Background: My brother, knowing my love for all things hymnology, got me a volume of the Letters of John Newton for my birthday this year. It’s less about the origin of hymns such as “Amazing Grace” and more about the amazing grace that made up a part of his day-to-day thought and discussion.
In this particular letter, Mr. Newton addresses a question from a friend, Rev. Joshua Symonds, about the idea of “degrees in glory.” In other words, is it true that those who do more good works in this lifetime will receive greater honor in heaven? Newton’s response is especially encouraging in the light of some of my recent research into spiritual abuse, where so much depends on your performance. But Amazing Grace isn’t just for getting saved with.
February 17, 1769
I cannot agree with your friends, or with Witsius, respecting the degrees in glory. Perhaps we are not capable of stating the question properly in this dark world. I see no force in the argument drawn from 1 Corinthians 15:40-41; or rather, that does not appear to me the sense of the passage, or that the apostle had any respect to degrees of glory. The text in Matthew 19:28 may be compared with Revelation 3:21. However, admitting such degrees, perhaps they will not be distributed (according to human expectation) to such as have been most employed in active life, Matthew 10:41. As wickedness is rated by the judgment of God, not according to the number of outward acts, but by what the heart would do had opportunity offered, Matthew 5:28; so the Lord will graciously accept the desires of his people, and they shall in no wise lose their reward because his providence has appointed them a narrower sphere.
One man, like Mr. Whitefield, is raised up to preach the gospel with success through a considerable part of the earth. Another is called to the humbler service of sweeping the streets, or cleaning this great minister’s shoes. Now if the latter is thankful and content in his poor station–if he can look without envy, yes, with much love on the man that is honored–if he can rejoice in the good that is done, or pray for the success of those whom the Lord sends—I see not why he may not be as great a man in the sight of God as he who is followed and admired by thousands.
Upon a supposition of degrees of glory, I should think it probable, the best Christian will have the highest place; and I am inclined to think that if you and I were to travel in search of the best Christian in the land, or were qualified to distinguish who deserved the title, it is more than two to one we would not find the person in a pulpit, or any public office of life. Perhaps some old woman at her wheel, or some bed-ridden person, hidden from the knowledge of the world, in a mud-walled cottage, would strike our attention more than any of the doctors or reverends with whom we are acquainted. Let us not measure men, much less ourselves, by gifts or services. One grain of grace is worth abundance of gifts. To be self-abased, to be filled with a spirit of love, and peace, and gentleness; to be dead to the world; to have the heart deeply affected with a sense of the glory and grace of Jesus; to have our will bowed to the will of God; these are the great things, more valuable, if compared in the balance of the sanctuary, than to be an instrument of converting a province or a nation. See 1 Cor. 13:1-3.
In a word, I should think, from Luke 7:47, that those who love most will be most happy; that those who have most forgiven will love most. And as, in the present life, every believer thinks himself a peculiar instance of God’s mercy, and sees his sins in a peculiar light of aggravation, I apprehend it to be so hereafter. The sin of nature is equal in all; and so I think would actual sin be likewise, but for the differences made by the restraining grace and providence of God. He is not perhaps, in the sight of God, the greatest sinner, who has committed the most notorious acts of sin in the sight of man. We would not judge one wolf to be fiercer than another, because he had opportunity of devouring more sheep. Any other wolf would have done the same in the same circumstances. So in sin; so (think I) in grace. The Lord’s people, every one of them, would be glad to do him as much service, and to yield him as much honour, as any of the number have attained to. But He divides severally, to one sixty, to one thirty, to one a hundred as he pleases; but they are all accepted in the same righteousness; equally united to Jesus; and, as to the good works on which a supposed difference is afterwards to be founded, I apprehend those that have most will gladly do by them as Paul did by his legal righteousness,– count them loss and dung for the excellency of Jesus Christ, the Lord. Matthew 25:37.
But it may be said, Is nothing, then, to be expected for so many trials and sufferings, as some ministers are called to for the sake of the gospel? In my judgment, he who does not find a reward in being enlivened, supported, and enabled by the Holy Spirit in the work of the gospel; who does not think that to have multiplied labours owned to the conversion even of a few souls is a great reward; who does not account the ministry of the gospel, with grace to be faithful in the discharge of it, a reward and honour in itself sufficient to over-balance all the difficulties it may expose him to; whoever, I say, does not thus think of the service of Jesus in the gospel, has some reason to question his right to the lowest degree of glory, or, at least, has little right to look for eminence in glory, even though he should preach with as much power and acceptance, and in the midst of as many hardships, as St. Paul did.
I am, yours, etc.