Many know John Newton as the former slave-trader, preacher and author of “Amazing Grace,” but he was also a prolific letter-writer amid the Second Great Awakening. In fact, one of his best means of shepherding was through writing letters. One writer said of him, “They found in him one who had been a worse sinner than themselves and who could enter into their experiences with tenderness and sympathy.”
In the summer of 1761, Newton wrote a letter to his friend, Pastor Whitford, on the evil of a quarrelsome spirit. In it, Newton doesn’t address conflict per se because conflict is inevitable in a broken world. Rather, he addresses a spirit of pride that often persists in conflict. Here are five helps he offers:
1. Know the worth of communion with Jesus Christ.
Newton remarks to Whitford, “Tell those who know what communion with Jesus is worth, that they will never be able to maintain it, if they give way to the workings of pride, jealousy, and anger.” Newton is saying that people who know the worth of communion with Jesus seek to prevent even the smallest of things from getting in the way of that communion, even in the midst of conflict. They avoid gossip. They outdo one another in honor through service. They rejoice and weep with each other. If they have a problem, they bring it first to their heavenly Father and then to the person. They keep short accounts and overlook offenses. They are one.
Believers in Christ, do you know the worth of communion with Jesus?
2. Bury your bitterness in the grave.
Newton writes, “Tell them I hope to hear that all animosities, little and big, are buried by mutual consent in the Redeemer’s grave.” He wants believers to remember that the truth of Jesus’ crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection holds massive implications for what they do with their own sin. Animosity must not rule our disagreements. When we quarreled, my mom would always tell my siblings and me, “First one to the cross wins.” It wasn’t about competitive forgiveness, but rather the joy and Christlikeness found in humbling yourself and leading the way in confession and forgiveness.
Do you live according to the truth that Jesus buried animosity in the grave?
3. Recognize the real enemy.
Newton asks his friend to consider: “Why will [believers who disagree with one another] help their enemies to pull down the Lord’s work?” In other words, why would we fight those who are on our side when a gigantic army already opposes us? The apostle Paul reminds the saints that their battle “is not against flesh and blood.” The realization that Satan and sin are the real enemies should make the body of Christ bold and truthful in confrontation because of what is at stake. It should also make us gracious in recognizing that our brothers and sisters aren’t the real enemy.
Have you forgotten who the real enemy is?
4. Be aware that your sin is progressive.
Sin is not a light matter, and Newton’s wise concern is that a quarrelsome spirit will lead to something worse. He remarks, “I wish they may be wise in time, lest Satan gain further advantage over them, and draw them to something that shall make them roar under the pains of broken bones.” Jonathan Edwards made a similar observation as he studied revivals in New England. He found that revival halted where a spirit of dissension and jealousy ultimately rooted in pride was present. We must address sin in ourselves and in each other quickly, truthfully and graciously. Sin and bitterness only grow if unaddressed.
Are you mindful that dissensions can progress into deeper sins?
5. Take care of your own soul as an example and pattern to the flock.
Newton reminds his friend that he must take care of his own soul in these very matters. He says to expect situations that will give you the opportunity to “exemplify your own rules, and to convince your people, that what you recommend to them you do not speak by rote, but from experience of your heart.” One of my mentors used to make it a habit of saying “tell me more” and “thank you” whenever someone approached him about his personal sin. He did it because he knew how hard that conversation was and because he wanted to be approachable for rebuke. He longed to demonstrate, like Jesus, openness and humility when others cared enough to exhort, encourage or rebuke him.
Do you have a proud, jealous or quarrelsome spirit? What example are you setting for the believers around you?
Newton ends the letter, exhorting his friend not to grow discouraged in the midst of conflict. Why? Because God seems to pair together things like crosses and comforts, strength and weakness, trials and ministry opportunities. He reminds his friend of the Jesus who will never leave or forsake us, the Jesus we will one day meet in heaven. At that meeting, reflects the former slave-trader, “You will not complain of the way by which the Lord brought you.”