Recently, I have been blocking off a little more time to work on a book I hope to write on John Newton. I believe Newton to be a great model of a pastor-theologian that provides a wonderful pattern of effective soul-care and evangelical Calvinism.
One particular area that I feel we “Young, Restless, and Reformed” can learn from Newton is in the way he held his Calvinism, and how he debate it—or rather how he did not debate it.
In June of 1772 he published a letter On the Doctrines of Election and Final Perseverance (you can read that here). Shortly thereafter a Methodist preacher by the name of Nicholas Manners published a detailed line by line response to Newton. (I can’t find it online but you can buy it here).
Let’s imagine that this took place in 2011. Newton wrote an article on a popular blog (let’s say The Gospel Coalition). To this another brother strongly disagreed and posted a lengthy series on his personal blog, going through Newton’s article line by line and disputing it.
What would be the typical response in 2011?
Pop your knuckles, get your Mountain Dew, sit at your swivel chair, and slam out a response. Line by line. Defending your argument and your dearly loved doctrine, under the guise of gospel fidelity.
You know what Newton did?
That’s right. Nothing. “He let the dispute die in silence” (Hindmarsh, 162)
Why? As Bruce Hindmarsh has rightly noted, “He [Newton] was increasingly convinced that a person became a Calvinist through personal experience, not by argument” (162).
Newton to Ryland: Be Helpful, Not Displeasing
His advice to a young John Ryland is worth heading. After a young and seemingly arrogant Ryland wrote in his book of poetry that he “aimed to displease the Arminians”, Newton responded thus:
You say, I aimed to displease the Arminians, I had rather you had aimed to be useful to them, than to displease them. There are many Arminians who are so only for want of clearer light. They fear the Lord, and walk humbly before him. And as they go on, by an increasing acquaintance with their own hearts and the word of God, their objections and difficulties gradually subside. And in the Lord’s time (for he is the only effectual teacher) they receive the doctrines of grace which they were once afraid of.
Now these should not be displeased, by our endeavoring to declare the truth in terms the most offensive to them which we can find, but we should rather seek out the softest and most winning way of encountering their prejudices. Otherwise we make a parade, and grow big with a sense of our own wisdom and importance, but we shall do little good.
Our Lord you know taught his disciples that they were able to bear it, he did not aim to displease them though it is pretty plain they had a good deal of the Arminian spirit in them for some time after they began to follow him. You will perhaps say, ‘An humble Arminian, Surely that is impossible!’ I believe it not more impossible to find a humble Arminian, than a proud and self-sufficient Calvinist. The doctrines of grace are humbling, that is in their power and experience, but a man may hold them all in the notion, and be very proud. He certainly is so, if he thinks his assenting to them is a proof of his humility, and despises others are proud and ignorant in comparison of himself. (Wise Counsel, 15)
If we Calvinist long for our brothers and sisters to savor the doctrines of grace that we so treasure, perhaps the best way to see that happen would be for us to relish them ourselves, to trust the Lord’s sovereignty in this matter as well, and go about our days enjoying God’s grace and extending His glory.
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