Review: Wise Counsel

I’ve just finished reading “Wise Counsel” – John Newton’s letters to John Ryland, Jr. And when I say John Newton, I do of course mean that John Newton – he of Amazing Grace fame, the former slave trader turned Church of England minister. Although Newton is probably best known today for Amazing Grace, at the time he was most famed as a letter writer – many of his letters were published, and he admitted himself that his letters were where God seemed to use him the most.

And his letters are well worth reading: I started reading the book just before ordination, as I thought it might be beneficial to read as I started pastoral ministry. I was not disappointed.

As I said, John Newton was a minister in the Church of England, and John Ryland Jr. was a Baptist minister. The two corresponded for many years, and it’s wonderful to see the growth of their friendship through these letters. Grant Gordon – editor of the book – has provided a very helpful biographical introduction, as well as notes at the end of each letter explaining the circumstances of the next one.

For me, the real highlights of the book were:

  • Newton’s “wise counsel”. It is an appropriate title for the book – Newton was clearly someone who had a lot of Godly wisdom in various situations. Obviously the situations were specific to Ryland at the time, as was the counsel given, but it’s worth reading simply for Newton’s approach. In particular, Newton was someone for whom theology and the Scriptures were not just an academic thing: they applied in real situations. That is what was so helpful about the book for me – seeing how he took the theology he knew and applied it to the situations he was given. His letters are soaked in Scripture and Scriptural references.
  • Similarly, he was not someone who courted controversy. He was charitable in his dealings with those of different theological persuasions whilst at the same time knowing when to stand firm.
  • I would recommend the book to any Christian, nonetheless they were originally written to a pastor of a church, and as someone now in a similar situation I think the letters were especially relevant to someone in Christian ministry.
  • Finally, what I particularly enjoyed was seeing how many of the situations Newton and Ryland were facing that I could relate to: it’s surprising how little has changed in the last 200 years. It was actually encouraging to think about some of the issues that they were facing in the 18th Century, and how the church has survived those challenges – it gives me confidence that the church will survive today. God has kept the church through many changing times, and he continues to work today.

All in all, this is a book I heartily recommend!


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