbour not a thought of flinching from the battle, because the enemy appears in view, but resolve to endure hardship, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. Lift up your banner in His name; trust in Him and He will support you; but, above all things, be sure not to be either enticed or terrified from the privilege of a throne of grace. Who your enemies are or what they say I know not; for I never conversed with them. Your friends here have thought you at times harsh and hasty in your manner, and rather inclining to self-confidence. These things I have often reminded you of; but I considered them as blemishes usually attendant upon youth, and which experience, temptation, and prayer, would correct. I hope and believe you will do well.
You will have a share in my prayers and best advice; and when I see occasion to offer a word of reproof, I shall not use any reserve. Yours, &c.