A superb pastor
A synopsis of Geoff Thomas’ church history lecture John Newton, the supreme pastor
delivered at Cowley Hill Free Church, Borehamwood, on 17 March 2007.
John Newton was the subject of a godly mother’s prayers. Her life was dogged by physical weakness, but as soon as her young ‘Samuel’ was old enough she not only took him to public worship but also took pains to teach him verses of Scripture and hymns from Isaac Watts’ Divine and moral songs. She watered the seed by her many prayers, beseeching the Lord to call her son not only by grace but to the work of the Christian ministry.
Mrs Newton was not permitted to live to see her prayers answered, but in God’s good time and way they were. Every true prayer indicted in the heart by the Holy Spirit is registered in heaven and will not fail of its objective.
John Newton was preserved from an unregenerate grave. When his father took him to sea at the tender age of eleven, he could hardly have introduced his impressionable son to an environment more likely to corrupt him. Throwing aside all restraint, the young Newton became (by his own admission) even worse than the profane, immoral and hard-drinking sailors who were his daily companions.
With the recklessness of youth, seen in so many young people today, Newton engaged in activities – and got himself into situations – which were truly dangerous. But the Lord’s protecting hand was upon him. For example, Newton, a non-swimmer, once tried to jump overboard to retrieve a lost hat, only to be pulled back by his crew-mates.
God also used Newton’s love for the youthful Mary Catlett to stay his hand when he was tempted to end his own life when it became intolerable.
There is something here for godly parents today – burdened by the ungodliness of children who, in spite of spiritual advantages enjoyed in early years, have thrown themselves into the world. Here is a comforting reminder of God’s restraining love and power. Not one of the ‘vessels of mercy’ will be shattered but will rather become a vessel fit for the Master’s use.
The elect of God, while still unregenerate, may try to run but they cannot hide. The Holy Spirit will always track them down and in God’s sovereign time effectually call them to faith in Christ. Neither is he ever at a loss for means to accomplish the great work of conversion.
In Newton’s case the Lord used a terrifying storm at sea to awaken the prodigal to spiritual realities and make him face the truth about his lost and guilty state before God. It was while Newton was lashed to the helm at the height of the tempest that the Holy Spirit brought to the despairing sailor’s mind verses of Scripture learnt years before and apparently forgotten.
Then, when John had been brought to a seeking state – and on board a slave ship of all places – he providentially came across a copy of Bishop Beveridge’s sermon The merits of Christ’s passion.
What a reminder of the need to make clear gospel sermons available today! Are we really producing the kind of literature which could guide a modern sinner to Christ, as Beveridge’s sermon guided John Newton?
Winston Churchill, appointed as Prime Minister early in the Second World War, wrote, ‘I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial’.
Something similar can be said of Newton as we consider how God prepared him for the gospel ministry. His years before the mast; his remarkable conversion; his marriage to Mary Catlett; his years as Tide Surveyor in Liverpool – all were the Holy Spirit’s training for the great work that lay ahead.
When John finally settled at Olney in 1764 at the age of 39 he was far better fitted for the long ministry that lay before him than if he had merely spent a few years in the rarified atmosphere of a theological seminary.
Scripture, as well as common observation, teaches that the Holy Spirit distributes different gifts to different people. John’s particular gifts equipped him to be an exceptional pastor – serving his own generation and, through his writings, posterity.
Newton’s closest ministerial friends (William Bull and Richard Cecil) were not impressed with him as a preacher. Nevertheless, the common people heard him gladly and he soon built up congregations of grateful hearers – both at Olney where he went in 1764 and at St Mary Woolnoth, London, from 1779.
A power attended Newton’s preaching of ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’ that calls to mind Goldsmith’s beautiful description of the faithful village preacher in The deserted village – ‘Truth from his lips prevailed with double sway; And fools, who came to scoff, remain’d to pray’.
Newton possessed the gift of letter writing to a larger extent than many of his contemporaries. His own rich spiritual experience, coupled with a truly pastoral heart and a mastery of English prose, made him a correspondent of such rare value that many who received his letters never destroyed them. For this the church must ever remain grateful for Newton himself made no copies of his correspondence.
In reading Newton’s letters today one often longs for a revival of real letter-writing – that Christians would begin to redeem the time better and give more time to thought, meditation and spiritual communication.
Do we achieve half as much with our e-mails and print-outs as Newton and his contemporaries did with their handwritten epistles? The possibilities for usefulness are endless and John Newton still points the way forward.
Although Newton started writing hymns before he settled in Olney, it was in that quiet Buckinghamshire town that he really set about the task in earnest. In collaboration with his dear friend and neighbour, the poet William Cowper, he produced the Olney hymns, mainly for the use of his flock at their mid-week prayer-meetings.
In other words, it was pastoral concern that again unlocked Newton’s gifts and provided the church of Christ with some of its finest hymns. Newton’s compositions are still of great pastoral value today and we should make full use of them.
His gift of personal counselling was another ability that made John Newton an exceptional pastor. His ability to deal with all manner of people, on a one-to-one basis, led to some remarkable long-term consequences.
Consider, for example, the patient, affectionate and prayerful way in which Newton handled his near neighbour, Rev. Thomas Scott – a man full of intellectual pride and self-righteousness – and how successful he was in catching this ‘big fish’ in the gospel net.
Scott went on to exercise a faithful public ministry himself, and write The force of truth and a Commentary on the whole Bible.
Then there was Hannah More, a talented young woman wholly taken up with fashionable society and its various pursuits until brought into contact with Newton. The old sea captain was largely instrumental in Hannah’s conversion, who devoted her later years to ministering, by pen and by purse, to the poor and ignorant around her.
And we must not forget William Wilberforce. As we celebrate the abolition of the British slave trade 200 years ago, we should recall that John Newton played a major part in directing young Wilberforce towards his crowning achievement.
Newton’s pastoral care for the afflicted was demonstrated when he and Mary took into their manse their friend and neighbour William Cowper, when his mental condition began to deteriorate. The original plan was for Cowper to visit for just a few days but his actual stay lasted no less than fourteen months!
Only those who have had to reside with a loved one suffering mental illness will know just what this would have involved for John and Mary. Such Christians will not miss their heavenly reward when their Lord and Master comes again – ‘And the King will answer and say to them, “Assuredly I say to you, Inasmuch as you did it to one of these the least of my brethren, you did it to me”’ (Matthew 25:40).
When Pastor Tom Hill included in his closing prayer a plea that the Lord would look upon us in mercy and, in these days of great declension, raise up more faithful ministers among us, he was expressing the feelings of many who had listened so attentively to this fine lecture.
P. D. Johnson