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2The Works of John Newton (4 Volume Set) Newton, John cover image019 was the Year of John Newton. This means I read his works throughout the year. In the 4th quarter I read the 4th volume of the new edition. Due to the length of the volume and Christmas vacation, it took me a little longer to finish the volume.

As a side note, I found the editing in this volume to be much better than the 3rd volume. Maybe someone had a really bad stretch of time (crisis) when editing the 3rd volume. Maybe it was a new editor who needed experience. I don’t know, but I was glad I wasn’t stumbling on mistakes every time I opened the book.

“Keep always in mind that you are a sinner, and Jesus is a Savior of sinners.”

This final volume begins with letters to his wife. There are two main groups of letters to her. The first is during three voyages to Africa. He provides some glimpses into life as a 19th century sailor. You see a progression in these letters. They begin focused on the various events of the trips. Over time he begins to apply his growing theological convictions to the matters at hand, including some problems she was experiencing. A common theme or frustration he expressed was the fact that our hearts are idol factories, and he feared making her his idol.

‘I leave you in the hands of him who is able, and I trust willing, to preserve you from all evil, and to make everything easy to you. … a protecting Providence will surround me, and is no less to be depended on in the most apparent dangers, than in the greatest seeming security.”

These were trips furthering the slave trade. He seems not to grapple with the reality of that trade, yet. In a note on page 81, while in the section of his 2nd voyage, he explains why it didn’t bother him yet. He confesses that “custom, example, and interest, had blinded my eyes.” He, at the time, saw his trade as part of God’s providence. It was, but not for the reasons he imagined at the time. He would regret his part in the slave trade and work to end it. Had he never been in the trade, his attempts would have less passion, urgency and weight. We should struggle with God’s providence at times because His paths are beyond tracing out. It was also God’s providence that he was struck ill prior to a 4th journey, ending his career on the sea and in the slave trade.

“That powerful love, which brought down the Most High to assume our nature, to suffer, and to die for us, will not permit those who depend on him to want what is really good for them.”

This continues in the second main group of letters to his wife after ending his days upon the sea. There were periods when they were separated due to health or travel. His penchant for pastoral theology is evident, and his fear of idolizing his wife. We also see Newton’s affinity and admiration for George Whitfield which would eventually cause him problems as he sought a pastoral call in the Church of England. If you could put a label on a man who eschewed labels, it would likely be a Calvinistic Methodist like Whitfield.

“I still feel that you are my idol, and though the Lord has lately afflicted you for my sake, and is now raising you up for me again, as it were from the grace, I am not yet instructed.”

He also gives some insight to the deepest recesses of the soul. He speaks of “wild, foolish, and dreadful thoughts which often pester my mind.” Mr. Self is utterly corrupt, and people rarely see the depth of that corruption. We hide the worst parts of ourselves.

The next section of the book is a collection of previously unpublished (before the Works) that was intended to be a sequel to Cardiphonia. These letters cover a variety of subjects to a number of people: pastors, laymen and women he knew.

These are generally more theological than the letters to his wife since he is often responding to specific questions or debates he and the recipient engaged in. There is much about the providence of God regarding marriage, illness and other circumstances. He explores the reality of our sinfulness, that we are prone to wander. But he repeatedly reminds us that God is faithful. He struggles with people who have left the faith. Marriage, as he tells one woman, produces new temptations.

In one section he counsels a man considering ministry. He was a lay preacher in the military until forced out. Newton shares his own struggle with an internal call complicated by his associations as a lay preacher seeking ordination in a state church opposed to them.

“And the more simply we can reduce all our efforts to this one point, “Looking unto Jesus,” the more peace, fervor, and liveliness shall we find in our hearts, and the more success we shall feel in striving against sin in all its branches.”

We see Newton interacting with earlier theologians. For instance, he mentions disagreeing with Herman Witsius about degrees of glory. There is also a series of letters to a pastor struggling with assurance (I’ll post on this separately). He also “debates” Calvinism with another pastor. In this exchange they differ in their assessment of William Law and his book on a  Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. He finds Law to have fallen into the trap of legalism through a denial of double imputation.

JohnNewtonColour.jpgLet us not forget that Newton keeps bringing us back to Jesus, a Jesus he keeps exalting in a variety of ways. He wants us to look unto Jesus, not simply doctrinal positions.

Periodically we see references to world affairs connected with the Empire. He refers to the American Revolution (or Rebellion from his perspective). The French Revolution and expansion shows up periodically. He dreaded, it seemed, all things French due to their collapse into atheism.

The next main section was a series of theological miscellanies. He speaks about the government of the tongue, Pliny’s letter to Trajan, preaching with power to a young minister, the causes and symptoms of spiritual decline, reading the Bible and the tests of true doctrine.

Then there are a series of articles extracted from an evangelical magazine. This section begins with thoughts on the Trinity, recollections of a deceased pastor and author, modesty among women (largely focused on the financial cost of following current fashion), faith and the assurance of faith, and covetousness.

The volume continues with a sermon about the constraining influence of the love of Christ. This is followed by the long awaited Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade. His focus is mostly on how individuals became slaves, and not how they were treated. He’s speaking from experience which was then decades in the past. He saw the Trade as “a stain upon our national character.” England paid a price for engaging in the slave trade too. Nearly 1/5 of the sailors, but his estimate, died on these voyages. This is on top of the moral corruption and greed.

“I have seen them sentenced to unmerciful whippings, continued till the poor creatures have not had power to groan under their misery, and hardly a sign of life remained. I have seen them agonizing for hours, I believe for days together, under the torture of the thumb-screws; …”

Some slaves were captured in wars between tribes, similar to what we see in earlier times. Others were convicts, sentenced to slavery. At times, tribes wanting to get slaves started wars. This would be “man-stealing”.

“I verily believe, that the far greater part of the wars in Africa would cease, if the Europeans would cease to tempt them, by offering goods for slaves.”

The volume greatly shifts gears to an address to the inhabitants of Olney. This is one of the congregations he served, and it is followed by a “token of affection and respect” to the yoked congregations he served in London. The latter in particular laments those members of the congregation who resisted his ministry.

The volume ends with a letter on political debate to another pastor. A pastor wanted some changes to the political system forgetting that sin is behind the abuses of any political system. God chastens nations for sin, but nations often refuse to repent but rather seek to make “fundamental change” that never addresses the sins of the culture. It finds scapegoats, like the rich, forgetting you don’t need to be rich to be greedy and covetous.

Newton was not known for his great theological mind. He was known for his great pastoral theology. As Josiah Bull noted, it is about Newton’s goodness of heart produced by grace. These volumes, this one included, are all about pastoral theology. Newton applies theology to particular problems, and consistently points people to Jesus. It can greatly shift how you go about pastoral ministry. I owe John Newton a great debt.

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I have long been an admirer of John Newton. He has written many letters and hymns that not only address my mind but also my heart. He was not a “speculative” theologian but an practical or pastoral theologian. He is one of my “long distance” mentors- stretching across both time and geography thanks to God’s providential gift of the printing press. While I am surely not the pastor (and Christian) I want to be, I am a better pastor because of John Newton.

Tony Reinke has done people like me a great service with his contribution to Crossway’s series Theologians on the Christian Life. This is the first book I’ve read in the series. It makes me want to read more. But let’s look at Newton on the Christian Life: To Live is Christ.

As Reinke notes at the end, he doesn’t say everything Newton does, nor cover every topic Newton covered. It would therefore be larger than the 4 volume Works of John Newton I also purchased recently.

In about 240 pages, Reinke summarizes Newton’s view of the Christian life and then examines key areas like Christ’s All-Sufficiency, the Daily Discipline of Joy in Jesus, Gospel Simplicity, the Discipline of Trials and so much more.

As the subtitle notes, the focus is on Christ, who as is noted above is All-Sufficient. Our Christian life is lived in union with the all-sufficient Christ. That does not mean he held to a view of Christian perfectionism. Newton made much of the reality of indwelling sin (there is an excellent chapter on the subject here). Too few pastors and theologians address this constant hindrance to our movement towards obedience. It is also the source of a steady stream of temptations. Any book on Christian living that makes little of this reality is fundamentally flawed.

One of Newton’s other contributions is the stages of Christian life: childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Wise pastors should consider this as they preach and structure discipleship programs. This is one of the chapters in which Keller is mentioned often, as he is nearly as dependent on Newton as he is on Lewis. We need to help people see their own immaturity and what it looks like to become more mature in Christ and how Jesus brings us there.

He includes a very convicting chapter on Seven Christian Blemishes. These are “respectable” sins that hinder our gospel proclamation and witness. He isn’t saying we aren’t Christians, but these attitudes and practices are sub-Christian. They are frequently a turn off to others. For instance, he mentions the one who quarrels about politics (I told you this was convicting). He was not against political involvement for he encouraged Wilberforce to stay in politics to put an end to the slave trade. The problem is people who are in no position to change anything (they are not politicians) and often lack sufficient information. Many people’s never-ending stream of political FB posts would fit here. These are rarely calls to prayer, or to contact your elected officials. This is one reason why some non-Christians are offended by our “politics”- not that we have views but how we express them or when we are ill-informed.

The chapter on the Discipline of Trials is also quite important. Too few pastors really spend time talking about this. We then fail our congregations in preparing them for suffering well, with an eye to Christ above all. It is a lengthy chapter, and really needed to be lengthy. We all experience trials, and unless we have a solid theological understanding of the ways God uses them we will be mired in immaturity and grow bitter against God.

The chapter on Christ-Centered Holiness was frustrating at points. I don’t disagree with what he said. I wish there was more. The focus is on beholding Christ as our Savior as well as our Pattern or Example. This is a very biblical idea (see 2 Cor. 5). Newton also talked about straining toward or agonizing toward holiness. He could have written more on this aspect of the pursuit of holiness.

This is one of the best books I’ve read in quite some time. It is much like Newton’s ministry in that it is profoundly focused on Christ. It is filled with quotes from Newton to illustrate his points, many great encouraging quotes. He brings in some others too via quotes. This produces a very encouraging book.

This is not just a book for pastors. Nor is it intended to be. Most Christians would benefit from this book. They will grow in their understanding of the Christian life, and therefore what God is up to in your life and how to grow up in Jesus. These are important things and Newton is a gentle but faithful pointer to Jesus.

 

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