Just as one stain can ruin our favorite outfit, a neglected blemish on a Christian’s character can spoil his witness. Today, Sinclair Ferguson reflects on a penetrating letter by John Newton, who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace.”
I imagine most of us know the name of the great English hymn writer John Newton, or at least we know that he wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace,” or perhaps we know that he once captained a slave transporter, or that he became the spiritual guide to the great William Wilberforce. You may even know that partly in order to help his friend William Cowper, who suffered from a very deep depression, he got them to write an entire hymn book together. He was a minister and preacher in the Church of England, and he had another talent that I think is less well-known, although most of his friends thought it was his greatest talent. He was one of the very greatest letter writers of the Christian church. And hundreds of his letters are still available to read, and they’re hugely helpful to us as Christians. I think actually it would be possible to have a whole year of podcasts on John Newton’s letters, and perhaps his name will turn up again in the future.
But this week, I want to think with you about one of his letters, which I’ve found very interesting because he puts into words, and almost into pictures, something you’ve probably noticed but maybe never quite been able to put into words yourself. Let me try and explain what this letter is about. I wonder if you’ve ever spilt a tiny blob of soup on your new silk tie, or maybe a small piece of mud gets splashed on your dress, or there’s a tiny scratch on your new car? Well, that’s very depressing, but what is even more depressing is that’s what everybody seems to notice. They don’t say, “I like your new car.” They say, “There’s a scratch on your new car.” Or they say, “There’s a spot on the tie. Did you notice it?” Or, “What did you do to your dress?” It’s this strange phenomenon that very small things can spoil the whole, and everybody notices.
And John Newton writes this letter about the spiritual equivalent of this in his fellow Christians. Here are Christians who, in many respects, are admirable, but there’s one, perhaps only one, characteristic that they have that somehow or another seems to spoil the whole. And it’s not a gross sin. It’s just a blotch, like a scratch on the car, or a mark on the tie or the dress. But it is the thing that everybody notices about them and remembers, and it distorts everything. It seems far bigger, much more prominent, than any of their graces or their gifts. And yet the sad thing is, we ourselves may not be aware of the fault. We don’t have any idea of the atmosphere that we leave behind us or that it isn’t the aroma of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We’re a bit like people who get into an elevator in an office building, smartly dressed and well-groomed, but after a few seconds, everybody’s noses tells them that they’ve been outside smoking. Every breath they take, every breath they breathe out, tells us something they don’t notice about themselves, and the odor isn’t attractive. In fact, perhaps it repels rather than attracts. And perhaps you’ve noticed a spiritual equivalent.
So, here’s something to think about today. Just as we talk about this, have you any idea at all if there’s a scratch, or a dent, or a mark, or a blotch in your life that you’ve hardly noticed, but might be the thing that stands out to others and makes them think that although you profess to be growing in likeness to Jesus Christ, something is hindering you? Maybe even thinking about that will draw something to your attention. And if that’s the case, what you really need to do is to tell the Lord Jesus about it because He’s promised to forgive you, and He’s also promised to begin to cleanse you and make you more like Himself.
And in the rest of the week, I want to try and talk about some of these people that John Newton talks about, and I think maybe you’ll be able to recognize them.