Unmasking Idolatry

From Luke Timothy Johnson’s Reading Romans (2001), 48:

Paul’s starting point is the analysis of idolatry in Romans 1:18–32. Jews thought of idolatry as a matter of worshiping the wrong gods, and therefore something that only Gentiles could do. Paul thought more deeply on the matter. He saw that idolatry was a disease of human freedom, found as widely among Jews as among Gentiles.

Idolatry begins where faith begins, in the perception of human existence as contingent and needy. But whereas faith accepts such contingency as also a gift from a loving creator from whom both existence and worth derive, idolatry refuses a dependent relationship on God. It seeks to establish one’s own existence and worth apart from the claim of God by effort and striving (“works”) of one’s own.

Paul will use the striking expression “the flesh” (sarx) and speak of “life according to the flesh” (Romans 7:5, 18, 25; 8:3–7). He means by flesh the measurement of life apart from spirit, and specifically apart from the Holy Spirit of God. It is life in denial of transcendence, a life lived on the basis of perceived reality, taken as a closed system. Seeking to establish one’s own life and worth within such a framework requires boasting and arrogance. It demands competition and hostility toward others.

The reason is simple. Since life as a gift is rejected, then life on one’s own terms must be by means of having or possessing. I am insofar as I have, own, can claim, “this is mine.” And since I view the world as a closed system, there is only so much “having” available. I am inevitably in competition with other humans for life and worth. My self-aggrandizement must be at another’s expense. Rivalry, envy, hatred, and murder are the logical expressions of the idolatrous impulse, for the “need to be” that derives from the refusal of the first gift is an endless hunger, an unslakable thirst.

Reading John Newton’s Letters


Since completing my book-length synthesis of the letters of John Newton, I find myself often asked: Where should I begin, if I want to read Newton for myself?

I love this question, so let me first affirm it. Yes! You should read Newton for yourself. In his letters, you will find a lifetime of careful counsel to feed your soul and direct your steps. Newton was a brilliant pastor. He wrote sermons, he wrote hymns (like Amazing Grace), but he also wrote many pastoral letters. John Newton was convinced that his letters were his greatest contribution to the church. I agree.

Those letters are also some of the easiest writings from the eighteenth century to read and comprehend. But they are not superficial. Tim Keller once told me Newton’s letters “blaze with glory.” He calls those letters “pure gold.” Yes, exactly, the letters are full of gold, but like physical gold, it is not easy for readers to find all the gold in one place. This is my attempt to map you to the mines.

The Works of John Newton

Apart from my Bible, I have not re-read any other book more frequently than John Newton’s 6-volume works, originally published in 1820.

Fittingly, in content, the 3,790-pages work out to be 50-percent letters to his friends, family, and inquirers:


That’s a lot of letters. In fact, this is the best way to get your hands on many of Newton’s letters at once.

Even better, the 6-volume set was very recently re-typeset and republished by the Banner of Truth into a tighter and slightly cheaper 4-volume edition. It’s all the content, collected in a beautiful cloth binding for $120.

To show the two different editions, here’s a favorite Newton quote printed in each. The older edition (1820/1985) is on the top, and the newer version (1839/2015) is on the bottom.


Additionally, the new re-tyepset edition offers some very handy features for readers. The names of the recipients of Newton’s letters, originally cryptically redacted, have been restored. And the editor has added Newton’s short autobiography to the collection, which is a very nice value-add.

A couple of readers have asked: If they own the 6-volume works, should they also purchase the new 4-volume collection? My short answer is no. But in either case, Banner of Truth, who first published Newton’s 6-volume works in 1985, has done a great service to the church with this newly re-typeset replacement. For serious readers of Newton’s letters, the Works is a must-own resource.

What Works for You?

But there remain a few more buying options.

$120: You can buy the Banner’s new 4-volume retypeset edition of the works, with autobiography, in beautiful cloth. UPDATE: Until the end of December 2015, you can buy this set for $89 from the Banner website.

$130: You can buy a digitized and paginated version of the original 6-volume works via Logos Bible software.

$60–80: You can buy Banner’s 4-volume retypeset edition as a Kindle ebook (ISBN: 9781848716414). Forthcoming. This price has not been finalized.

Free: You can download and read the 6-volume works of Newton online as free PDFs through these links:

Newton’s Other Works

Okay, now here’s where it starts to get complicated and the mines start getting smaller and more remote.

For readers especially interested in Newton’s letters, we have covered only a fraction of what has been published. Many other volumes of published letters are found outside the 4/6-volume edition, mostly in old and rare volumes of collected letters of Newton’s correspondences. These include letters to specific family and friends with the last names of Barlass, Bull, Campbell, Clunie, Coffin, Dartmouth, Dawson, Jay, Jones, More, Palmer, Scott, Taylor, and Wilberforce. And many of these individual letters — and many of Newton’s very best letters, in my opinion — are found in these random volumes (and not in the works).

Added to these titles, two diligent editors have recently transcribed Newton’s letters to Ryland and Thornton (forthcoming).

So you can spend quite a lot of time gathering up hundreds of excellent letters not found in Newton’s works, and many are available online for free download in Google books and the digital archive.

Best Single-Volume Collections

There is a way through all the complexity.

If you want to start small, here are my favorite single-volume collections of letters to consider first as small steps in building your John Newton letter library. Most of the letters in these free PDFs are not found in the collected works:

Overwhelmed yet?

In sum, if you want to read all the published letters of Newton, it is both possible and also complicated. If you are looking for a fun historic adventure, collecting and enjoying Newton’s letters would be a venture to keep you busy for years.

I certainly enjoyed every bit of the chase to find all of Newton’s published letters. The search took me all over the world and introduced me to many new friends and fellow admirers of Newton’s letters. With their help I collected all of Newton’s published letters, studied them closely, and then wrote a synthesis of all of Newton’s best pastoral counsel, collected all in one place, which I wrote into my new book: Newton on the Christian Life: To Live Is Christ (Crossway).

I hope my book is a helpful introduction to the mind and heart of John Newton. As Sinclair Ferguson kindly said of my book, “Tony has lovingly distilled the essence of Newton for us. Newton on the Christian Life is a taste of spiritual manna that will make us want to read the letters of Newton for ourselves.”

That is my earnest prayer and hope.

The Chief End of Man

An excerpt from B. B. Warfield’s article, “The First Question of the Westminster ‘Shorter Catechism,’” from The Princeton Theological Review (October 1908), pages 583–87:

The peculiarity of this first question and answer of the Westminster Catechisms, it will be seen, is the felicity with which it brings to concise expression the whole Reformed conception of the significance of human life. We say the whole Reformed conception. For justice is not done that conception if we say merely that man’s chief end is to glorify God. That certainly: and certainly that first. But according to the Reformed conception man exists not merely that God may be glorified in him, but that he may delight in this glorious God. It does justice to the subjective as well as to the objective side of the case.

The Reformed conception is not fully or fairly stated if it be so stated that it may seem to be satisfied with conceiving man merely as the object on which God manifests His glory — possibly even the passive object in and through which the Divine glory is secured. It conceives man also as the subject in which the gloriousness of God is perceived and delighted in. No man is truly Reformed in his thought, then, unless he conceives of man not merely as destined to be the instrument of the Divine glory, but also as destined to reflect the glory of God in his own consciousness, to exult in God: nay, unless he himself delights in God as the all-glorious One.

Read the great Reformed divines. The note of their work is exultation in God. How Calvin, for example, gloried and delighted in God! Every page rings with this note, the note of personal joy in the Almighty, known to be, not the all-wise merely, but the all-loving too. . . .

It is not, however, Calvin who first strikes this note, and there is another in whose thought God is even more constantly present — Calvin’s master, Augustine. This is the burden, for example, of Augustine’s Confessions, and its classical expression is to be found in that great sentence which sums up the whole of the Confessions’ teaching: “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord: and our heart is restless till it finds its rest in Thee.” For there is nothing the soul can need which it cannot find in God. “Let God,” he exhorts in another of those great sentences which stud his pages — “Let God be all in all to thee, for in Him is the entirety of all that thou lovest.” And then, elaborating the idea, he proceeds: “God is all in all to thee: if thou dost hunger He is thy bread; if thou dost thirst He is thy drink; if thou art in darkness, He is thy light; . . . if thou art naked, He is thy garment of immortality, when this corruption shall put on incorruption and this mortal shall put on immortality.”

Delight in God, enjoyment of God — this is the recurrent refrain of all Augustine’s speech of God: delight in God here, enjoyment of God forever. Would he know the way of life — in words which his great pupil was to repeat after him, he tells us we must come to know God and ourselves, God in His love that we may not despair, ourselves in our unworthiness that we may not be proud. And would we knew what the goal is — what is that but the eternal enjoyment of this God of love? . . .

The distinction of the opening question and answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism is that it moves on this high plane and says all this in the compressed compass of a dozen felicitous words: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” Not to enjoy God, certainly, without glorifying Him, for how can He to whom glory inherently belongs be enjoyed without being glorified? But just as certainly not to glorify God without enjoying Him — for how can He whose glory is His perfections be glorified if He be not also enjoyed?