Skip to content

A Letter of John Newton On the Snares and Difficulties Attending the Ministry of the Gospel:

If opposition has hurt many, popularity has wounded more. To say the truth, I am in some pain for you. Your natural abilities are considerable; you have been diligent in your studies; your zeal is warm and your spirit is lively. With these advantages, I expect to see you a popular preacher. The more you are so, the greater will your field of usefulness be: but, alas! you cannot yet know to what it will expose you.

It is like walking on ice. When you shall see an attentive congregation hanging upon your words: when you shall hear the well-meant, but often injudicious commendations, of those to whom the Lord shall make you useful: when you shall find, upon an intimation of your preaching in a strange place, people thronging from all parts to hear you, how will your heart feel? It is easy for me to advise you to be humble, and for you to acknowledge the propriety of the advice; but while human nature remains in its present state, there will be almost the same connexion between popularity and pride, as between fire and gunpowder: they cannot meet without an explosion, at least not unless the gunpowder is kept very damp. So, unless the Lord is constantly moistening our hearts (If I may so speak) by the influence of his Spirit, popularity will soon set us in a blaze.

...Beware, my friend, of mistaking the ready exercise of gifts for the exercise of grace.

Get this.  Here's Clark Pinnock as quoted by Mike Horton here:

I cannot deny that most believers end their earthly lives imperfectly sanctified and far from complete.  I cannot deny the wisdom in possibly giving them an opportunity to close the gap and grow to maturity after death. Obviously, evangelicals have not thought this question out.  It seems to me that we already have the possibility of a doctrine of purgatory. Our Wesleyan and Arminian thinking may need to be extended in this direction. Is a doctrine of purgatory not required by our doctrine of holiness?

Now, I don't usually engage in Arminian bashing.  (Usually when I see such beat ups I want to side with the Arminian even if I agree with the critique).  But, with this quote... come on.  Seriously?  A protestant starts thinking that their theology requires a doctrine of purgatory?  Because evangelicals haven't properly thought about it??  Really???

At that point, if not years sooner, shouldn't Pinnock wake up and say "Hold on a minute.  I think I've become one of the baddies!"

...Like in this scene (perhaps Mitchell and Webb's only funny sketch - though obviously Peep Show is untouchably awesome)...

This is not my attempt at a reductio ad Hitlerum.  I just relate to the whole process of waking up on the wrong side of a battle.

I remember my early days at a certain church where I found myself saying of a certain preacher that he really shouldn't preach Christ so much and definitely not from certain Scriptures.  Let the reader understand.

At that point I had my own "Am I a baddy?" experience.  I've had others too.

What about you?  Have you had an "Are we the baddies?" experience??




"Now Betty, would you like to keep those salvations or will you trade them all for what's in this box??"


Horrifimus maximus!





"Now Betty, would you like to keep those salvations or will you trade them all for what's in this box??"


Horrifimus maximus!


Today I heard one more story of a keen young gospel soldier recently married.  From what I can tell the wife is feeling abandoned, isolated and increasingly desperate.  And the husband is pressing on in his ministry service for the Lord!

If I had a minute with the young gun I'd ask him to read about John Wesley's disastrous marriage. Just after John married Molly he wrote to her from the road to inform her of his views on marriage and ministry: "I cannot understand how a Methodist preacher can answer it to God to preach one sermon or travel one day less, in a married than in a single state."  (Read more here).  It should be a cautionary tale for every young gospel soldier.

But the Wesley model is not dead.  I still remember the ringing endorsement our own marriage union gained from a leading UK evangelical while we were still engaged.  "You're marrying well there Glen," he said, "She's a doubler."  He was referring to a calculation that there are (apparently) ministry doublers and ministry halvers.  Thus the question to be asked about every prospective bride is, "Is she a doubler?"

Now that might be a question you ask a prospective PA or church worker.  But if that's the first question you want to ask your bride-to-be then, seriously, that's the proof right there.  It's not meant to be.  And you're the problem!  If the prospect of being fruitful and multiplying with this woman inspires a ten year business plan, call it off now.  The kind of multiplication God has in mind is multiplication in which you commit to each other for their sakes.  And, fellas, the more you want to use her for other ends, the less multiplication's gonna happen!

And I'm not just trying to make a cheap gag here.  The Lord has designed marriage to be a multiplying union.  But in His economy it turns out to be fruitful as and when you are brought to commit to each other in deep oneness.  I mean this physically but I mean it in every other way.  The way to ministry multiplication can only be through marriage multiplication which can only happen in and through the union and communion of husband and wife. That's got to be the beating heart of it all.

Single people should definitely seek the Lord's wisdom about who to marry.  Wesley should definitely not have married Molly.  If two people have massively different expectations of what Christian service will entail then that's a real warning sign.  But what first needs to be sorted out in our thinking is the very nature of marriage itself.  It is not a ministry multiplication venture.  It is a covenant union, joined by God, reflecting Christ to the world.  And out of this union comes a multiplication of spiritual and physical children.  Under God it cannot help but be fruitful and multiply.  But under God He will bring fruitfulness in very unexpected ways.  It will not be a multiplication one spouse's prior ministry plans.  The old individual plans must die.  This will be a new union with a totally new kind of fruitfulness - much of which simply cannot be predicted.

But an understanding of marriage that is anything like a contractual business partnership will strike at the very heart of the covenant union.

I pray for this young couple, that there would be a death to the old individualist/contractual understanding.  And that out of that death would come new life in their union and communion.  And, yes, that out of that there may even come a wonderful fruitfulness.  But it will be His fruitfulness His way.


Alistair Begg has just finished a lengthy exposition of 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 at "Bible by the Beach." The whole thing was a plea to avoid the cult of personality preaching, to follow unimpressive Paul and shun the wise and persuasive words of the shiny "communicators".

And at the end of the session I overheard one couple behind me...

- We need Bible by the Beach every month. It's great spiritual input.

- We get it every week. It's called church.

- Yes, but not every preacher is an Alistair Begg are they?

So that's a lesson well learnt then!

Yesterday I posted a quotation by TF Torrance on the new birth.  Essentially Torrance said he was born again when Jesus was born from the virgin womb and rose from the virgin tomb.  What do you make of that?

As Dave commented, it only highlights the objective side of the new birth, and you've got to balance that with the subjective.  That's absolutely right, we need both.  By itself the quote is unbalanced and insufficient.  But let me ask you - have you ever heard sermons/teaching/quotations about Jesus being born again?   Where have you heard about Christ's objective achievement of the new birth through His Person and work?  And how often have you heard about your need to subjectively appropriate it?  Balance is indeed called for!

Recently I saw the "evangelical" episode of Diarmaid MacCulloch's "History of Christianity" (you can still watch it for the next 6 days on BBC iPlayer).  He continually describes the distinctive focus of evangelicalism as "our choice for God."  Of course every time he said it I howled at the tv screen.  Theologically, "our choice for God" is the very reverse of the evangel.  It's His choice for us.  But the more I watched and the more I thought about evangelicalism the movement, I had to admit, it's a pretty apt description.  How much of what passes for evangelicalism is actually "our choice for God"?  "Be more committed, more devoted, more serious, more emotional - choose for God."

So what's the answer?  Well let's think about John 3 a little bit.

"You must be born again (or 'born from above')", says Jesus (v7).  Therefore it is not in your power - not of 'the will of the flesh' as John 1:12 puts it.  Flesh only gives birth to flesh (v6) - it never gives rise to Spirit-life.  Something needs to come down 'from above'.

Think about it - birth is something that happens to you.  When you were born, someone else suffered (your mother), and you benefited.  (cf John 16:21-22).  You were entirely passive in your first birth.  So it is with your second birth.

Or think of the wind (v8).  You don't control it, you just get blown on.  Again it's passive.

Well alright then - it's out of my hands.  Does that mean it's just completely arbitrary?  Is it just a case of drifting about hoping for a favourable wind??

Well let's look a little deeper.  In verse 8 Jesus is using a play on words.  'Spirit' is the same word as 'wind' (or 'breath') and 'voice' is the same word as 'sound.'  So Jesus is saying "The Spirit blows where He wills, you hear His voice."

That's interesting.  The Spirit might be sovereign and invisible - but He is audible.  He speaks.  And the voice of His breath blows on us fleshy corpses to give us life.  Ring any Old Testament bells?  Jesus has just made an allusion to Ezekiel 36 - "born of water and the Spirit" (cf Ezek 36:25-27).   And now it sounds like an allusion to Ezekiel 37 - the valley of dry bones.  Remember?

Then He said to me, "Prophesy to these bones and say to them,`Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath (Spirit) enter you, and you will come to life.  (Ezekiel 37:4-5)

Jesus says in John 3 that dead, fleshy people will hear the voice of the Spirit and receive new life.  Proclamation will bring the new birth!  And what is the content of this proclamation?  What will the Spirit's voice be saying?

Well He won't be instructing you about your ascent into spiritual life (v13).  Instead He'll tell you about the Son of Man's lifting up (v14ff).  As Christ is lifted up so we look to Him and find new life (cf Num 21:8).

It's not something we achieve, it's a birth from above.  It's given to us by the Father as we hear the voice of the Spirit and look to the Son.  So the new birth is not our work.  It's nothing that flesh can produce.  But neither is it the arbitrary caprice of some abstract divine sovereignty.

You see commonly people teach that the new birth is outside ourselves - which is true.  But to secure that truth they locate it in a hidden and inscrutable divine will.  Others who find that hard to swallow draw attention to the way the chapter continues.  They point to verses 14-16 and proclaim that this new life is in our power.  After all, they say, we have the power to 'believe' don't we?

And so it becomes a fight between determinism and free will.  One side finally locates the new birth in a hidden divine will, the other finally locates it in us.  But neither side locates it in Christ.  And Christ Himself is the One who makes good both verses 1-8 and verses 14-16.

Because Jesus was the Pioneer of the new birth.

He became flesh (John 1:14) and lifted up that old humanity to suffer its brazen judgement.  Like a seed He took the Adamic ways down into the grave to die and be raised up new (John 12:24).  And when He rose again, He rose into new Spirit-life.

[Christ was] put to death in the flesh but made alive in the Spirit (1 Peter 3:18)

At Christmas, Jesus assumed flesh-life.  On Good Friday, Jesus destroyed flesh-life.  On Easter Sunday, Jesus birthed Spirit-life.  Jesus was born again.

The new birth was achieved completely apart from our own fleshly powers.  But it was not done in a secluded corner of heaven.  No, Jesus has been raised up for us in our midst, that the whole world might look to Him and find new Spirit-life.  That's what John 3:14-16 is about.  And it's completely of a piece with the first part of the chapter.  Born-again Spirit-life is the eternal life of verses 14-16.  Jesus is not switching between determinism and free will.  Throughout this passage He's talking about the way new life comes.  It comes from above - from the man of heaven who took the man of dust back into the ground to raise Him up new to become a Life-giving Spirit (1 Cor 15:45).

And so we have been born again through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Pet 1:3).  TF Torrance's answer is biblical.  And it's helpful when it points us away from an obsession with our own 'choice for God'.  So many John 3 sermons can make the congregation look within for signs of life.  And all the while the chapter screams to us "Look to Christ!"

Torrance's objective emphasis guards us from thinking our regeneration lies in us - in some experience that we need to work up.  The new birth doesn't lie in me - it lies in Christ.  Look to yourself and all you'll find is flesh.  Look to Christ and there you will find your new birth.

My recent sermon on John 3:1-15



We have endless substitutes for the actual, dynamic, personal presence of the Spirit in our thinking.  Here's a sketch of just a few off the top of my head.

Of course, many of these can be means by which the Spirit works. Yet if they are cut off from the Source they have no life in them:


Doctrine of Omnipotence

An a-topic, abstract power is assigned to God.  This is all rather than the active and immanent Person who is God's Power - the Spirit of Christ.

Doctrine of Omnipresence

We say "God is here" because we believe ‘God is everywhere' in an abstract sense.  Rather than acknowledging the indwelling personal presence of the Spirit of Jesus.

Doctrine of Omniscience

This happens in, for instance, biblical interpretation.  Often the living nature of the Spirit-breathed Word is replaced by a doctrine of God's omniscience in the original authorship of the Bible.  We have faith in God's omniscience - that He inspired the text thousands of years ago in such a way that it would speak to every generation.  This takes the place in our thinking of the Spirit as the Dei loquentis persona (God speaking in person).  Instead of the dynamic, contemporary ministry of the Spirit, our spotlight falls on an ancient omniscience.  A fossilization of the living word?


Assurance found in moral performance.

Romans 8:16 says ‘the Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are God's children.'  Few preachers I hear teach that assurance comes in the fellowship we enjoy with the Spirit.  An inward moral check is emphasized rather than the Spirit's inward testimony.


Fellowship of believers

The fellowship of the Holy Spirit' (2 Cor 13:4) is not a Spirit-generated church-fellowship! Yet so many take it in this way. No, just as the love of God is an enjoyment of God in His love and just as the grace of Christ is an enjoyment of Christ in His grace, so the fellowship of the Holy Spirit is fellowship with the Spirit!

‘Now but not yet'.

We often speak of this age (truly) in terms of absence and in-between-ness. We live in between the comings of Christ. This is all absolutely correct and vitally important. But let's not forget the presence!  This is the age of the Spirit.  The Spirit's presence is the 'now' in the 'now-and-not-yet'.  Let's remember Jesus said 'It is for your good I am going away... if I go I will send Him to you'! (John 16:7).


Fruit of the Spirit

At one time I was praying through the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5 and using these nine characteristics as a moral checklist.  I confessed my lack of fruit and prayed for more.  One day I was doing this and got a picture in my mind of the Holy Spirit coming to my door laden with a big basket of fruit and me saying to Him 'Thanks Spirit, just leave the fruit and I'll see you later.'  I was praying for fruit when I should really have been praying for the Spirit Himself.  These fruit grow organically from a relationship with Him.  Let's desire Him and not simply His gifts.


Application in preaching

So much preaching advice assumes that it's the preacher's job to bridge the gap between text and congregation.  Surely it is the Spirit's work to drive home the Word to our hearts!  How often preaching is thought to really live when the preacher 'applies' the text to Monday morning and the 'nitty-gritty' of life.  Yet the Spirit, in living power, makes the Word alive and applies it to our lives in ways more nuanced, powerful and incisive than any preacher could.


Human advice

In the realm of guidance

Human aptitude

In the realm of gifts


In the realm of evangelism


In the realm of Kingdom-work

Oratory skill

In the realm of preaching


Grammatical-historical method.

Text critical tools give the meaning of the Bible, not the Author Himself


Any more we can add to the list?


I love how the word "BIBLICAL" is used here.  "BIBLICAL" means NOT JUNK.  (In spite of how Scripture loves "fat portions").

Of course it all depends on which Scriptures you choose.

What about sour grapes, bitter herbs and ashes?  Now with 30% more locusts!  That's also biblical...  Or, what about... No, there are too many ingredients I can't mention on a family blog like this.



What's all this T4G Cribs nonsense?  There's a growing number of these videos.  Just watch the first minute of this one and you'll get the idea:

I'm saying nothing about the men featured.  I am questioning the pedestal on which they're being placed.

I mean the opening credits are a massive turn-off for me.  Am I misplacing my angst here or are these preachers being set up like rock stars?

And the whole series of "come see my study" seems designed to make 20-something hot-prots salivate with envy.  It's aspirational TV.  And it's majorly unbalanced.  We do not need a whole generation of young evangelicals aspiring to this. Where are Dever's congregation members who work hard at their jobs, share the gospel with workmates, teach and pastor their homegroups and serve in countless unseen ways?  Where's their video?  Where are those who pour out their lives for their families and friends in the name of Jesus?  Where's their video?  What are we holding out to people as the epitome of Christian superstardom?

I don't need to see Mark Dever's study.  If I were in his congregation I might want to "consider the outcome of his way of life and imitate his faith" (Heb 13:7).  But the T4G cameras do not need to show us where the magic happens.

This is not where the magic happens.

Am I being unfair here?


Twitter widget by Rimon Habib - BuddyPress Expert Developer