This is letter 8 from “Forty One Letters on Religious Subjects. Comments are in italics. Outline markers are all added.
This letter concerns assurance of salvation. More particularly, what is the “witness” we have to this knowledge as referenced in 1 John 5:10. He states the issue thus:
Issue: I readily offer you my thoughts on 1 John 5:10; “He that believeth on the Son of God, hath the witness in himself;” though, perhaps, you will think I am writing a sermon, rather than a letter.
I. Setting Up the Issue
A. The Importance of the Topic
If we believe in the Son of God, whatever trials we may meet with in the present life, our best concerns are safe, and our happiness is sure. If we do not, whatever else we have, or seem to have, we are in a state of condemnation; and, living and dying so, must perish.
B. Having stated the importance of the proposition, he sets forth the problem in two parts.
1. What if we error in this knowledge?
Thousands, it is to be feared, persuade themselves that they are believers, though they cannot stand the test of Scripture. And there are many real believers, who, through the prevalence of remaining unbelief, and the temptations of Satan, form hard conclusions against themselves, though the Scripture speaks peace to them.
2. How does this relate to the text?
But how does this correspond with the passage before us, which asserts universally, “He that believeth hath the witness in himself?” for can a man have the witness in himself, and yet not know it?
3. The problem in ourselves: interpretation, not the text. The differences of opinions among Christians even to the point of error could result from a fault of the text or a fault of the reader. The “orthodox” position would be to put the fault in the reader. Newton takes that framework and applies to the question of this witness mentioned in 1 John 5:10. He affirms the witness and places any fault in the knowledge upon the one interpreting the text.
a. It may be answered, the evidence, in its own nature, is sufficient and infallible; but we are very apt, when we would form a judgment of ourselves, to superadd rules and marks of trial, which are not given us (for that purpose) in the Bible.
i. That the word and Spirit of God do witness for his children, is a point in which many are agreed, who are far from being agreed as to the nature and manner of that witness.
ii. It is, therefore, very desirable, rightly to understand the evidence by which we are to judge whether we are believers or not.
II. Examination of the Text
A. Presentation of the Text in its Elements
The importance and truth of the Gospel salvation is witnessed to in heaven, by “the Father, the Word, and the Spirit.” It is witnessed to on earth by “the Spirit, the water, and the blood,” ver. 7, 8.
B. Signification of the Terms
1. The Spirit, in ver. 8, (I apprehend) denotes a Divine light in the understanding, communicated by the Spirit of God, enabling the soul to perceive and approve the truth.
2. The water seems to intend the powerful influence of this knowledge and light in the work of sanctification.
3. And the blood, the application of the blood of Jesus to the conscience, relieving it from guilt and fear, and imparting a “peace which passes all understanding.”
C. All Witnesses Must be Present
And he that believeth hath this united testimony of the Spirit, the water, and the blood; not by hearsay only, but in himself. According to the measure of his faith (for faith has various degrees), he has a living proof that the witness is true, by the effects wrought in his own heart.
III. Where the Problem arises
One common fault of instruction is to simply state a proposition “the right way” and then expect someone to understand. Careful instruction requires not merely making a correct presentation, but also explaining how misunderstanding or misapplication may occur. The most common faults are to be considered and resolved.
A. The reason we face a difficulty with this passage is that we fail to require all of the witnesses to be present together.
1. These things, which God has joined together, are too often attempted to be separated.
2. Attempts of this kind have been a principal source and cause of most of the dangerous errors and mistakes which are to be found amongst professors of religion.
a. Some say much concerning the Spirit; and lay claim to an inward light, whereby they think they know the things of God.
This was common among the Quakers. Contemporary examples of this often from Charismatic groups who claim to possess a unique revelation from God. We could see this also in the desire of many to obtain direct revelation as to what to do this or that situation. It is desire to have unmediated understanding of God; a revelation of the Spirit around the Word.
b. Others lay great stress upon the water; maintaining a regular conversation, abstaining from the defilements of the world, and aiming at a mastery over their natural desires and tempers.
This is a sort of legalism which lays its weight upon behavior in isolation from a true adoption; works without faith or love. I don’t drink or chew and I don’t hang out with those who do.
c. Both of these errors lead to a “Christianity” without Christian and without redemption.
But neither the one nor the other appear to be duly sensible of the value of the blood of atonement, as the sole ground of their acceptance, and the spring of their life and strength.
d. Others, again, are all for the blood; can speak much of Jesus, and his blood and righteousness; though it does not appear that they are truly, spiritually enlightened to perceive the beauty and harmony of Gospel truths, or that they pay a due regard to that “holiness without which no man can see the Lord.”
These people are sometimes found under the banner of “free grace.” They believe they have been saved because they are imperfect. They want a savior who is not their Lord—which the confession of the Christian is Christ is Lord.
e. Summary of the errors which follow from separating the witnesses
But Jesus came, not by water only, or by blood only, but by water and blood; and the Spirit bears witness to both, because the Spirit is truth.
i. The water alone affords but a cold, starched form of godliness, destitute of that enlivening power which is derived from a knowledge of the preciousness of Jesus, as the Lamb that was slain. [A narrow legalism]
ii. And if any talk of the blood without the water, they do but turn the grace of God into licentiousness: [Grace is no excuse to sin.]
iii. so, likewise, to pretend to the Spirit, and at the same time to have low thoughts of Jesus, is a delusion and vanity; for the true Spirit testifies and takes of his glory, and presents it to the soul. [Your own personal Jesus]
iv. But the real believer receives the united testimony, and has the witness in himself that he does so.
To have the witness in ourselves, is to have the truths that are declared in the Scripture revealed in our hearts.
III. The Unity of the Witnesses Results in a Well-Founded Assurance of Salvation
This brings an experimental conviction, which may be safely depended on, “that we have received the grace of God in truth.”
A. The Unity of Witnesses Comes from a True “Spiritual Perception”
A man born blind may believe that the sun is bright, upon the testimony of another; but, if he should obtain his sight, he would have the witness in himself. Believing springs from a sense and perception of the truths of the Gospel; and whoever hath this spiritual perception is a believer.
1. This witness is given by the Spirit. This may seem a bit contradictory to his statement above concerning the one who seeks a witness of only the Spirit. Such a witness of direct revelation around the Scripture, without sanctification is not a true revelation of the Spirit. Moreover, the Spirit is he who gives us an understanding of the Scripture which results in sanctification.
He has the witness in himself. He has received the Spirit: his understanding is enlightened, whereby he sees things to be as they are described in the word of God, respecting his own state by sin, and the utter impossibility of his obtaining relief by any other means than those proposed in the Gospel.
2. The knowledge of these witnesses cannot be had around the revelation of God.
These things are hidden from us by nature.
3. The complete revelation is needed so that we may avoid presumption or despair.
He has likewise received the blood. The knowledge of sin, and its demerits, if alone, would drive us to despair; but by the same light of the Spirit, Jesus is apprehended as a suitable and all-sufficient Saviour. All that is declared concerning his person, offices, love, sufferings, and obedience, is understood and approved. Here the wounded and weary souls find healing and rest.
B. The knowledge afforded by these witnesses results in a transformed life. This may seem like a contradiction from proposition above that the life of behavioral change is not true knowledge. There is no contradiction, because behavioral transformation alone is not real sanctification. It may have some superficial behavioral correspondence. But bare behavior is never the telling mark. We are not saved by good works but for good works. John Piper gives an illustration of a wife who presents his wife with flowers and then says I have done this out of duty. But flowers given as an unforced gesture arising from love is quite a different thing.
Then the Apostle’s language is adopted, “Yea, doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord.” [Phil. 3:8 Newton here points to a correspondence in the doctrine between John and Paul.]
1. He has likewise received the water, considered as the emblem of sanctification.
2. Sanctification is a benefit of salvation
a. To a believer, all that the Scripture teaches concerning the nature, beauty, and necessity of holiness, as a living principle in the heart, carries conviction and evidence.
b. A deliverance from the power, as well as from the guilt of sin, appears to be an important and essential part of salvation.
c. Notice that sanctification is offered as a means to come to know and commune with God.
He sees his original and his proper happiness, that nothing less than communion with God and conformity to him, is worth his pursuit. And therefore he can say, “My soul thirsteth for thee: I delight in the law of God after the inward man.”
d. Sanctification is a natural development of this three-fold knowledge:
In a word, his judgment and his choice are formed upon a new spiritual taste, derived from the written word, and correspondent with it, as the musical ear is adapted to relish harmony: so that what God has forbidden, appears hateful; what he has commanded, necessary; what he has promised, desirable; and what he has revealed, glorious.
Whoever has these perceptions, has the witness in himself, that he has been taught of God, and believes in his Son.
What then are the practical implications of this understanding of the passage?
A. It is not a bare subjective knowledge
1. If you think this explanation is agreeable to the Scripture, you will be satisfied that the witness spoken of in this passage, is very different from what some persons understand it to be.
2. It is not an impulse, or strong persuasion, impressed upon us in a way of which we can give no account, that “we are the children of God,” and that our sins are freely forgiven: nor is the powerful application of a particular text of Scripture necessary to produce it: neither is it always connected with a very lively sensible comfort.
3. While this subjective belief may be a result of a true witness, it is not the witness itself:
These things, in some persons and instances, may accompany the witness or testimony we are speaking of, but do not properly belong to it: and they may be, and often have been, counterfeited.
4. But what I have described is inimitable and infallible; it is indubitably, as the magicians confessed of the miracles of Moses, the finger of God; as certainly the effect of his Divine power as the creation of the world.
B. Not Everyone Will Experience Assurance
It is true, many who have this witness walk in darkness, and are harassed with many doubts and perplexities concerning their state:
C. What is the Cause?
The trouble arises because they expect some preternatural evidence:
1. but this is not because the witness is not sufficient to give them satisfaction, but because they do not account it so: being misled by the influence of self-will and a legal spirit, they overlook this evidence as too simple, and expect something extraordinary;
2. at least, they think they cannot be right unless they are led in the same way in which the Lord has been pleased to lead others with whom they may have conversed.
D. Do Not be Troubled That Not Everyone Experiences the Same Assurance
But the Lord the Spirit is sovereign and free in his operations: and though he gives to all, who are the subjects of his grace, the same views of sin, of themselves, and of the Saviour; yet, with respect to the circumstantials of his work, there is, as in the features of our faces, such an amazing variety, that perhaps no two persons can be found whose experiences have been exactly alike: but as the Apostle says, That “he that believeth,” that is, whosoever believeth (without exception), “has this witness in himself;” it must consequently arise from what is common to them all, and not from what is peculiar to a few.
V. Final Observations
Before I conclude, I would make two or three observations.
A. Justification Results in Sanctification
1. In the first place, I think it is plain, that the supposition of a real believer’s living in sin, or taking encouragement from the Gospel so to do, is destitute of the least foundation in truth, and can proceed only from an ignorance of the subject.
2. Justification causes one to hate sin
a. Sin is the burden under which he groans; and he would account nothing short of a deliverance from it worthy the name of salvation.
b. A principal part of his evidence that he is a believer, arises from that abhorrence of sin which he habitually feels. It is true, sin still dwelleth in him; but he loathes and resists it: upon this account he is in a state of continual warfare;
c. if he was not so, he could not have the witness in himself, that he is born of God.
B. A True Witness Will Affect Our Understanding of Scripture
1. Again: From hence arises a solid evidence, that the Scripture is indeed the word of God, because it so exactly describes what is exemplified in the experience of all who are subjects of a work of grace.
2. While we are in a natural state, it is to us as a sealed book: though we can read it, and perhaps assent to the facts, we can no more understand our own concernments in what we read, than if it was written in an unknown tongue. But when the mind is enlightened by the Holy Spirit, the Scripture addresses us as it were by name, explains every difficulty under which we laboured, and proposes an adequate and effectual remedy for the relief of all our wants and fears.
C. Subjective Assurance May not be Constant
1. Lastly: It follows, that the hope of a believer is built upon a foundation that cannot be shaken, though it may and will be assaulted.
2. It [assurance] does not depend upon occasional and changeable frames, upon any that is precarious and questionable, but upon a correspondence and agreement with the written word.
3. [The subjective experience of assurance is not a bare logical argument.] Nor does this agreement depend upon a train of laboured arguments and deductions, but is self-evident, as light is to the eye, to every person who has a real participation of the grace of God. It is equally suited to all capacities.
1. By this the unlearned are enabled to know their election of God, and “to rejoice with a joy unspeakable and full of glory.”
2. And the wisest, if destitute of this perception, though they may be masters of all the external evidences of Christianity, and able to combat the cavils of infidels, can see no real beauty in the truths of the Gospel, nor derive any solid comfort from them.
I have only sent you a few hasty hints: it would be easy to enlarge; but I sat down, not to write a book, but a letter. May this inward witness preside with power in our hearts, to animate our hopes, and to mortify our corruptions!
I am, &c.