John Newton was born July 24, 1725 in London to a godly mother and an irreligious, sea-faring father. His mother died when he was six. Left mainly to himself, Newton became a debauched sailor—a miserable outcast on the coast of West Africa for two years; a slave-trading sea-captain until an epileptic seizure ended his career; a well-paid “surveyor of tides” in Liverpool; a loved pastor of two congregations in Olney and London for 43 years; a devoted husband to Mary for 40 years until she died in 1790; a personal friend to William Wilberforce, Charles Simeon, Henry Martyn, William Carey, John Wesley, George Whitefield; and, finally, the author of the most famous hymn in the English language, Amazing Grace. He died on December 21, 1807 at the age of 82.
So why am I interested in this man? Because one of my great desires is to see Christian pastors be as strong and durable as redwood trees, and as tender and fragrant as a field of clover—unshakably rugged in the “defense and confirmation” of the truth (Philippians 1:7), and relentlessly humble and patient and merciful in dealing with people. Ever since I came to Bethlehem in 1980 this vision of ministry has beckoned me because, soon after I came, I read through Matthew and Mark and put in the margin of my Greek New Testament a “to” (for tough) and a “te” (for tender) beside all of Jesus’ words and deeds that fit one category or the other. What a mixture he was! No one ever spoke like this man.
It seems to me that we are always falling off the horse on one side or the other in this matter of being tough and tender—wimping out on truth when we ought to be lion-hearted, or wrangling with anger when we ought to be weeping. I know it’s a risk to take up this topic and John Newton in a setting like this, where some of you need a good (tender!) kick in the pants to be more courageous, and others of you confuse courage with what William Cowper called “a furious and abusive zeal.” Oh how rare are the pastors who speak with a tender heart and have a theological backbone of steel.
I dream of such pastors. I would like to be one someday. A pastor whose might in the truth is matched by his meekness. Whose theological acumen is matched by his manifest contrition. Whose heights of intellect are matched by his depths of humility. Yes, and the other way around! A pastor whose relational warmth is matched by his rigor of study, whose bent toward mercy is matched by the vigilance of his biblical discernment, and whose sense of humor is exceeded by the seriousness of his calling.
I dream of great defenders of true doctrine who are mainly known for the delight they have in God and the joy in God that they bring to the people of God—who enter controversy, when necessary, not because they love ideas and arguments, but because they love Christ and the church.
There’s a picture of this in Acts 15. Have you ever noticed the amazing unity of things here that we tend to tear apart? A false doctrine arises in Antioch: some begin to teach, “Unless you are circumcised . . . you cannot be saved” (v. 1). Paul and Barnabas weigh in with what Luke calls a “not a little dissension and debate” (sta,sewj kai. zhth,sewj ouvk ovli,ghj, v. 2). So the church decides to send them off to Jerusalem to get the matter settled. And amazingly, verse 3 says that on their way to the great debate they were “describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to all the brethren” (v. 3).
This is my vision: The great debaters on their way to a life-and-death show down of doctrinal controversy, so thrilled by the mercy and power of God in the gospel, that they are spreading joy everywhere they go. Oh how many there are today who tell us that controversy only kills joy and ruins the church; and oh how many others there are who, on their way to the controversy, feel no joy and spread no joy in the preciousness of Christ and his salvation. One of the aims of this conference since 1988 has been to say over and over again: it is possible and necessary to be as strong and rugged for truth as a redwood and as tender and fragrant for Christ as a field of clover.