The A, B, and C of Grace (Part 1)

The A, B, and C of Grace (Part 1)

When I was ordained as a minister back in 2004, I received as a gift from my then pastor and mentor, Iain Duguid, the 6 volume set of The Works of John Newton. (As far as I can see, this 6 volume set is no longer in print, and has been replaced by a new 4 volume set) Over the years this gift has proven its worth many times over, as I have often returned to The Works for my spiritual nourishment.

John Newton is today best known as the author of many great hymns such as Amazing Grace, Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken, and How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds. But Newton was also a pastor and a prolific letter writer. The Works contain many letters Newton wrote to friends and strangers alike, who were seeking spiritual counsel. These letters are all without exception pictures of spiritual wisdom and maturity blended with warm tenderness for struggling Christians. Newton was truly a pastor at heart.

Of the many letters penned by Newton, a 3-part letter series bearing the titles “A; or, Grace in the Blade,” “B; or, Grace in the Ear,” and “C; or, The Full Corn in the Ear” are among his best known. The A, B, and C of grace correspond to the three stages of the growth of God’s kingdom grace in Mark 4:28. “The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.” In these letters Newton helps us to understand how God leads us on to maturity, and of the telltale signposts of our growth. In an age of frequent hype and boasting about spiritual life, these letters give us something truly biblical and solid.

First, A, the Blade, is the newborn believer, and Newton writes,

“though A is not without knowledge, this state is more usually remarkable for the warmth and liveliness of the affections. On the other hand, as the work advances, though the affections are not left out, yet it seems to be carried on principally in the understanding. The old Christian has more solid, judicious, connected views of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the glories of his person and redeeming love: hence his hope is more established, his dependence more simple, and his peace and strength more abiding and uniform, than in the case of a young convert; but the [young convert] has, for the most part, the advantages in point of sensible fervency. A tree is more valuable when laden with ripe fruit, but it has a peculiar beauty when in blossom. It is spring-time with A: he is in bloom, and, by the grace and blessing of the heavenly Husbandman, will bear fruit in old age.”

I love the way in which Newton sees the glories of God’s grace in new converts and young believers. He wisely warns us against taking the peculiar signs of the beginnings of the Christian life as the fruit of maturity. Nevertheless, God’s grace in the A are beautiful things to behold.

Next, B, the Ear, is the maturing believer. Newton writes, “the characteristic of the state of A is desire, and of B is conflict”. This is very important observation. Many believers take the great sense of joy and desire they felt in the beginnings of their Christian life to be the normal pattern as long as they live. But the Lord encourages us with a strong sense of joy in our spiritual infancy that we may persevere in following him. But as we continue to follow him, he uses different tools to accomplish his goals. Newton writes,

“A, like Israel, has been delivered from Egypt by great power and a stretched-out arm, has been pursued and terrified by many enemies, has given himself up for lost again and again. He has at last seen his enemies destroyed, and has sung the song of Moses and the Lamb upon the banks of the Red Sea. Then he commences B. Perhaps, like Israel, he thinks his difficulties are at an end, and expects to go on rejoicing till he enters the promised land. But, alas! his difficulties are in a manner but beginning; he has a wilderness before him, of which he is not aware. The Lord is now about to suit his dispensations to humble and to prove him, and to [show] him what is in his heart, that he may do him good at the latter end, and that all the glory may redound to his own free grace.”

Thus the growing Christian is granted trials that expose his heart. Newton:

“By a variety of these exercises, through the over-ruling and edifying influences of the Holy Spirit, B is trained up in a growing knowledge of himself and of the Lord. He learns to be more distrustful of his own heart, and to suspect a snare in every step he takes.”

But why does God do this? God has his reasons, including,

“Much has been forgiven him, therefore he loves much, and therefore he knows how to forgive and pity others. He does not call evil good, or good evil; but his own experiences teach him tenderness and forbearance. He exercises a spirit of meekness towards those who are overtaken in a fault; and his attempts to restore such, are according to the pattern of the Lord’s dealings with himself.”

In other words, the Lord trains the B to love him and to be useful for his Church.

What do you think of these descriptions? Can you relate? Which stage best describes where you are? A or B? If you are a new convert or a young believer, know that the Lord has made you beautiful in his eyes. If you are a maturing believer, be comforted because all your spiritual conflicts have a glorious end in view.

In Part 2, we will see what Newton has to say about C; or, The Full Corn in the Ear.