Gordon, Grant. Ed. Wise Counsel: John Newton’s Letters to John Ryland Jr. Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2009.
It is with much sadness that my reading of Wise Counsel has come to an end. I began in May of this year and slowly worked through the 83 letters of John Newton written to John Ryland Jr. This isn’t a work you speed through. These letters are meant to be read slowly, thoughtfully, carefully. They are full of gospel truth. They are warm, pastoral, encouraging, and hopeful. They are full of wisdom, love, encouragement, and most importantly Christ. They are letters of a spiritual father to his beloved son in Christ.
Newton and Ryland’s correspondence began in 1771 and lasted for 31 years (403). Ryland, the Baptist and Newton the high-churchman. The Baptists referred to Newton as “Father Newton.” Newton was influential in the modern missionary movement because through his relationship with Ryland he in turn influenced William Carey’s ministry. Newton also regularly spoke into the life of William Wilberforce who worked tirelessly for the abolition of slavery in England. Newton lived just long enough to see the slave trade abolished in 1807. Newton died later that year on December 21st. He wrote of his long life and expected death, “I am packed and sealed, and waiting for the post” (400). He was ready to return to his Lord Jesus. Ryland died in 1825 at the age of seventy-two. Both pastors left a legacy of passionate work and godly wisdom.
In reflecting on their many years of correspondence, Newton wrote: “We began when you were a lad and I a curate and we have gone on till you are grown into a doctor and I am dignified with the title of rector” (404). Thirty-one years of godly correspondence.
Wise Counsel is a gift to the church. It is specifically useful as a gift to new, young pastors. It is Newton’s correspondence to Ryland, a young pastor. And it’s not just a recollection of letters between two pastors, but the letters tell a story of their relationship with one another. When I finished reading these letters it left me feeling a bit empty, because when the letters ended it felt as if the relationship was over. But at the same time, it left me wanting to read more Newton. That isn’t a bad thing.
Newton’s wisdom shines throughout. Here are twenty of my favorite quotes:
- In giving counsel to the young Ryland, Newton commends him: “Let us give ourselves to the study of the word, and to prayer; and may the great Teacher make every scriptural truth food to our souls. I desire to grow in knowledge, but I want nothing which bears that name that has not a direct tendency to make sin more hateful, Jesus more precious to my soul; and at the same time to animate me to a diligent use of every appointed means, and an unreserved regard to every branch of duty” (21).
- Newton on how our feelings deceive us but Christ is constant: “When he enables you to do all things, you are no better in yourselves than you were before. And when you feel you can do nothing, you are no worse. Your experiences will vary, but his love and promises are always unchangeable” (36).
- Newton reminded Ryland of how the Lord in his divine power truly doesn’t need us: “The Lord is pleased to take of some of his most eminent servants in the height of their usefulness, to caution those who are left not to presume upon their fancied importance. He can do without the best of us” (63).
- Newton on political turmoil (on the brink of the Revolutionary War): “I believe the Lord reigns, that He is carrying on his great purposes in a straight line, that his wall shall be built in troublous times, and that He will be a sure sanctuary to them that fear him” (84).
- When overwhelmed by fear and anxiety: “I remind myself, of what I have frequently reminded you. The Lord is gracious, he remembers our frame, and knows we are but dust, and when our spirits are overwhelmed within us, his eye is upon our path. Through mercy I am not wholly destitute of hope in his goodness, and submission to his will, but when touched in a tender part the coward flesh will shrink. Pray for us that He may reveal his all-sufficiency to our heart, and enable us to glorify him, and that if it be his good pleasure, he may first sanctify and then relieve, send health and cure and reveal the abundance of peace and truth” (116).
- On suffering: “Say that we are creatures, sinful pardoned creatures, bought with the blood of Jesus, that our Saviour is our shepherd, that He is infinitely wise and good in himself, and has engaged his wisdom and goodness in our behalf; that He suffered for us, and calls us by grace that we may suffer for him; say farther that every event we are concerned in is under his immediate direction, and all to work for good; that what we call heavy is light and the long and tedious but momentary, as to our true existence and when compared with the weight of glory, and the length of eternity to which they lead. Let all these truths be planted like so many cannon in your defence and see whether self will and unbelief will dare to look them in the face.” (123-124).
- On the danger of soulless doctrine: “We may be very orthodox, skilled in defence of the five points, satisfied that our constitution of church order is the very best in the world, and yet be lamentably cold and formal in the feelings of our hearts toward him [Christ]” (128).
- On how our foes can be our friends: “Fas est et ab hoste doceri (It is right to learn even from an enemy). Your foes will prove your friends, if they urge you to keep close to the throne of grace for wisdom, meekness, and patience” (222).
- On the pending death of his beloved wife, Mary: “He has spared us together more than forty years. I have more reason to be thankful for the long loan, so undeserved by me, and which I have deserved to forfeit every day, than to complain that he is now about to recall his own. I have ten thousand mercies to be thankful for. O magnify the Lord with me and let us exalt his name together” (237).
- On how suffering is a school teaching us Christ’s wisdom: “There is no school like the cross. There men are made wise unto salvation; wise to win souls. In a crucified Saviour are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. And the tongue of the truly learned, that can speak a word in season to them that are weary, is not acquired, like Greek and Latin, by reading great books, but by self-knowledge and soul exercises” (243).
- How contentious debates, and disputes in the church are from Satan: “To draw those who are engaged in one cause into contest about words and phrases is an old device of the enemy… Pruritus disputandi scabies ecclesiae (An itch for disputing is the infection of the church)” (258).
- On pastors who seek greener pastures: “Considering that our Lord’s kingdom is not of this world, I have thought it a little strange, that when his ministers think He calls them to leave one charge for another, it should almost universally be from less to more; to a better income, a larger town or a more genteel congregation. We seldom have an instance of a retrograde call” (262).
- On the current disunity and future unity of the church: “I am comforted with the thought that the hour is coming, when we shall all be of one mind. May we now be of one heart! There are neither Churchmen nor Dissenters, neither Independents, Baptists, nor Methodists in heaven. They are all worshippers and followers of the lamb that was slain” (319).
- On trials that face the church: “A storm that drives the sheep of Christ (who scatter and divide themselves) closer together, may be preferable to a calm, which by seducing them into a wrong spirit makes them ready to bite and devour each other” (320).
- How the intermingling of politics with religion has done much harm: “My whole concern with politics is to tell the people that the Lord reigns, that all hearts are in his hands, that creatures are all instruments of his will, and can do neither more nor less than he, for wise reasons, appoints or permits; that sin is the procuring cause of all misery; that they who sigh and mourn for our abominations and stand in the breach pleading for mercy, are better patriots than they who talk loudly about men and measures, or either side” (324).
- On avoiding controversy: “I preach Jesus Christ and him crucified, and tell my hearers, that if they love him for his great love to them, they ought to love one another. I have nothing to do with controversies” (335).
- On rejoicing in others successes regardless of tribe: “If they preach the truth in love, live as they preach, and are wise and watchful to win souls, and to feed the flock, I care not much whether they are called, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Church-men, Kirkmen, or Methodists. I desire to rejoice in their success, on every side” (371).
- His contemplation of being with Christ as he faced old age: “When I think of the aboundings of sin, and the calamities with which sin filled the earth at home and abroad, I am not sorry that my stay in such a miserable world cannot now be long. But my times are in the Lord’s hand. I am aiming to live with Him by the day, and to leave the rest to Him, who, I am sure, does and will do all things well. I have been long learning this lesson but alas! I am a dull scholar” (379-380).
- Even in the midst of “comparative darkness” Newton found encouragement in Christ and his word: “But, precious Bible, what a treasure! Blessed be the Lord, I can see that my acceptance, and perseverance, do not depend upon my frames or feelings, but upon the power, compassion, care and faithfulness of Him, who in the midst of all the changes to which we are exposed in this wilderness state, is unchangeably the same, yesterday, today, and forever” (396).
- Newton never lost his sense of God’s amazing grace. In his last letter to Ryland, at the age of 78, he writes: “I am singular and striking proof, that the atoning blood of Jesus can cleanse from the most enormous sins, that His grace can soften the hardest heart, subdue the most obstinate habits of evil, and that He is indeed able to save to the uttermost” (396-397).
Two things struck me as I worked through these letters, two things I long for the church to recover:
First and foremost, discipleship is a lost art of the church. And given that this is the primary and chief mission of the church we are in dire straits. Older pastors are not training, discipling, nor mentoring younger pastors. Younger pastors are not submitting themselves to the wisdom and godly counsel of older leaders. Even though Newton and Ryland’s relationship was chiefly through letters it remained a relationship of discipleship. Oh, how desperately we need to recover this.
Second, letter writing is a lost art. It’s highly doubtful that future generations will ever read our emails or texts for spiritual encouragement. This is a great loss to the church. I hope and pray that we followers of Christ fall in love with letters again. Not just the reading of godly letters, as valuable as they are, but the lost art and practice of writing letters of encouragement to one another. Let us pick up pen and paper and set aside the time to intentionally encourage someone today. Oh, how the church would be if we purposefully sought to lift up and encourage one another through the art of letter writing.
Newton’s wise counsel was a gift to John Ryland Jr. and it remains a gift to us today. May we take up and read these letters of gospel encouragement!
 The historian in me also laments the lost art of letter writing because biographies are often formed and shaped from letters. If we are not writing letters then we are not leaving a trail of our spiritual lives for others to follow. What will future generations have from us? Texts, blog posts, emails, Facebook and Twitter posts. We are leaving future generations impoverished.