You are familiar with the name John Newton, I am sure, and with the broad strokes of his life—how he went from captaining a slave trading ship to becoming a Christian and composing the great hymn “Amazing Grace.” What fewer people know about is his 40 years of pastoral ministry. Newton the pastor is the subject of Tony Reinke’s new book Newton on the Christian Life: To Live Is Christ. I recently asked Tony to tell us why he wrote this book and what we can expect to gain by reading it.
Judging by the title, this sounds like it could be a book that applies only to really smart people. Is it a book that ordinary Christians should read? Why?
John Newton was a practical man, so I aimed to write a practical book. In the words of one biographer, Newton was a man of utility — he had zero patience with pie-in the-sky theory and speculation. He helped ordinary Christians navigate the challenges of their busy lives, and I hope this book does the same.
Newton is proof that the deeper we are willing to go into the mess and the hurt of this world to help people, the more we move away from detached, cerebral theology and toward hands-on, real-world pastoral care. And this was his world, as noted historian Bruce Hindmarsh put it so well in an interview, “Pre-modern life was pre-analgesic, pre-antiseptic, and pre-anesthetic. People hurt all the time.” It was into this relentless physical pain that God raised up Newton to serve as a spiritual cardiologist.
Newton was a student of the human heart’s response to the soreness and pressures of daily life: he studied his own heart’s responses, and then he studied Scripture to apply God’s promises to daily life. He was a realist to the max.
If the Ask Pastor John podcast is my attempt to ask the perplexing ethical questions to Pastor John Piper, this new book is something of an Ask Pastor John Newton — my attempt to ask Newton the most puzzling questions we face in the Christian life. I found his answers in his letters.
So don’t let the wig on Newton’s head undermine his value for our generation. Bible counselor Ed Welch recently said that in reading my book he felt pastored by John Newton, and this is exactly what I hope every reader experiences — a personal encounter with one of the church’s greatest ministers, who in turn helps us to commune with the living God.
So it’s not quite a biography, right? If not, what is it?
Right, my book is not a biography (I certainly could not improve on Jonathan Aitken’s work). Newton’s life was formed by a few monumental events, and those events shaped all of his instruction on the Christian life. So I recount key anecdotes and biographical highlights in order to show how those events illuminate his broader pastoral care.
I call my work “pastoral synthesis.” I want us to be pastored by Newton, and to this end I started by gathering together all of Newton’s many published letters — about 1,000 of them in various collections from over the centuries (and many of them preserved in old, rare, and fragile volumes in libraries around the world).
What I’ve found is that my generation (and younger) are unlikely to read old letters, even those by Newton. To serve the church, we need willing researchers to volunteer for the heavy work of collecting all the letters, identifying Newton’s key answers to the perennial questions of the Christian life, and then developing all that into a guided tour that allows the unique voice of Newton to frequently emerge. I was honored when Justin Taylor and Steve Nichols nominated me for the task and invited me to publish in their incredible series (Theologians on the Christian Life).
If you had to distill all of Newton’s counsel to a central point, what would that be?
To live is Christ — this is my subtitle and I’m convinced this is the core of all Newton’s pastoral counsel. Newton’s heart and mind was engrossed by the person of Christ.