Sweet Monotony

When it was finally determined that I would write a synthesis of the pastoral theology of John Newton, it became clear to me that to hold true to Newton’s approach, my book would need to find its focal point in one direction. For Newton, Christ is the conscious center of the Christian life. And not a theoretical Christ-centered life that acknowledges the doctrines of the gospel on occasion, but a life truly centered entirely — and daily — on the magnificent person of Jesus Christ, as seen with the eyes of faith.

I was certainly up the challenge, and put pen to paper.

But in the early weeks of writing I felt occasional jolts of caution. Sometimes I would stop writing to ponder whether or not the market would sustain a book like the one I was writing. Will readers get antsy for the practical how-tos for life success? Of course the book would have to get very practical, because street-smart Newton was never content with tossing out untried theories. But the book could never lose sight of Calvary.

But back in those early days of writing the book, wrestling with this one nagging question, one evening I decided to pull down a collection of Charles Spurgeon sermons and read something he preached as a 21-year-old titled “A visit to Calvary,” published here on pages 187–188.

Here’s what caught my attention:

We never hear a sermon concerning Christ crucified of which we disapprove, however inelegant its diction, if it be sound in doctrine. We never complain of our minister that he preaches too much concerning Jesus Christ. No; there can be no tautology where his name is mentioned; though a sermon should be little beyond the mere repetition of his Name, we would rejoice to hear it. . . .

Oh, how dissatisfied are our souls when we listen to a sermon that is destitute of Christ! There are some preachers who can manage to deliver a discourse and to leave Christ’s name out of it altogether. Surely, the true believer, who is present on such an occasion, will say, with Mary Magdalene, ‘They have taken away the Lord, and I know not where they have laid him.’

Take away Christ from the sermon, and you have taken away its essence. The marrow of theology is Christ; the very bone and sinew of the gospel is preaching Christ. A Christless sermon is the merriment of hell; it is also a fearful waste of time, and it dyes with the blood of souls the skirts of the man who dares to preach it.

But too much of Christ we cannot have. Give us Christ always, Christ ever. The monotony of Christ is sweet variety, and even the unity of Christ hath in it all the elements of harmony. Christ on his cross and on his throne, in the manger and in the tomb — Christ everywhere is sweet to us. We love his name, we adore his Person, we delight to hear of his works and his words. Come, then, to Calvary awhile with me, that I may say to you, as Pilate said to the Jews outside his judgment hall, ‘Behold the man!’

Such a simple point, such a profound truth, wrapped in such a strong rhetorical punch was enough to encourage me forward writing the book, confident that Newton himself would echo Spurgeon’s answer to the question. Will Christian readers yawn at books too full of Christ’s glory? May it never be!

Newton on Preaching Unsearchable Riches

The following story was shared by John Newton in a letter to his friend, a theological liberal minister, Thomas Scott, on November 17, 1775. Newton’s role in the theological formation (transformation) of Scott is a remarkable story worth studying in itself. But for now, here’s the story Newton shared with Scott, as published in Newton’s Works (1:596-98):

A most valued friend of mine, a Clergyman now living, had for many years given a rational assent to the Gospel. He labored with much earnestness upon your plan; was very exemplary in his whole conduct; preached almost incessantly (two or three times every day in the week for years), having a parish in the remote parts of Yorkshire, of great extent, and containing five or six different hamlets at some distance from each other.

He succeeded likewise with his people so far as to break them off from outward irregularities; and was mentioned, in a letter to the Society for propagating the Gospel (which I have seen in print) as the most perfect example of a parish priest which this nation, or perhaps this age, has produced. Thus he went on for many years, teaching his people what he knew, for he could teach them no more. He lived in such retirement and recess, that he was unacquainted with the persons and principles of any who are now branded as enthusiasts and methodists.

One day, reading Ephesians 3 in his Greek Testament, his thoughts were stopped by the word ανεξιχνιαστον [unsearchable], in verse 8. He was struck, and led to think with himself to this purpose: The Apostle, when speaking of the love and riches of Christ, uses remarkable expressions; he speaks of heights, and depths, and lengths, and breadths, and unsearchables, where I seem to find every thing plain, easy, and rational. He finds mysteries where I can perceive none. Surely, though I use the words Gospel, faith, and grace, with him, my ideas of them must be different from his.

This led him to a close examination of all his Epistles, and, by the blessing of God, brought on a total change in his views and preaching. He no longer set his people to keep a law of faith; to trust in their sincerity and endeavors, upon some general hope that Christ would help them out where they came short; but he preached Christ himself, as the end of the Law for righteousness to every one that believeth.

He felt himself, and laboured to convince others, that there is no hope for a sinner but merely in the blood of Jesus; and no possibility of his doing any works acceptable to God, till he himself be first made accepted in the Beloved. Nor did he labor in vain. Now his preaching effected, not only an outward reformation, but a real change of heart, in very many of his hearers. The word was received, as Paul expresses it, not with a rational assent only, but with demonstration and power, in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance; and their endeavors to observe the Gospel precepts were abundantly more extensive, uniform, and successful, when they were brought to say, with the Apostle, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me; and the life I live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God.”

Adoption in Context

J. I. Packer rather famously wrote, “were I asked to focus the New Testament message in three words, my proposal would be adoption through propitiation, and I do not expect ever to meet a richer or more pregnant summary of the gospel than that” (Knowing God, 214). Adoption is precious, and that line from Packer is worth memorizing.

But there’s a much broader historical-redemptive context for understanding our adoption as David B. Garner explains in his excellent chapter, “The First and Last Son: Christology and Sonship in Pauline Soteriology,” published in Resurrection and Eschatology (P&R, 2008).

Here is Garner’s thick-and-rich-like-dark-chocolate conclusion. Best enjoyed in small bites:

Behind the creation of the cosmos—and most relevantly here, behind the creation of man—exists the archetypal, eternal sonship of Christ. Man, made in the image of God, a finite replica (ectype) of the eternal, ontologial Son (archetype), is, at creation, necessarily a son of God.

While the fall skewed sonship and alienated the relationship of the created son with the Father, just as man did not completely lose the divine image, he likewise did not lose the broad sense of his sonship. Still sons, but alienated and depraved, the first man and his progeny stood under the curse of their Creator/Father, and were in need of the judicial declaration of God to rectify their sonship status, and the redemptive power of God to restore their sonship constitution, indeed to vouchsafe their eschatological familial telos.

In view of the failure of the first son of God, the realization of this declaration and redeeming power by God’s grace came through the Last Adam, the Son of God par excellence, whose redemptive work provided the reversal of the curse on man and the attainment of adoption for the fallen sons of Adam. In Christ, created sons of Adam become the adopted sons of God.

While the entire redemptive-historical development and realization of redemptive sonship organically derive from his messianic sonship, Christ’s pre-temporal constitution plays the prior, ultimate role. In fact, all biblical sonship flows from an anterior, ontological principium—the eternal Son of God, in whom the ectypal, typological, and antitypical sonships find their raison d’être.

This principium of christological sonship unites the sonships of Adam, of Israel, of the incarnate Christ, and of the eschatologically adopted believer in covenantal, redemptive-historical continuity. The first Adam finitely replicates the First Son; the Last Adam fulfills the telos of the first created son. In this way, Christ is not only the eternal Son, he is also the archetypal Adam. Further, by his covenantal obedience as the Last Adam, he became the glorious, exalted, eschatological Son of God in power (Rom. 1:4).

We see therefore in Pauline soteriology an exhaustively christological cast, wherein the filial, ontological, and redemptive-historical are securely tethered in Christ the Son of God, the Source, Epicenter, and Consummator of all reality. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First Son and the Last. (279)