An Ocean of Theology in a Thimble

There is a way of speaking and writing that travels well, that finds its way into the small spaces of full days and busy brains so that truth, like a clinging burdock seed, gets caught and carried along for the ride.  Tony Reinke has portrayed this aspect of John Newton’s theology in  Newton on the Christian Life, conveying the essence of Newton’s understanding and communication of what it means to live a life that is distinctly Christian.  With remarkable self-control, Tony limits himself to the details of Newton’s biography that bear directly on his topic.  Clearly, the spotlight is on Newton’s writing, and Tony has ransacked multiple libraries and historical collections of rare books to access primary resources, and anyone who fails to read the footnotes is missing out on the full impact of the author’s deep and wide research.

Although John Newton’s name is mainly associated with the phrase “Amazing Grace,” his teaching actually centered around the phrase “sufficient grace,” based on Paul’s message from God regarding his thorn in the flesh, (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). In Newton’s experience and in his teaching, grace is far more than the warm and fuzzy notion tied to his famous hymn by our modern culture.  For Newton, grace was tied specifically to Jesus Christ as that which unites the believer to Christ.  In his own words:

“The great God is pleased to manifest himself in Christ, as the God of grace.  This grace is manifold, pardoning, converting, restoring, persevering grace, bestowed upon the miserable and worthless.”

Tony Reinke has sifted through Newton’s letters, thoughts on pastoral ministry, hymns, published works, and sermons and distilled the contents into systematic units beginning with John Newton’s words on the sufficiency of Christ which is demonstrated in the diverse roles through which Christ meets the believer:  Shepherd, Husband, Prophet, Priest King, and Friend.  In each of his abundant metaphors, Newton presents Christ as central to the hope of the Christian life which is tied up in the ultimate aim of gospel simplicity.  Again, the Apostle Paul’s words form Newton’s thinking:

 For our boasting is this: the testimony of our conscience that we conducted ourselves in the world in simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom but by the grace of God . . .”  (2 Corinthians 1:12)

This bedrock was the foundation to Newton’s practice in the pulpit, his single-minded devotion to one Master, his focus on the glory of God, and his utter dependence upon God.  The outflow of this integral life was gospel sincerity in which “the principles and motives upon which [ones] conduct is formed are the same in public as in private.  Their behavior will be all of a piece, because they have but one design.”  It follows then, that if devotion to Christ is the chief motive for righteousness, then the daily walk will be empowered by Christ.

Given that Newton identifies himself as “chief of sinners,” sin figures prominently in his view of the Christian life as that which pulls one away from Christ and from gospel simplicity.  The effects of indwelling sin he likened to a troublesome lodger in his house who “spoils all.  To turn him out is beyond my power.  We both lay such a claim to the same dwelling that I believe the only way of settling the dispute will be (which the Landlord himself has spoken of) to pull down the house over our heads.”  Even so, Newton’s belief in sovereign grace was such that he acknowledged that even sin can be used to accomplish God’s purpose in the believer’s life, for he was firmly convinced that it was not his own sinlessness, but Christ’s upon which his salvation rested.

Newton hailed Christ as the believers’ victory, life and example, and in spite of humanity’s profound sinfulness, Newton regarded every immortal soul as priceless, sharing C.S. Lewis’s view that “it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.  There are no ordinary people.  You have never talked to a mere mortal.”

First and foremost a pastor, Newton wrote extensively on the growth process of the Christian life, the dangers of sinful habits and character flaws, and the importance of a right response to trials.  The believer’s need for spiritual discipline, he believed, was centered in Christ Himself, and ultimately on Christ’s revelation in Scripture which he exhorted his sheep to read with sincerity, diligence, humility and prayer.  His advice about Bible reading embodies simplicity:  “Read it through from beginning to end; and, when we have finished it once, begin it again.”  Likewise, his advice on reading books other than Scripture is also succinct:  “Read books like eating an apple — eat what’s good and toss the rest.”  This does not come across as snobbery or fear, but rather as a jealousy for the glory of Christ.  Newton’s highest aim in ministry was to put Christ’s beauty on display with no distractions.

On this fallen planet, trials and the war against sin can lead to insecurity in the heart of a believer.  The daily battle for joy can lead to spiritual weariness.  Even so, it was Newton’s firm conviction that the believer’s worst enemy is selfishness.  Given that we have met the enemy and he is us, victory can come only through obedience based on love for God that results in a desire to please God that is strong enough to supersede the desire to please “Mr. Self” —  as Newton referred to his selfish nature.

Tony Reinke helps his readers to see that Newton’s theology of the Christian life boils down to this one thing:  to live is Christ, (Philippians 1:21).  And so, the ministry of John Newton resonates anew from these pages in a call to “look again to the brazen serpent of the glory of Christ,” when we “feel our hearts growing cold, and we lament our chilled worship.”  Indeed, in reading his words, we find hope that although we are not what we ought to be, not what we might be, not what we wish to be, not what we would hope to be, we rejoice in knowing that we are no longer what we once were.  Truly, this is amazing grace.

This book was provided by Crossway in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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11 thoughts on “An Ocean of Theology in a Thimble”

  1. Thank you so much for sharing about this book! I love books that “mentor”, and indeed, it sounds like this book will do just that. My husband is a huge John Newton fan and I will be sure to share about this book with him as well.


  2. Wow, sounds so deep yet so invigorating! I especially love this, “even sin can be used to accomplish God’s purpose in the believer’s life, for he was firmly convinced that it was not his own sinlessness, but Christ’s upon which his salvation rested”. YES. God still has more grace for us no matter what.
    Thanks for sharing today, I’m your neighbor on Grace and Truth!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Michele, lovely review. Sounds like a wonderful book and I can’t wait to read it! Thanks for linking with #LiteracyMusingMondays. Ashley Hales from Circling the Story


  4. It truly sounds like Newton lived out his beliefs to live is Christ. I love Newton’s words on Bible reading: “Read it through from beginning to end; and, when we have finished it once, begin it again.” Wonderful wisdom. Thank you, Michele, for sharing what sounds to be another great read at #IntentionalTuesday on Intentionally Pursuing. : )

    Liked by 1 person

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