THE EVIL A BELIEVER WOULD NOT DO – IF HE COULD
A letter from John Newton to Lord Dartmouth dated March 1772.
I think my last letter turned upon the apostle’s thought, Galatians 5:17, “You cannot do the things that you would.” In the parallel place, Romans 7:19, there is another clause subjoined, “The evil which I would not do, that I do.” This, added to the former, would complete the dark side of my experience. Permit me to tell your lordship a little part, (for some things must not, cannot be told) not of what I have read, but of what I have felt, in illustration of this passage.
I would not be the sport and prey of wild, vain, foolish, and vile imaginations; but this evil is present with me! My heart is like an open highway – like a city without walls or gates. Nothing so false, so frivolous, so absurd, so impossible, or so horrid, but it can obtain access, and that at any time, or in any place! Neither the study, the pulpit, nor even the Lord’s table, exempt me from their intrusion.
But if this awful effect of heart-depravity cannot be wholly avoided in the present state of human nature, yet, at least, I would not allow and indulge it; yet this I find I do. In defiance of my best judgment and best wishes, I find something within me, which cherishes and cleaves to those evils, from which I ought to be horrified by, and flee from, as I would if a toad or a serpent was put in my food or in my bed. Ah! how vile must the heart (at least my heart) be, that can hold a parley with such abominations, when I so well know their nature and their tendency. Surely he who finds himself capable of this, may, without the least affectation of humility (however fair his outward conduct appears), subscribe himself less than the least of all saints, and the very chief of sinners!
I would not be influenced by a principle of SELF on any occasion; yet this evil I often do. I see the baseness and absurdity of such a conduct, as clearly as I see the light of the day. I do not affect to be thought ten feet tall and I know that a desire of being thought wise or good, is equally contrary to reason and truth. I would be grieved or angry if my fellow-creatures supposed I had such a desire! And therefore, I fear the very principle of SELF, of which I complain, has a considerable share in prompting my desires to conceal it. The pride of others often offends me, and makes me studious to hide my own; because their good opinion of me depends much upon their not perceiving it. But the Lord knows how this dead fly taints and spoils my best services, and makes them no better than splendid sins.
I would not indulge vain reasonings concerning the counsels, ways, and providences of God; yet I am prone to do it! That the Judge of all the earth will do right, is to me as evident and necessary as that two plus two make four. I believe that He has a sovereign right to do what He will with his own, and that this sovereignty is but another name for the unlimited exercise of wisdom and goodness. But my reasonings are often such, as if I had never heard of these principles, or had formally renounced them! I feel the workings of a presumptuous spirit, that would account for every thing, and venture to dispute whatever it cannot comprehend. What an evil is this, for a potsherd of the earth to contend with its Maker! I do not act thus towards my fellow-creatures; I do not find fault with the decisions of a judge, or the dispositions of a general, because, though I know they are fallible, yet I suppose they are wiser in their respective departments than myself. But I am often ready to take this liberty when it is most unreasonable and inexcusable.
I would not cleave to a covenant of works. It would seem from the foregoing particulars, and many others which I could mention, that I have reasons enough to deter me from this. Yet even this I do. Not but that I say, and I hope from my heart, “Enter not into judgment with your servant, O Lord.” I embrace it as a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptance, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners; and it is the main pleasure and business of my life, to set forth the necessity and all sufficiency of the Mediator between God and Man, and to make mention of his righteousness, even of his alone. But here, as in everything else, I find a vast difference between my judgment and my experience.
I am invited to take the water of life freely, yet am often discouraged, because I have nothing with which to pay for it. If I am at times favoured with some liberty from the above-mentioned evils, it rather gives me a more favourable opinion of myself, than increases my admiration of the Lord’s goodness to so unworthy a creature; and when the returning tide of my corruptions convinces me that I am still the same, an unbelieving legal spirit would urge me to conclude that the Lord is changed. At least I feel a weariness of being indebted to him for such continued multiplied forgiveness. And I fear that some part of my striving against sin, and my desires after an increase of sanctification, arise from a secret wish that I might not be so absolutely and entirely indebted to him.
This, my lord, is only a faint sketch of my depraved heart; but it is taken from the life! It would require a volume rather than a letter, to fill up the outlines. But I believe you will not regret that I choose to say no more upon such a subject. But though my disease is grievous, it is not desperate; I have a gracious and infallible Physician. I shall not die but live, and declare the works of the Lord.