John Newton (1725–1807) is perhaps best known for his hymn “Amazing Grace,” but what many do not know is that Newton was also a faithful churchman who served as a pastor in England from 1764 until a month before his death in 1807. His mother died when he was seven years old, and, upon his father’s remarriage, young John was sent to school. In 1795, Newton reflected on his relationship with his father: “I am persuaded he loved me, but he seemed not willing that I should know it. I was with him in a state of fear and bondage.”
At eleven, Newton became a seaman aboard his father’s ship. Then, in 1743, under compulsion, Newton became a midshipman with the Royal Navy, and, later, he was traded for goods and became the property of a slave trader’s wife who abused him and treated him like one of her slaves, who ate only the scraps from her table. After his rescue, Newton himself became a notorious African slave trader. He was a self-admitted sinful wretch who lived a life of debauchery and described himself by saying, “I was very wicked, and therefore very foolish; and, being my own enemy, I seemed determined that nobody should be my friend.” On March 10, 1748, the twenty-two-year-old Newton was converted to Christ while making a trip between England and Sierra Leone.
Years after his conversion, he joined his friend William Wilberforce and became one of England’s most outspoken abolitionists. On account of his bold stand against slavery, and on account of his thoroughgoing Calvinism, Newton became well acquainted with the right and wrong ways of engaging in controversy. In 1771, he was asked to write an article for the British periodical Gospel Magazine in order to provide pastoral counsel regarding the ongoing controversy between Calvinists and Arminians. Since its publication under the title “On Controversy,” Newton’s article has become one of the church’s most well-known and wellloved writings on Christian polemics.
Newton’s letter beautifully sets forth a principled Christian ethic for engaging in controversy. At the outset, he explains why controversy exists and why we as Christians must love and earnestly contend for truth. He then offers three rules of engagement that we would do well to consider before entering a controversy, namely, consider our opponent, consider our audience, and consider ourselves. In the conclusion of his letter, Newton directs us to focus our eyes on God’s kingdom and God’s glory as the ultimate end of any controversies in which we must engage. It is to that end that we have published this issue of Tabletalk, so that when we find it necessary to engage in controversy, we do so with humility, charity, and grace as wretches converted by God’s amazing grace.