Friday, March 16, 2007

John Newton on God’s Sovereignty and Sin

Justin Taylor, Between Two Worlds, has a blog post titled: If God Is Sovereign, and God Hates Sin, Why Does He Permit Sin? In his post he reflects on one of John Newton’s letters dealing with the issue of the sovereignty of God and the existence of sin or more precisely how to reconcile what we know as believers with what we experience.

Newton, if you have read about his life, experienced and perpetrated the sin that he later so very much detested. Thus, the question of God being sovereign and sin existing in the world would have been a very real part of Newton’s thinking and reflections. We would do well to listen to how God speaks through him, even today, to help us better understand this often difficult question.

The issue in the question often comes down to how to understand what we know and what we experience:

Newton says concerning the believer and the relationship or knowledge to experience:

In short, he is dead to the world, to sin, to self, but alive to God, and lively in his service. Prayer is his breath, the word of God his food, and the ordinances more precious to him than the light of the sun. Such is a believer in his judgement and prevailing desires.
But was I to describe him from experience, especially at some times, how different would the picture be! Though he knows that communion with God is his highest privilege, he too seldom finds it so; on the contrary, if duty, conscience, and necessity did not compel, he would leave the throne of grace unvisited from day to day. He takes up the Bible, conscious that it is the fountain of life and true comfort; yet perhaps while he is making the reflection, he feels a secret distaste, which prompts him to lay it down, and give his preference to a newspaper.

It is often our experience that leads to ask, How can it be?:

Newton says these issues lead us to ask two questions:

First,-How can these things be, or why are they permitted?
How they may be mitigated?

To the first he says, in part:

By these exercises he teaches us more truly to know and feel the utter depravity and corruption of our whole nature, that we are indeed defiled in every part. His method of salvation is likewise hereby exceedingly endeared to us; we see that it is and must be of grace, wholly of grace; and that the Lord Jesus Christ, and his perfect righteousness, is and must be our all in all.
His power likewise in maintaining his own work, notwithstanding our infirmities, temptations, and enemies, is hereby displayed in the clearest light, his strength is manifested in our weakness.

Satan likewise is more remarkably disappointed and put to shame, when he finds bounds set to his rage and policy, beyond which he cannot pass; and that those in whom he finds so much to work upon, and over whom he so often prevails for a season, escape at last out of his hands. He casts them down, but they are raised again; he wounds them, but they are healed: he obtains his desire to sift them as wheat, but the prayer of their great Advocate prevails for the maintenance of their faith.

Further, by what believers feel in themselves they learn by degrees how to warn, pity, and bear with others. A soft, patient, and compassionate spirit, and a readiness and skill in comforting those who are cast down, is not perhaps attainable in any other way. And lastly, I believe nothing more habitually reconciles a child of God to the thought of death, than the wearisomeness of this warfare.

Death is unwelcome to nature; but then, and not till then, the conflict will cease. Then we shall sin no more. The flesh, with all its attendant evils, will be laid in the grave, then the soul, which has been partaker of a new and heavenly birth, shall be freed from every encumbrance, and stand perfect in the Redeemer's righteousness before God in glory.

To the second he replies (this is just part of his answer):

Faithfulness to light received, and a sincere endeavour to conform to the means prescribed in the word of God, with an humble application to the blood of sprinkling, and the promised Spirit, will undoubtedly be answered by increasing measures of light, faith, strength, and comfort; and we shall know, if we follow on to know the Lord.

I would encourage you to read the entire letter here and check out Justin’s blog to see the comments that he receives on Newton’s response to a question that is not new.

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