John Newton’s Four Thoughts on Public Prayer

Our guest contributor today is Giancarlo Montemayor, the Spanish Publisher at B&H Publishing Group and a PhD student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Marcela and they have two children.

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John Newton (1725–1807)—the famous writer of Amazing Grace—wrote more than a thousand letters in his lifetime, and many of them deal with the subject of prayer. Newton believed and taught that prayer is a corporate discipline as much as it is a personal one. In correspondence with a friend, Newton expressed his high view on public prayers—or “social prayers”—as he called them. He referred to these prayers as “the most profitable exercises (excepting the public preaching) in which Christians can engage”.[1] In another letter, Newton instructed a reader on how to conduct such public prayers—that they should be short, methodological, distinct from sermons, and reverent.[2]

1. Public Prayers Should be Short

John Newton

John Newton

First of all, Newton argued that “long prayers should in general be avoided,” because they could distract even the most spiritually mature people. For him, the problem of some public prayers is that they are too long. He thus said that it is better that the hearers “should wish the prayer had been longer, than spend half the time in wishing it was over.”[3]

2. Public Prayers Should be Simple

Newton was not fond of elaborated prayers, arguing that they sounded rather “artificial.” He didn’t mean that prayers should be disorganized. In fact, he said that “some attention to method may be proper, for the prevention of repetitions.”[4] He recommended Isaac Watts’ A Guide to Prayer, but he commented, “a too close attention to the method therein recommended, gives an air of study and formality, and offends against that simplicity which is so essentially necessary to a good prayer.”[5]

3. Public Prayers Should be Distinct from Sermons

Public prayers are indeed a learning opportunity for those who listen, but Newton regretted that “the prayers of some good men are more like preaching than praying.” Newton believed that preaching is speaking “the Lord’s mind to the people,” while praying is speaking “the desires of the people to the Lord.”  When one confuses one for the other, “it can hardly be called a prayer.” Far from benefiting the congregation, Newton lamented, such prayers would hardly help those who want to pray from their hearts. In contrast, Newton commended prayers that are “breathings to the Lord, either of confession, petition, or praise.” And although prayers should be based on Scripture and the gospel, they should reflect the experience, expressions, and feelings of the soul. By doing so, prayers will result in “the edification of others.”[6]

4. Public Prayers should be Reverent

Lastly, Newton disapproved the “custom that some have of talking to the Lord in prayer.” He was referring to the informal tone as if prayer was “the most familiar and trivial occasion.” He exhorted those who pray publicly to remember that they speak to the King of kings. Praying this way will “prevent us from speaking to [God] as if he was altogether such as one as ourselves!”[7] 

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[1] John Newton, Letters of John Newton (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2007), 78.

[2] Even though the letter is not divided as such, the pattern seems obvious as one reads it.

[3] John Newton, The Works of the Reverend John Newton (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1985), 1:77.

[4] Newton, Works, 1:77.

[5] Newton, Works, 1:77.

[6] Newton, Works, 1:77.

[7] Newton, Works, 1:77.

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John Newton Prayer

Ten Ways to Listen to Sermons Better (Part 1)

One crucial part of public worship—and often the longest part of each worship service—is the preaching of God’s Word. Without a doubt, this is the most important part of public worship since it is God’s primary means for saving sinners and sanctifying those who have already believed in Christ. Yet preaching is also the most difficult aspect of our worship service, not only for the pastor preaching behind the pulpit but also for the members listening in the pews.

During preaching, two things happen simultaneously. First, using the preacher as His instrument, God speaks to us; second, as God’s Word is faithfully proclaimed, we are expected to listen. But good listening does not happen automatically! In fact, listening to a sermon that lasts thirty minutes or more can be a struggle for even the most devoted Christian. There are so many potential distractions—from physical weariness and our own personal thoughts and opinions to the things happening around us at any given moment. We have to be intentional if we are going to listen to sermons well. Yet, if we are truly honest with ourselves, many of us are not good listeners—let alone good sermon listeners.

One of the greatest problems in our churches today is poor listening. Too often we put the blame on our pastors when we are not sufficiently fed by the preaching of God’s Word. We complain and tactlessly say, “Our pastor is not a good preacher.” However, it is wrong for us to think that the blame for our dissatisfaction with public preaching should always fall on the pastor. Perhaps at times it does, since pastors are not perfect themselves. But if your pastor is genuinely preaching the full counsel of Scripture (as God has divinely commanded him to do) and seeking to do so effectively, then perhaps you should consider whether you are truly honoring God with the way you listen to sermons. All of us have surely struggled in this area and could stand to become better listeners, especially with regard to sermons. So, in humility, let us together seek to become more pleasing to God in the way that we listen to the preaching of His Word. In the following pages, I share ten biblical and practical ways that I believe we can and should follow with God’s help. A Hearer of God’s Word

1. Pray as You Listen

In 1 Samuel 3:10, Samuel spoke to God, saying, “Speak, for your servant hears.” We can almost hear the eagerness in Samuel’s voice as he pleads, “Lord, please speak to me, because I am listening to You. I am ready to hear what You want to say to me!” Like Samuel, we should communicate with God about our desire to hear from Him. We as listeners should participate in sermons by listening prayerfully, and we can do this in at least three ways.

First, pray before the sermon. Do you pray before the start of each worship service, asking God to speak to your heart? Do you thank the Lord for sending a preacher to teach God’s Word to you, and do you ask the Lord to bless His servant? Are you intentional in asking God to make the sermon’s message clear to you and to help you hear and receive the truth? Preparing our hearts for worship in this way—and asking God to remove any distractions that might prevent us from hearing from Him—can help us listen better as God’s Word is proclaimed.

Second, we can also utter brief prayers during the sermon. Of course, it is important for us to be quiet and respectful during the message, listening to all that is preached from the pulpit and being careful not to distract others as God speaks to each of our hearts. But it is still appropriate to pray short, silent (or nearly silent) prayers to God as we hear Him clearly speaking to us through what is preached. This can be as simple as whispering a quick “Amen!” or “Thank you for this truth, God!” or as profound as asking God to forgive you for a sin of which you are convicted because of the sermon, or to help you live out a particular instruction being preached. By praying like this while we listen, we are in a sense seasoning the sermon with prayer, asking God to penetrate our hearts deeply with His powerful and life-changing Word. We must remember that the almighty God of heaven is actually speaking to us as His Word is preached, and we should be sure to receive His message in the appropriate way and in a spirit of genuine gratitude.

Third, we should also remember to pray after each sermon, asking the Lord to help us remember and apply the truths we have just heard, so that we might grow not only in our listening but in our daily obedience to Him as well. God’s Word exhorts us to become “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22), and we can’t possibly do this in our own abilities. We must remember to ask God to penetrate our hearts with His Word and to make us able to live what it teaches!

Note: This post is an excerpt from my new book A Hearer of God’s Word: Ten Ways to Listen to Sermons Better. A Hearer of God’s Word (back cover)

 

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A Mini-conference on Being a Family with Dr. Michael Haykin

You are cordially invited to attend a free mini-conference on May 31, 2019, from 7:00 PM to 9:30 PM at the Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary building (2965 Leonard St NE, Grand Rapids, 49525). The speaker will be Dr. Michael Haykin, a world-class church historian and co-author of Dr. Joel Beeke of Why Should I Be Interested in Church History. The conference theme is “Being a Family: Three Biblical Models from the 18th Century.” The three topics are: (1) Being Married, (2) Being a Father, and (3) Being a Mother. There will be a book table and special music also. If you plan to attend, please RSVP to Theonikko del Mundo at astral654321@gmail.com or (616) 265-2834 by Monday, May 27. The first 50 early birds will receive a free copy of Christ’s Portrait of the Christian: An Exposition of the Beatitudes and The Warrior’s Captain. Please share this invitation with your friends. Thank you.

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A Biographical Sketch of Anne Dutton (1692?–1765)

Anne Dutton, née Williams (1692?–1765) was a British Calvinist Baptist writer and theologian. Born in Northampton, England, probably in 1692, Anne contributed through her writings to the ongoing Evangelical Revival of the eighteenth century England. She was a controversial defender of the Calvinistic Baptist theology.

Anna Dutton

Anne Dutton from Letters on Spiritual Subjects 1884 (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Through her parents’ generosity, Anne obtained a religious education. Along with her parents, she attended the Independent church at Castle Hill in Northampton, pastored by John Hunt. Under Hunt’s pastoral care, Anne experienced conversion about thirteen; at age fifteen, she became member of the Castle Hill congregation. When her pastor died in 1709, Thomas Tingey became her new pastor. However, dissatisfied with her new minister, Anne left her church and joined John Moore’s Baptist congregation in Northampton, where she was baptized. Under Moore’s preaching, Anne matured spiritually.

In 1714 at age twenty-two, she married a man of whom little is known. A year later, from Northampton, she and her husband moved to London. There the couple attended the Baptist church in Cripplegate, pastored by the hyper-Calvinist John Skepp, who served this church from 1715 until his death in 1721. When Anne’s husband died in 1720, she moved back to Northampton. The following year, she married Benjamin Dutton (1691/92–1747), a Baptist preacher, who in 1732 became the pastor of the Baptist congregation in Great Gransden, Huntingdonshire. This church grew under the pastorate of Anne’s husband. The church’s growth resulted in constructing a new worship place and parsonage in 1743. On August 17 of that same year, Benjamin travelled to America either to raise funds for ministry or promote his wife’s published works, or both. His trip was successful, but on his return in 1747, the ship sank; he died by drowning at age fifty-six. Anne, who never had children of her own, remained a widow the rest of her life. She stayed in the Great Gransden congregation, spending much of her time writing theological treatises, poems, hymns, and letters. She corresponded with two key leaders of the Evangelical Revival: John Wesley (1703–1791) and George Whitefield (1714–1770). As a Calvinist, she supported Whitefield and critiqued Wesley. Through ink, she challenged Wesley’s views on election, atonement, and Christian perfection. She also wrote a letter to Robert Sandeman (1718–1781) and William Cudworth (1717/18-1763), refuting their antinomianism.

On November 18, 1765 at the age of seventy-three, Anne died, possibly from throat cancer. Her memorial stone, erected in Great Gransden, sums up her life thus: she “spent her life in the cause of God [and] was the author of 25 vol[ume]s of choice letters & 38 smaller works.” What Anne produced as a theological and spiritual writer became a rich contribution to studying Calvinist Baptist theology and spirituality. Her public use of her pen for God’s glory also broke the convention of her days and inspired other women to do the same.

Reference:

Bullock, Karen O’Dell. “Dutton [née Williams], Anne (1691×5–1765), writer and autobiographer.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: OUP, 2009.

Dutton, Anne. A Brief Account of the Gracious Dealings of God, with a Poor, Sinful, Unworthy Creature… London, 1750. (This is Anne’s autobiography.)

________. A letter to the Reverend Mr. John Wesley. In Vindication of the Doctrines of Absolute, Unconditional Election, Particular Redemption… London, 1742.

________. Letter to the Reverend Mr. John Wesley, Against Perfection as Not Attainable in This Life. London, 1743.

________. A letter from Mrs. Anne Dutton, to the Reverend Mr. G. Whitefield. Philadelphia, 1743.

________. A letter to Mr. William Cudworth, In Vindication of the Truth from his Misrepresentations… London, 1747.

________. Mr. Sanddeman Refuted by an Old Woman… London, 1761.

Watson, Joann Ford. ed., Selected Spiritual Writings of Anne Dutton. 3 vols. 2003–2009 (Watson’s introduction, a brief biography of Anne Dutton, to volume one is valuable).

Anne Dutton

“Christ’s Portrait of the Christian”

My father-in-law, Rev. Bartel Elshout, explains the objective of his recent book Christ’s Portrait of the Christian: An Exposition of the Beatitudes. He says: Book Cover

My book Christ’s Portrait of the Christian examines and expounds the remarkable introduction of the Sermon on the Mount, commonly referred to as The Beatitudes. They are designated as such because they are pronouncements of blessedness. Jesus thus begins His Sermon on the Mount by describing and defining who the citizens of His kingdom are. The ignorance of His audience moved Him to do so. The people of His day had an entirely wrong perception of who the Messiah would be. They were looking for an earthly king, a Messiah who would deliver them from the bondage of the Romans. Yet Jesus had not come to deliver them from the Romans but to deliver His people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). He wanted to teach them immediately that His kingdom is entirely different from any earthly kingdom—it is spiritual and its citizens have spiritual rather than political qualifications.

Jesus therefore proceeds by describing blessedness of the citizens of His kingdom in a way that was so contrary to any common understanding of what constituted blessedness or happiness. Jesus here tells us in dramatically different terms what real blessedness looks like. More than that, He says we cannot consider ourselves blessed or happy unless we match His description of the genuine citizens of His kingdom. In these opening verses, Christ is therefore defining for us the distinguishing traits of a true believer.

In these seven opening beatitudes, Jesus fives us a composite portrait of the Christian, beginning with “Blessed are the poor” and ending with “Blessed are the peacemakers.” This comprehensive portrait (Matt. 5:3–9) is followed by a description of how an ungodly world will respond to the citizens of God’s spiritual kingdom. The ungodly will persecute genuine believers who reflect the character of Christ, and it will revile them and speak all manner of evil about them (Matt. 5:10–12).

It should be noted that the traits of the Christian are set forth by Christ in remarkable arrangement. The recognition of that arrangement is essential for a proper understanding of each of these traits. To use a common analogy, we need to consider what the forest looks like before examining the individual trees. A remarkable structure emerges upon examining the interrelatedness of these beatitudes. Regarding this structure, I wish to posit the premise that the fourth beatitude—the central beatitude of this seven beatitude structure—represents the heart of Christian experience. In chapter four of my book, I endeavor to supply the exegetical support for my premise that the focal point of Christian experience is expressed as hungering and thirsting after righteousness, and being filled with that righteousness.

In the introductory chapter of my book, I therefore first consider this core activity of Christian experience. This is followed by considering the internal disposition of the Christian, found in verses three through five, that results in this hungering and thirsting. I then conclude my exposition by examining the external disposition of the Christian, for he who is filled with the righteousness of which verse six speaks will manifest this by the fruits of his life. We will see, as Scripture says, that such will be merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers.

Matthew 5:3–9 is the preeminent passage in all of Scripture to teach us what a Christian looks like. It is a flawless verbal portrait drawn by the Living Word Himself. It is not accidental that this portrait consists of seven components, for the biblical number seven is the number of perfection. We may therefore conclude that verses three through nine set before us a perfect portrayal of every believer that ever has lived or will live until Christ returns.

Having said that, however, we need to understand that we cannot simply pick and choose the individual components of this spiritual portrait, saying, “Well, that pertains to me, and perhaps that also pertains to me.” Rather, we need to understand that these seven marks are true at all times and at all seasons in the life of every believer—although not necessarily to the same extent. In some believers we see the features of this portrait more clearly than in others—just as there may be both clear and blurry photographs of a given individual. Yet, when you look at a blurry photograph, you will still be able to determine who is being depicted. This spiritual portrait thus consists of seven components that constitute an organic whole.

We also need to realize that the order in which Christ gives us the components of this portrait is not arbitrary. In other words, we cannot take these seven marks, juggle them, and then present them in just any fashion. Rather, Christ articulates these traits in a very deliberate, precise, and cumulative order: one beatitude presumes the previous one and anticipates the next.

Thus, they who are poor in spirit will mourn, they who mourn will be meek, they who exhibit all three will hunger and thirst after righteousness. Upon being filled with the righteousness they yearn for, they will be merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers.

The seventh beatitude therefore most appropriately concludes in verse nine: “They shall be called the children of God.” Today we would say that this is the “bottom line.” Jesus is saying, “Those of whom this is true, and thus exhibit all of these marks, they, and they alone, shall be called the children of God.” The Greek word rendered as “children” in verse nine is a word that means “They shall reflect the character of God.” It is as though He is saying, “They will prove themselves to be the sons and daughters of the living God.”

I am hopeful that my book will be helpful in arriving at a biblical understanding and assessment of the Christian’s character and experience.

The book is available through Reformation Heritage Books.

Christ's Portrait of the Christian (picture)

Book

Respect the Time Your Pastor Needs for Prayer and Sermon Preparation

One of the Calvinist Baptist ministers that came out of eighteenth-century evangelicalism was Samuel Pearce (1766–1799), who, in the words of Susan Huntington (1791–1823), was “pre-eminently a holy man.” He was the pastor of Cannon Street Baptist Church in Birmingham where he served faithfully from 1790 until his death in 1799. With God’s blessing, the Birmingham congregation grew spiritually and numerically (more than 300 souls were converted) under Pearce’s preaching. Sunday school, benevolent society to assist the poor, and sick society to care for the afflicted were established during his ministry. Samuel Pearce

When William Belsher was ordained pastor in the Baptist congregation in Worcester, Worcestershire, it was Pearce who gave the ordination sermon. In this sermon, based on Ephesians 4:11, Pearce urged lovingly the church members to respect and protect their pastor’s time for prayer and study of God’s Word—the pastor’s two primary ministries listed in Acts 6:4, “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

Pearce said in that sermon,

“I want to convince you that, for your own sakes, you should promote a studious habit in your minister; allow him every inch of time he wants; neither call upon him, nor expect him to call upon you for no better purpose than to gossip; especially let his mornings and his Saturdays be sacred—it is little short of cruelty to interrupt him then. As you love him, so, no doubt, you will feel a pleasure in his company; but let him choose his own times for seeing you; and do not accuse him of criminal negligence, if his visits are less frequent than you expect. Perhaps at the very moment of your disappointment, he was studying something against the Lord’s Day for your case—perhaps at the moment you are censuring him for his neglect, he is wrestling with God for you in his closet.”[1]

Commenting on Pearce’s message, church historian Michael Haykin (to whom I am indebted for my own study of Pearce) writes, “Here Pearce surely speaks from personal experience of the tension that pastors in the Protestant tradition have repeatedly faced: the need to devote substantial time to sermon-preparation and prayer while also caring for the souls of those in their churches.”[2]

Pastors of large congregations especially struggle with this tension. What is striking, though, in Pearce’s admonition is the fact that the church members are to respect their pastor’s prayer and sermon preparation time for their own sake. Now, if you are a church member, you might say, “How can this be for my own sake?” Well, imagine having a pastor who does not have sufficient time to intercede regularly for you. Imagine a pastor who does not have enough time to study for his sermons. You obviously want to hear good sermons from your pastor; but good sermons do not write themselves. Your pastor must devote many hours to praying, studying, and writing out his messages (and hopefully getting some rest!) before he stands behind the pulpit. In his article “How Much Time Do Pastors Spend Preparing a Sermon?” Thom Rainer concludes that “70% of pastors’ sermon preparation time is the narrow range of 10 to 18 hours per sermon.”[3]

Let’s just say that your pastor needs 15 hours to prepare for one sermon. If he preaches twice, then 30 hours of his time is spent just for preparation. He still has other duties such as meetings to attend, visits to make, members to counsel, emails to reply to, phone calls to make, Sunday School or Catechism lessons to prepare, a family to take care of, and other unexpected responsibilities such as a funeral. If you don’t respect your pastor’s time for sermon preparation, the entire congregation will suffer eventually by having a half-cooked sermon, which can result in spiritual malnourishment among the members.

If you are an elder in your church, you have the responsibility to make sure that your pastor is getting enough time for prayer and study of God’s Word. Remember, your pastor is to devote himself “to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” Unfortunately, some elders have unrealistic expectations from their pastor. As a result, their pastor burns out and becomes ineffective in the ministry, which in turn affects the life of the church.

Elders should regularly ask their pastor, “Are you getting enough rest? Are you still able to exercise? Are you still able to fulfill your holy duty as a husband and father? How is your prayer life? Are you still able to pray for us on a regular basis, not just on Sunday or during prayer meeting? Are you getting enough time for sermon preparation?” A pastor should honestly answer these questions, so that his elders can properly help him for the sake of their congregation.

 

 

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[1] The Duty of Ministers to be Nursing Fathers to the Church; and the Duty of Churches To Regard Ministers as the Gift of Christ (London, 1796), 51–52. Italics in the original.

[2] The Piety of Samuel and Sarah Pearce (Joshua Press, 2012), 12.

[3] “How Much Time Do Pastors Spend Preparing a Sermon?,” https://thomrainer.com/2013/06/how-much-time-do-pastors-spend-preparing-a-sermon/.

Evangelical Spirituality Ministry Prayer Preaching Samuel Pearce

Total Depravity: A Hymn

My friend Bob Azkoul and I met today to sing for the first time the hymn that I wrote entitled “Total Depravity.” Bob composed the tune. I thought his tune fits well with the message of the song. We are still in the process of refining the hymn and its tune. So we welcome your suggestions for improvement.

Here are the words of the hymn:

“Total Depravity”

Words by Brian G. Najapfour
Music by Robert G. Azkoul

Meter: 8.8.8.8.8.8

Stanza 1

By nature I was dead in sin,
A body with no life within.
Too dead to see the gospel light,
For Satan had destroyed my sight.
I had two ears but could not hear
The gospel sound that was so clear.

Stanza 2

Depraved was I from birth, indeed,
For, oh, in sin was I conceived!
To Christ, my heart was not inclined,
For Satan had captured my mind.
With no desire to be fed,
By Jesus Christ, the Living Bread.

Stanza 3

Yet by God’s mercy and His love,
Came new life from His throne above.
He gave my blind eyes sight to see
The gospel light that set me free.
Reborn in Christ, who died for me,
My heart sings praise to His glory!

Stanza 4

And now the God who reigns above,
Made me alive by His great love.
He gave me faith to eat the Bread—
Amazing grace! Forever fed!
Alive in Christ, who pardoned me,
Hallelujah, come sing with me!

 

Here’s the musical piece (first draft), manually prepared by Bob Azkoul.

 

EPSON MFP image

Hymns