John Newton is most famous for his hymns (e.g. Amazing Grace) and for his campaign to abolish the slave trade, but he was also a skilled author of personal letters. Many of those letters survive and have been published over the centuries. It doesn’t take long for the reader to notice his pastoral wisdom. In one letter to a pastor/friend on Nov. 6, 1778, he addressed the dangers that appeared in the writings of “New England divines” by which he means Solomon Stoddard and perhaps Stoddard’s grandson, Jonathan Edwards. The NEDs were not particularly sensitive to the work of God in the life of the sinner and tended to be formulaic, undermining assurance and encouraging doubt in genuine believers, said Newton. Newton saw this tragedy and raised the flag of concern in a letter. Here’s what he wrote in one letter [published in Wise Counsel (BoT, 2009), pages 120–121]:
Most of the New England divines I have met with have in my judgment one common fault: they abound with distinctions and refinements in experimental matters [ie evaluating grace in the life of a person], which are suited to cast down those whom the Lord would have comforted. And in their long account of what they call a preparatory work, they include and thereby depreciate some real and abiding effects of true grace. They require such an absolute submission to the righteousness and sovereignty of God, before they will allow a person to be a believer, as I apprehend is seldom the attainment of a babe in Christ.
I think if Mr Stoddard had been at Philippi, and the jailer had sprung trembling in to him (instead of Paul and Silas) with the same question he would have afforded him but cold comfort, and would have made him wait a few weeks or months to see how the preparatory work went on before he would have encouraged him to believe in Jesus. …
It would be well if both preachers and people would keep more closely to what the scripture teaches of the nature, marks and growth of a work of grace instead of following each other in a track (like sheep) confining the Holy Spirit to a system; imposing at first the experience and sentiments of others as a rule to themselves, and afterward dogmatically laying down the path in which they themselves have been led, as absolutely necessary to be trodden by others. There is a vast variety of the methods by which the Lord brings home souls to himself, in which he considers (though system-preachers do not) the different circumstances, situations, temperament, etc. of different persons. To lay down rules precisely to which all must conform, and to treat all enquiring souls in the same way, is as wrong as it would be in a physician to attempt to cure all his patients who may have the same general disorder (a fever for instance) with one and the same prescription. A skilful man would probably find so many differences in their cases, that he would not treat any two of them exactly alike.
The words of a skilled soul-physician.