Tony Reinke. Newton on the Christian Life: To Live Is Christ (Theologians on the Christian Life). Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2015. 288 pp. $19.99.
I’m not a John Newton scholar.
But likely, neither are you. Likely, you only know the things most of us know: Newton wrote the classic hymn Amazing Grace, and that he was a former slave trader in the British Empire, who, upon conversion, became an influential pastor and author.
That’s about all.
However, if we only know this, then we have only sampled the appetizers about Newton. There’s more. Newton’s life is a spiritual, gourmet grocery store, and author Tony Reinke spent several years selecting and preparing for us a splendid meal. It’s called Newton on the Christian Life: To Live Is Christ.
The book is part of a series by Crossway called “Theologians on the Christian Life”; it’s a series designed to expand our palates. Stephen J. Nichols and Justin Taylor, the series editors, explain in their preface that modern Christians need perspective from the past to correct our overemphasis on the present, on the NOW.
A Focus on Newton’s Letters
Perspective from the past doesn’t necessarily mean biography, however; and this is certainly the case with Reinke’s contribution. There are occasional details about Newton’s sailing career (especially a few treacherous moments), and a few passing references to his marriage (which was evidently quite exemplary), but the focus is not his life—but his letters. Newton wrote volumes of them, a thousand of which have been collected and published. Reinke writes,
I have read and reread every letter with the goal of condensing his core message and collecting his most distinct contributions on the Christian life. (p. 31)
That’s no small task. On every page, the extensive footnotes remind readers of the enormity of Reinke’s endeavor.
And by the way, when you hear “personal letters,” don’t think personal e-mails, or even “thank you” or “birthday” cards. Instead, think blog post: think thoughtful words intended for a wider reading. In fact, letter writing was the social media of the 18th century, Reinke writes (p. 22).
The book is structured in 14 chapters, with fitting bookends that focus on the all-sufficiency of Jesus Christ and the insufficiency of self. Other chapters cover topics such as “Indwelling Sin” (Chapter 5), “The Goal of Bible Reading” (Chapter 10), and “Victory over Spiritual Weariness” (Chapter 12).
Some Things I Love
First, I love the writing.
Reinke and Newton are gifted with words, especially fresh metaphors and similes.
Consider these examples from Reinke: he describes the human protections one makes for his or her soul as “castles of cardboard” (p. 53); a Christian who walks in God’s grace as one who will “rub the world’s fur in the wrong direction” (p. 100); and our longings for God as “dehydrated affections” (p. 114). Cardboard, fur, and dehydration—all fresh.
And Newton, for example, describes the remaining sinful desires in a Christian as trying to write with perfect handwriting while sin and Satan keep smacking your elbow (p. 112); of faith surviving inside a Christian like “a spark burning in the water” (p. 116); and preaching his Calvinism as “sugar [in tea]. I do not give it alone, and whole; but mixed and diluted” (p. 26). Scribbles, spark, and sugar—all fresh.
Second, I love the solid theology.
Junk food can taste good, but it’s not good for you. And poison might taste good, but it’s certainly not good for you. In contrast, what I love about Newton on the Christian Life, is that the writing tastes good and works for our health, not against it.
Both Newton and Reinke are evangelical and reformed, which means they love the Bible, cherish the gospel of free grace from a big God, and believe the “substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ is the epicenter of ministry” (p. 56). These are the meat and potatoes, plus the kale, wheat germ, and chia seeds of the Christians life; yet it’s all prepared by authors who make nutrition tasty.
I think it’s for these two reasons—skill in writing and large overlap in theological emphasis—that John Piper says what he says in the foreword about Reinke and Newton. He writes,
One of the most remarkable things about this book is that the voice of Tony Reinke and the voice of John Newton have become almost indistinguishable. (p. 15)
When I first read that, I wasn’t sure exactly what Piper meant, or if it would even be a good thing to have such a blending of voices, but now I see what he means, and I agree—it is a good thing.
Finally, I love the devotional warmth.
I won’t belabor examples, but consider two. On page 158, Reinke encourages pastors in their struggle over the “imperceptible growth” they so often see (or don’t see!) in their flock. And on page 215, he challenges “Christian communicators, songwriters, authors, and pastors” to “display the magnificent beauty of Christ” in all that they do. Both of these spoke to me. You, perhaps, are not a pastor or communicator, but as you read the book, I’m sure you’ll find sections that speak to you with equal devotional warmth; I’m sure of it.
One “Word to the Wise” & One Pushback
First, one quick heads up to readers. The nature of the book, and I suspect the series, lends itself to lots of block quotes. Readers accustomed to skipping these will have some re-training to do, especially when Newton’s poetry and hymns are quoted, as these require even closer reading. But don’t let this scare you. Just be ready to chew this delightful meal slower than normal.
Second is my one critique. Reinke saves his one pushback on Newton for the end of the book, as I have in this review (pp. 260-3). His pushback is related to, what Reinke detects, as an imbalance in Newton’s theology.
Newton, in an effort to be faithful to the Bible’s emphasis on the sinfulness of man—including the remaining sin in a believer’s life which rightly brings God’s displeasure—tended to undervalue something else that the Bible does teach, namely, that in the doctrine of definite atonement, there is “an unbreakable and particular love” that God has for his children, regardless of their moment-by-moment obedience. Or in short, Reinke sees in Newton an overemphasis on God’s displeasure with sin that kept him (and others) from resting in God’s abiding gospel-given favor, the favor purchased on the cross.
Okay, now we’re getting somewhere, right?
A lot of learning happens at the points of contention: learning about Newton, learning about Reinke, learning about Christian thought, learning about joy, learning about the God who made us and his Word that sustains us.
I tend to think more frequent “pushbacks” might have helped us learn these lessons. They might have worked like rumble strips on a highway, that is, kept us alert, whereas smooth sailing, albeit through beautiful scenery, was less engaging—you can zone out. I’m not advocating driving on the rumble strips indefinitely (who wants that book?!), just a tap here and there to keep us attentive.
Despite this pushback, I love the book and highly recommend it.
Reinke writes that he hopes we will think of his book as “a field guide meant to get dirty, dog-eared, and faded in the clenched hands of a Christian pilgrim” (32).
Mine did. And if you read it, yours should too.