by John Newton
I make no doubt but you have at times had pleasing reflections upon that promise made to the Israelites, "Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands." Deuteronomy 8:2
They were then in the wilderness, surrounded with difficulties, which were greatly aggravated by their own distrust and perverseness. They had experienced a variety of bitter dispensations, the design of which they could not as yet understand. They frequently lost sight of God's gracious purposes in their favor, and were much discouraged by reason of the difficulty of the way. To compose and animate their minds, Moses here suggests to them, that there was a future happy time drawing near, when their journey and warfare would be finished; that they would soon be put in possession of the promised land, and have rest from all their fears and troubles; and then it would give them pleasure to look back upon what they now found so uneasy to bear: "Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands."
But the importance and comfort of these words is still greater, if we consider them in a spiritual sense — as addressed to all who are passing through the wilderness of this world, to the heavenly Canaan; who by faith in the promises and power of God are seeking eternal rest in that kingdom which cannot be shaken. The hope of that glorious inheritance inspires us with some degree of courage and zeal to press forward — to where Jesus has already entered as our forerunner; and when our eye is fixed upon Him, we are more than conquerors over all that would withstand our progress.
But we have not yet attained it — and we still feel the infirmities of a fallen nature. Through the remains of ignorance and unbelief, we often mistake the Lord's dealings with us, and are ready to complain — when, if we knew all, we would rather rejoice. But to us likewise there is a time coming, when our warfare shall be accomplished, our views enlarged, and our light increased. Then, with what transports of adoration and love, shall we look back upon the way by which the Lord has led us!
We shall then see and acknowledge, that mercy and goodness directed every step. We shall then see that what our ignorance once called adversities and evils — were in reality blessings which we could not have done well without. We shall then see that nothing befell us without a cause. We shall see that no trouble came upon us sooner, or pressed us more heavily, or continued longer — than our case required. In a word, we shall see that our many afflictions were each in their place, among the means employed by divine grace and infallible wisdom, to bring us to the possession of that exceeding and eternal weight of glory, which the Lord has prepared for His redeemed people.
And even in this imperfect state, though we are seldom able to judge aright of our present circumstances — yet, if we look upon the years of our past life, and compare the dispensations we have been brought through — with the frame of our minds under each successive period; if we consider, how wonderfully one thing has been connected with another — so that what we now number among our greatest advantages, perhaps took their first rise from incidents which we thought hardly worth our notice; and that we have sometimes escaped the greatest dangers that threatened us, not by any wisdom or foresight of our own — but by the intervention of circumstances, which we neither desired nor thought of — I say, when we compare and consider these things by the light afforded us in the holy Scriptures, we may collect indisputable proof, from the narrow circle of our own concerns — that the wise and good providence of God watches over his people from the earliest moment of their life, overrules and guards them through all their wanderings in a state of ignorance, leads them in a way they know not, until at length his providence and grace concur in those events and impressions, which bring them to the knowledge of him and themselves.
I am persuaded that every believer will, upon due reflection — see enough in his own case to confirm this remark; but not all in the same degree. The outward circumstances of many have been uniform; they have known but little variety in life; and with respect to their inward change, it has been effected in a secret way, unnoticed by others, and almost unperceived by themselves. The Lord has spoken to them, not in thunder and tempest, but with a still small voice he has drawn them gradually to himself; so that, though they have a happy assurance that they know and love him, and are passed from death unto life; yet of the precise time and manner, they can give little account.
Others God seems to select, in order to show the exceeding riches of his grace, and the greatness of his mighty power. He allows the natural rebellion and wickedness of their hearts to have full scope. While sinners of less note are cut off with little warning — these are spared, though sinning with a high hand, and, as it were, intent upon their own destruction. At length, when all who knew them are perhaps expecting to hear that they are made signal instances of divine vengeance — the Lord (whose thoughts are high above ours, as the heavens are higher than the earth) is pleased to pluck them as brands out of the fire, and to make them monuments of his mercy, for the encouragement of others; they are, beyond expectation, convinced, pardoned, and changed. A case of this sort indicates a divine power no less than the creation of a world — and it is evidently the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in the eyes of all those, who are not blinded by prejudice and unbelief.
Such was the persecuting Saul — his heart was full of enmity against Jesus of Nazareth, and therefore he persecuted and made havoc of his disciples. He had been a terror to the church of Jerusalem, and was going to Damascus with the same purposes. He was yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against all who loved the Lord Jesus. He thought little of the mischief he had hitherto done. He was engaged for the suppression of the whole sect; and hurrying from house to house, from place to place, he carried menaces in his look, and repeated threatenings with every breath. Such was his spirit and temper, when the Lord Jesus, whom he hated and opposed, checked him in the height of his rage, called this bitter persecutor to the honor of an apostle, and inspired him with great zeal and earnestness, to preach that faith which he had so lately attempted to destroy!
Nor are we without remarkable displays of the same sovereign, efficacious grace in our own times — I may particularly mention the instance of the late Colonel Gardiner. If any real satisfaction could be found in a sinful course, he would have met with it; for he pursued the experiment with all possible advantages. He was habituated to evil. Many uncommon, almost miraculous deliverances, made no impression upon, him. Yet he was likewise made willing in the day of God's power. The bright example of his life, illustrated and diffused by the account of him, published since his death, has afforded an occasion of much praise to God and much comfort to his people.
After the mention of such names, can you permit me, Sir, to add my own! If I do, it must be with a very humbling distinction. These once eminent sinners — proved sincere Christians. Much had been forgiven them — therefore they loved much. The apostle Paul could say, "The grace bestowed upon me was not in vain — for I labored more abundantly than they all."
Colonel Gardiner likewise was as a city set upon a hill, a burning and a shining light. The manner of his conversion was hardly more singular, than the whole course of his conduct from that time to his death. Here, alas! the parallel greatly fails. It has not been thus with me — I must take deserved shame to myself, that I have made very unsuitable returns for what I have received.
But, if the question is only concerning the patience and long-suffering of God, the wonderful interposition of his providence in favor of an unworthy sinner, the power of his grace in softening the hardest heart, and the riches of his mercy in pardoning the most enormous and aggravated transgressions — in these respects, I know no case more extraordinary than my own. And indeed many people, to whom I have related my story, have thought it worthy of being preserved...
January 12, 1763.
Excerpt from a letter in The Letters of John Newton (Free eBook)