John Newton on Monasticism, Mission, and the Desert Fathers

I stumbled across a book of daily readings from John Newton and it has been great. He was an Anglican Pastor in the 18th Century. He is most famous for his hymns and testimony of being saved from a life of sin that included being the captain of a slave ship. Some consider him to be the premier English writer on pastoral subjects. He has such a simple and tender way of expressing deep truths. I came across this excerpt this morning on the topic of being avoiding conformity to the world, and he rightly talks about the false approach to this.

“It is not necessary, perhaps it is not lawful, wholly to renounce the society of the world. A mistake of this kind took place in the early ages of Christianity, and men (at first, perhaps, with a sincere desire of serving God without distraction) withdrew into deserts and uninhabited places, and wasted their lives at a distance from their fellow-creatures. But unless we could flee from ourselves likewise, this would afford us no advantage; so long as we carry our own wicked hearts with us, we shall be exposed to temptation, go where we will. Besides, this would be thwarting the end of our vocation. Christians are to be the salt and the lights of the world, conspicuous as cities set upon a hill; they are commanded to “let their light shine before men, that they, beholding their good works, may glorify their Father who is in heaven.” This injudicious deviation from the paths of nature and providence, gave occasion at length to the vilest abominations; and men who withdrew from the world, under pretense of retirement, became the more wicked and abandoned as they lived more out of public view and observation.

“Nor are we at liberty, much less are we enjoined, to renounce the duties of relative life, so as to become careless in the discharge of them. Allowances should, indeed, be made for the distresses of people newly awakened, or under the power of temptation, which may for a time so much engross their thoughts as greatly to indispose them for their bounded duty. But, in general, the proper evidence of true Christians is, not merely that they can talk about Divine things, but that, by the grace of God, they live and act agreeable to the rules of his word, in the state in which his providence has placed them, whether as masters or servants, husbands or wives, parents or children; bearing rule, or yielding obedience, as in his sight. Diligence and fidelity in the management of temporal concernments, though observable in the practice of many worldly men, may be maintained without a sinful conformity to the world.”

You can read the rest here. He goes on to talk about asceticism ( “A man may almost starve his body to feed his pride…”) and several other important topics. He summarizes that we must not conform to the spirit of the world, the maxims of the world, and the amusements of the world. As is so often the case, hearing someone talk about this while situated several centuries away is helpful.

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