Blemishes in Christian Character, Part 3: Change and Grace

[See Part 1 and Part 2 of the series on John Newton’s Blemishes in Christian Character. This was originally posted at Redeemer.com.]

I have noticed over the years that some ministries, in their effort to stress holiness of life, do not put a great deal of emphasis on God’s gracious acceptance of us despite our sins. And other ministries, in their effort to avoid legalism and rejoice in grace, are reluctant to call people to close, exacting self-examination and deep repentance. But the 18th century pastor John Newton is remarkable in giving equal weight to self-examination and grace.

In a previous article, we saw how John Newton gives us some deeply convicting ways to examine our hearts. Christians, he says, put too little time and effort into examining themselves and seeking to grow in holiness, in the fruit of the Spirit. But does such close examination mean that we are doomed to always feel inadequate, ashamed, and guilty? No, because Newton sees a deeper knowledge of sin leading to a richer rejoicing in grace. No one was better than Newton at urging people to use the gospel of grace on the heart in order to change it. Here are two things I’ve learned from Newton over the years on how to do this. 

1. People often try to fill their hearts with the danger of what they are doing. You can tell yourself “if I keep doing this it will cause problems for me.” That may be true and could be good smelling salts to get you to recognize your problem. But if that is all you say to your heart, it (as it were) bends the metal of your heart but doesn’t really soften and permanently reshape it. The motivation is ultimately selfish and it only brings short-term change. 

We need to go deeper to the only lasting way to change our hearts—take them to the radical, costly grace of God in Christ on the cross. You show your heart the infinite depths to which he went so that you would be free from sin and its condemnation. This fills you with a sense not just of the danger or sin, but also of its grievousness. Think about how ungrateful it is, think of how your sin is not just against God’s law but also against his heart. Melt your heart with the knowledge of what he’s done for you. Tremble before the knowledge of what he is worth—he is worthy of all glory. 

2. People often sin not simply out of a rebellious desire to be their own masters, but also because they are looking to things besides God to satisfy and fulfill. While Newton was good at pointing out the danger of having too low or light a view of one’s sin, he was also good at pointing out the opposite problem—too light a grasp of what Jesus has done for us. Newton wrote to a man who was discouraged: 

You say, you find it hard to believe it [is] compatible with the divine purity to embrace or employ such a monster as yourself. [In thinking this, you] express not only a low opinion of yourself, which is right, but too low an opinion of the person, work, and promises of the Redeemer; which is certainly wrong....

Satan transforms himself into an angel of light. He sometimes offers to teach us humility; but though I wish to be humble, I desire not to learn in this school. His premises perhaps are true, that we are vile, wretched creatures—but he then draws abominable conclusions from them; and would teach us, that, therefore, we ought to question either the power, or the willingness, or the faithfulness of Christ. Indeed, though our complaints are good, so far as they spring from a dislike of sin; yet, when we come to examine them closely, there is often so much self-will, self-righteousness, unbelief, pride, and impatience mingled with them, that they are little better than the worst evils we can complain of....

You have not, you cannot have, anything in the sight of God, but what you derive from the righteousness and atonement of Jesus. If you could keep him more constantly in view, you would be more comfortable. He would be more honored.…Let us pray that we may be enabled to follow the apostle’s, or rather the Lord’s command by him, Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice. We have little to rejoice in ourselves, but we have right and reason to rejoice in him. 

– “Letter XI, to the Rev Mr S”, Works of John Newton, Vol. 6, 1985, pp. 185-187.

If we are going to grow in grace, we must stay aware of being both sinners and loved children in Christ. We need a high and due sense of our sin before God and a deep and profound sense of our union with and acceptance in Christ. 

In the end, it’s the joy and wonder of the gospel that will change you permanently.