John Newton’s View of Sanctification

I am still reading John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace by Jonathan Aitken, and I find Newton’s view on sanctification quite helpful. It’s not the perfect view of sanctification, but he does help us understand the process.

Newton believes that sanctification was like a train, where all start at the same point, that of unbelief and being dead in trespasses and sins. Those who become believers, are then at point A of belief. They are being drawn by God even though they may not understand why. Aitken quotes Newton:

“It is a spring-time with A. His faith is weak, but his heart is warm. He will seldom venture to think of himself as a believer, but he sees, feels, and does those things that no one could unless the Lord was with him.”

Most of us remember those days of infant belief. I remember those first days when the Spirit was moving in me and my soul desire was to be at His feet, reading His word, soaking in His truth. My life had changed from that of being a wanderer, lost and tossed in the world of ideas and thoughts to one who suddenly awakens to a deep and passionate love. Not that I loved Him, but that Jesus truly loved me. The realization was that Jesus truly did die on the cross, and truly died on the cross on my behalf. He was no longer just an historical figure, but my eyes were open to the the living King of the universe who was and is in control of all things. Life began to slowly make sense. All those years of drifting and searching finally came to an end. I had found my Rock, or should I say, He had found me and placed me on the Rock of salvation.

There is no sweeter realization of this truth for the person that experiences it and knows it. Grace had come raining down in my life and the sojourner without a home, now had a destination.

For Newton, this is what happened to him on a ship while out at sea. The ship was in a terrible storm and should have sunk, but during that time, God’s Spirit began to move in the slave trader in order to bring him to repentance. It wasn’t a foxhole conversion, but one that had been coming about for weeks and months.

The next step for sanctification is step B. Aitken writes:

“Newton suggested that B has to be humbled and tested by God. As B goes through trials and temptations, he wrestles with new sins of the kind that evidently troubled Newton, such as ‘spiritual pride, self-dependence, vain confidence, creative attachments, and a train of evils.’ Gradually B realizes that God’s testings and working of the Holy Spirit are training him up in ‘a growing knowledge of himself and of the Lord.’ Beginning to understand the sovereign mercy of God, B learns how to love deeply and to forgive others. B’s spiritual formation is complete when he reaches this stage of love and forgiveness and is able to stop boasting, complaining, and censuring others.”

Newton believed that once a person reached and fulfilled the steps of B, they then progressed to level C. Aitken points out that Newton never felt that he had arrived at level C and I think this is where Newton’s view of sanctification break down. Not that I want to take anything from it, because he was so right about much of it. However the thought of moving from A, then to B, then to C, in progressive steps is the problem with his view. Sanctification is more like moving between A and C, and the more we grow and mature, the more we remain in C. But just because we have moved into C doesn’t mean we do not visit section A or B as well. There are times where someone at level A, will jump to C and demonstrate great levels of spiritual maturity. But the inverse is also true, those who demonstrate great levels of spiritual maturity can fall back into level B or A.

A lot depends upon what God is doing with us in our lives, and how much the Holy Spirit is working in and through us. The closer we walk with Him, and focus on Him, is when we find ourselves living as those who are spiritually mature, because we are leaning less on ourselves and more on Him. When we try and fix our problems and struggles by ourselves, this is when we are acting with less maturity. This doesn’t me we are complacent, but we need to look to Him when dealing with something.

This is very similar to Joshua and the Israelites when they decided to conquer Ai in Joshua 7. Not only did the sin of Achan play a huge roll in their defeat, for the Lord’s anger burned against Israel because of Achan, but they did not inquire of the Lord before doing so. They thought that they could handle it without the Lord, and He let them fail. Had they inquired of the Lord, I’m sure the Lord would have told them of His anger because of Achan.

As for step C in Newton’s view, Aitken writes:

“… Newton describes C as being in a state of contemplation. This means he accepts his absolute dependence on God and acknowledges his own complete weakness. Surrendering his will to God’s will, C concentrates on contemplating the glory of Christ. As he does this, C grows in humility, spirituality, love of God, and tenderness toward others. He is both the object and the example of divine love. Newton concluded this third letter, ‘Happy C! His toils, sufferings, and exercises will soon be at an end; soon his desires will be accomplished; and he who has loved him and redeemed him will receive him to himself with a ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.'”

Again, I like his description of this position. But I think we only get glimpses of it on this side of glory. Those who are His will experience this glory in the fullest. Yet, most of us are probably well grounded in stage B of Newton’s view of sanctification. We are tested and pressed and challenged because God’s hand is working in us. Remember this is the same God that tested Abraham with his son Isaac. He is the same One that test His own Son on our behalf. Since this is true, then why should we not be tested as well?

Every day, the question remains: “Will we trust in Him to do what is best in our lives?” Or, “will we trust in ourselves?” I’m a strong proponent of trusting in Him. Let the One who began a good work in us, continue to do so until the day of salvation!