Chapter 2 of Newton on the Christian Life
by Tony Reinke
William Jay was a young pastor in London whose career was beginning to ascend just as John Newton’s ministry was coming to an end. Like Newton, Jay was a gifted pastor with no formal theological training. In the fall of 1807, the thirty-eight-year-old brought along a notebook and pencil for what would prove to be his final visit to his old friend. Newton was in his eighties, bedridden, and confined to an upstairs bedroom in the London home of his adopted daughter and son-in-law. While Newton’s health and eyesight and memory were all failing, Jay had his notebook at his side in anticipation of carrying away a piece of advice—anything—from his pastoral mentor.
After a brief meeting, Jay walked downstairs and reentered the bustle and clatter of London’s cobblestone streets, not yet contemplating the lines he had scratched in his notebook. Later, he discovered the richness of the single line he jotted down, a line now etched into history as John Newton’s final recorded words: “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior.”1 Newton died a few weeks later, on December 21, 1807. The words transcribed by Jay are a simple and profound summary of John Newton’s life.
Newton’s dying words summarize the message he preached and wrote about throughout his Christian life. Four decades earlier, in the prime of his health, Newton had written to a friend, “Our sins are many, but his mercies are more: our sins are great, but his righteousness is greater.”2 At another point he wrote, “We cannot be so evil as he is good.”3 Newton was governed by the abiding hope that where sin increases, grace abounds all the more (Rom. 5:20). In one letter early in his pastorate he wrote, “Though our sins have been deep-dyed, like scarlet and crimson, enormous as mountains, and countless as the sands, the sum total is, but, Sin has abounded; but where sin hath abounded, grace has much more abounded.”4 Yes, sin is a monstrous, condemning force—but Christ is greater. Grace abounds because the Savior superabounds. This biblical truth worked itself deeply into Newton’s heart very early in his Christian walk, and it was a conviction that drove him toward pastoral ministry and to preaching “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8).
Like an unceasing echo, the theme of Christ’s superabundant grace is heard in everything Newton writes—in his hymns, his sermons, his letters—and in his weak and feeble dying words. In the profoundly sin-swallowing sufficiency of the Savior, we discover the heart and soul of Newton’s theology. From his first spiritual breath to his final words, Newton held firm these two realities learned from his own experience: our sin is dark and ugly and damning and destructive, but Christ superabounds our sin with unassailable light and beauty and redemption and restoration.
All in All
Newton’s christology not only comforts; it confronts. The greatest decision any human ever makes concerns the nature of Christ. Jesus inquired of the Pharisees, “What do you think about the Christ?” and the same question is pushed before every one of us (Matt. 22:42). What are we going to do with Christ? Everything hinges on that decision, with eternity in the balance. On the basis of how we respond to the Bible’s truth about Christ, “so God is disposed to you, and mercy or wrath are your lot.”5 The stakes could not be higher.
This is why the Christian life is about Christ. Or to say it more starkly, “to live is Christ” (Phil. 1:21). The Christian’s life is Christ. John Newton was committed to living the Christian life daily in this truth, and this struggle appears throughout his letters, his hymns, his sermons, and his final words. Christ was his life, his hope, and his “motto.”
Christ is the motto of the Christian life because Christ is the substance of the Christian life. In highlighting Christ’s all-sufficiency, Newton often returns to one of his favorite biblical phrases from Paul: Christ is all in all (Eph. 1:23; Col. 3:11). To have the faith to find Christ as “all in all in himself” and to see Christ as “all in all for us” has the power to cheer our sorrowing hearts, strengthen our spiritual eagerness, make hard duties easy, and make bitter experiences sweet.6 The love of Christ controls our lives (2 Cor. 5:14). True faith in Christ changes everything about how the Christian life is lived, which is why Newton’s own prayer for his friends is a fitting prayer for us as we continue our study: “This includes all I can wish for my dear friends, that you may grow in grace, and in the knowledge of Jesus. To know him, is the shortest description of true grace; to know him better, is the surest mark of growth in grace; to know him perfectly, is eternal life” (John 17:3).7
Newton’s prayer is a keystone statement we will return to throughout this study because maintaining this Christ-centered outlook in his daily life, Newton admitted, was the supreme goal (and challenge) for the Christian. But before we address the struggle of Christ-centered Christian living, we must first look at the substance—the all-in-all-ness—of Christ.
Newton frequently reminds his friends of the gospel. The gospel is free, full, and complete, and Christ invites all sinners to come to him “without exception, condition, or limitation.”8 In his all-sufficiency, Christ is precious (1 Pet. 2:4–7). Nothing can be added to his perfections and his completed work. In him, all our guilt is cancelled and blotted and swallowed up, and all our sins are “sunk in his precious blood as in a deep sea, so that, even if sought for, they can no more be found.”9
While Newton was fully convinced of the importance of the Trinitarian nature of God (the “adorable Trinity” as he calls it, or worthy of all adoration10), he believed that the divinity of Christ is “the great foundation-stone upon which all true religion is built.”11 Perhaps Newton could have placed greater emphasis on the Holy Spirit in his ministry, but he operated with this conviction: since there is no jealousy within the triune God, it is impossible to overpraise the Son or to dishonor the Father or Spirit in the adoration of Christ.12 Christ incarnate is the full revelation of God in the flesh. This truth is so important that no matter how religious you are, if you are without Christ, you are without God—an atheist (Eph. 2:12).13 Only in Christ are the attributes of God rendered familiar to us in a human form as he relates to us as God our Friend, Brother, and Husband, thereby positioning Christ as the supreme object of our deepest longings and affections.14
Another of Newton’s famous hymns opens affectionately:
How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
In a believer’s ear!
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,
And drives away his fear.
Near the end of the hymn, while singing about the many roles Christ fills, the worshiper discovers why Christ’s name is precious.
Jesus! My Shepherd, Husband, Friend,
My Prophet, Priest, and King;
My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End.15
Such precious names for Christ’s all-sufficiency must have filled the hearts and lips of Olney worshipers with joy. To find Christ is to find a priceless treasure in a field, an all-sufficient treasure to meet every need of every sinner. “Oh, may his precious name be engraven upon our hearts, and sound sweeter than music to our ears, for he has loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and will save to the uttermost in defiance of all our sins, fears, and enemies!”16
This all-sufficiency in Christ is substantiated in his relationships to the Christian, particularly in six names—Shepherd, Husband, Prophet, Priest, King, and Friend. As we examine later, these roles are certainly not comprehensive, but they do offer a sampling of how Newton framed his (very personal) relationship with Christ.
Christ is the all-sufficient Shepherd who delivers his sheep (Heb. 13:20). Newton caught the shepherding language embedded in the Old Testament exodus of God’s people out of Egypt (Isa. 63:11). The exodus offers him a typological picture of the entire Christian life, and he once called Deuteronomy 32:9–14 a “history of a believer in miniature, an Iliad in a nutshell.”17 The sinner, fast bound in slavery to his own sin, is delivered by miracle and shed blood, freed to walk for forty years—sustained by God—along a path toward the eternal rest of the Promised Land. The Christian life is exodus and exile.18 But the redeemed never walk this path alone. Christians walk together, never far from our Good Shepherd who leads and guides us in even the darkest nights in the desert. Left to ourselves we wander off into thistles and danger. In the wilderness of these years on earth, our Good Shepherd sustains us, tames the ravens (provides necessities), and tames the lions (protects from dangers).19
Yet this exodus metaphor is frightening because sheep are defenseless: they cannot fight, they cannot run with much speed, and they have little foresight or sense of danger.20 Little do we appreciate the danger we face at every moment of life. All our attempts at self-preservation are laughably insufficient. We are poor and silly sheep, unable to add one inch to our statures by all our worry. The fortresses we build around our souls for protection are castles of cardboard. The dangers we face far exceed our frail powers to defend ourselves. Our vulnerability and weakness draw out God’s compassionate love and care.
The Good Shepherd promises to watch over us, and nothing less can tame our anxieties and insecurities. “I am prone to puzzle myself about twenty things,” said Newton, “which are equally out of my power, and equally unnecessary, if the Lord be my Shepherd.”21 Christ’s all-sufficiency as our Shepherd is the substance behind the command to be anxious about nothing (Phil. 4:6).
This trust in the Shepherd makes it possible to praise God for what is behind us and to “cheerfully trust him for what is to come.”22 The Christian path does not cut through many rose gardens, but it will always be the right path. Along the way, the Good Shepherd will bring trials that “are medicinal, designed to correct, or to restrain, or to cure” the maladies of our souls.23 Trials serve our ultimate and eternal prosperity, and as we will discover later, the Shepherd brings no fiercer trial than he sustains us to face, and no heavier burden than he strengthens us to carry.
The Christian life is an exodus, with a Shepherd guiding the way. In order to be our Shepherd, Christ became a man, and he has now become the Chief Shepherd. All pastors are under-shepherds employed by him and serve a similar role of care in the church (1 Pet. 5:1–4). Christ intends for his sheep to be fed in the green pastures of local churches. Together, as a flock led by under-shepherds, we walk through this life with eternity at stake, and we are guided by the Chief Shepherd’s voice along a path, across the wilderness, to the porch of the house of the Lord, and into the presence of the Good Shepherd forever (Ps. 23:6). Christ is our Good Shepherd. He died to protect our souls (John 10:1–18).24 We follow his all-sufficient voice until we arrive at his all-sufficient face.
Christ is the all-sufficient Husband who willingly weds himself to us. On the one hand, he has taken full responsibility for all our debts, and on the other hand, his honor and riches and the inestimable value of his eternal estate are now all ours—“our debts are paid, our settlements secured, and our names changed.”25 He now deals with us with great affection, as is proper toward his bride, and we are given his “great love, tenderness, and sympathy.” In the coming wedding of the church to Christ we are brought face-to-face with the divine affections. “The gospel is not designed to make us stoics: it allows full room for those social feelings which are so necessary and beneficial in our present state,” writes Newton, and the affections and beauty and mutual love in the greatest marriage on earth are but an echo of the beauty in the gospel.26 The beauty John Newton saw and was drawn toward in his precious wife, Polly, was a mere shadow of a greater reality and a greater marriage. That is to say, the most beautiful human marriage is but a temporal taste of the full light and beauty and all-sufficiency of marriage to our Husband, Christ.
Faith in Christ is far more than intellectual ascent and stoic rationalism. As the Husband of the church, Christ weds the church. In our participation with him, we now experience “an intimate, vital, and inseparable union.”27 And one day history will be consummated when the Husband (Lamb) enters into an eternal marriage with his bride (the church) at the end of the age (Rev. 19:6–10).28 The great end of the gospel is holiness and happiness. It is the complete restoration of the soul to the image of God. It sets aright all the evil in this world. The plan has been put in motion, the payment price of the cross has been made. The wedding feast has been planned. The all-sufficient Husband is in place.29
In sin, humankind suppresses the truth, becomes futile and foolish in its thinking, forgets God, and worships its own crafts. “His life became vain and miserable; in prosperity, without security or satisfaction; in adversity, without support or resource; his death dark and hopeless; no pleasing reflection on the past, no ray of light on the future.”30 This was the state of humanity when Christ became a Prophet, writes Newton. Christ is the all-sufficient Prophet who has disclosed the invisible God to us (John 1:9, 18). Newton thus likens the “riches of Divine grace” of Scripture to precious jewels that are locked away in a thick safe. The door must be unlocked and opened for the true value to be discovered. This is the work of Christ. As the Prophet, he is the door that opens the riches of divine truth in Scripture to the eyes and the heart of the Christian.31
Divine truth cannot be perceived and received into the heart merely by opening a book and reading the words off the page.32 Spiritual and relational dynamics must occur. By his work and through the gospel, Christ opens our eyes through the power of the Holy Spirit. In his work on the sinner’s soul, Christ remakes the heart of stone into a heart of flesh, and he opens the sinner’s eyes to the incredible riches of God’s Word. This divine illumination comes from Christ alone as the Logos, or Word. Christ is our all-sufficient Prophet, our teacher, and the self-disclosure of the invisible God (John 8:26; 14:9; 17:8). Christ is the telescope by which we see God in creation, and the clue that leads us through the history of divine providence. Through Christ the Bible is applied to the hearts and lives of Christians. In Scripture, in creation, and in providence, Christ is our illuminating Prophet.
Christ is the pure and all-sufficient Priest who died the criminal’s death. Although he was innocent, his death surpassed the inhumane death of an obnoxious and hardened criminal. None would dare mock that criminal in his death, “But when Jesus suffers, all that see him, laugh him to scorn; they shoot out the lip, they shake the head; they insult his character, and his hope.”33 He is the despised Priest; rejected by men, rejected by God. He is the holy sacrifice, his blood is holy blood, and he is at the same time the holy Priest transacting with a holy God on our behalf, on the basis of his own blood (Heb. 7:23–28, 10:11–14). Thus, there is one ultimate and final Mediator who acts between God and men—Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 2:5, a passage in which, Newton writes, “is summed up all that Christ has done, now does, or will do hereafter, either on the part of God or man”).34 Christ is our one Mediator on whom everything else hinges.
This is the wisdom of God that befuddles the wisdom of man. “It seems impossible to believe that the title of the true God and eternal life should properly belong to that despised Man who hung dead upon the cross.”35 And yet it does. Christ is the Lamb who absorbed the full wrath of God. He is the eternal focal point of all worship (Revelation 5). The Lamb that was slain “will ever be the head and Lord of the creation, the medium of communication of the light and love of God to his people; and God in him, the object of their eternal adoration and praise.”36
The substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ is the epicenter of ministry, Newton reminded a pastor friend. “I advise you by all means to keep close to the atonement,” he wrote.
The doctrine of the cross is the sun in the system of truth. It is seen by its own light, and throws light upon every other subject. This will soften hearts that withstand threatenings. This opens a door of hope to the vilest—to despairing sinners. The strictness and sanction of the law must be preached, to show sinners their danger; but the gospel is the only remedy, and suggests those motives, which are alone able to break off the sinner from the love of his sins, and to enable him to overcome the world.37
Only the full and sufficient atonement of Jesus Christ has such power: to illuminate all other divine truth, to order all doctrines, to be the one thing needful, and the only thing sufficient to silence unbelief and pride, and provide us solid ground for hope and assurance.38 Only the atonement of Christ is capable of these victories, and this conviction grew with Newton over time. At age sixty-five, he wrote to another minister: “The older I grow, the more I am drawn to preach much concerning the person, the atonement, the glory of the Savior, and the influences of the Holy Spirit. There are other truths, important in their places, but unless beheld through the medium of the cross, they have but a faint effect.”39 With the passing years, Newton found himself cherishing Christ’s priesthood and atoning sacrifice more and more.
But Christ’s priesthood does not end with atonement; it extends to his ascension and enthronement into heaven (Eph. 4:8). Our High Priest knows our temptations, and he pities us with “an experimental sympathy.”40 The ascended Christ in heaven is
the foundation of our hopes, the source of our sublimest joys, and the sufficient, the only sufficient, answer to all the suggestions by which guilt, fear, unbelief, and Satan, fight against our peace. Surrounded as we are with enemies and difficulties, we plead, against every accusation and threatening, that our Head is in heaven; we have an Advocate with the Father, a High Priest upon the throne, who, because he ever liveth to make intercession, is able to save to the uttermost [Heb. 7:25].41
That is to say, Christ our all-sufficient Priest is able to save to the uttermost and holds ultimate power over all our sins, temptations, difficulties, fears, and backsliding. “Our Savior is now absent, but absent on our behalf.”42 Such an all-sufficient Priest is Christ.
Christ now reigns as the all-sufficient King.
He fought, he bled, he died; but in dying, he conquered. . . . He destroyed death, and disarmed it of its sting. He destroyed him that hath the power of death, Satan. He shook, he overturned, the foundations of his kingdom, broke open his prison-doors, released his prisoners, delivered the prey out of the hand of the mighty.43
Through the cross, the King has won.
He is the King of Glory. Yes, the whole earth is full of God’s glory, but most of that glory is “but scattered rays and emanations of light.” In Jesus, “the glory of God resides in its source and fullness, as light in the sun. He is therefore the King of glory.” As the all-sufficient King, Christ is the focal point of God’s emanating glory.44
Christ is the King over the cosmos, bringing all things under his control (Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:20). Kings and politicians may be ignorant of his reign, but their ignorance makes his dominion no less real. Christ is the King in charge of all political elections and processes, and providence is a train of his political dispensations. The collapse of kingdoms and the commotion of revolutions all unfold according to a wisely determined plan that has as its final cause the kingdom of God.45 This was not mere political theory for Newton, but the Christ-centered lens that he used to view all of human history. For example, Alexander the Great (356–323 BC), who conquered the entire known world and tirelessly labored to unite many people under one language (Greek), succeeded in a political move which Christ overgoverned as a means to spread the gospel to the nations. With Alexander’s domination, God broke down language barriers and opened doors for the apostolic preaching of the gospel across the known Gentile world. Behind all that activity was a divine orchestration, and behind that orchestration was a kingdom, and behind that kingdom was the cosmic King born as a babe in a dirty barn in a backwoods town called Bethlehem. That babe now governs every event in this world to further his eternal kingdom.
But of all the names Newton cherished for Christ, perhaps the most wide-ranging is Friend. For Newton, Christ is the all-sufficient Friend who protects us. He condescends to seek sinners who are poor and puny. No weakness in his friends withholds Christ’s free and endless love, and no illustration shows this more clearly than in Christ’s free willingness to ransom his life for his friends. Christ is a Friend who finds the sinner wandering a God-less desert, tripping toward eternal death. Christ steps in not only to save him, but also to give him eternal joy and comfort—true friendship in all its dimensions. The Christian lives “a strange mysterious life” that seems to swing daily from darkness into light, from peace into strife. Time and time again, our Friend breaks into this strange and mysterious riddle of life and empowers us for a sweet and stable life in the storm. And yet for all his help, we are enigmatic friends in return. We are forgetful and faithless and disloyal, but our neglect and distrust and disobedience does not diminish his love for us. He is steadfast. He’s the Friend we wish we could be. He’s the all-sufficient Friend we need. And if he were not, he would surely “spurn us from his sight.”46
Christ is the perfect Friend. His sacrificial love is perfect. He left glory, took on flesh, submitted to shame, and delivered himself to death to save us from sin and misery and to open the kingdom to us, who were his enemies. “For he saw and pitied us, when we knew not how to pity ourselves.”47 He is transcendent in glory, but draws close to hopeless sinners in friendship (Matt. 11:19; Luke 7:34). We need a friend, and who better than a Friend who made heaven and earth, raised the dead, and hushed storms? He is always with us. “Jesus is always near, about our path by day, and our bed by night; nearer than the light by which we see, or the air we breathe; nearer than we are to ourselves; so that not a thought, a sigh, or a tear, escaped his notice.”48
Christ majestically displays a daily, moment-by-moment friendship for his fickle friends, but his greatest act of friendship was performed on the cross. There he made the ultimate sacrifice for his friends—his own life, a precious and pure life, a life that nobody took from him, a life that he laid down on the altar willingly (John 15:13). By naming Christ as his all-sufficient Friend, Newton spotlights a reality far deeper than Christ as our buddy or chum. Christ binds our friendship through the highest sacrifice ever conceived. Never before and never since has there been a friend who paid pure sinless blood for his friends.
Which of all our friends to save us,
Could or would have shed their blood!49
None. This is friendship to the glorious extreme. Only Christ reconciles us to God and delivers peace with a holy God as the highest manifestation of his friendship. We either trust securely in this Friend or struggle to find our security in self-confidence and worldly safeties.50
With Christ as our Friend we find our source of daily joy in this tumultuous life.51 Friend becomes for Newton an affection-loaded shorthand title to embrace the full scope of Christ’s all-sufficiency, personally applied to us.52
“Ev’ry Precious Name in One”
Each of Newton’s titles for Christ is a different face to the diamond of Christ’s all-sufficiency, and he is a diamond of inexhaustible riches. To this list of Christ as our all-sufficient Shepherd, Husband, Prophet, Priest, King, and Friend, could be added many more. Christ is also our Lord, our Life, our Way, our End, our Head, our Root, our Meat, our Drink, our Portion, our Strength, our Hope, our Foundation, our Sun, our Shield, our Lawgiver, our Exemplar, our Forerunner, and our All, just to name a few other ways Newton described the excellencies of Christ. Christ is all of this, so we will expect and receive our all-sufficiency from his hands.53 Yet only eternity will afford us time to discover and enjoy and worship Christ in the full dimensions of his all-sufficiency—“the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8).
To use another Newtonian metaphor, Christ is like the sun in his endless supplies. Out of his all-sufficiency “he can cheer and enlighten thousands and millions at once, and give to each as bountifully as if there were no more to partake of his favor. His best blessings are not diminished by being shared among many.”54 His greatness is not apportioned. A monarch may give a token gift to all of his subjects, but the gift must be divided.
But Jesus has unsearchable, inexhaustible riches of grace to bestow. The innumerable assembly before the Throne have been all supplied from his fullness; and yet there is enough and to spare for us also, and for all that shall come after us. May he give us an eager appetite, a hunger and thirst that will not be put off with any thing short of the bread of life; and then we may confidently open our mouths wide, for he has promised to fill them.55
His all-sufficiency can make five loaves of bread and two fish stuff thousands of hungry stomachs. His grace cannot be exhausted (Matt. 14:13–21). His “unsearchable riches” are sufficient for millions of distressed sinners at the same time.56 Christ is a sun, he is an endless feast, and he is an endless ocean in breadth, length, height, and depth of unsearchable love (Eph. 3:18–19). “This love of Christ to sinners is inexpressible, unsearchable, and passing knowledge; it is an ocean without either bottom or shore.”57 The treasury of life and salvation in Christ
is inexhaustible, like a boundless, shoreless, bottomless ocean; like the sun, which having cheered the successive generations of mankind with his beams, still shines with undiminished luster, is still the fountain of light, and has always a sufficiency to fill innumerable millions of eyes in the same instant.58
Similarly, Christ, and him crucified, is the sun in the solar system of all knowledge and learning.
As the eye cannot judge of sounds, nor the ear of prospects and colors, neither can our reason help us in our religious concerns, till it is first brought to the foot of the cross. The doctrine of Jesus Christ, and him crucified, is the Sun of the intellectual world. It can only be seen by its own light; but when the eyes of the mind are opened to behold it, it throws a light upon every other object and subject in which we are concerned.59
Pick your metaphor, run its sufficiency to the farthest extent, then mix the metaphor with other metaphors, and you begin to understand the surpassing riches of Christ in Newton’s mind.
It is not surprising, but it is striking, how consistently Newton focuses his writings and hymns ultimately on the person of Jesus Christ. All of Christ’s work and all the combined doctrines of justification and propitiation and adoption are foremost communicated through the relational categories of Christ’s person. At every point in his writings, Newton wants to point other Christians back to Christ, not merely to theological labels. And so Newton points often to the One who gives substance to the concepts and the promises—in order to point us again and again to a man, to the God-man, who accomplishes all these things for his eternal glory. A reader of Newton’s works is struck by his frequent return to the person of Christ on whom hang all his hopes, not merely to correct outlines of orthodoxy. Newton was driven to expound the one Mediator between God and men, “the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5).
Newton will not allow us to abstract the Christian life from Christ. One day we will join Newton and plunge into the shoreless ocean of Christ’s love to explore the far deeper reaches of Christ’s all-sufficiency. But until that day, the Christian life is one of reading and singing and worshiping the full-sufficiency of Christ we see in Scripture. And to that end, in a Christmas hymn devoted to the joy of the incarnation, Newton’s heart finds due expression.
O my Savior, Shield, and Sun,
Shepherd, Brother, Husband, Friend,
Ev’ry precious name in one,
I will love thee without end.60
It is a beautiful lyric of the all-embracing and all-sufficient Christ. And it’s an optimistic lyric, though one we certainly cannot hope to fully realize in this lifetime.
To speak of the all-sufficiency of Christ is inevitably to see weaknesses in the present and to foresee hopes in the future. This was the counsel Newton passed to his adopted daughter one day when the birthday cake she enjoyed was gone.
Look at all that appears good and pleasant in this world; could you call it all your own, it would last but a little while, and when you go into another world, the remembrance of what you had in this, will be but like remembering you once had a cake, but it is gone, quite eaten up. But it is not so, my dear child, with respect to that feast which Jesus prepares for poor sinners. The pleasures which he gives are repeated from time to time, and are pleasing even when we reflect on them. And, in the other world, when earthly pleasures will be quite ended, they that love him shall have pleasure without interruption and without end, rivers of pleasure at his right hand for evermore.61
To know Christ perfectly—to be with Christ—is the zenith of eternal life, the consummation of our union to him. To behold his presence is the highest pleasure, joy’s apex. To behold his glory is to be made holy, and to be made holy is to be made perfectly happy (John 17:24).
Apart from this ultimate hope, the created world would be a dungeon of despair for God’s children. But faith animates our lives with an eschatological anticipation of the presence and glory of Christ. We will not find our full and permanent happiness here. Nor will we find Christian joy automatically, like a daily newspaper at the door. God intends for us to find joy kinetically, in action, as we work out our faith with fear and trembling, as we fight the good fight of faith, as we worship, fellowship, and engage in all the various dynamics of the Christian life together.62 But even in this, our hope of eternal joy sobers our expectations for the joy we can expect to experience in this life.
To study the all-sufficiency of Christ in the writings of Newton is to be reminded that the pursuit of enduring joy requires that we set our face toward eternity. Through trials and pain and discomfort in this life, Christ is our Shepherd-Friend, leading us step-by-step along a pathway safely into his presence and toward our supreme eternal happiness, into the palace of his pleasures forever (Ps. 16:11). He is working out his ultimate good in the life of every believer (Rom. 8:18–30).
“It is sufficient for us at present to know that we shall see Jesus,” Newton wrote.
We shall see him as he is, and we shall be like him (1 John 3:2). The circumstances of the heavenly state, if I may so speak, are hidden from us; but this, which constitutes the essence of it, we can form some faint apprehension of, from our present experience. All that deserves the name of happiness here, consists of such conceptions of Jesus, and such measures of conformity to him, as are attainable while in a mortal and defiled nature. But we see him only as in a glass, darkly and in part, but, when that which is perfect arrives, that which is in part shall be done away. We shall be all eye, all ear, all activity, in the communications of his love, and in the celebration of his praise. Here we are almost upon a level with worms; there we shall rise to an equality with angels.63
For Newton, the beatific vision of Christ not only shapes our hopes, but also shapes everything about the Christian life. But I am getting ahead of myself. Here we need only to see the centrality of Christ’s all-sufficiency for every step of the Christian journey. Newton navigated the expansive oceans by compass just as he navigated the Christian life by Christ. In many similar ways, the Christian life is navigated by charts and maps, and, to use a term coined by contemporary theologian Kevin Vanhoozer, that chart is Christography. All the scenarios we face in this life are navigated by a Scripture map which always seeks to point the Christian soul to the all-sufficient Christ, alive and reigning in heaven. This is why Newton says that all the things deserving of the name happiness in this life are somehow connected with our comprehension of Christ.
So for now, the full and dazzling work of Christ precedes every step of our Christian lives and directs all our aims and pursuits. The Christian life is hidden within Christ’s life (Col. 3:3–4). Or, to repeat the apostle Paul, “To live is Christ” (Phil. 1:21). Christ is the sum and substance of this all-encompassing thing we call life (John 11:25). This point is not reductionistic for Paul or for Newton; everything that John Newton said about the Christian life can be fitted into that short phrase, and it’s clearly evident in his dying words.
To imagine the Christian life as progress toward our own self-sufficiency is wholly wrong. All Christian maturity is advancement toward greater Christlikeness. And because Christ is a great Savior, Newton can own the fact that he is a great sinner. “I trust the great desire of my soul is that Christ may be all in all to me, that my whole dependence, love, and aim, may center in him alone.”64 Or, as he said earlier in his life, “‘None but Jesus,’ is my motto.” Or, after penning this verse in a letter, “The cross of Jesus Christ, my Lord, / Is food and medicine, shield and sword,” Newton writes, “Take that for your motto; wear it in your heart; keep it in your eye; have it often in your mouth, till you can find something better. The cross of Christ is the tree of life and the tree of knowledge combined.”65 The Christian life centers on Christ—the mighty, crucified, resurrected Christ.
Look unto the Lord Jesus Christ; look unto him as he hung naked, wounded, bleeding, dead, and forsaken upon the cross. Look unto him again as he now reigns in glory, possessed of all power in heaven and in earth, with thousands of thousands of saints and angels worshipping before him, and ten thousand times ten thousand ministering unto him; and then 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.66
By fixing our eyes on Christ, our lives are filled with holy affection and delight, and we go forth in joyful obedience to him. In our daily lives, in our families, in our callings, in our ministries, and in our vocations, Christ is “our theme in the pulpit and in the parlor.”67 He is the core of the Christian life and ministry.
The person of Jesus Christ is the source of all grace (chap. 1). He is also the center, goal, and aim—the motto—of the Christian life (chap. 2). Christ both empowers and aims everything about the Christian life. These two core principles unlock Newton’s works and help us understand the daily disciplines of prayer, Scripture reading, and pursuing communion with God.
Taken from Chapter 2 of Newton on the Christian Life by Tony Reinke
1 Aitken, 347.
2 W, 2:140–41.
3 W, 6:195.
4 W, 1:686.
5 W, 3:403.
6 W, 1:296, 314, 393, 649; 2:472–73, 495; 4:239–40, 268; 6:73, 128–29.
7 W, 6:73–74.
8 W, 6:465.
9 W, 4:483.
10 W, 1:197–98.
11 W, 2:10.
12 W, 6:439–40.
13 W, 4:575–76.
14 W, 1:307.
15 W, 3:370.
16 W, 6:147.
17 W, 6:145–46. See also Letters (Taylor), 33, 75–76. Newton once wrote: “You will find an abridgment of my life thus far in Deut. 32:10–14. I have but too much reason to take the 15th verse into the account” (Letters [Bull 1869], 242).
18 See G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 856–63.
19 W, 3:347.
20 W, 3:560–61; 4:152–53.
21 W, 6:191–92.
22 W, 6:345.
23 W, 4:156; 6:338.
24 W, 6:179, 191–92.
25 W, 1:323.
26 W, 6:486.
27 W, 1:323.
28 W, 1:323; 6:486.
29 W, 3:32.
30 W, 2:345.
31 W, 2:375.
32 I develop this point in Tony Reinke, Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 29–38.
33 W, 4:242.
34 W, 2:344.
35 W, 2:10.
36 W, 4:580.
37 Letters (Coffin), 62.
38 W, 6:470.
39 Letters (Ryland), 232.
40 Letters (Taylor), 189.
41 W, 4:326–27.
42 Letters (Jones), 51.
43 W, 4:295.
44 W, 4:298.
45 W, 4:22.
46 W, 3:340–41, 598–99.
47 Letters (Taylor), 186.
48 Letters (Taylor), 187.
49 W, 3:366.
50 W, 3:380.
51 W, 3:389.
52 W, 3:340–41.
53 Letters (Taylor), 224.
54 W, 2:194.
55 W, 2:194–95.
56 W, 4:163.
57 W, 6:502.
58 W, 4:78.
59 Letters (Palmer), 131.
60 W, 3:502.
61 W, 6:292–93. See Theological and Expository Lectures by Robert Leighton, D.D., Archbishop of Glasgow (London, 1828), 33–34, 106, 110, 116.
62 See Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955), 2:83–84.
63 W, 6:371–72.
64 Letters (Jones), 57.
65 W, 2:68. The lines of verse are likely a precursor to the final lines in Newton’s hymn published ten years later under the title “Praise for the Continuance of the Gospel,” which ends: “The precious Gospel sweetens all, / And yields us med’cine, food, and joy” (W, 3:514), and/or the hymn “The Word More Precious than Gold,” which ends: “Jesus gives me in his word, / FOOD and MED’CINE, SHIELD and SWORD” (W, 3:529).
66 W, 2:574–75.
67 Letters (Bull 1847), 208.