Newton on the Christian Life: To Live Is Christ
A good indication of how well I like a book is often how many quotes from it I put into Evernote. When it comes to Tony Reinke’s highly anticipated book on John Newton, the total number sits at an unusually high 35 – almost all direct quotes from Newton himself. Last year I read a book of Newton’s letters to a young minister under the title ‘Wise Counsel’, and it’s probably one of the best books I’ve ever read. This book doesn’t quite hit those heights (though an ebook versus a lovingly crafted Banner of Truth hardback is always fighting a losing battle!) but it’s provided me with a stack of quotes from Newton on a whole manner of themes that I know I’ll keep coming back to. I think one of the biggest attractions of Newton is his honesty about his struggles, for example with unbelief or distractions in prayer. Reinke writes: ‘Newton was open and honest about his weaknesses, and this honesty marked his entire forty-one year ministry’. His humility and winsomeness also shines through, and some of his illustrations are just amazing. Newton is about as far from a ‘stage cage’ Calvinist imaginable. He writes: ‘It will be in vain for ministers to declare that the doctrines of grace (Calvinism) are doctrines according to godliness, unless our testimony is supported by the tempers and conduct of our people’
That’s not to say I found the book uniformly great, and I nearly gave up somewhere around the middle. I’m glad I kept going however; Chapter 8, on ‘Christian Blemishes’ is worth the price of the book. I hadn’t come across this before, but Newton goes Pilgrims’ Progress-style and comes up with seven picturesque portraits of the failings of Christians: Austerus (Orthodox but strict), Cessator (Heavenly minded but earthly disconnected) etc. With the abundance of online sermons, falling into the latter category is probably a bigger temptation today than it was in Newton’s day: ‘A mere hearer…running hither and thither after preachers…lean cows; they devour a great deal but for want of proper digestion they do not flourish’. The following quotation is also too good to leave out: ‘They usually grow wise in their own conceits, have their head filled with notions, acquire a dry, critical and censorious spirit; and are more intent upon disputing who is the best preacher than upon obtaining benefit to themselves from what they hear’. Well does Reinke conclude: ‘This chapter should sting’! The next chapter, on trials, is also very helpful. Normally I skip the hymns in books (and real life), but not here: if you’re not familiar with ‘I ask’d the Lord that I might grow’ then check it out!
I did find some parts of the book disappointing though, especially the omissions. While you get a rough idea of Newton’s life from the scattered references, more on the context to his writings would have been appreciated. I also think Reinke really missed a trick by not giving us more on the sorts of books that Newton read. Reinke has after all just written a blog post on: ‘The 70 best books of 2015’, so to say he’s a bit of a reader is an understatement. There are scattered references to books Newton liked/recommended (Riccaltoun, Fuller, Leighton, Flavel, Thomas Wilcox) but then when Reinke actually writes a paragraph on ‘The other books’, it’s largely a pious-sounding attempt to say just read the Bible! For someone with the interest in books that Reinke has to go through Newton’s whole corpus and not give us something more substantial seems a bit of a waste.
The editing of the book isn’t flawless either. Newton’s advice that ‘a believing view of Jesus does the business’ is great, but quoting it three times as if each is the first time isn’t. The kindle edition also has a number of jumbled sentences in the footnotes. And even if you don’t mind Tim Keller, the sheer amount of quotations from him soon begins to grate. Oh, and while this isn’t Reinke’s fault, now that Banner have released a re-set edition of Newton’s works, most of his footnotes will be meaningless for anyone inspired to go and read Newton himself.
One final disappointment is with Newton himself. Reinke flags up that he was weak on definite atonement. Why is it so hard to be nice and a fully fledged Calvinist and at the same time?! Because unlike many ‘Theologians on the Christian Life’, Newton is impossible to dislike. Rather like this book.
Thanks to Crossway for a complimentary copy of this book through their Beyond the Page review programme.