The first time I remember hearing “Amazing Grace” was, of all places, in the Spock funeral scene in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn. No lyrics, of course; just the tune. So for years, I figured it was a song that was connected to death, but didn’t know anything else. (Yeah, I know. Remember: no religious background growing up, ‘kay?) It was another 20 years before I found out there were lyrics that went along with it—and learned anything about the man who wrote it.
Most of us probably know a couple of big details of John Newton’s life. He was a slave trader prior to coming to faith, and even 10 years after his conversion, remained one. Eventually, Newton left the slave trade and became a pastor and abolitionist. He would go on to be a significant influence in the life of William Wilberforce, who himself would lobby to see the abolition of slavery come to pass. But unless we’ve taken the time to read his autobiography, or perhaps a later biography like Jonathan Aitken‘s, we know little about his life beyond this. And even fewer of us know much about his ministry and theology. His sermons were, apparently, remarkably unremarkable, and so they have not attained the status of those of, say, Charles Spurgeon. But, as Tony Reinke reveals in Newton on the Christian Life, it is his letters and hymns that reveal the depth of his pastoral heart and his theology—and what they reveal is a man whose life and theology were singularly on Christ and him crucified.
Centered on the all sufficiency of Jesus
Early in the book, Reinke summarizes John Newton’s vision for the Christian life as one centered “on the all-sufficiency of Jesus Christ.”[1. Quoted from, Newton on the Christian Life, “Introduction” (ePub edition).] This is a vision that echoes the declaration of John the Baptist; that just has he would decrease so Christ could increase, so should we. That whether in times of strength or weakness, we should say “I am nothing, Christ is all.”[2. As Newton put it in his hymn, “My Grace is Sufficient For Thee”. See chapter one of Newton on the Christian Life.]
Similarly, Newton (and Reinke alongside him) reminds us that “victorious” Christian living, as is understood in our own day, isn’t our aim. Instead, our aim is for Christ to be our life, since “Christ is always the Christian’s victory, life, and example.”[3. Newton on the Christian Life, Chapter Six]
Newton labors to show why the successful Christian life hinges on the sufficiency of Christ. The Christian life centers on one rule—one man. Christ is our example and our pattern. He is the measure and the means of all our holiness (Eph. 4:13). We follow in the footsteps of the Savior by the power of him who has completed the race and who now empowers us for the race. Christ is the example we follow, the forerunner we emulate, and the finish line we anticipate.
Imagine what it would look like if we lived like we actually believed this? What would change in our day-to-day lives? In our ministries and churches? Would we see some of the goofiness we’ve grown accustomed to go away? Would we be less concerned with spectacle on one side, and with being anti-spectacle on the other? Would we see our love for one another grow deeper in both affection and action? At a minimum, I suspect it would drive us to recognize how little we actually depend upon him, and how different our standards of holiness are compared to his.
Even thinking about this topic now, there are at least two or three things that come to mind as points where I can see where my standards are significantly more lax than Christ’s. Even so, I don’t find myself overcome with a “do more harder” attitude. After all,”God’s aim in saving us is not to boost our self-esteem or self-evaluation, but to expose our self-sufficiency as a sham.” Instead, it reminds me that any degree of holiness attained comes through the gift of grace. Christ enables me to be holy. It is his gift. My pursuit of holiness, and my recognition of unholy aspects of my life, cone with them a desire for more of his grace.
An introduction to Newton’s theology that’s worth your investment
It’s been a long time since I read a book that I’ve highlighted as much as Newton on the Christian Life—and for those highlights to be overwhelmingly positive (as evidenced by my interacting with it so much in recent writing. This post, for example). As such, it’s a book that I have a hard time critiquing (though perhaps one who has a greater degree of familiarity with Newton’s work might do so with less difficulty). If anything, the only criticism would be one that applies to every volume in the Theologians on the Christian Life series I’ve read to date, which is that there is clearly more for the author to say, but space and focus prevent it.
But this is a minor thing, one that shouldn’t hurt the appreciation of any reader. Newton on the Christian Life is an extremely accessible introduction to Newton’s theology, one well worth your investment because it is saturated with good news for weary Christians. It is, in a word, a hopeful book, and those are in short supply. I trust that as you read it, you’ll see that for yourself.
Title: Newton on the Christian Life: To Live Is Christ
Author: Tony Reinke
Publisher: Crossway (2015)