Recently a friend of mine wrote and asked: “Having spent so much time with your friend John Newton, what would say is the single most important thing — numero uno — he has pressed into your heart?”
Here’s my answer (posted with permission):
Brother, what a wonderful question!
Well, what strikes me most about Newton is his insistence that the Christian life is exodus (conversion), followed by forty years of desert wandering and trials and challenges (the Christian life), that all usher in the Promised Land of eternal life in the presence of Christ. In other words, most of us arrive at the doorstep of eternity by degrees and disclosures, not abruptly and in a flash.
And so many of the pressures and promises of life cloud our vision. There are many sinful things we think will be gainful in life, and so we are lured from one idol to another fleeting idol until we are made to realize the futility of this search, and how habitually we have been reaching for god substitutes. But something of this hold true for even the good things in life, like marriage and children and ministry — so God brings into our lives disruptions and trials to break us free from assuming these good gifts can supply the gain we need to manage this life with joy.
And so as time goes on, and as we find the sinful things to be empty, and even the good things in life wear thin in what we expect them to bring in truly satisfying our hearts, we begin to see something our hearts were longing for in all those things. And just as we begin to see the thinness of all the things we previously rooted our eternal hopes in, a new delight shines through the background.
As the Christian life develops and deepens we are ever weaned from this world, slowly, by increments, and through various trials and troubles and letdowns. And the good gifts in life do not become worthless but seem to take on a new character because Christ begins shining through them to us and we grow in gratitude and see all things as gifts that come to us directly from the Savior’s hand.
And as the Christian ages and spouses are taken away and even children are taken early and as ministry responsibilities pass on to others, there is a growing sense of inadequacy and a growing sense of incapability with this world that grows stronger and in a sense more bitter — a sorrow in the rejoicing.
Then finally comes a day when our time on earth draws to a close, and the beauty of Christ shines more precious to us than ever before in life. Not all of the sudden, but as though it were the culmination of forty years of wilderness preparedness, all of life leading us to a point when finally everything on earth seems to be loss compared to the greatest gain, the greatest treasure, which is to enter the unspeakable delight of the presence of our Savior. And in that moment, suddenly, through death, we find the truest gain we were seeking for all along as the doorway into the beatific presence of Christ opens to us.
I have never seen a man live with resolve in a vision of the Christian life like the one I see in the life and letters of John Newton. That’s what I take from him. He pulls away the clouds and the shrouds of what makes this life feel so enclosed by the momentary, to show that we are all being led, day-by-day, step-by-step, into the presence of our greatest gain in the universe.