Some Christians, 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. Others, 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. Here are some of his premises:

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.

The final result of all this is that people cannot see their sins because they are looking only at their virtues. For example, someone may say: “I’m not abrasive, I just speak very directly.” It is true that a direct-speaking person may do good because direct, blunt comments are sometimes needed. But overall the abrasiveness is ineffective and the person’s boldness and confidence comes to some degree from pride and a lack of love. And for this reason, many (or perhaps most) Christians do not work on the supernatural graces of the spirit that are not natural to us, and that mitigate or eliminate the dark side—the besetting sins—of our nature. 

So how can we be shaken out of our lethargy and awakened to our need to grow? Here are some principles that I have gleaned from Newton’s letters over the years. 

1. Know that your worst character flaws are the ones you can see the least. 

By definition the sins to which you are most blind, that you make the most excuses for, and that you usually minimize—are the ones that most have you in their grip. As we said before, one way we hide our blemishes is that we look at places that our natural temperament resembles spiritual fruit. For example, a natural aptitude for control and self-discipline can be read as ‘faithfulness’, and a natural desire for personal approval could look like ‘gentleness’ or ‘love.’ Or we mistake a bubbly, sanguine temperament for joy, and a laid-back, phlegmatic temperament for peace. We give ourselves spiritual credit for these things, when actually we aren’t growing spiritually at all. The lack of other fruit shows that real supernatural character change is not happening.

2. Remember that you can’t learn about your biggest flaws just by being told—you must be shown.

There are two ways we come to see our sins and flaws more clearly. One way is that we are shown them by troubles and trials in life. Suffering is God’s gymnasium—it reveals our spiritual weaknesses just as a workout reveals physical weaknesses. 

Secondly, we learn by Christian role models. Sometimes the best conviction comes when you are brought near a person who is living as you should be living. You may not think of yourself as impatient, or abrasive, or over-sensitive until you are brought into close proximity to someone much more patient, irenic, and content than you. What this means is that we should make use of these opportunities to grow. They are painful—even being near very holy people can be uncomfortable! But it is at such times, when we most feel the need for grace, that we find God’s grace most desirable.

3. Be willing to listen to correction and critique from others. 

We just said that no one ever learned about his or her sins by being told. We have too many layers of self-justification to grow without hard knocks. But in addition, as a complement, we need critique and accountability from brothers and sisters. 

There are at least two kinds. First, you can create your own Hebrews 3:13 community. Hebrews 3:13 says we are to “exhort one another daily” so we are not “hardened by the deceptiveness of our sin.” Take some other believers that you trust and give them “a hunting license” to talk to you about where you need to grow. 

Secondly, don’t forget the “Balaam’s donkey” principle (Numbers 22). You must learn how to profit from criticism even given by people who are badly motivated, or who you don’t respect. Even if only 20% of what they say is true, it may be God speaking to you. Used by permission. 

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