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John Newton and Biblical Counseling

Truth in Love 287

John Newton shows us that faithful, biblical theology fuels accurate and helpful counseling.

Nov 30, 2020

Dale Johnson: Today on the podcast, I am delighted to have with me one of my dear friends, Keith Palmer. He’s a board member with ACBC. He is one of the pastors at Grace Bible Church in Granbury, Texas, and he and several churches in the area actually cooperate together. He’s the director of the Center for Biblical Counseling and Discipleship there in North Texas, and they do such a wonderful job of training, of discipling, of leading churches in soul care. I’m so grateful for Keith and his friendship to me, and I’m really looking forward to our discussion today as we talk about looking backward into history to see how people can be helpful to us in thinking about the Scriptures and ministering the Scripture personally. 

Keith has been doing some work on a man named John Newton, and some of you are probably listening thinking, “Well, who in the world is John Newton?” Keith what I want you to do is just to introduce us to John Newton. Who in the world is this guy, and how did he engage in biblical counseling, especially in a way that’s helpful to us in 2020?

Keith Palmer: Well, thanks, Dale. It’s always a joy to be with you. Thanks for the opportunity today. John Newton was an 18th century hymn writer and pastor. Probably, he is best known for authoring the hymn Amazing Grace. Everybody knows Amazing Grace. John Newton was the guy that wrote that. What you may not know is that he spent 43 years as a pastor in two different churches. He was the mentor of William Wilberforce who as, you know, worked in Parliament to ban slavery. So, that’s John Newton. 

The reason we want to talk about him today in terms of biblical counseling is that he wrote over a thousand letters in addition to all the hymns that he penned of biblical counseling or pastoral care. In fact J. I. Packer wrote that Newton was perhaps the greatest pastoral letter writer of all time. When Packer says that, we better pay attention, because this is someone we want to get to know a little better.

His biographer, Jonathan Aitken, said that he was “the leading evangelical commentator on religious subjects in Britain.” If you just think about, you know, the 18th century and all of the spiritual giants that were on the planet in that day, you go, if Newton was the guy that everybody was going to for insight and counsel, again, that sets him apart as somebody very unique and special. He was usually sought after for his actual pastoral care and counseling often to deal with the difficulty and pain of various types of suffering. He advised pastors as well as Christians of all types all over England in that day.

What was neat for me as I got to know Newton, reading his letters and reading a little bit about him, was his theology of suffering, his biblical view of suffering, that drove his biblical counsel, especially with hurting people. That intrigued me and became a little bit of a research interest, but that’s what made his biblical counseling so unique, in part, was his theology of suffering and in how he applied that to ministering to hurting people. 

Dale Johnson: Keith, as we talk about this subject today, particularly John Newton, his ministry, I can’t tell you how thrilled I am because some people may be asking the question, “Why are we talking about someone who lived a long time ago, and who wrote a long time ago?” I think it’s interesting for our purposes to understand that something happened in relation to pastoral care 1850 and beyond, and what we see is even particularly in America, I would say, in the 20th century, many writers have said we unhitched our wagon from the classical view of pastoral care.

I think there’s such a wealth of information from men and women who wrote, who ministered well the Word of God. I think we do ourselves a disservice if we disconnect from the plethora of work that they contributed in ministering to so much brokenness in the world in which they lived. They understood suffering, I would argue, maybe to a different degree than what we do. They saw it without the modern advent of what we describe as being “scientific” and this sort of thing. What often parades around is as “science,” but quite social science. I think it’s important that we revisit these things, and Newton is one of these guys, right? 

I’m already intrigued as we talked about him being a hymn writer and him using his understanding of Scripture to put theology to music as a means of adoration to the Lord, but also healing to us. Newton, as you mentioned, talks about suffering quite a bit, and he ministers in the midst of much suffering. What were some of his perspectives on suffering that informed his counsel to other people? 

Keith Palmer: Well, I think Newton loved to talk first about God’s sovereignty and His goodness. Newton would counsel people in his letters to see, and this is a quote, “that afflictions spring not out of the ground, but are fruits and tokens of Divine love, no less than his comforts—that there is a needs-be, whenever for a season he is in heaviness.” That’s the end of the quote. He often referenced Romans 8:28, encouraging strugglers that God was both completely in control of their calamities, and was also working for their good through them. That demonstrated that the biblical counselor’s advice to suffering people regarding the role of God is directly related to the counselors perspective of both God’s control and God’s character. To use your analogy, you know, hitching the wagon, Newton’s counseling wagon was hitched to a robust biblical view of the character of God, specifically His goodness and His wisdom. Newton reminds us that theology drives biblical counseling, and therefore, it’s only faithful, biblical theology that fuels accurate and helpful counseling. That would be one way. 

Another focus of his counsel that really flowed out of his view of suffering was how he viewed the person of Jesus. Jesus is a sympathetic, high priest who feels for the sufferer in their suffering. Newton wrote to somebody in the throes of difficulty, he said, “It is a comfortable consideration that He with whom we have to do, our great High Priest who once put away our sins by the sacrifice of Himself and now forever appears in the presence of God for us, is not only possessed of sovereign authority and infinite power,” listen to this, “but wears our very nature and feels and exercises in the highest degree those tendernesses and commiserations which I conceived are essential to humanity in its perfect state.” Newton’s just saying, He’s not only God, He’s good, He’s powerful, and He’s in control, but He also possesses a fully human nature, and thus is able to be that sympathetic High Priest that the writer to Hebrews talks about.

Not only that, but Jesus would not only sympathize with humanity in our weaknesses, but Newton also went on to say that Jesus is the supreme disposer. Those are his words of the believer’s trial, and He sovereignly adjusts them in His wisdom. Listen to Newton again, “when we further consider that He who thus suffered in our nature, who knows and sympathizes with all our weaknesses, is now the Supreme Disposer of all that concerns us, that He numbers the very hairs of our heads, He appoints every trial we meet with in number, weight, and measure, and will suffer nothing to befall us but what shall contribute to our good, this view, I say, is a medicine suited to the disease, and powerfully reconciles us unto every cross.” Of course, by cross, he’s using it in the old sense of difficulty, right?

Just to see Christ and His goodness behind these things for our good. In fact, he went on to say even that trials are what he called tokens of love or disguised mercies. In fact, in one of his letters again, he frequently refers to trials as love tokens from God, and even wrote a hymn titled with that same phrase. Newton, leaning on Hebrews 12:1-11, encouraged suffering people to view their afflictions as love expressions of a heavenly Father who trains believers for holiness. Again, quoting Newton, he wrote, “and though they are still in a state of discipline, for the mortification of sin yet remaining in them; and though, for the trial, exercise, and growth of their faith, it is still needful that they pass through many tribulations; yet none of these are strictly and properly penal,” meaning they’re not God just punishing us, instead, listen to Newton, “They are not the tokens of God’s displeasure, but fatherly chastisements, and tokens of His love, designed to promote the work of grace in their hearts, and to make them partakers of His holiness.” I just wonder who on earth is counseling like this today. To see the trials of life as actually love tokens from God and His fatherly care. You know, as Christians, we’re prone to see difficulties as divine expressions of punishment, but Newton urged them to view troubles as his fatherly training for righteousness. In fact, in a different letter, he called on his reader to view trials as “tokens of divine love no less than his comforts,” Afflictions are, in reality, disguised mercies designed for the good of believers. He wrote, “how seasonable and important at such a time is the mercy which under the disguise of an affliction gives an alarm to the soul, quickens us to prayer, makes us feel our own emptiness, and preserves us from the enemy’s net.” 

Dale Johnson: As I think about even all that you just said in the depth at which Newton is dealing with real difficulty, he’s not dismissing the trouble, he’s not pushing it aside, he’s not acting as though it doesn’t exist, he’s actually embracing it. He’s helping us to root our experience in this blessed and boundless God that has been given to us and revealed to us by His Word. If we could hold that posture toward the Scripture, toward the beautiful God that has been revealed to us, and take all of our experiences and root it in Him, we would see our situations quite differently. This is exactly what Newton does, and this is the thing that we, I think, can learn from Him. One of my favorite poem writers, and even hymn writers, William Cowper, was very influenced by Newton, but Newton influenced a lot more people than just Cowper who may be familiar to some of our listeners. What are some of the examples of Newton’s counsel to people who are in deep suffering like a William Cowper? 

Keith Palmer: As you know, he had a significant ministry to Cowper that was ongoing. They were even neighbors for a season. Well, Newton did several things to try to care for people in suffering, and one of his favorite ways of doing that was to try to help them to see, what was God doing in the suffering? In one letter he wrote how suffering served the purpose of God in revealing hidden sins in the heart that need transformation.

This is one of my favorite quotes here, Newton wrote, “Afflictions do us good likewise as they make us more acquainted with what is on our own hearts, and thereby promote humiliation and self-abasement.” Now, here’s the illustration: “There are abominations which like nests of vipers lie so quietly within, that we hardly suspect that they are there till the rod of affliction rouses them, and then, they hiss, and they show their venom!” I love this. Newton says, “this discovery is indeed very distressing; yet, until it is made, we are prone to think of ourselves much less vile than we really are, and cannot so heartily abhor ourselves, and repent in dust and ashes.” He would say that God uses afflictions to show us areas of our hearts that we don’t see that God wants to change. We have snakes in our heart, apparently, that need to be addressed so that we can repent and apply the grace of Jesus. 

He also would write about what he called the need be of trials, and in one of my earlier quotes he alluded to this. You know, suffering is very disorienting. People really struggle to know what to do, who they are, where is God. One of things that Newton would do to try to stabilize a person in that situation was to recognize that God is working in this trial for a reason. He would say that these trials are designed by God to encourage them, that their trials are full of divine purpose. Newton had this special phrase that he would use to drive home the point that there was a need be for trials.

Here’s an example. This is Newton again. “But when we are afflicted, it is because there is a need be for it. God does it not willingly. Our trials are either salutary medicines or honorable appointments to put us in such circumstances as may best qualify us to show forth His praise.” You just think about that, you know, God’s doing this because there is a sanctificational, doxological purpose that we need to better image Christ, and thus that’s the need be, right?

Trials always have a divinely ordained purpose. They’re not accidents. They’re not random acts or moments of bad luck or fate. Instead, difficulties are designed by God for the spiritual benefit of His children. For example, he would say, “by afflictions prayer is quickened, Scriptural study is strengthened, and graces such as patience, meekness, long-suffering, all of those are enhanced.” As believers, we recognize that suffering is always purposeful and a needed work of God to grow us in to Christ’s likeness in that way. 

Then, maybe just one other thought here as a theme of Newton’s letters in terms of what is God doing in suffering is that they demonstrate our insufficiency so that we would lean more on the One who is sufficient. The main way God transforms suffering, according to Newton, and this is a dominant theme of his letters, is to make believers to feel their own weaknesses, their own inadequacies, and utter dependence so that they would lean solely and continually on Christ.

You see how radical that is today based on common counseling literature. When we see somebody who feels inadequate we want to build them up with self-esteem. We want to make them feel better about themselves. Newton did the opposite. He saw that trials that bring us low, and make us to feel our own inadequacy are actually grace. Listen to Newton here, “the Lord permits us to feel our weakness, that we may be sensible of it; for though we are ready in words to confess that we are weak, we do not so properly know it, till that secret, though unallowed, dependence we have upon some strength in ourselves, is brought to the trial, and it fails us. To be humble, and, like a little child, afraid of taking a step alone, and so conscious of snares and dangers around us, as to cry to him continually,” meaning to Christ, “to hold us up that we may be safe, is the sure, the infallible, the only secret of walking closely with him.”

In fact, in another great analogy he talked about how we have these these false supports in our life that need to be dislodged. Again, listen to Newton, “when faith and knowledge are in their infancy, the Lord helps this weakness by cordials and sensible comforts; but when they are advanced in growth He exercises and proves them by many changes in trials,” meaning He may take some of those away, “and calls us to live more directly upon his power and promises in the face of all discouragements, to hope even against hope, and at times seem to deprive us of every subsidiary support, so that we may lean only and entirely upon our beloved.” 

Dale Johnson: That is so good. I think, even as you’re talking about the way Newton tries to help the sufferer to frame their suffering in relation to God, that God is willing to risk us misconstruing His character and who He is for our good. What a great God that we serve, that He is kind, and He uses affliction as grace to tear from us the things that destroy us most. Newton, these guys, were able to see the depth of suffering. They were honest about the wickedness even in our own heart, but they pointed in the right direction. I pray that we can do that as well. Keith, this has been helpful. It really is true, Mark Deckard wrote a book called Helpful Truth in Past Places. There are some wonderfully helpful truths in past places, and people may be interested to know a little bit more about Newton. We can tell that this is just a scratch of the surface of all the things that Newton wrote about that could be helpful. What are some of the resources that our listeners may find helpful in relation to Newton?

Keith Palmer: To dive into his letters, I would recommend the book called The Letters of John Newton. It’s edited by Josiah Bull. It’s a Banner of Truth publication. That’s a great introduction if listeners have never heard any of John Newton’s letters. Then, maybe just to get to know John Newton better in terms of his theology and particularly how he thought about sanctification and suffering, Tony Reinke has written a wonderful book called John Newton on the Christian Life, and I would highly recommend that as a good introduction to him.