Can one professing faith in Jesus hold a theological position or engage in activity which is inconsistent with Christian redemption? I believe Newton would say, “absolutely!” Christians often hold theological positions and engage in activity inconsistent with redemption. But the answer takes a darker turn when we ask whether or not a Christian can knowingly and willfully hold positions and engage in activity they know are inconsistent with redemption. Newton would have far more concern with the latter over the former. And I believe we should as well.
Yesterday, we looked at the slow-movement of John Newton from slave-trader to anti-slavery to abolitionist. It would certainly make me more comfortable to believe that once Newton became a believer that he immediately moved towards a position of abominating a practice so obviously erroneous as man-stealing. But he didn’t.
I would also note that I’m not incredibly comfortable with how long it has taken me to reject certain falsehoods or to embrace particular glories. Sanctification seems to always be a bit slower than we would prefer. But this slowness (or even at times absence) of sanctification in some areas causes us no little consternation when assessing our heroes (or villains) of the past.
Could a Christian be a slave-trader or a slave-holder?
That is a pressing question in our day as we look back upon the racism of our not so distant past. It has implications for our handling of monuments, naming of buildings, and a host of other issues. Today I want to engage this question through the lens of John Newton. How would he answer this question?
You will note that this question is not whether or not slave-trading (or holding) is consistent with Christian redemption? This question is really asking whether or not one professing belief in Jesus can hold a theological position or engage in activity which is inconsistent with Christian redemption.
I should also say from the very beginning that I doubt Newton would even answer a question framed this way. He’d likely say, “Let’s let the Lord decide”. He would probably prefer a question like, “What do we say of a person professing Jesus but living or believing in a way contrary to the faith?”
The Role of the Conscience
To such a question I believe that Newton would ask, “does he know that it’s wrong?” The conscience played a mighty role in the way Newton thought about the Christian life and making decisions. He believed that “Christ alone is the Lord of the conscience” (Vol. 6, 229) and that Christianity erred greatly when “by a fierce and rancorous superstition” the Church began to tyrannize “over the conscience, liberties, and the lives of men.” As Newton would write to a friend:
The experience of past years has taught me to distinguish between ignorance and disobedience. The Lord is gracious to the weakness of his people; many involuntary mistakes will not interrupt their communion with him; he pities their infirmity, and teaches them to do better. But if they dispute his known will, and act against the dictates of conscience, they will surely suffer for it. This will weaken their hands, and bring distress into their hearts. Wilful sin sadly perplexes and retards our progress. May the Lord keep us from it! It raises a dark cloud, and hides the Sun of Righteousness from our view; and till he is pleased freely to shine forth again, we can do nothing; and for this perhaps he will make us wait, and cry out often, “How long, O Lord! how long?” (Vol. 1, p. 316).
There is a difference between disputing the Lord’s known will and between ignorantly living in sin. Even though I believe his assessment was not wholly accurate this is why he was able to say in 1794 that the slave-trade was not a national sin. He believed they were living in ignorance. But by 1797 he was convinced that they were willfully going against their conscience.