On August 24, 1774, John Newton sent a letter to a young who left out in life. First, as a wise counselor, Newton begins by seeking engagement with the young man. He does not merely throw advice at him from a distance, but Newton draws up close and shows a personal concern for this man at this time.
Newton begins with the circumstances of their parting. Newton is careful enough to note even the manner of speech and his own conduct at the meeting:
THE lowness of your voice, and a blameable absence of mind on my part, prevented me from understanding what you said when you took your leave of me; nor did I just at that instant recollect that you were so soon going away.
Such careful involvement with the life of the person addressed is a necessary aspect of love in counseling. One must not merely offer information. Rather an honest concern with the life of the other is necessary, or the knowledge has been given without love.
Next, Newton notes the natural advantages of the young man, both a fortune and a good upbringing by his part. Newton notes a thing which is invisible to young men — the necessity of a wise restraint to obtain that which is good:
How many at your years, who have been brought up in affluence, are unprincipled, uninstructed, and have already entered upon a course of dissipation and folly, in which it is impossible they themselves can find satisfaction, and which (unless they are reclaimed from it by an Almighty arm) will infallibly preclude them from usefulness or esteem!
He then commends to the young the gift of God in the manner of the young man’s life:
What may I not then further hope from these beginnings, especially as it is easy to observe that He has given you an amiable and promising disposition of spirit,
It is easy to forget that our very lives, including our intelligence and disposition, are gifts from God. Moreover, Newton points to God as the source of the restraint from foolishness as a gift of God.
Having noted the grace of his prior restrain from foolishness, Newton briefly addresses the vanity of the creature — but not as an end in itself, but rather as a stepping stone to the satisfaction of the Creator:
[perhaps] you feel a vanity in science, an emptiness in creatures, and find that you have desires which only He who gave them can satisfy
Restraint is not a negative move; rather it is a necessary step to obtain that which is greater. By getting on an airplane, we restrain our options for the moment so as to obtain the greater good of the destination. Newton quickly moves through possible infidelities and distractions which may meet the young man on the way.
Newton notes that the life of Christian is the only possible way to fit one for a fruitful life in this world — but he does not stop there. All the things of this life are not worth comparison to the goodness of Christ:
But then, the religion, which only deserves the name, must come from above; it must be suited to the state and wants of a sinner; it must be capable of comforting the heart; it must take away the sting and dread of death; and fix our confidence upon One who is always able to help us. Such is the religion of Jesus, such are its effects, and such are the criteria whereby we are to judge of the various forms and schemes under which it is proposed to us. But I forbear; I am only reminding you of what you know, and what you have known to be verified by living and dying examples.
This happiness, my dear sir, is open to you, to all who seek. He is enthroned in heaven, but prayer will bring him down to the heart. Indeed, he is always before-hand with us; and if we feel one desire towards him, we may accept it as a token that he gave it us to encourage us to ask for more.
Newton keeps his own on the end: there will be death, there will be judgment. No degree of distraction of foolishness in this world can avoid that end. Only Christ is a sufficient ground for our life and happiness.
I wish to underscore especially two elements of Newton’s commending Christ. First, Christ is brought near by prayer:
He is enthroned in heaven, but prayer will bring him down to the heart.
Our need commends us to Christ and draws Christ to our heart.
Second, the fact that we desire Christ is evidence that Christ desires our company — and thus should encourage us to come to Him:
if we feel one desire towards him, we may accept it as a token that he gave it us to encourage us to ask for more.
In the end, this letter brings comfort to all by reminding us that Christ will come to our heart — and that our desire for Christ is a proof that Christ will come to us.
John Newton, Richard Cecil, The Works of the John Newton, vol. 1 (London: Hamilton, Adams & Co., 1824), 633.