THE CHARACTER OF A CHRISTIAN
A Letter by John Newton
Without any preamble, I purpose now to wait on your lordship, with a few thoughts on the meanings of that name which first
obtained at Antioch, in other words, what it is to be a Christian? What are the effects, which (making allowance for the unavoidable infirmities attending upon the present state of mortality) may be expected from a real experimental knowledge of the Gospel? I would not insinuate that none are Christians who do not come up to
the character I would describe; for then I fear I should unchristian myself: but only to consider what the Scripture encourages us to aim at as the prize of our high calling in this life.
A Christian is the noblest work of God in this visible world, and bears a much brighter impression of His glory and goodness than the sun in the firmament; and none but a Christian can be strictly and properly honest: all others are too much under the power of self to do universally to others as they would others should do unto them;
and nothing but a uniform conduct upon this principle deserves the name of honesty.
The Christian is a new creature, born and taught from above. He has been convinced of his guilt and misery as a sinner, has fled for refuge to the hope set before him, has seen the Son and believed on Him: his natural prejudices against the glory and grace of God’s salvation have been subdued and silenced by almighty power; he has accepted the Beloved, and is made acceptable in Him: he now knows the Lord; has renounced the confused, distant, uncomfortable notions he once formed of God; and beholds Him in Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life, the only door by which we can enter to any true satisfying knowledge of God, or communion with Him. But he sees God in Christ, reconciled, a father, a Saviour, and a Friend, who has freely forgiven him all his sins, and given him the spirit of adoption: he is now no longer a servant, much less a stranger, but a son; and because a son, an heir already interested in all the promises, admitted to the throne of grace, and an assured expectant of eternal glory. The Gospel is designed to give us not only a peradventure or a probability, but a certainty both of our acceptance and our perseverance, till death shall be swallowed up in life. And though many are sadly fluctuating and perplexed upon this point, and perhaps all are so for a season;
Yet there are those who can say: “We know that we are of God,” and therefore they are stedfast and unmoveable in His way; because they are confident that their labour shall not be in vain, but that when they shall be absent from the body, they shall be present with their Lord. This is the state of the advanced, experienced Christian, who, being enabled to make his profession the chief business of his life, is strong in the Lord, and in the power of His might. Everyone .who has this hope in Christ, purifieth himself, even as He is pure.
I would now attempt a sketch of the Christian’s temper, formed upon these principles and hopes, under the leading branches of its exercise, respecting God, himself, and his fellow-creatures.
1. The Christian’s temper God-ward is evidenced by humility. He has received from Gethsemane and Golgotha such a sense of the evil of sin, and of the holiness of God, combined with His matchless love to sinners, as has deeply penetrated his heart; he has an
affecting remembrance of the state of rebellion and enmity in which he once lived against this holy and good God; and he has a quick perception of the defilements and defects which still debase his best services. His mouth is therefore stopped as to boasting; he is vile in his own eyes, and is filled with wonder, that the Lord should visit such a sinner with such a salvation. He sees so vast a disproportion between the obligations he is under to grace, and the returns he makes, that he is disposed, yea constrained, to adopt the apostle’s words without affectation, and to account himself less than the least of all saints; and knowing his own heart, while he sees only the outside of others, he is not easily persuaded there can be a believer upon earth so faint, so unfruitful, so unworthy as himself. Yet, though abased, he is not discouraged, for he enjoys peace. The dignity, offices, blood, righteousness, faithfulness, and compassion of the Redeemer, in whom he rests, trusts, and lives, for wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, are adequate to all his wants and wishes, provide him with an answer to every objection, and give him no less confidence in God, than if he were sinless as an angel: for he sees, that though sin has abounded in him, grace has much more abounded in Jesus.
With respect to the past, all things are become new; with respect to the present and future, he leans upon an almighty arm, and relies upon the word and power which made and upholds the heavens and the earth. Though he feels himself unworthy of the smallest mercies, he claims and expects the greatest blessings that God can bestow; and being rooted and grounded in the knowledge and love of Christ, his peace abides, and is not greatly affected, either by the variation of his own frames, or the changes of God’s dispensations towards him while here. With such a sense of himself, such a heartfelt peace and heavenly hope, how can his spirit but breathe love to his God and Saviour? It is indeed the perfection of his character and happiness, that his soul is united by love to the chief good. The love of Christ is the joy of his heart, and the spring of his obedience. With his Saviour’s presence, he finds a heaven begun upon earth; and without it, all the other glories of the heavenly state would not content him. The excellence of Christ, His love to sinners, especially His dying love; His love to himself in seeking and saving him when lost, saving him to the uttermost-But I must stop! Your lordship can better conceive than I can describe, how and why Jesus is dear to the heart that knows Him.
The truth of Christ’s love is manifested by submission. This is twofold, and absolute and without reserve in each. He submits to His revealed will, as made known to him by precept, and by His own example. He aims to tread in his Saviour’s footsteps, and makes conscience of all His commandments, without exception and
without hesitation. Again, he submits to His providential will; he yields to His sovereignty, acquiesces in His wisdom; he knows he has no right to complain of anything, because he is a sinner; and he has no reason, because he is sure the Lord does all things well. Therefore his submission is not forced, but is an act of trust. He knows he is not more unworthy than he is unable to choose for himself, and therefore rejoices that the Lord has undertaken to manage for him; and were he compelled to make his own choice, he could only choose that all his concerns should remain in that hand to which he has already committed them. His best concerns are safe;
and other things he holds as gifts from his Lord, to whose call he is ready to resign them, in whatever way He pleases, well knowing, that creatures and instruments cannot of themselves touch a hair of his head without the Lord’s permission, and that if He does permit them, it must be for the best.
2. I shall proceed to consider the Christian’s temper respecting himself. He lives godly and soberly. By sobriety we mean more than that he is not a drunkard; his tempers toward God, of course, form him to a moderation in all temporal things. He is not scrupulous or superstitious; he understands the liberty of the Gospel, that every creature of God is good if it be received with thanksgiving: he does not aim at being needlessly singular, nor practise self-devised austerities. The Christian is neither a stoic nor a cynic; yet he finds daily cause for watchfulness and restraint. Satan will not often tempt a believer to gross crimes: our greatest snares and sorest conflicts are usually found in things lawful in themsleves, but hurtful to us by their abuse, engrossing too much of our time, or of our hearts, or somehow indisposing us for communion with the Lord. The Christian will be jealous of anything that might entangle his affections, damp his zeal, or straiten him in his opportunities of serving his Saviour. He is likewise content with his situation, because the Lord chooses it for him; his spirit is not eager for additions and alterations in his circumstances.
3. A third branch of the Christian’s temper respects his fellow-creatures. And here, methinks, if I had not filled a sheet already, I could enlarge with pleasure. We have, in this degenerate day, among those who claim, and are allowed the name of Christian, too many of a narrow, selfish, mercenary spirit; but in the beginning it was not so. The Gospel is designed to cure such a spirit, and gives no indulgence to it. A Christian has the mind of Christ, who went about doing good, who makes His sun to shine upon the good and the evil, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust. His Lord’s example forms him to the habit of diffusive benevolence; he breathes a spirit of good-will to mankind, and rejoices in every opportunity of being useful to the souls and bodies of others, without respect to parties or
interests. He commiserates, and would, if possible, alleviate, the miseries of all around him; and if his actual services are restrained by want of ability, yet all share in his sympathy and prayers. Acting in the spirit of his Master, he frequently meets with a measure of the like treatment; but if his good is requited with evil, he labours to overcome evil with good. He feels himself a sinner, and needs much forgiveness: this makes him ready to forgive. He is not haughty, captious, easily offended, or hard to be reconciled; for at the feet of Jesus he has learned meekness; and when he meets with unkindness or injustice, he considers, that, though he has not deserved such things from men, they are instruments employed by his heavenly Father (from whom he has deserved to suffer much more), for his humiliation and chastisement; and is therefore more concerned for their sins than for his own sufferings, and prays, after the pattern of his Saviour, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!” He knows he is fallible; therefore cannot be positive. He knows he is frail; and therefore dares not be censorious. As a member of society, he is just, punctual in the discharge of every relative duty, faithful to his engagements and promises, rendering to all their dues, obedient to lawful authority, and acting to all men according to the golden rule, of doing as he would be done by. His conduct is simple, devoid of artifice, and consistent, attending to every branch of duty; and in the closet, the family, the church, and in the transactions of common life, he is the same man; for in every circumstance he serves the Lord, and aims to maintain a conscience void of offence in His sight. No small part of the beauty of his profession in the sight of men, consists in the due government of his tongue. The law of truth, and kindness, and purity, is upon his lips. He abhors lying; and is so far from inventing a slander, that he will not repeat a report to the disadvantage of his neighbour, however true, without a proper call. His converse is cheerful, but inoffensive;
and he will no more wound another with his wit (if he has a talent that way), than with a knife. His speech is with grace, seasoned with salt, and suited to promote the peace and edification of all around him.
Such is the Christian in civil life; but though he loves all mankind, he stands in a nearer relation, and bears an especial brotherly love, to all who are partakers of the faith and hope of the Gospel. This regard is not confined within the pale of a denomination, but extended to all who love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. He calls no man master himself; nor does he wish to impose a Shibboleth of his own upon others. He rejoices in the image of God, wherever he sees it, and in the work of God, wherever it is carried on. Though tenacious of the truths which the Lord has taught him, his heart is open to those who differ from him in less essential points, and allows
to others that right of private judgement which he claims for himself, and is disposed to hold communion in love with all who hold the Head. He cannot indeed countenance those who set aside the one foundation which God has laid in Zion, and maintain errors derogatory to the honour of his Saviour, or subversive of the faith and experience of His people; yet he wishes well to their persons, pities and prays for them, and is ready in meekness to instruct them that oppose: but there is no bitterness in his zeal, being sensible that railery and invective are dishonourable to the cause of truth, and quite unsuitable in the mouth of a sinner, who owes all that distinguishes him from the vilest of men to the free grace of God. In a word, he is influenced by the wisdom from above, which, as it is pure, is likewise peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good works, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.
I must just recur to my first head, and observe, that with this spirit and deportment, the Christian, while he is enabled to maintain a conscience void of offence towards God and man, is still sensible and mindful of indwelling sin: he has his eye more upon this rule than upon his attainments; and therefore finds and confesses, that in everything he comes exceedingly short, and that his best services are not only defective but defiled: he accounts himself an unprofitable servant, is abased in his own eyes, and derives all his hope and comfort, as well as his strength, from Jesus, whom he has known, received, and trusted, to whom he has committed his soul, in whom he rejoices, and worships God in the spirit, renouncing all confidence in the flesh, and esteeming all things as loss, for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus his Lord.
If I have lately been rather tardy in making my payments to your lordship, I have proportionably increased the quantity. It is high time I should now relieve your patience. I hope I long to be a Christian indeed; and I hope this hasty exemplification of my wishes will answer to your lordship’s experience better than I fear it does to my own. May I beg a remembrance in your prayers, that He who has given me to will and desire, may work in me to be and to do according to His own good pleasure.