In all my (re)born days, I have never encountered a writer with a better grip on the true character, extent, strategies, and joy of progressive sanctification than John Newton. When you read today’s quote, I think you’ll see why.

These words appear in a letter to a Mrs. Talbot, an older Christian woman, possibly nearing death, who complained to Newton about the residual sin in her heart, openly raising questions about her exact standing with God. Newton, one of the great soul physicians of his day, wrote to her, as to many others struggling with similar doubts, in these words:

There is, my dear Madam, a difference between the holiness of a sinner and that of an angel. The angels have never sinned, nor have they tasted of redeeming love; they have no inward conflicts, no law of sin warring in their members; their obedience is perfect; their happiness complete.

Yet if I be found among redeemed sinners, I need not wish to be an angel. Perhaps God is not less glorified by your obedience (and, not to shock you, I will add, by mine) than by Gabriel’s. 

It is a mighty manifestation of his grace indeed, when such obedience can live, and act, and conquer, in such hearts as ours; when, in defiance of an evil nature and an evil world, and all the force and subtlety of Satan, a weak worm is still upheld, and enabled not only to climb, but to thresh the mountains; when a small spark is preserved through storms and floods. 

In these circumstances , the work of grace is to be estimated, not merely from its imperfect appearance, but from the difficulties it has to struggle with and overcome; and therefore our holiness does not consist in great attainments, but in spiritual desires, in hungerings, thirstings, and mournings; in humiliation of heart, poverty of spirit, submission, and meekness; in cordial admiring thoughts of the Lord Jesus, and dependence upon him alone for all we want.

Indeed, these may be said to be great attainments; but they who have most of them are most sensible that they, in and of themselves, are nothing, have nothing, can do nothing, and see daily cause for abhorring themselves, and repenting in dust and ashes. 

As I wrote in the previous post, Newton never leaves us groveling on the floor, abhorring ourselves. Rather, he points us to Christ, and to an ever-deepening commitment to, and dependency upon, our walk in the Spirit with Him.

His writings are altogether in the spirit of Paul’s closing cry in Romans 7: “O, who will deliver me from this deadly sinful body? Thanks be to God, (it is by the gift of the mighty indwelling Holy Spirit), through Jesus Christ our Lord!”


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