Pastoral counseling is not merely correction, but must also be of encouragement. The Christian life can only be lived rightly with a view set directly upon the return of Christ and the joy to follow. To see the importance of such a sight of the end, consider this passage from First Peter:
1 Peter 1:3–17 (ESV)
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, 9 obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, 11 inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. 12 It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.
13 Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” 17 And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile,
The explicitly eschatological elements have been highlighted. Note that Peter does not dwell upon the mechanics of the eschaton as much as its present effect upon us. It is the basis for our hope — which puts us in a future orientation. Our present holiness demands upon our future hope. We live now in both hope and fear, which Peter lays as the predicate (at the very least the psychological predicate) for holiness.
John Newton in this letter wants to create an eschatological mind in his reader. Note carefully how he does this:
My dear Miss M****, April 29, 1776.
The pleasantries are short; he moves most quickly to blessings enjoyed by this woman. The letter does not disclose the reason for this encouragement, which is well — because any believer can pick up this letter and apply it; the blessings disclosed herein are the common blessings of the believer, the church and Christ.
I thank you for your last; and I rejoice in the Lord’s goodness to you. To be drawn by love, exempted from those distressing terrors and temptations which some are beset with; to be favoured with the ordinances and means of grace, and connected with those, and with those only, who are disposed and qualified to assist and encourage you in seeking the Saviour; these are peculiar privileges, which all concur in your case: he loves you, he deals gently with you, he provides well for you, and accompanies every outward privilege with his special blessing; and I trust he will lead you on from strength to strength, and shew you still greater things than you have yet seen.
Note the blessings: To be drawn by love. This language sounds like an allusion to,
Hosea 11:4 (ESV)
4 I led them with cords of kindness,
with the bands of love,
and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws,
and I bent down to them and fed them.
When the Father draws the elect (John 6:44), he draws by the cords of kindness, the bands of love. Consider further the movement of the argument: to be drawn is to move from place to another, from one state to another.
Another allusion in this letter is “from strength to strength”:
Psalm 84:1–7 (ESV)
1 How lovely is your dwelling place,
O Lord of hosts!
2 My soul longs, yes, faints
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and flesh sing for joy
to the living God.
3 Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O Lord of hosts,
my King and my God.
4 Blessed are those who dwell in your house,
ever singing your praise! Selah
5 Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
6 As they go through the Valley of Baca
they make it a place of springs;
the early rain also covers it with pools.
7 They go from strength to strength;
each one appears before God in Zion.
This is a Psalm with an eschatological movement: First, it is a Psalm of travel. Second, it is a Psalm which promises the transformation of the creation (Baca becomes springs. Third, while the immediate reference to appearing before God is likely the earthly sanctuary, we know that the earthly references the heavenly.
Whether Newton chose the Psalm for an eschatological allusion, I do not know. But there is at least a consonance in his thinking: it is where we are going that orients the Christian life.
Newton also praises the work of the church in this woman’s life: both the ordinances (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) as well as those who able to rightly use the Word of God in assisting the maturity of her soul.
(I know above that I said that the blessings listed in this letter blessings available to every believer. However, sadly, often a local congregation is led by those who are not “disposed and qualified”. That does not mean that the church is not a common blessing of believers. What it does mean is that many sin in the work of ministry, either being unfit for the work by ability or disposition. We must sadly acknowledge this is true.)
Newton now takes an insight from John Calvin’s Institutes, the human being does not rightly know himself until we know ourselves before and in the light of God. While our knowledge of God leads us to greater hope and faith, the knowledge of ourselves leads to a greater sense of our unworthiness:
They whom he teaches are always increasing in knowledge, both of themselves and of him. The heart is deep, and, like Ezekiel’s vision, presents so many chambers of imagery, one within another, that it requires time to get a considerable acquaintance with it, and we shall never know it thoroughly. It is now more than twenty-eight years since the Lord began to open mine to my own view; and from that time to this, almost every day has discovered to me something which till then was unobserved; and the farther I go, the more I seem convinced that I have entered but a little way. A person that travels in some parts of Derbyshire may easily be satisfied that the country is cavernous; but how large, how deep, how numerous the caverns may be, which are hidden from us by the surface of the ground, and what is contained in them, are questions which our nicest inquirers cannot fully answer. Thus I judge of my heart: that it is very deep and dark, and full of evil; but as to particulars, I know not one of a thousand.
But the certain knowledge of our sinfulness, our darkness is no cause for despair — provided this knowledge comes accompanied by a knowledge of the God in Jesus Christ. Newton’s knowledge of his own poverty causes him to rejoice, because it merely underscores the infinite wealth of Christ.
Before we look to this passage, consider our “normal” response: When we feel badly about ourselves, we seek to solve the psychological, emotional, spiritual stress by bolstering our self-esteem. Newton will have none of it. He does nothing to protect himself, but like a true theologian of the cross (rather than a theologian of glory), Newton looks to Christ for all:
And if our own hearts are beyond our comprehension, how much more incomprehensible is the heart of Jesus! If sin abounds in us, grace and love superabound in him: his ways and thoughts are higher than ours, as the heavens are higher than the earth; his love has a height, and depth, and length, and breadth, that passeth all knowledge; and his riches of grace are unsearchable riches, Ephes. 3:8, 18, 19. All that we have received or can receive from him, or know of him in this life, compared with what he is in himself, or what he has for us, is but as the drop of a bucket compared with the ocean, or a single ray of light in respect of the sun. The waters of the sanctuary flow to us at first almost upon a level, ankle deep, so graciously does the Lord condescend to our weakness; but they rise as we advance, and constrain us to cry out, with the Apostle, O the depth! We find before us, as Dr. Watts beautifully expresses it,
A sea of love and grace unknown,
Without a bottom or a shore.
Imagine a poor soul caught in a sin. Our first response is to come, “You are not so bad.” But the truth is that we are all far worse than our public exposure of sin reveals. We know that in ourselves, that is in our flesh, no good thing dwells. We are a mass of rebellion (whether the vilest sin or the strongest morality and self-righteousness) without Christ. Newton will not come and say, we are not so bad. No, we will only learn more and more of the depth of our sin — But Christ! His mercy, glory, righteousness are only magnified by rescuing poor, helpless sinners.
Newton unites this knowledge with his eschatological hope. Our present good from Christ will only grow as we continue on. We will not come to the end and find the depth of the knowledge, we will only begin. Our present desire will only be met with greater satisfaction and greater desire. We will think less or ourselves and more of Christ — and what a joy that will be to be emptied of myself and filled with Him!
O the excellency of the knowledge of Christ! It will be growing upon us through time, yea, I believe through eternity. What an astonishing and what a cheering thought, that this high and lofty One should unite himself to our nature, that so, in a way worthy of his adorable perfections, he might by his Spirit unite us to himself! Could such a thought have arisen in our hearts, without the warrant of his word (but it is a thought which no created mind was capable of conceiving till he revealed it), it would have been presumption and blasphemy; but now he has made it known, it is the foundation of our hope, and an inexhaustible spring of life and joy. Well may we say, Lord what is man, that thou shouldst thus visit him!