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Some Thoughts on Religious Experience

Some Thoughts on Religious Experience

In judging of religious experience, it is all important to keep steadily in view the system of divine truth contained in the Holy Scriptures; otherwise our experience, as is too often the case, will degenerate into enthusiasm. Many ardent professors seem too readily to take it for granted that all religious feelings must be good. They therefore take no care to discriminate between the genuine and the spurious, the pure gold and the tinsel. Their only concern is about the ardour of their feelings; not considering that if they are spurious, the more intense they are the further will they lead them astray.

There is no necessity for any other proof of native depravity than the aversion which children early manifest to religious instruction and to spiritual exercises.

Of two persons under conviction of sin, one of whom has had sound religious instruction, and the other none, the former will have an unspeakable advantage over the latter in many respects.

There is a common practical error in the minds of many Christians in regard to this matter. They seem to think that nothing has any relation to the conversion of the sinner but that which immediately preceded this event; and the Christian is ready to say, I was awakened under such a sermon, and never had rest until I found it in Christ; making nothing of all previous instructions and impressions. So, when a revival occurs under the awakening discourses of some evangelist, people are ready to think that he only is the successful preacher whose labours God owns and blesses; whereas he does but bring forward to maturity feelings and convictions which have been long secretly forming and growing within the soul, but so imperceptibly that the person himself was little sensible of any change.

We know very little, however, of what is passing in the minds of thousands around us. The zealous preacher often concludes and laments that there is no impression on the minds of his hearers, when, if the covering of the human heart could be withdrawn, he would be astonished and confounded at the variety and depth of the feelings experienced. Those impressions which manifest themselves by a flow of tears are not the deepest, but often very superficial; while the most awful distresses of the soul are entirely concealed by a kind of hypocrisy, which men early learn to practice to hide their feelings of a religious kind from their fellow-creatures.

If there be a truth established beyond all reasonable question by uniform experience, it is that lovers of pleasure are the enemies of God.

– Archibald Alexander, 1844, Thoughts on Religious Experience

John Owen on Mortification

John Owen on Mortification

By faith, fill your soul with a due consideration of that provision which is laid up in Jesus Christ for this end and purpose – that all your lusts, even this very lust with which you are entangled, may be mortified. By faith, ponder on this – that though you are in no way able to get the conquest over your disorder by yourself, though you are weary of fighting and are utterly ready to faint, yet there is enough in Jesus Christ to yield relief to you (Philippians 4:13).

Let, then, your soul by faith be exercised with such thoughts and apprehensions as these:

‘I am a poor, weak creature. Unstable as water, I cannot excel. This corruption is too hard for me and is at the very door of ruining my soul, and I don’t know what to do. My soul is become as parched ground and a habitation of dragons. I have made promises and broken them. Vows and engagements have been made for nothing. Many times I have persuaded myself that I had gotten victory and been delivered, but I have been deceived. I plainly see that without some eminent support and assistance, I am lost and shall be prevailed on to an utter relinquishment of God.

But yet, though this be my state and condition, let the hands that hang down be lifted up and the weak knees be strengthened. Behold, the Lord Christ, who has all fullness of grace in His heart and all fullness of power in His hand – He is able to slay all these his enemies. There is sufficient provision in Him for my relief and assistance. He can take my drooping, dying soul and make me more than a conqueror’ (Isaiah 35:7, Isaiah 40:27-31, 2 Corinthians 12:9).

The efficacy of this consideration will be found only in the practice.

From The Works of John Owen, Volume 6, pages 79-80.

John Newton on the Trials of Mental Disorders

John Newton on the Trials of Mental Disorders

In 1801, John Newton was nearing the end of his active ministry because of his gradually failing faculties. His eyesight was going, as were his hearing and memory. He was more and more dependent upon his niece (and adopted daughter), Betsy Catlett, to help him with the reading and writing of the many letters that came every day. So, it was a particular trial for him, as well as for her, when she was committed to Bethlem Hospital for about a year for depression.

In his diary, Newton wrote:

You sent her to me when she was little more than five years old. You gave me a parent’s heart for her and did so bless my endeavours to bring her to Thee, that my wages were a rich reward. But this year it has pleased Thee to require of me, as You did Your servant Abraham, to resign my Isaac, me beloved child to Your sovereign, wise, and holy will. She is now in Bethlehem; and though I have many causes for thankfulness for alleviations, my trial, You know, is great. I trust, however, that she likewise is Thine, and that Your name is indelibly engraved upon her heart. O my Lord, bow, I beseech Thee, my will to Thine. Keep in my mind Your voluntary humiliation and suffering. You have given me a desire to lie before Thee as clay in the hands of the potter; let Your grace be sufficient for me.

Josiah Bull records that Newton would walk every morning to the hospital in order to wave to Miss Catlett and would wait until she saw him and waved back, before returning home.

Newton had previous experience with mental and spiritual disorders in dealing with his friend, William Cowper, but this had been many years before, when he was almost thirty years younger. Now, with the loss of someone he depended upon daily, especially in his old age, he had to grapple with God’s Providence. And in doing, we have been blessed to have his thoughts as he writes to his friend John Campbell in Scotland:

London, September 19, 1801

My Dear Sir,

It is high time to thank you for your kind consolatory letter of the 30th June; but my eyes fail me, so that I cannot write much.

My dear Miss Catlett is laid aside from me at the very time she seems most needful to me. For now, I can neither read nor write by candlelight, and but little by daylight. I miss her much as my secretary and reader. But I miss her still more as my dear delightful, affectionate, and attentive companion. Most of all my heart is pained by her sufferings. She is always dying to her own apprehension, and what is worse, thinks that the death she hourly expects will plunge her into the pit of perdition; for she thinks the Lord has cast her off as a hypocrite and will show her no mercy. Blessed be His name, I am sure this is owing to her malady. I know no person of whose stock and acceptance in the Beloved I am more satisfied. But her distrust at present is great and, of course, my trial is heavy.

I am under a painful dispensation, but I am mercifully supported – not by lively frames or sensible comforts, I have seldom been favoured with these – but I am enabled, by His grace, to cleave to His written word. I believe that this affliction does not spring out of the ground, that the thing is of the Lord, and that He is wise and good, and therefore, surely does and will do, all things well. I believe He can, and I trust He will, bring light out of this dark dispensation; but it is my part to wait His time, way, and will, with submission.

My health is good, and my spirits. I eat and sleep as usual, and preach as much, and seemingly, with as much acceptance as formerly. Perhaps I may be heard more attentively now, for they who know me take it for granted that I could not preach at all, as things are, if the Lord Himself was not to uphold me. I hope some are encouraged by observing his goodness to me and possibly I may speak with more emphasis to the afflicted from what I feel in myself.

The Lord is sovereign, I am a sinner. He has the same right to me and mine, as the potter over the clay. And if He has pardoned our sins, and united us to Himself, all will be well at last. We ought to be willing to be placed in the most painful situation, if it may promote His glory, which should be our highest end, for He suffered much more for us than He will ever lay upon us. And since He has said, ‘My grace is sufficient for you,’ and ‘My strength shall be perfected in your weakness,’ and promised that ‘all shall work together for good’ in the final issue, I am to leave all in His hands, and am, in some measure enabled to do so. But, I find, if the spirit be willing, the flesh is weak. Self and unbelief often assail me.

She has now been seven weeks in Bethlem Hospital. For though only the Lord can relieve her, He usually answers prayers in the use of means. There she has the best. I have many alleviations to thank Him for. She is gentle and compliant with all the rules of the place, submits to everything required without coercion, is much favoured by those who have the care of her, and is so well pleased with treatment, that she expresses no desire of coming out. Praise the Lord, O my soul, for these mercies. She is neither mopish, nor frantic, and the Lord has disposed the heart of strangers to be her friends. She is certainly not worse. But a malady of this kind is seldom cured suddenly.

The Lord can restore her to peace and to me, and if He sees it best upon the whole, He will. But should she die deranged while I am living, my thoughts would without hesitation follow her to a place among those who surround the throne of glory with songs of praise, day and night, day without night, to the Lamb who sets upon all, and who redeemed them by His blood. Time is short, we are traveling on, and shall soon be at home. Then, farewell sin and sorrow for ever. Heaven and eternity will make rich amends for all the sufferings which His wise plan may appoint us to endure while here.

I beg all your prayers. I need them, and I prize them. May the Lord bless you wherever you are and make you a blessing to many. Amen.

I am your affectionate and obliged,

John Newton

Miss Catlett eventually recovered and was released from the hospital, after a stay of about a year. She married Joseph Smith, an optician, in 1805. John Newton died a couple of years later, in 1807. She was to survive her husband,  who died in 1825. She died in 1834.

This is from an upcoming book of letters from John Newton to John Campbell, that I have edited. It contains some letters and many parts of letters previously unpublished. The above is an example of a published letter with many of the personal details missing that have now been restored.

Back online!

Back online!

I’m finally back online with my blog. After suffering through my web host’s multiple allowances of spam injections, I decided it was time to switch. I’m now with Hostwinds and everything has gone smoothly. This is only the second time I’ve ever had to switch web hosts and it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.

There are various web pages that I’ll be slowly bringing back online, updating as I go: such as the Calvinistic Methodists and Scottish Preachers sites. and are already back. I’ll also be re-posting past articles here on the main page, as well as new ones.

There’s no way to know how soon all of this will take place, but rest assured, it will happen as soon as I get to it!