“There was this difference between his preaching and Whitefield’s, in its substance, that while the latter proclaimed, with amazing unction and effect, the plainest and simplest truths regarding sin and the Saviour, reiterating these, in every place, all his long career, Dr. Nettleton, on the other hand, dealt very extensively, and very perseveringly, in full doctrinal statements opened up and pressed home on the conscience” (Andrew Bonar, p.viii).
The following is an excerpt from the Introduction of “The Life and Labours of Asahel Nettleton” by Bennet Tyler and edited by Andrew Bonar.
“There is a natural aversion to authority, even the authority of God, in the heart of man. And hence it has been that, both then and now, there have been zealous men who have loudly protested against those doctrines of grace usually called Calvinistic doctrines, pretending that the souls of men are by these doctrines lulled to sleep as far as regards their responsibility. Now, though such an abuse of these scriptural truths has often been manifested where men have grown lukewarm, yet the very opposite influence is that which they ought to exert; and whoever reads Dr. Nettleton’s history, will see with what tremendous force they may be employed to awaken the conscience.
Vinet has remarked, that that very delicate psychology which goes prying into all the motives of the soul, surprising all its secrets, extorting from it confessions, ferreting into its obscure corners, giving to the soul the consciousness of all its evil, is, after all, dangerous to the soul. The knowledge of one’s self is then turned into a study – a matter of curiosity. The sorrows of repentance are unwittingly transformed into self- love; nay, the reproaches of conscience become the pleasures of the intellect; and so we do not enter into, but rather go out of ourselves (Vinet’s Homiletics). Such treatment of the human heart becomes mere philosophy. But not dissimilar in its result, because really carrying on an analogous process, is the method pursued by some in regard to the special doctrines of grace – the Calvinistic doctrines. They have so preached and prelected [public lecture or discourse] on them, so argued and defended them, that, in their hands, these truths have become little better than dry theses; and the preachers of those truths have dropt (sic) the tone of solemn, tender, conscience-rousing Boanerges, and become merely able defenders of favourite themes. In admirable contrast of such treatment of doctrine, Dr. Nettleton’s preaching, avoiding this error altogether, set these high truths before his hearers, on all occasions, in a most thoroughly practical form. They saw in them the God of majesty, glory, grace, dealing with rebels, and were bowed down before Him.
We said that when men dislike these truths [of Calvinism] there is at the root a dislike of authority – God’s authority. Men forget, or willingly are ignorant, that the will of God is “the Rule of rules, the Law of laws, the Justice of all justice, the Equity of all equity, the Right of right” (Calvin). They think and speak as if God had no reasons for what He does, because we do not know His reasons; they will not be content to travel humbly onward until the day of Christ when “the mystery of God shall be finished; they insist on everything being explained to them clearly now, that they may perceive why God acts thus. But why should not we wait till the time for such explanations arrive? Why should we run the risk of losing our footing, and being drowned in those great deeps, while we insist on fathoming them ere we will believe that they are God’s unfathomable depths?
It is worthy of notice that it is John – he who so fully opens up to view the love of God – John who so expatiates on every proof of divine love, John who seems to feel the beating of the heart of God-man more than any other – he it is whose pen is so constantly guided by the Holy Ghost to refer to the doctrines of sovereign grace. It is he who records the words: “I know whom I have chosen”, and “I have chosen you” (Jn 13:18; 15:16); and it is he who speaks so often of those whom “the Father hath given” to Christ – and is not all this Election? (Jn 10:11; 6:37, 39; 17:2, 6, 9, 11, 12). It is he who records the words of Jesus; “I lay down my life for the sheep” – the method of salvation, “one for all”; and is not this Particular Redemption? (Jn 6:44, 65). It is he who tells how Jesus said: “no man cometh unto me, except the Father, who sent me, draw him”; and “except it be given him of the Father” – who relates the conversation (Jn 3:15); and who tells that a believer in Christ is born not by natural descent, not by his own fleshly will, not by the persuasive power of any man’s reasoning, but of God” – and is not this Special Grace? (Jn 1:13). It is he who records, more than once, the words of Jesus, such declarations of Jesus as these: “Every man that hath heard and learned of the Father, cometh unto me” – “all that the Father giveth me shall come to me” – and is not this Irresistible Grace”? There is no free will here (6:45; 6:37). It is he who has so fully given our Lord’s words about His sheep: “None shall pluck them out of my hand; they shall never perish; none shall pluck them out of my Father’s hand”; of those whom thou hast given me, I have lost none” (Jn10:28-29; 18:9). And then, “The Comforter shall abide with you for ever” (Jn 14:16) – and is not this the doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints? We might add, it is he who, without attempting to reconcile the two truths, states so broadly God’s “blinding the eyes, and hardening the hearts” (Jn 12; 40) of the Jews; and yet their own sins being their ruin – “they believed not” (Jn 12:43) “For they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God”.
Whitefield, and Edwards, and Nettleton, never found themselves nor those they addressed, hindered by these great truths; they were helped by them, not hindered. No wonder, for do not each of these doctrines at once turn our eye on God Himself, and cause us to hear His voice saying: “Come now, let us reason together, saith the Lord”?
They lead us to the fullest and freest Gospel. If they teach that men naturally hate God, nay, that “they hate Him without a cause” (Jn 15:25), they also teach that as truly as man is so thoroughly base and unholy that he can hate God, even God in Christ (“Me and my Father”, Jn 15:24) although there is not one reason in God that gives occasion to this hatred, yet, on the other hand, God is so gloriously gracious, that He can love man “without a cause”. He can, out of merest grace, without there being one single quality in man to call it forth, freely love the sinner, and freely provide justification. If the man hated “without a cause”, the Lord justifies “without a cause” in us (Rom 3:25). The warrant to the sinner goes forth in these terms: “Whosoever will, let him come and take of the water of life freely” without waiting till there is in him one excellence that might seem likely to induce God to give it (Rev 22:17). You sinned gratuitously, you may be saved gratuitously. And if it seems a strange preface to a free Gospel call, in the eyes of some, to tell sinful men that it remains with God to leave their eyes closed, or to open them on the things announced and proffered to their acceptance, still it is the very method pursued by our Lord in Matthew 11:25, 28: “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes”. “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden”! It is His method, too, in John 6:37, and in 3:5, 15. And no wonder at all! For, see, it declares that this Gospel-call, this invitation of rich, boundless love, need never fall on any man’s ear in vain, however depraved, hardened, desperately wicked he may be, since the same God of holy love who sends it has the power to turn that heart in the very moment the invitation comes to it. Love is so unlimited that it can sweep away the very unwillingness of the sinner to whom it addresses its message of grace! Is not this glad tiding? – free unlimited love, a flood that is not turned aside into another channel by meeting the rock in its way, but that rises behind is till its waters pour over it in a cataract!
Nor let us fail to notice, that all the doctrines of grace are beams from the glorious person of Christ. There we may see them in their centre: (1) The person of God-man is a proclamation of election – the principle of election – inasmuch as it is an everlasting monument of His having passed by angels, and come, in mere grace, to the help of man. (2) The person of God-man is a proclamation of particular redemption, and all the completeness of atonement involved therein; for who is He but the one man who dies for the people, for “all the children of God” (Jn 11:52) – the second Adam, who tastes death for every man of His family, His many sons (Heb 2:9). Again, (3) The person of God-man is a proclamation of special grace; for from that fountain cometh the regenerating Spirit to man; so that if you see the stream of “repentance” in any one, you trace it up to its source in “the Prince and Saviour exalted to give repentance” (Acts 5:31), and “quickening [making alive] whom He will” (Jn 5:21). Then, (4) The person of Christ proclaims irresistible grace, inasmuch as it is after the pattern of His resurrection from the dead that every believing one was raised from the grave of sin (Eph 1:20), “according to the energy of the might of God’s power, wrought in Christ, when raised from the dead”; and inasmuch as we can never fail to connect with His person such remembrances, as that He on earth called men and they came – whether it were a Lazarus out of his grave, or a Matthew out of his tomb of corruption. (5). The person of Christ proclaims the perseverance of the saints; for we can never forget His own representation of himself as bearing home the sheep on His own shoulders, and causing new joy in heaven by its safe arrival.
And let us add on this subject, that the person of Christ (associated, of course, with what He wrought) being to us the centre and core of all the doctrines of grace, we have a brief and satisfactory answer therein to those who allege that they cannot disentangle the sinner’s free access to the offered salvation from the difficulties that beset some of these doctrines. We point, in this case, to the centre doctrine of all – the person of Christ – “the great mystery of godliness”, and tell that this, at least, is clear and plain, and indisputable – i.e. that God commands you to go to Him. Go, then, and He will be to you what the woman of Syrophenicia found Him to be (when she could not unravel the apparent frown contained in His words) – a bottomless fountain of grace; and every child of Adam is warranted at once to approach to this and use it. Deal with himself here, if other truths perplex you; and solve all questions as to whether or not you were specially intended when this fountain was opened for sinners, by drinking of it; or, in other words, by willingly receiving Christ himself, and putting your soul at His disposal”.
“The Life and Labours of Asahel Nettleton” by Bennet Tyler and “Remodelled in some parts” by Andrew Bonar, publ. The Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh UK and Carlisle, Pennsylvania, USA, first published 1854, First Banner of Truth reprint 1975.