Do You Know that You're Weak?

What Should We Be Like?

We were all huddled around a circle of tables. Thursday noon meant “Table Talk” for the guys at Bethlehem Seminary, and on this particular day we were talking church unity with our pastor and school chancellor, John Piper. He had raised that subject to kick things off, though the conversation had morphed into a discussion on various denominations and influences within American evangelicalism. We were simply carrying the conversation along by our questions. Then Benjamin spoke up.

“Pastor John,” he began, “as seminarians at Bethlehem, and since we have been deeply impacted by you, what do you want us to be like? What should characterize us?”

The room became instantly still. This was a really good question. We all leaned forward, waiting for Pastor John’s reply. He looked down at his Bible, deep in thought.

“I want you to be more like John Newton than John Knox,” he came back. “Knox was passionate and wild, even abrasive at times.” We knew these could be good qualities (minus the abrasive part). But then Pastor John continued.

“But John Newton,” he said, beaming with a smile, “Newton was glad he was saved!”

Newton Knew Weakness

Newton, the one-time slave-ship captain in eighteenth-century England, was wonderfully redeemed, and lived conscious of it. The gospel of Jesus crucified and risen broke into his dark heart and then shone brightly through it. After his conversion, over the course of some time, he went on to serve the church as an Anglican pastor and hymn writer, composing the most popular song in the world, “Amazing Grace.”

But one of Newton’s most fascinating characteristics is precisely what our pastor highlighted. Through all of Newton’s subsequent success as a gospel minister, he never forgot what it meant to be lost and then found. He was tender to the story of God’s mercy in his life. It was too wonderful for him to make a mere footnote.

I have the impression from learning about Newton that if you could go back in time and have a cup of coffee with him, you would be sure this man had tasted God’s grace. I imagine that amazement radiated from him.

If we Christians were honest with ourselves, we’d think more like Newton. We would understand that we are weak.

At the same time, Newton was extremely gifted. He was eccentric—a man who could talk shop with the roughest of sailors and compose a hymn gentle enough for a child to sing. But as gifted as he was, he was surrounded by men even more gifted—and he would have been the first to say it. For instance, one of his longtime friends was William Cowper, a preeminent poet with an impressive pedigree, whose literary skills are manifestly superior to Newton’s in a book of hymns they wrote together. [1] Add to this his teamwork with Member of Parliament William Wilberforce in the abolition of the slave trade. Unlike the up-and-coming Wilberforce, Newton’s role in the abolition was less political and more personal. He was a behind-the-scenes coach to Wilberforce and contributed best to the cause’s success by confessing the atrocities he had seen and participated in.

Newton was remarkable in his own right, but the exceptional talent of his closest friends and colleagues kept him from thinking too highly of himself (Rom. 12:3). His influence grew wide and deep, but for him it all came back to grace—amazing grace. God had saved him. He was a miracle. He knew that whatever good would come from his life, it was because of God’s greatness, not his. Newton understood that he was weak.

How to Stay Christian in Seminary

David Mathis, Jonathan Parnell

This short book gives pastors-in-training the keys not only to survive seminary, but also to keep their faith intact during a season that leaves many feeling drained, disillusioned, and dissatisfied.

The Beauty of Being Weak

If we Christians were honest with ourselves, we’d think more like Newton. We would understand that we are weak.

We see weakness everywhere in the New Testament in several different forms. Jesus told his disciples that, in contrast to the spirit, the flesh is weak (Mark 14:38). Luke, in Paul’s voice, refers to the weak as those who are economically disadvantaged (Acts 20:35). The book of Romans tells us that Jesus died for us while we were still weak, that is, while we were ungodly and lacked any possibility of deserving the slightest good (Rom. 5:8). But we are also weak when we pray, when we lack the words or know-how (Rom. 8:26).

Then there are Christians who manifest weakness when they can’t get past judging others on matters of conscience (Rom. 14:1–4). Also throw in this pile the physical infirmities that Paul seems to cite in 2 Corinthians 10:10, the thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians 12:7, and the litany of unpleasantness in 2 Corinthians 12:10. One way or another, we have heard the Bible speak about weakness.

The context, of course, determines the specific meaning of weakness, but every use is connected back to the general idea of deficiency. If there is one word that encapsulates this concept, it is lack. When it comes down to it, believers are like grass, passing shadows, or vapors in the wind (Ps. 103:15; 144:4; James 4:14).

Weakness means we don’t have what it takes. It means we are not sovereign, omniscient, or invincible. We are not in control, we don’t know everything, and we can be stopped. Weakness means that we desperately need God.

Jesus Calls the Weak

In southern England, in a small, bustling town called Olney, outside the parish church of St. Peter and St. Paul, rests a cold gravestone of an old pastor. It reads:


Such is the epitaph of a weak man saved, and put to great use, by a strong God of amazing grace.

“Newton was glad he was saved!” Pastor John said.

I want to be like that.

Love that Jesus calls the weak. Love that Jesus calls people like you.

[1] Jonathan Aitken, John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 214ff.

This article is adapted from How to Stay Christian in Seminary by David Mathis and Jonathan Parnell.

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