Newton on the Christian Life: To Live is Christ. By Tony Reinke. Wheaton: Crossway, 2015. 285 pages. Paperback, $19.99.
In the Theologians on the Christian Life series (edited by Stephen J. Nichols and Justin Taylor), Crossway challenges readers to look beyond the abundance of modern resources and towards the wisdom of those who have walked before them. The purpose of the series is “to help us in the present listen to the past” (13). This volume, written by Tony Reinke, staff writer and researcher at desiringGod.org, focuses on the eighteenth-century Anglican pastor, hymn-writer, and abolitionist, John Newton.
The book begins with a brief summary of the life of John Newton, yet this volume is not intended to be a biography. Reinke’s goal, instead, is to present the “cohesive theology” and “pastoral counsel” woven throughout Newton’s letters (30). Reinke provides his thesis-in-full in the introduction:
John Newton’s vision for the Christian life centers on the all-sufficiency of Jesus Christ. Awakened to Christ by the new birth, and united to Christ by faith, the Christian passes through various stages of maturity in this life as he/she beholds and delights in Christ’s glory in Scripture. All along the pilgrimage of the Christian life—through the darkest personal trials, and despite indwelling sin and various character flaws—Christ’s glory is beheld and treasured, resulting in tastes of eternal joy, in growing security, and in progressive victory over the self, the world, and the devil—a victory manifested in self-emptying and other-loving obedience, and ultimately in a life aimed to please God alone (30).
According to Reinke, Newton perceived the entirety of the Christian life to center on the person and work of Jesus Christ. He writes, “Christ is the motto of the Christian life because Christ is the substance of the Christian life” (51). Therefore, Christ exists not only as the source, but is himself the “center, goal, and aim—the motto—of the Christian life” (65). In light of the centrality of Christ, “looking to him is the great duty of the Christian life” (69). Reinke explores Newton’s emphasis on looking to Christ in every aspect of the Christian life, from the reading of Scripture, to growing in holiness and walking through suffering.
Newton’s insight specifically toward those walking through trials and suffering is the great gift of this book. Many readers know of Newton as the writer of Amazing Grace or as the slave-boat captain turned abolitionist. Few have taken the initiative to study Newton’s pastoral counsel in-depth and to marvel at the manner in which he walked alongside those struggling with illness and depression while calling them to trust in the sovereign hand of God. Newton assures those walking through trials that “All shall work together for good: everything is needful that he sends; nothing can be needful that he withholds” (194-95).
Reinke’s sole criticism of Newton’s pastoral care is that he “fails to stress the atonement as proof of God’s particular love for each of his children” (262). He lists this as two separate criticisms: a failure to emphasize God’s “delight over his redeemed children” and “Christ’s definite atonement on their behalf,” yet they are connected inseparably (261-62). Reinke’s objection is that in Newton’s failure to emphasize the doctrine of definite atonement, he has failed to assure those under his care that God has not only forgiven them, but has set his love upon them as well.
Reinke acknowledges that, “while he appears to be a five-point Calvinist in creed,” Newton emphasizes the general nature of the atonement (262). Though Reinke can see the evangelistic benefit of this emphasis, he writes, “In his desire to see many sinners come to Christ, and possibly his desire to avoid becoming the centerpiece in theological debate, Newton’s ministry remains vague on definite atonement” (262).
This objection regarding definite atonement is valid in the sense that one will pore over Newton’s works in vain looking for a treatise on this aspect of the atonement. Newton is not, however, vague on the assurance of God’s love. Newton’s counsel to those seeking evidence of God’s love is to “Look unto the Lord Jesus Christ . . . and compare your sins with his blood, your wants with his fullness, your unbelief with his faithfulness, your weakness with his strength, your inconstancy with his everlasting love” (65). For Newton, God’s love is evident in the face of Christ.
Reinke’s exploration of Newton’s letters is a wonderful introduction to his theology and pastoral wisdom. Newton has a wealth of insight and Reinke’s description and distillation of Newton’s pastoral wisdom is exceptionally written. He succeeds in allowing Newton’s pastoral counsel to shine through the text. Reinke successfully leaves the reader considering that which John Newton has written more than that which he has written of John Newton.
Tony Reinke, Newton on the Christian Life.
This review appears in the Southwestern Journal of Theology 59.2 (Spring 2017): 253-55.