I was given this book as a gift earlier this year by Tony Reinke titled, Newton on the Christian Life: To Live Is Christ. It’s one of the books in a series on the Christian life published by Crossway. Other titles feature men such as Bonhoeffer, Calvin, Edwards, Luther, Packer, Schaffer, Warfield, and Wesley. As you can imagine, the entire series is worthy of your time.
From the beginning, I expected the book to be organized more as a biography, but as Reinke makes clear from the start, this isn’t a biography about Newton. While certain elements and events of Newton’s life are used in the writing of the book, it’s purpose is to see the Christian life through the lens of John Newton. As the subtitle makes clear, his lens was from the perspective of “To Live Is Christ.”
The book starts with a breathtaking review of a stormy night on the sea on March 21st, 1748 that literally shook Newton to his core. Fittingly so, this book begins with that event, and just as God often does, He uses storms and natural laws to awaken people to His sovereignty. Newton, the author of the most famous Christian hymn in English history, was a man who came to embrace a robust view of God’s sovereignty. As Reinke makes clear, “Grace is a battering ram. Grace is forced entry” (40). And that’s exactly how it entered Newton’s life as a twenty two year old depraved sailor.
Reinke, in a much needed statement of clarity, writes, “The Christian life is not comfortable. God makes us no promises to remove difficult circumstances, or alleviate our pains, or protect us from suffering, but he does promise sufficient grace for all our wants and needs” (43). We live in a world that looks to God as a “genie in a bottle” or a fairy of blessings rather than the God who sustains us even in the midst of the storms of life. In fact, as Newton came to understand, there is always a purpose in the storms of life.
In chapter three, Reinke does an excellent job of allowing us to see the world through Newton’s eyes. He explains that Newton believed that every human is hardwired to thirst for abiding joy that can only be satisfied in God (67). At this juncture, he cites Newton extensively and the footnotes are worthy of attention.
From every aspect of the book, Reinke strikes a good balance between the life of Newton and the Christian life that is common to all believers. From personal hardships to pursuits of joy in God, the book does an excellent job of visiting the 18th century experiences of John Newton while bridging the gap to our modern culture.
Reinke likewise does a good job of putting on display the language of Newton too. His use of metaphor was not only good for his poetry and hymn writing, but his preaching too. He was not a boring or stale preacher because he tapped into the soul with lucid language and like a “master craftsman” he connected well with his audience (41).
One of the truths that Reinke brought to the surface from the early pages and continued to demonstrate throughout the book is Newton’s love for God’s sovereignty. He quotes Newton as saying, “I am an avowed Calvinist” (26). He goes on to quote Newton as saying, “He loves us because he loves us…He loves us because of who he is, not because of what we are” (261). This may come as a surprise to the many Arminian congregations who use his famous song each week in their weekly worship services, but John Newton was not ashamed of his theological convictions. Reinke explains:
Once asked if he was a Calvinist, Newton plunked a lump of sugar into his tea, stirred the hot liquid, and said, “I am more of a Calvinist than anything else; but I use my Calvinism in my writing and preaching as I use this sugar. I do not give it alone, and whole; but mixed, and diluted” (26).
One of the things I appreciated about this book was Reinke’s engaging style of writing and his ability to weave Newton and our modern Christian life into one story. In other words, Newton was his starting place but through his application the truths came home clearly. He used Scripture to drive the point home and bridge the gap successfully.
One of the weaknesses was the lack of structure in Newton’s life story. Although Reinke makes it clear from the beginning that his desire is not to provide a biography of Newton, it would have been nice to have some structure especially to the end. I was left wanting more of the end of Newton’s life. Reinke did bring us back to the reality of Newton’s idea (as he shared it with Calvin) that “all the world’s a stage, all the creation’s a theater, and all the Christina’s life is a dress rehearsal for glory” (267). He likewise reminded us of the theme or motto of Newton’s life “None but Christ” (266).
I recommend this book to you. It’s not an academic book written for the theology classroom or for the pastor-theologian. It’s a well written book that would be good for your entire family.
Where to buy this book: