As a pastor, I am often discouraged by the self-help and motivational nature of the majority of Christian Living books. A topic as important as the Christian life deserves deep, biblically-driven contemplation, yet what the church is often offered, and all-too-agreeably consumes, amounts to nothing more than books promising a newer and better you. But we must not despair; hidden amongst the fluff there is the occasional book of such weight and depth that it will draw your heart to the Savior, and inevitably transform your view of the Christian life itself. Tony Reinke’s Newton on the Christian Life(Crossway, 2015) is one such treasure.
Synthesizing the very personal and biblical council found within the infamous John Newton’s pastoral letters and hymns to form one cohesive book is no easy task. Newton didn’t set out to write a theology of the Christian life. Instead, he wrote as a pastor to individual members of his flock, encouraging them toward greater Christ-likeness in all areas of life. Despite the difficulties present in bringing such a vast array of content into one theology on the Christian life, Reinke succeeds and offers to us a 14 chapter exposition of John Newton’s teachings on the Christian’s pilgrimage from new birth to future glory.
The spiritual council we receive from this eighteenth century pastor is surprisingly and delightfully Christ-centered. Newton was primarily interested in seeing Christian growth begin with a realization of the all-sufficiency of Jesus Christ. It is only then, in beholding the glory of Jesus, that the Christian will experience progressive victory over sin on their way to glory. For the purposes of this review, we will focus on three central elements of Newton’s theology on the Christian life.
First, Christ’s All-Sufficiency. Reinke draws this truth out of Newton’s writings by examining his most famous hymn, Amazing Grace. For Newton, grace is the essential component of the Christian life and there is neither salvation nor growth without it. Grace is absolutely necessary in the sinner’s wretch-like state and must be relied upon as the Christian faces suffering and toils. This laser-like focus on the centrality of grace is helpful in avoiding the mentality that Christian maturity is something accomplished in and of oneself. Helpfully, Newton was unwilling to allow the Christian to remove his eyes from Christ in any way, and points out that grace is not a depersonalized force or something to be dispensed apart from Christ. Reinke explains, “Grace is shorthand for the full and free access we have to all the merits and power and promises to be found in the person of our savior (46).” In other words, grace cannot be separated from the person of Jesus. Thus for all growth in the Christian life, all victory, and all efforts to please God, the Christian must rely completely and totally on Christ.
Second, Beholding Christ’s Glory. Because Jesus, himself, is all-sufficient for the Christian’s growth in holiness, we are called to continually and purposefully behold the glory of Jesus’ love and care for us on the cross. Beholding the glory of Christ is about recognizing the true person and work of Jesus and its personal application faith. It is through this beholding of the glory of Christ, that Christians desire more of him and less of their sin. Newton teaches that sanctification is only possible by these means. As Reinke says, “Every sight of Christ we take is an attack on every delight in sin left in our hearts (79).” Thus the Christian’s hope for fighting distraction, legalism, worldliness, or any other sin, is to look unto Christ and his saving work.
Finally, Progressive Victory. The final emphasis mentioned here is the outworking of the previous two points. In beholding the all-sufficiency of Jesus, the Christian embraces gospel simplicity (93). It is the gospel daily remembered that produces our striving towards holiness. Reinke demonstrates this by examining how Newton applied his Christ-centeredness to regular areas of struggle in the Christian life. Whether this be through trials (chapter 9), battle with indwelling sin (chapter 5), character flaws (chapter 8), insecurity (chapter 11), or spiritual weariness (chapter 12). Newton taught that in all areas of the Christian life we must rely on the grace of Christ for forgiveness, we must behold the glory of Christ for change in affections, and we must follow the example of Christ in order to see growth in holiness. Newton wrote that “by beholding we are gradually formed into the resemblance of him who we see, admire, and love (131).”
Through a masterful illumination of John Newton’s letters and hymns, Reinke reveals how the author of Amazing Grace saw and experienced that very grace transform the believer from sinner into increasing Christ-likeness. I highly recommend it for Christians who desire to grow in their Christian journey.