Wikipedia can be misleading.
August 4, not July 24, marks the annual birthday of slave trader-turned-pastor John Newton (1725–1807). The date change is due to an 11-day shift in the calendar adopted in 1750 which pushed all previous dates forward.
So for most of his life, August 4 marked Newton’s birthday, a day set aside, not for feasting and parties, but for fasting, solemn prayer, and Godward praise.
An Enduring Legacy
Today, 288 years after his birth, we pause to note Newton’s ongoing influence in the Church. Lately both Tim Keller and Kathy Keller have expressed Newton’s ongoing impact on their life and ministry. For them both, Newton continues to bear this influence through his beautifully Christ-centered letters. J.I. Packer has written, “Ex-slave-trader John Newton was the friendliest, wisest, humblest and least pushy of all the eighteenth-century evangelical leaders, and was perhaps the greatest pastoral letter-writer of all time.”
In the 1,000 letters written by Newton that have been published, we meet a man who never abstracted the Christian life from the person and work of Christ. For Newton, the crucified Savior was food and medicine, shield and sword, a horrific instrument of abuse and cosmic atrocity, yes, but now an all-sufficient fountain of every spiritual blessing.
For Newton, the all-sufficient cross of Christ was the motto of the Christian life. In one of his letters to a friend on the brink of despair, Newton put it like this (Works, 2:67–68):
Come, let us not despair; the fountain is as full and as free as ever — precious fountain, ever flowing with blood and water, milk and wine. This is the stream that heals the wounded, refreshes the weary, satisfies the hungry, strengthens the weak, and confirms the strong: it opens the eyes of the blind, softens the heart of stone, teaches the dumb to sing, and enables the lame and paralytic to walk, to leap, to run, to fly, to mount up with eagle’s wings: a taste of this stream raises earth to heaven, and brings down heaven upon earth.
Nor is it a fountain only; it is a universal blessing, and assumes a variety of shapes to suit itself to our wants. It is a sun, a shield, a garment, a shade, a banner, a refuge: it is bread, the true bread, the very staff of life: it is life itself, immortal, eternal life!
He then interrupts the letter to pen a verse of praise:
The cross of Jesus Christ, my Lord,
Is food and medicine, shield and sword.
From this verse, Newton draws an imperative, to close out the letter:
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. Blessed be God! there is neither prohibition nor flaming sword to keep us back; but it stands like a tree by the highway side, which affords its shade to every passenger without distinction.
Expressing the full sufficiency of Christ was the song in Newton’s heart. It was the sermon in Newton’s mouth. And it was the aim in his thousands of letters. The gift of communication is God’s way of inviting us into the joy of participating in magnifying Christ together.
The all-sufficient Christ, crucified for sinners, is the motto of the Christian life (Galatians 6:14). This Christ should be the motto of our lives as he was the motto of John Newton’s life, a life we can pause and thank God for on August 4th.
If you’d like to celebrate John Newton’s birthday by reading his letters, most of them are free online and especially his most famous collection: Cardiphonia. But if you prefer holding a book, the best single-volume of letters in print today is a 432-page collection: Letters of John Newton. Another shorter, 240-page collection provides readers with a nice sampling of letters, and is quite a bit cheaper: Select Letters of John Newton. Both are great places to start reading. “I thank the Lord if he makes my writings useful,” Newton once wrote. “I hope they contain some of his truths; and truth, like a torch, may be seen by its own light, without reference to the hand that holds it.”
John Newton’s life story is equally remarkable to his letter-writing legacy. John Piper delivered a biographical message about Newton, and Jonathan Aitken has written a definitive biography, John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace. Both are well worth your time.