Of all the dead theologians whose words lie bound on my library shelves, it’s hard for me to think of any more readable and gospel-practical than John Newton. (You can get his complete works for under $100–and I’d highly recommend them.)

I first got turned on to Newton from John Piper’s biographical sketch on The Tough Roots of His Habitual Tenderness (also in Piper’s book, The Roots of Endurance).

Last night I read a letter he wrote to a young man who had just been ordained. (You can read it in vol. 1 of the Works, also available as a stand-alone volume.) [Update, via Coty: the whole letter is here online.] The young preacher’s evident gifts made Newton nervous:

If opposition has hurt many, popularity has wounded more. To say the truth, I am in some pain for you. Your natural abilities are considerable; you have been diligent in your studies; your zeal is warm and your spirit is lively. With these advantages, I expect to see you a popular preacher. The more you are so, the greater will your field of usefulness be: but, alas! you cannot yet know to what it will expose you.

Newton then explains the danger:

It is like walking on ice. When you shall see an attentive congregation hanging upon your words: when you shall hear the well-meant, but often injudicious commendations, of those to whom the Lord shall make you useful: when you shall find, upon an intimation of your preaching in a strange place, people thronging from all parts to hear you, how will your heart feel? It is easy for me to advise you to be humble, and for you to acknowledge the propriety of the advice; but while human nature remains in its present state, there will be almost the same connexion between popularity and pride, as between fire and gunpowder: they cannot meet without an explosion, at least not unless the gunpowder is kept very damp. So, unless the Lord is constantly moistening our hearts (If I may so speak) by the influence of his Spirit, popularity will soon set us in a blaze.

Newton goes out with sagacious counsel, but there’s one other sentence especially worth highlighting and taking to heart:

Beware, my friend, of mistaking the ready exercise of gifts for the exercise of grace.

You can read the whole letter on pp. 159-166.

Those interested in learning more of Newton’s advice on pastoral ministry might want to check out what James Grant posted here:

The John Newton Project published a book by Newton on pastoral ministry that was previously unpublished: Ministry on My Mind: John Newton on entering pastoral ministry (transcribed by Marylynn Rouse, Stratford-upon-Avon: The John Newton Project, 2008). This book contains Newton’s thoughts on entering the pastoral ministry, and was written at Liverpool in 1758. You can see the book on the main page, but you need to go here to buy it. They provide several blurbs for the book, one of which is J. I. Packer:

“It is hard to believe that any Christians, wondering if God was calling them to ordained service, ever meditated on relevant Scriptures so perceptively, and recorded their discernments so luminously …a very precious part of the legacy of this great man of God.”