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The Works of John Newton (4 Volume Set) Newton, John cover imageI was on vacation for most of July, so as a result I got a late start on volume 3 of the Works of John Newton. I tried to read more than my normal 10 pages a day (50/week) but still ended about 3 weeks late.

Volume 3 begins with a series of 50 sermons on Handel’s Messiah. He preached on the texts of Scripture that Handel used in his famous piece of music. The Messiah has recently been released and was being performed to great crowds throughout London.

Newton was not happy about this development. He saw this as something of a trivialization of the Scripture by using it as entertainment. His point was that many unbelievers, mesmerized by the music, would cheer though they had no interest in the words. This critical aspect pops up in many of the sermons from those texts.

I’George Frideric Handel by Balthasar Denner.jpgm reminded of the sermons and books that we critical of Harry Potter or the Da Vinci Code. These sermons should not be thought of like those misled sermons we may have heard. He actually does interpret and apply the text rather than grind his ax in eisigetical mish-mosh. They are edifying despite the occasional annoying (to me) criticism of The Messiah.

More annoying to me was the many typographical errors in this section of the volume. For instance, on page 281 I found 3 errors. No editor is perfect. As a wannabe author it is hard to find all my mistakes. There just seemed to be more than usual, and I found it distracting.

“…determined in. and laughed…

… who did ail things well?

… name it retains .the same spirit …”

After 437 pages of sermons on the texts used in The Messiah, there is a shift to some tracts. The first is a series of 4 letters to the pastor of an independent church. Newton is defending his decision to serve in the established church. This is interesting to see how the issues shifted over time and how Newton thought through it issues. I found it interesting since at times there are pastors quite dissatisfied with our denomination. He addresses issues of liturgy and worship. For instance, he notes that many independent churches used pre-written prayers and hymns in their worship. They also plan their worship ahead of time. The Book of Common Prayer is not as far off as the Independents may have argued. In terms of doctrine he notes that there was a diversity of doctrinal views among the Independents, like on baptism. They also differed on who may be admitted to the Table. Similar diversity in doctrine among Church of England pastors should not have been as big an issue as they made it.

JohnNewtonColour.jpgThis reminds me that we often see other people’s sins more readily than ours. We see other people’s inconsistencies more readily than our own. We see other people’s typos more readily than our own. People magnify differences and minimize agreement as they argue their way of (worship, methods of ministry, theology etc.) is far superior to justify splitting.

Next he proposes A Plan of Academical Preparation for the Ministry in a Letter to a Friend. There is some interesting material in there. It would be difficult to practice at this point. He wanted to move ministerial preparation out of the colleges and into the churches. He wants to see that tutors are “gospel men” not simply academics. While he preferred Calvinists, he didn’t want men with a party spirit. They are to major in the Scriptures and theology, and minor in the classics.

Pupils are to live with the tutor. They must “have an awakened experimental sense of the truth and goodness of the gospel.” They must have a capacity for ministry; gifts as well as grace.

It is nearly like a monastery. They would limit their acquaintances outside their studies and service. They were to avoid “love and courtship” while being pupils.

Next is a treatise upon the death of his niece Eliza upon her death. The Newtons took her in after the death of her parents and siblings. He much sings her praises in how she approached death in faith.

The volume closes with a series of occasional sermons. This section begins with The Subject and Temper of the Gospel Ministry, his first sermon at the parish of Saint Mary Woolnoth in 1779. The next was from Jeremiah on an appointed fast day during the American Revolution called The Guilt and Danger of Such a Nation as This. He explores the national sins, made greater in light of the gospel blessings they have experienced. Many of these sins may sound familiar to us in the United States.

This is followed by a funeral sermon for Rector Richard Conyers in 1786. He focused on the gospel hope that Conyers preached to them and which he now enjoyed. Then a sermon on the best wisdom, the winning of souls, delivered to the meeting of the Society for the Promoting Religious Knowledge Among the Poor.

IFull-length portrait in oils of a clean-shaven young George in eighteenth century dress: gold jacket and breeches, ermine cloak, powdered wig, white stockings, and buckled shoes.n 1789 there was a day of national thanksgiving for the restoration of King George III’s (mental) health. Newton preaches on the second advent of Christ from 1 Thessalonians 4. The joy of the people seeing their apparently beloved King (who was hated on the other side of the ocean) pales in comparison to Jesus’ people beholding their eternal King.

Then there is another national fast day sermon from 1794 as France has been waging war throughout Europe after its revolution. He explores the possibility of God relenting if the people repented in Jonah. In this sermon he explores the sins of the slave trade as a stain upon England. He encourages repentance that God may relent and restrain France’s aggression.

The final sermon is from a day of thanksgiving in 1797 due to a series of naval victories. He preaches on motivations to humiliation and praise from Hosea 11.

This final section is highly interesting to me due to the historical aspects of many of these sermons. Unfortunately, as times he speaks as if Britain was a new Israel and particularly favored. This is a sentiment that, sadly, has been adopted by many American pastors as well. Yet, here we also see the grace-oriented Newton hammering home the sins of his audience and home country. I wish we would have national days of fasting or thanksgiving- times when our nation seeks to humble itself in times of emergency.

This rather diverse volume is well-worth reading as have been the others so far. Now I try to finish volume 4, and the set, prior to the end of this year.

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The Works of John Newton (4 Volume Set)John Newton has long been one of my favorite ‘dead guys’. A few years ago Banner of Truth reformatted his Works into 4 volumes (from the previous 6 volume set) and I picked up a set. Last year I read a church history set over the course of the year. This year I decided I’ll read a volume of Newton each quarter.

Well, the first quarter is done. One of the idiosyncrasies of the first volume in the pagination. If you look at the back it is just over 600 pages. But … it begins with Memoirs of Rev. John Newton from page xvii-cxlvi so the volume is nearly 750 pages long. I did have to adapt my reading schedule from 10 pages/day to 10-15/day and some times adding some Saturday reading.

After the Memoirs of Rev. John Newton we find An Authentic Narrative of Some Remarkable and Interesting Particulars in the Life of John Newton, in Fourteen Letters. In other words, Newton’s autobiography over the course of 14 letters. Then we have Forty-One Letters on Religious Subjects, by Omnicron and Vigil (a pseudonym) and Cardiphonia; or, the Utterance of the Heart, in the Course of a Real Correspondence.

The theme of volume one is two-fold: his life and his letters. We will find more of his letters in volume two (as they complete Cardiphonia). It did seem strange to have both the Memoirs and the Narrative at the beginning of his works. In one sense it makes sense thematically. From the perspective of the reader I would have preferred some space between the two accounts of his life.

JohnNewtonColour.jpgHis life, however, is an amazing testimony to the patience, persistence and providence of God. And the amazing grace of God. It is easy to lose track of how many times Newton nearly died, or should have died. For instance, one time the captain told him to stay on the ship one night after dinner. It was his custom to sleep ashore. The captain had no identifiable reason. That night the boat sank before reaching shore meaning Newton, who could not swim, would have drowned. Another time he took ill days before a voyage and could not go. That ship sank and Newton would have been lost. There are many of these stories which should remind you of how often we may be spared without knowing it.

Behind the seemingly random chaos of life, Newton saw God’s providence. He didn’t necessarily understand, or claim to understand, why God would do such things, but accepted that He did. And so should we. We don’t have to understand why. We do need to simply trust that God has His good reasons (a subject to which he will return often in his letters).

We fail to accept the fragility of life in our day. Due to technology we think we can prevent accidents from occurring. In his day, they were accepted as par for the course. For Newton, at least, the god-complex of thinking we should be able to control life didn’t exist. Both evil and calamity existed. We, on the other hand, seem to pretend evil doesn’t exist except in rare cases, and think we can prevent all calamity.

William Cowper by Lemuel Francis Abbott.jpg

William Cowper by Lemuel Francis Abbott

Mental illness shows up as well, both in the life of William Cowper and in some of Newton’s letters. This, obviously, was before the use of medications to treat them. People could be institutionalized for years. Cowper would die in an institution. Newton’s adopted daughter would also spend time in one. In a letter he alludes to visiting a person in an institution for the mentally ill, and it was a great struggle for him. It reminded me of the visits I’ve done to prison: there’s something about hearing that door slam shut and lock behind you. It feels oppressive.

This is not hagiography, which is refreshing. You do get a picture of a flawed man, a trophy of grace. You get a taste of life’s hardship. You also get a taste of societal sins: class and race struggles that marked his day. But also the people who worked to end the legalize prejudice. Today Newton might be called a Social Justice Warrior, but I think that would be quite the misnomer. He did fight to end some injustices which he saw as implications of the gospel. He was haunted by past sins of his regarding the slave trade. He kept the gospel central, and so can we.

As Newton moved into pastoral ministry, there was seemingly controversy on every side. Divisions filled England and its churches. He notes the high Calvinists considered him an Arminian and Arminians recognized him as the Calvinist he claimed to be. There were also Dissenters or Independents. This was a time when declaring oneself as a Methodist or Enthusiast closed many doors for service. Newton grew weary of such debate and dissension in Christ’s church. He wrote often enough about how to conduct ourselves in controversy. He also interacted with pastors who were younger and needing a mentor, and pastors of different minds on the secondary issues.

He provides some sound pastoral advice to pastors about subjects like when to seek a new call in addition to engaging in controversy. For me these have often been timely words of advice.

Sinclair Ferguson notes that the details of our conversion often shape the concerns of our Christian life. He notes Paul’s envy of Stephen’s gifts, as well as Isaiah’s subsequent focus on the holiness of God. In Newton’s case, he focused on the sinfulness of the human heart and God’s purposes in providence. They fill his letters. This is part of why I love Newton.

Newton doesn’t paint a picture of experiential religion that places us above and beyond sin. Rather, he struggles with his own heart, recognizing the temptations that arise both in private and public. In a number of places he wonders how a Christian can survive in London with all its temptations. This was before he was called to serve a church in London later in life. No pastors are called to serve in paradise. And neither is anyone else.

Newton is not excusing sin, but honest about the effects of indwelling sin, the world and the devil. He is critical of Christian Perfectionism that was found among some including some Methodists. Our pilgrimage is thru a fallen society that pressures us to sin, stirred up to sin and tempt by the Evil One, and possessing a heart that is too often receptive to these temptations.

“So wonderfully does the Lord proportion the discoveries of sin and grace; for he knows our frame, and that if was to put forth the greatness of his power, a poor sinner would be instantly overwhelm, and crushed as a moth.”

In addition to temptation we also experience much in the way of affliction. God reveals our weakness as well as His strength. It is not enough for us to consider this intellectually, but He wants us to “feel” our weakness and experience His sufficient supply. By these afflictions he reveals the idols of our hearts and the sufficiency of Christ for our satisfaction.

His letters address the subjects we struggle with but often don’t talk about. As a result, they are immensely helpful.

There are some topics of historical interest. Some of the letters mention the American Revolution. In that context he refers to the problem of the national debt a few times. He views the colonists as sinning in their rebellion against the king, but also that this is in some way a judgment on the nation.

For the anti-vax crowd, one letter struggles with the advent of the vaccine for small pox. He thinks thru the situation out loud. Does a trust in the God of providence avoid the vaccination leaning solely on Him or see this as God’s providential provision of means.

On subject of puzzlement is his view of the theatre or playhouse. He views it as a venue for sin. He doesn’t specify the content of particular plays. Could it be the sin that took place in the playhouses? In one of Jerry Bridges’ book on grace he mentions he grew up hearing that he should avoid the pool halls. As he grew older, he learned that playing pool itself was not the issue, but the gambling and other sins that took place in the pool hall.

Newton does chastise one person in a letter for attending a play. I need more context as to why in this case. Apart from the context it sounds a bit legalistic.

Volume One has plenty of material worth reading. Most of it is in readable chunks thanks to the fact it is largely letters. You can follow along as some relationships develop over time. Why don’t more people read John Newton?

 

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The Church in America has struggled with the notion of Christian activism over the years. Usually such activism is associated with the “Religious Right” but there are groups that would not consider themselves part of that “Religious Right” that engage in activism as well. Is the Church to be involved with activism? Are Christians to be involved in activism? This is the subject of Appendix E in The Doctrine of the Christian Life by John Frame.

Frame begins with mentioning the book What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? by D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe. There they remind people of the great influence of Christians on Western culture. Christians have been instrumental in education (founding many of our colleges), health care (founding many of our hospitals), political freedom, literacy (the original reason for Sunday School) as well as the arts and more.

“Without Jesus, without the gospel, without the influence of his people, all these areas of culture would be vastly different and very much worse.”

The efforts and influence of Christians have not lead to a perfect society. They have lead to a clearly better society in many instances (note I didn’t say all). Here in America, as a result of the Fundamentalist movement, large portions of the Church retreated from social action. Ironically, it was often the more liberal branches of Christianity that lobbied for things like Prohibition which would typically be associated with Fundamentalists today.

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My ‘relationship’ with John Newton was a slowly developing affair. I’m sure you’ve had friendships like that. You meet a person, don’t think much of them at the time. Slowly you begin to see more of them. You see your common interests, and their strengths, previously hidden, come to light. Your appreciation grows.

That is my relationship with Newton. Ah, he wrote a few hymns, that’s nice. Over the years people shared some of his letters. I got to know a little bit more of his life. I read Piper’s short account of his life and bought The Letters of John Newton and Wise Counsel. Over time he has become one of my heroes in the faith. His importance to the church and the world is matched by few.

John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace attempts to let us in on the ‘secret’ that is the life of John Newton. The book is easy to read, with short chapters that fit into busy schedules.  Aitken does not hide from us the sinfulness and brokenness of the young Newton. He was the son of a captain whose mother died when he was young. Her gospel influence gone, he often lived with relatives while his father was at sea. He would follow in his father’s footsteps, but soon earned a reputation as being a despicable human being. He was a piece of work, as they say. Some of the words used to describe him would be blasphemer, fornicator, obstinate rabble rouser, dabbler in black arts and more.

“For the fourth time on four successive ships, Newton managed to alienate his captain.”

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CavWife and I finally watched Amazing Grace, the biopic on William Wilberforce.  We suffered from some laser issues at times- the in-laws’ DVD player is in decline- which affected our ability to both enjoy it and follow the story line, at times.

I know a bit about Wilberforce, having read one of his books and read a short biography on him.  In preparing a lesson on the slave trade I did some more research on him.  As a result, I was more familiar with him than the other people in the room.  As a result, I was able to fill in some of the gaps in the story line.  The movie clocks in at a hair under 2 hours and it could have easily been longer.  There were some things I wish were in the movie, which focused on his romance/marriage and lengthy battle in Parliament to abolish the slave trade.  It is difficult to tell the story of such a long period of time in a meaningful way in 2 hours or less.

Most of the movie takes place when he meets the woman who will become his wife.  He tells her of how he became involved in the political battle.  The movie follows along to eventual victory.  The time shifts mean you have to pay close attention since Wilburforce doesn’t seem to change much physically.  John Newton, played well by Albert Finney, and the troublesome Clarkson do undergo some physical changes providing clues if you miss the message.

I am a great sinner.  Christ is a great Savior.

"I am a great sinner. Christ is a great Savior."

The movie clearly portrays his evangelical moorings, but doesn’t dwell on them in a way that would make a non-Christian too uncomfortable.  I particularly liked the quick scene with his butler.  Wilberforce explains some strange behavior on God.  “You’ve found God.”  “More like I’ve been found by God.”  I’m not sure about the exact wording, but it reflects the wording of his mentor’s song- “I once was lost, but now I’m found.”  But the movie does not cover his conversion- which was a fairly lengthy process so that is understandable- or that his faith was the impetus and sustaining force in the fight against the slave trade.

One disappointment was the scene in which his best friend died.  His friend lamented that he didn’t have William’s faith.  Wilburforce left it at that rather than offering the promises of the gospel to him.

The movie makes some quick mention of some of his other accomplishments, such as found the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  This too flowed out of his faith.  He saw Christianity as not less, but more than his personal conversion.  His understanding of Christianity was that God transforms us, and society through us.  Wilburforce was so active in living out this vision that his health did suffer greatly.

... no longer belong to God, but belong to man...

... no longer belong to God, but belong to man...

The film does a good job of telling people about part of this great man’s life.  It is a fairly low budget film.  That it is a period piece helps it to feel like something you might see as a mini-series on PBS.  But I wasn’t looking for style points.

It is sad that most people don’t know about this man, and his lengthy struggle to see the slave trade come to an end, and soon thereafter slavery itself.

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