A friend of Newton, nearing death, asked him to explain 2 Corinthians 5:10, which states that we will all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.
Newton realized his friend was not merely concerned with an exegetically difficult text: His friend was really concerned with the question of Judgment Day: How will not be put to shame if we are going to still be judged for our sins — even if they are forgiven? Is Christ going to tell everyone every sin I have ever committed? If Christ does this, how will I live?
If Newton merely answered the exegetical question without looking to the heart which underlay that question, he would not have comforted the heart of a friend who was nearing death.
Therefore, Newton begins with (1) an acknowledgement that his friend is nearing death; and (2) some words of comfort:
MY heart congratulates you. What changes and events many in younger life may be reserved to see, who can tell? but your pilgrimage is nearly finished. You stand upon the river’s brink, with the city full in view, waiting and wishing for the appointed hour: you need not be anxious concerning your passage; for every circumstance attending it is already adjusted by Infinite Wisdom and Love, and the King himself will be ready to receive you.
Newton thus first strikes at the heart of the question: Does God really love me? The letter ultimately concerns assurance: Assurance not only of bare salvation, but assurance of welcome? Will I make it to Heaven and then be put to shame?
Newton now comes to state the issue. Notice how he phrases the issue in a willingness to help. Pastoral work can be taxing, and it is easy to not want to respond to one-more question. Moreover, many people think they are intruding or burdening their pastor by asking questions:
While you continue here, I am glad to hear from you, and should be glad to contribute in any way or degree to your satisfaction, or even to shew my willingness, if I can do no more. I can propose little more than the latter, by offering my thoughts on the subject you propose from 2 Cor. 5:10, and the apparent difficulty of understanding that passage in full harmony with the many texts which seem expressly to assert, that the sins of believers are so forgiven as to be remembered no more.
Notice how Newton phrases the question: The difficulty here is that 2 Corinthians 5:10 does not easily harmonize with other passages.
The next paragraph concerns the problem of textual difficulties at all. This understanding of how to handle a text fits with any number of exegetically difficult passages.
Here is the structure of this paragraph:
Since the Scripture is perfect, the difficulties we find in Scripture lie with our limitations (“narrowness of our faculties”).
- This is a necessary aspect of our current life.
- This is temporary.
- Read the Scripture in faith.
- Receive the plain declarations.
- Don’t have a curiosity into things not revealed (remember the point above, we are currently limited; there are things which are true which children cannot comprehend. In spiritual matters we are little better than children).
There is doubtless (as you observe) a perfect consistence in every part of the word of God: the difficulties we meet with are wholly owing to the narrowness of our faculties, and the ignorance which in some degree is inseparable from our present state of imperfection. And we may, in general, rest satisfied with the thought that there is a bright moment approaching, when the vail shall be wholly taken away. It is the part of faith to rest upon the plain declarations of Scripture, without indulging a blameable curiosity of knowing more than is clearly revealed; yet while we humbly depend upon Divine teaching, it is right to aim at as enlarged a sense of what is revealed as we can attain to. Every acquisition of this kind is more valuable than gold, especially respecting those points which have an immediate tendency to comfort and support us under the view of an approaching dissolution: the question you have proposed is undoubtedly of this nature.
He next prays that he does lives up to these standards for reading. He also notes that he has consulted a reliable commentator and has found his reading accords with the commentator.
May the Lord direct my thoughts and pen that I may not “darken counsel by words without knowledge!”—I have been looking over the passage you refer to in Dr. Ridgley, and think I might be well excused from saying any thing further on the subject, as he hath briefly and fully stated all the arguments that have occurred to me on either side of the question, and closes with a proper caution not to be peremptory in determining, lest by attempting to be wise above what is written, I should betray my own folly. Yet as you desire to have my thoughts, I must say something. I wish I may not give you reason to think that this caution has been lost upon me.
He now turns to the passage directly.
- There are great and plain truths in the Scripture.
- The plain truths are repeated throughout.
- There difficulties.
- But any contradiction is only an apparent contradiction.
- Heretics take a difficult passage out of harmony with the rest of Scripture.
- The ultimate context to understand any passage is not just the immediate context, but the entire Scripture (“the analogy of faith”).
- Turning to 2 Corinthians 5:10
- We know that the Scripture plainly teaches that we are freely and full forgiven.
- He proves this point with multiple quotations: This is not merely to take time or fill space. The friend is frightened. By repeating several Scriptures on the same point, Newton is helping to calm and teach his friend.
I think all the great truths in which we are concerned are clearly and expressly laid down, not only in one, but in many places of Scripture; but it sometimes happens, that here and there we meet with a text, which, in the first and obvious sound of the words, seems to speak differently from what is asserted more largely elsewhere; which texts, singly taken, afford some men their only ground for the hypothesis they maintain. Thus the Arians lay a great stress on John 14:28, and the Arminians on James 2:24, &c. But their true interpretation is to be sought according to the analogy of faith. They are capable of a sense agreeable to the others, though the others are not intelligible in the sense they would fix upon these. In like manner I would say, whatever may be the precise meaning of 2 Cor. 5:10, we are sure it cannot be designed to weaken what we are taught, in almost every page, of the free, absolute, and unalterable nature of a believer’s justification; the benefit of which, as to the forgiveness of sin, is signified by the phrases of “blotting out.” “not remembering,” “casting behind the back,” and “into the depths of the sea.” The sins of a believer are so effectually removed, that, even when, or if, they are sought for, they cannot be found. For Jesus has borne them away: believers are complete in him, and clothed in his righteousness. They shall stand before God without spot or wrinkle. Who shall lay any thing to their charge?
Newton continues his exegesis of the passage. He then turns to what is meant by the passages speak of our full forgiveness.
B.2: The forgiveness as to the guilt, imputation and consequences of sin.
a. Plainly God cannot not know something.
b. Moreover, I doubt we will ever be able to really forget our sins.
But it is probable that those stray expressions, chiefly, if not entirely, respect the guilt, imputation, and deserved consequences of sin. None can suppose that the Lord will or can forget the sins of his people, or that they can be ever hid from his all-comprehending view. Neither can I think they themselves will forget them.
This leads to a problem: How then can we possibly be happy if our sins are remembered? Newton is now touching upon the very real issue raised by his friend. Notice how Newton solves this problem by referring to Scripture.
At this point, Newton explains that our happiness with Christ will not be made less when we see our sin — rather, in Christ’s economy, our sins — now fully overcome — will be like so many dead enemies on the shore:
Their song is founded upon a recollection of their sins and their circumstances in this life, Rev. 5:9; and their love, and consequently their happiness, seems inseparably connected with the consciousness of what they were, and what they had done. Luke 7:47. And I think those are the sweetest moments in this life, when we have the clearest sense of our own sins, provided the sense of our acceptance in the Beloved is proportionably clear, and we feel the consolations of his love, notwithstanding all our transgressions. When we arrive in glory, unbelief and fear will cease for ever: our nearness to God, and communion with him, will be unspeakably beyond what we can now conceive. Therefore the remembrance of our sins will be no abatement of our bliss, but rather the contrary. When Pharaoh and his host were alive, and pursuing them, the Israelites were terrified: but afterwards, when they saw their enemies dead upon the shore, their joy and triumph were not abated, but heightened by the consideration of their number.
Newton is here cautious to yet another trouble. The poor man may think Newton is merely “saying that” because Newton is not fearful of his own sins being exposed, because Newton is not much of a sinner:
With respect to our sins being made known to others, I acknowledge with you, that I could not now bear to have any of my fellow-creatures made acquainted with what passes in my heart for a single day; but I apprehend it is a part and a proof of my present depravity, that I feel myself disposed to pay so great a regard to the judgment of men, while I am so little affected with what I am in the sight of the pure and holy God.
Moreover, we will be happy with whatever plan God has, because it will give God glory:
But I believe that hereafter, when self shall be entirely rooted out, and my will perfectly united to the Divine will, I should feel no reluctance, supposing it for the manifestation of his glorious grace, that men, angels, and devils, should know the very worst of me. Whether it will be so or no, I dare not determine.
He then returns to the matter of our weakness and inability to understand Scripture. Having calmed his friend, he can now develop the issue of our inability to understand Scripture. Newton explains that our inability is inherent in the fact that we don’t live in the age to come. There will be matters which we simply do not understand:
Perhaps the difficulty chiefly lies in the necessity of our being at present taught heavenly things by earthly. In the descriptions we have of the great day, allusion is made to what is most solemn in human transactions. The ideas of the judgment-seat, the great trumpet, of the books being opened, and the pleadings, Matt. 25:37–44, seem to be borrowed from the customs that obtain amongst men, to help our weak conceptions, rather than justly and fully to describe what will be the real process. Now, when we attempt to look into the unseen world, we carry our ideas of time and place, and sensible objects, along with us; and we cannot divest ourselves of them, or provide ourselves with better: yet perhaps they have as little relation to the objects we aim at, as the ideas which a man born blind acquires from what he hears and feels have to the true nature of light and colours. Mr. Locke mentions one, who, after much thought and conversation, supposed he had got a tolerable notion of scarlet, and that it was something nearly resembling the sound of a trumpet. Perhaps this is no improper emblem of the utmost we can attain to, when we are endeavouring to realize the solemnities of the judgment-day. What we mean by memory and reasoning, may possibly have no place in the world of spirits. We guess at something more suitable, perhaps, when we use the term intuition. But I apprehend we must die before we can fully understand what it signifies: perhaps thoughts may be as intelligible there as words are here.
Newton ends with the acknowledgement that there are more things to be said. Newton himself is not the final source or authority: Christ is. Therefore, he directs his friends cares to the only one who can truly satisfy:
In a word, my dear Sir, if I have not given you satisfaction (I am sure I have not satisfied myself), accept my apology in the words of a much wiser, and an inspired man: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me: it is high, I cannot attain unto it.” Ere long we shall know: in the mean while our cause is in sure hands; we have a Shepherd who will guide us below, an Advocate who will receive and present us before the Throne above. I trust we meet daily before the Throne of Grace: hereafter we shall meet in glory. The paper will allow no more.
Believe me yours in the Lord, &c.
John Newton, Richard Cecil, The Works of the John Newton, vol. 1 (London: Hamilton, Adams & Co., 1824), 147–152.