D. Scott Meadows
The same faith by which we are justified before God also sanctifies our character and conduct toward Christlikeness. This theme occupies John Newton’s sixth letter in the collection of 41 “on religious subjects.” My paraphrased abridgment appears below with paragraphs that correspond to the highly-recommended original letter.
“Real Faith Changes People for the Better”
1. Many insist on the use and importance of faith for justification, but we also need faith for daily life. This practical faith is the evidence of things not seen. Faith makes the great truths of the gospel like eyes for practical direction and hands for useful service. If only all professing Christians were better illustrations of this! We hope they are saved, but where is the proof of a living faith? It is shocking that some boast of assurance while they are so proud, moody, worldly, selfish, and just plain old grouchy!
2. The Bible clearly teaches that to be greedy or proud or hypercritical is just as inconsistent with the spirit of the gospel as the sins of drunkenness and sexual immorality. Many verses condemn traits often seen in professing Christians—for example, out-of-control talking (Jas 1.26) and materialism coupled with failure to help the needy (1 Jn 2.15; 3.17). These texts surely imply that justifying faith also purifies the heart and regulates the conduct.
3. Many Christians only want to hear about our gospel privileges. When we begin to preach about good works and a spiritual frame of mind as the fruit of real faith, they try to shut this down by calling it “legalism.” Legalism is certainly a bad thing, but we cannot let a false accusation keep us from preaching the whole counsel of God. The apostle Paul preached free grace in order to stir up godliness and good works. In fact, “Christian privilege” goes beyond justification to include walking with God, mortifying sin, overcoming our spiritual enemies, and becoming more and more like Christ. If we lack these, neither should we imagine that we have any other aspect of “Christian privilege.” Whoever has true faith will crave much more than to be forgiven and go to heaven. He will be just as concerned to glorify God here below and to enjoy foretastes of heaven in this life.
4. Genuine faith looks to Scripture for discernment about everything related to the Christian life and experience. Like Moses, faith “endures, as seeing Him who is invisible” (Heb 11.27). Jesus’ first disciples riveted their attention upon Him. He was, very tangibly, their defender, guide, teacher, and provider. Now He has gone to heaven, but real believers still look to Him for these same things. His spiritual presence, known by faith, restrains us from sin, encourages us in service, and helps us in trouble. That is why Christians love the church’s public worship; in a special sense, the Lord is there. This also explains our love for private worship where the Lord beholds our sincere desires and intentions. It is by faith that we live in moderation without luxury, knowing that what most people crave is totally worthless without Jesus’ true companionship and blessing. Faith sustains us in all trials when we remember that the Lord appoints them for our ultimate good and will keep us from despair. This holy confidence in Him is what lets us face each day courageously, whatever changes it may bring. We know that God makes everything promote His glory, our growth in grace, and our final blessedness. Yes, sometimes we are startled by sudden suffering because we are still sinful, but then we quickly resort to Jesus by faith as our shelter in the storm and wait expectantly for things to get better, as they surely will.
5. This is the same faith that effectively regulates how we treat other people and fulfill various duties, with the great aim of pleasing God and enlightening the world. In ourselves, we know we are weak and worthless, and so we count on the Lord’s grace and pardoning love, which renders us habitually tender and gentle. Being forgiven so much ourselves, how can we hold a grudge? A humbling sense of our own depravity keeps us from looking down on others, or becoming impatient with them, or unwilling to be reconciled after a disagreement. We love Jesus not only as our acceptance with God but also as our great example for imitation. Our attention is fixed on Him who was kind and generous to everyone. We strive to walk in His steps with meekness, treating people better than they deserve, and so to win them. Real Christians really try to improve everyone’s lot. Love constrains us to speak only truth and deal fairly, so that our word is our bond, doing as we would be done by. This is true whatever our position in society, whether a supervisor or businessperson or whatever. We look out for the interests of others and not just our own. We believe the best of everyone as much as possible and never accuse anyone unless it really is ethically necessary.
6. Finally, faith is also useful to save us from the status quo of behavior and conventional wisdom. We really are in the world but not of the world. We think little of their approval, since we know that would diminish our best pleasures which are holy and spiritual. Yes, we mix with all kinds of people and circumstances, but only so far as duty requires. Our best friends are earnest Christians. The blessings we enjoy in Scripture, prayer, and church meetings infuse us with pity for the godless and their empty amusements (Eph 5.11). If our godly example and loving reproof makes them hate us, that is okay, and we joyfully look forward to the reward of the faithful.
7. I am not suggesting that true believers are perfect, but only that the faith which justifies necessarily purifies us, works by love, and overcomes the world. Whoever denies that and goes with the flow does not know himself as he should and needs to learn more about the liberty we have from Jesus to be good and do good. I believe you are different, and I pray for your spiritual growth and increasing likeness to our Lord and Savior. Signed, JN.
The technical term for Newton’s theological target is “antinomianism,” still rampant today. Easy-believism and the hyper-grace movement still plague us, and Newton’s counsel is a welcome cure, preventative, and tonic. Ω