Newton, John. “Prayers Answered by Crosses.” Olney Hymns, 1779.

Introduction

In his preface to the Olney Hymnbook, John Newton writes, “As the workings of the heart of man, and of the Spirit of God, are in general the same in all who are the subjects of grace, I hope most of these hymns, being the fruit and expression of my own experience, will coincide with the views of real Christians of all denominations. But I cannot expect that every sentiment I have advanced will be universally approved.” Newton was referring to his strong Calvinistic views. It came out in his writing and preaching, and it certainly came out in his hymns. Newton had a rock-solid grip on the sovereignty of God in all things. As the LORD would say, “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things” (Isa. 45:7). Newton knew that God had, as the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith elucidates, “decreed in himself, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably, all things, whatsoever comes to pass,” including human suffering.

The hymn entitled “Prayers Answered by Crosses” (or otherwise known as “I asked the Lord that I might grow” after the first line in the hymn) is a gripping and heart-stirring piece of music written, as is stated above, by deep Christian experience. Newton articulates with simple rhyme the very heart of sanctification by affliction. William Cowper, his longtime friend, assisted Newton in writing the Olney Hymbook. Cowper, however, fell mentally ill and died and was unable to complete the project with his friend. Newton picked up the pieces and penned, in this writer’s opinion, a sermonic hymn akin to the shattering, shaping and sanctification of saintly Job. One can almost hear the dialog between the LORD and Satan. “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan asks, “But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand” (Job 1:9,11-12a). This is the intense predicament in which we find Newton writing this most beloved hymn.
The hymn contains seven stanzas in a simple ABAB style where every other line’s final syllable rhymes, a style commonly found in the Shakespearean sonnet. Each line in the stanza is composed of no more than eight words. It is written in the historical present form and in a very conversational way.

Stanza I

I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek, more earnestly, His face.

The hymn begins with recalling a former prayer. Newton asks the Lord for growth in the Christian life. He asks the Lord for it in five areas: faith, and love and every grace, that he might know more of the salvation of the Lord and seek more earnestly his face. The prayer contained nothing particular, yet it contained the sum of all godly living – loving God with all that we are and loving our neighbor as ourselves. Faith, love and every grace are needed to walk in an upright way in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation. Not only that they are necessary for being salty in a rotting world. Newton’s request was for the benefit of not only himself but for those around him. He also asks to know more of the salvation of the Lord and for grace to seek God’s face. Echoes of Ps. 105:4, “Seek his face always,” stir in the reader’s heart. Newton welds together both the knowledge of the Lord and the love of the Lord. He desires to know more of the salvation of the Lord, the inner workings of the gospel of grace, and at the same time to seek, more earnestly, God’s face. Seeking the face of God is seeking to love him for him alone, not what He gives. It is a delight in God because of God alone. He recognizes a deficiency and asks for this seeking to be granted “more earnestly” than it had been before.

Stanza II

‘Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust, has answered prayer!
But it has been in such a way,
As almost drove me to despair.

God taught him to pray this way. Reminiscent of Matt. 6 where the Christ taught his disciples to pray, Newton recognized that this was the pattern. The above-mentioned elements in the first stanza are what contain the heart of Christian prayer. Newton recognized that if this was the way to pray, as taught by God, then he could trust that God would answer those prayers. When we pray according to the will of God, God answers prayer. It was how the prayer was answered that brought Newton into a humble frame. As he says it almost drove him to despair. It seems, as the following stanza will show, this providence took Newton by surprise.

Stanza III

I hoped that in some favored hour,
At once He’d answer my request;
And by His love’s constraining pow’r,
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.

The surprise of the providence can be seen in the fact that Newton hoped that, by asking for growth in grace, faith, and love, God would answer his request in a more favorable way. He hoped that by the constraining power of God’s love that his sin would be subdued and he would receive rest from toil over it. This is reminiscent of 2 Cor. 5:14-15 where the Apostle explains that it is the love of God shown in the cross of Christ that compels him to obedience that “those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” What is striking about this stanza is the way in which Newton desired to grow in grace. It was “in some favored hour” and “at once” that he desired God to work. Every Christian desires to grow in grace in favorable times, yet rarely is this the case. Rarely do our sins just go away by some supernatural work. The flesh is tricky and can turn even the grace of God into an idol (Rom. 6:1). God chose another way to sanctify Newton.

Stanza IV

Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in every part.

Instead of growth at once in a favorable hour, God chose to expose Newton’s sin. God chose heart work. Further God’s goal of sanctifying Newton was brought about by demonic power being allowed to assault Newton’s soul in every part. Here, echoes of Job cannot be missed (Job 1:6-22) and here Newton’s full-orbed understanding of the utter sovereignty of God shines. He understood that nothing happened to him outside of the control of Almighty God, whether good or bad (Rom. 8:28). Not only this he could detect the difference between the weighty feeling of the evil of his own heart and a demonic assault (Jam. 1:14; Eph. 6:12). It seems that this was not Newton’s first experience with this sort of thing. A keen observation like this seems to only come with much experience.

Stanza V

Yea more, with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.

An important, yet not explicitly stated, theological point is made here. Newton makes a distinction between the angry powers of hell and God’s own hand. This is important because, though Newton is quite right that God’s own hand can and does aggravate woe, God cannot be charged as the author of evil. Newton recognized further the difference between the hidden evils of his heart, the angry powers of hell, and God’s own hand. Again, a keen observation, yet what is the lesson? “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand” (Prov. 19:21). God crossed the seemingly good plans of Newton and, like Jonah, took away the comfort Newton once had from God’s own hand (Jon. 4:6).

Stanza VI

Lord, why is this, I trembling cried,
Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?
“‘Tis in this way, the Lord replied,
I answer prayer for grace and faith.

In a possible play on words from Jonah 4, Newton cries out to the Lord in recognition that God is majestic and he is but a worm (it was a worm that destroyed Jonah’s comfortable gourd tree). Finding no comfort, Newton wonders if whether or not God will pursue him to the point of death, which is not an altogether inconceivable conclusion (1 Cor. 11:30; Prov. 29:1). The God of the Bible kills people. The answer to Newton’s question is surprising yet settling. It is in this way, the way of exposing sin, soul assault, and aggravating woe that God answers prayer for grace and faith. God would not have Newton to own grace and faith in name only, the bare husk, but to own by the hard tilling of the soil the full ear of grace and faith. What is sown is one thing, what is reaped is another. “What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:42b-44a). Growth in grace and faith, in other words, resurrection life, or stated another way, resurrection from the dead, does not begin at death. It begins now (Col. 3:1). We must now begin to bear the image of the man of heaven (1 Cor. 15:49). This comes through hard providence.

Stanza VII

These inward trials I employ,
From self, and pride, to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st find thy all in Me.”

All of the trial Newton experience was inward. It was a spiritual battle. It was heart work. God used these things to wound yet to cure. He sought to do two overarching things. First to break off sin, and second to fill Newton’s heart with the joy of desiring God for God alone. Self and pride were weights of sin that slowed the progress of sanctification. Not only this but earthly joy had to be addressed. This is not so much joy in earthly things, as is fitting in due proportion (Ps. 111:2, etc.), but earthly joy as to its quality. Heavenly joy is what settles our hearts when earthly things come and go. All of this, Newton found, was for the benefit of enjoying God for God. God will have no competitors. No idol in the heart can stand. God must remove the world in order that the heart may more closely cling to him and desire him alone.

Conclusion

Just as a man whose muscles are never used grows weaker and weaker by the day, so grace, unexercised, languishes. Calm seas make for unskilled sailors. Untried grace makes for worldly saints. Newton knew by experience God’s chastising hand. He knew that it came from a loving father and not a wrathful judge. He knew that in all the pain God was sovereign. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (Prov. 27:6). In the end, it was the faithful wounds of a friendly God that made the heart of the man cleave more and more to the Everlasting Source of Joy!

This is a useful piece that has laid my heart open before the Lord and served me well. It is a letter that was written by John Newton to a fellow minister who had spelled out his intentions to criticize another fellow minister. Newton’s advice is sage and full of gospel fruit. It reads as follows:

Dear Sir,

As you are likely to be engaged in controversy, and your love of truth is joined with a natural warmth of temper, my friendship makes me solicitous on your behalf. You are of the strongest side; for truth is great, and must prevail; so that a person of abilities inferior to yours might take the field with a confidence of victory. I am not therefore anxious for the event of the battle; but I would have you more than a conqueror, and to triumph, not only over your adversary, but over yourself. If you cannot be vanquished, you may be wounded. To preserve you from such wounds as might give you cause of weeping over your conquests, I would present you with some considerations, which, if duly attended to, will do you the service of a great coat of mail; such armor, that you need not complain, as David did of Saul’s, that it will be more cumbersome than useful; for you will easily perceive it is taken from that great magazine provided for the Christian soldier, the Word of God. I take it for granted that you will not expect any apology for my freedom, and therefore I shall not offer one. For method’s sake, I may reduce my advice to three heads, respecting your opponent, the public, and yourself.

Consider Your Opponent

As to your opponent, I wish that before you set pen to paper against him, and during the whole time you are preparing your answer, you may commend him by earnest prayer to the Lord’s teaching and blessing. This practice will have a direct tendency to conciliate your heart to love and pity him; and such a disposition will have a good influence upon every page you write.

If you account him a believer, though greatly mistaken in the subject of debate between you, the words of David to Joab concerning Absalom, are very applicable: “Deal gently with him for my sake.” The Lord loves him and bears with him; therefore you must not despise him, or treat him harshly. The Lord bears with you likewise, and expects that you should show tenderness to others, from a sense of the much forgiveness you need yourself. In a little while you will meet in heaven; he will then be dearer to you than the nearest friend you have upon earth is to you now. Anticipate that period in your thoughts; and though you may find it necessary to oppose his errors, view him personally as a kindred soul, with whom you are to be happy in Christ forever.

But if you look upon him as an unconverted person, in a state of enmity against God and his grace (a supposition which, without good evidence, you should be very unwilling to admit), he is a more proper object of your compassion than of your anger. Alas! “He knows not what he does.” But you know who has made you to differ. If God, in his sovereign pleasure, had so appointed, you might have been as he is now; and he, instead of you, might have been set for the defense of the gospel. You were both equally blind by nature. If you attend to this, you will not reproach or hate him, because the Lord has been pleased to open your eyes, and not his.

Of all people who engage in controversy, we, who are called Calvinists, are most expressly bound by our own principles to the exercise of gentleness and moderation. If, indeed, they who differ from us have a power of changing themselves, if they can open their own eyes, and soften their own hearts, then we might with less inconsistency be offended at their obstinacy: but if we believe the very contrary to this, our part is, not to strive, but in meekness to instruct those who oppose. “If peradventure God will give them repentance to the acknowledgment of the truth.” If you write with a desire of being an instrument of correcting mistakes, you will of course be cautious of laying stumbling blocks in the way of the blind or of using any expressions that may exasperate their passions, confirm them in their principles, and thereby make their conviction, humanly speaking, more impracticable.

Consider the Public

By printing, you will appeal to the public; where your readers may be ranged under three divisions: First, such as differ from you in principle. Concerning these I may refer you to what I have already said. Though you have your eye upon one person chiefly, there are many like-minded with him; and the same reasoning will hold, whether as to one or to a million.

There will be likewise many who pay too little regard to religion, to have any settled system of their own, and yet are preengaged in favor of those sentiments which are at least repugnant to the good opinion men naturally have of themselves. These are very incompetent judges of doctrine; but they can form a tolerable judgment of a writer’s spirit. They know that meekness, humility, and love are the characteristics of a Christian temper; and though they affect to treat the doctrines of grace as mere notions and speculations, which, supposing they adopted them, would have no salutary influence upon their conduct; yet from us, who profess these principles, they always expect such dispositions as correspond with the precepts of the gospel. They are quick-sighted to discern when we deviate from such a spirit, and avail themselves of it to justify their contempt of our arguments. The scriptural maxim, that “the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God,” is verified by daily observation. If our zeal is embittered by expressions of anger, invective, or scorn, we may think we are doing service of the cause of truth, when in reality we shall only bring it into discredit. The weapons of our warfare, and which alone are powerful to break down the strongholds of error, are not carnal, but spiritual; arguments fairly drawn from Scripture and experience, and enforced by such a mild address, as may persuade our readers, that, whether we can convince them or not, we wish well to their souls, and contend only for the truth’s sake; if we can satisfy them that we act upon these motives, our point is half gained; they will be more disposed to consider calmly what we offer; and if they should still dissent from our opinions, they will be constrained to approve our intentions.

You will have a third class of readers, who, being of your own sentiments, will readily approve of what you advance, and may be further established and confirmed in their views of the Scripture doctrines, by a clear and masterly elucidation of your subject. You may be instrumental to their edification if the law of kindness as well as of truth regulates your pen, otherwise you may do them harm. There is a principle of self, which disposes us to despise those who differ from us; and we are often under its influence, when we think we are only showing a becoming zeal in the cause of God.

I readily believe that the leading points of Arminianism spring from and are nourished by the pride of the human heart; but I should be glad if the reverse were always true; and that to embrace what are called the Calvinistic doctrines was an infallible token of a humble mind. I think I have known some Arminians, that is, persons who for want of a clearer light, have been afraid of receiving the doctrines of free grace, who yet have given evidence that their hearts were in a degree humbled before the Lord.

And I am afraid there are Calvinists, who, while they account it a proof of their humility, that they are willing in words to debase the creature and to give all the glory of salvation to the Lord, yet know not what manner of spirit they are of. Whatever it be that makes us trust in ourselves that we are comparatively wise or good, so as to treat those with contempt who do not subscribe to our doctrines, or follow our party, is a proof and fruit of a self-righteous spirit.

Self-righteousness can feed upon doctrines as well as upon works; and a man may have the heart of a Pharisee, while his head is stored with orthodox notions of the unworthiness of the creature and the riches of free grace. Yea, I would add, the best of men are not wholly free from this leaven; and therefore are too apt to be pleased with such representations as hold up our adversaries to ridicule, and by consequence flatter our own superior judgments. Controversies, for the most part, are so managed as to indulge rather than to repress his wrong disposition; and therefore, generally speaking, they are productive of little good. They provoke those whom they should convince, and puff up those whom they should edify. I hope your performance will savor of a spirit of true humility, and be a means of promoting it in others.

Consider Yourself

This leads me, in the last place, to consider your own concern in your present undertaking. It seems a laudable service to defend the faith once delivered to the saints; we are commanded to contend earnestly for it, and to convince gainsayers. If ever such defenses were seasonable and expedient they appear to be so in our own day, when errors abound on all sides and every truth of the gospel is either directly denied or grossly misrepresented.

And yet we find but very few writers of controversy who have not been manifestly hurt by it. Either they grow in a sense of their own importance, or imbibe an angry, contentious spirit, or they insensibly withdraw their attention from those things which are the food and immediate support of the life of faith, and spend their time and strength upon matters which are at most but of a secondary value. This shows, that if the service is honorable, it is dangerous. What will it profit a man if he gains his cause and silences his adversary, if at the same time he loses that humble, tender frame of spirit in which the Lord delights, and to which the promise of his presence is made?

Your aim, I doubt not, is good; but you have need to watch and pray for you will find Satan at your right hand to resist you; he will try to debase your views; and though you set out in defense of the cause of God, if you are not continually looking to the Lord to keep you, it may become your own cause, and awaken in you those tempers which are inconsistent with true peace of mind, and will surely obstruct communion with God.

Be upon your guard against admitting anything personal into the debate. If you think you have been ill treated, you will have an opportunity of showing that you are a disciple of Jesus, who “when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not.” This is our pattern, thus we are to speak and write for God, “not rendering railing for railing, but contrariwise blessing; knowing that hereunto we are called.” The wisdom that is from above is not only pure, but peaceable and gentle; and the want of these qualifications, like the dead fly in the pot of ointment, will spoil the savor and efficacy of our labors.

If we act in a wrong spirit, we shall bring little glory to God, do little good to our fellow creatures, and procure neither honor nor comfort to ourselves. If you can be content with showing your wit, and gaining the laugh on your side, you have an easy task; but I hope you have a far nobler aim, and that, sensible of the solemn importance of gospel truths, and the compassion due to the souls of men, you would rather be a means of removing prejudices in a single instance, than obtain the empty applause of thousands. Go forth, therefore, in the name and strength of the Lord of hosts, speaking the truth in love; and may he give you a witness in many hearts that you are taught of God, and favored with the unction of his Holy Spirit.

How David, when by sin deceived,
From bad to worse went on!
For when the Holy Spirit’s grieved,
Our strength and guard are gone.

His eye on Bathsheba once fixed,
With poison filled his soul;
He ventured on adultery next,
And murder crowned the whole.

So from a spark of fire at first,
That has not been descried;
A dreadful flame has often burst,
And ravaged far and wide.

When sin deceives it hardens too,
For though he vainly fought
To hide his crimes from public view,
Of God he little thought.

He neither would, or could repent,
No true compunction felt;
’Till God in mercy Nathan sent,
His stubborn heart to melt.

The parable held forth a fact,
Designed his case to show;
But though the picture was exact,
Himself he did not know.

“Thou art the man,” the prophet said,
That word his slumber broke;
And when he owned his sin, and prayed,
The Lord forgiveness spoke.

Let those who think they stand, beware,
For David stood before;
Nor let the fallen soul despair,
For mercy can restore.

John Newton, Olney Hymns, 1779