John Newton: The Tough Roots of His Habitual Tenderness -- By: John Piper

Journal: Southern Baptist Journal of Theology
Volume: SBJT 06:4 (Winter 2002)
Article: John Newton: The Tough Roots of His Habitual Tenderness
Author: John Piper

John Newton: The Tough Roots of His Habitual Tenderness

John Piper

John Piper has been the senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota since 1980. He has the Dr. Theol. in New Testament from the University of Munich and taught for six years at Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is the author of a number of books and articles, including God’s Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards (Crossway).


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 seacaptain 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.1 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 (Phil 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.”2 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 s...

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