June 10, 2011 by Tony Reinke
“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,” wrote sailor and poet John Masefield. That is my motto. I love the ocean. In fact I am at the beach right now with my family. But I enjoy the sea as a novice, as one who is little more than an enthusiastic spectator from the seashore. Being a Nebraskan by birth and upbringing, my direct experience with the ocean is quite shallow.
John Newton’s knowledge of the ocean was deep. It was the ocean that provided Newton his early livelihood and it was the ocean that nearly took his life. Whether it was giving or trying to take away, the ocean was a central part of his life for several years.
Even more important to Newton was the gospel. Not surprisingly, in Newton’s writings the greatness of our Savior finds metaphorical expression in the far-reaching limits of ocean. I’m sure he would have agreed with Spurgeon’s often quoted statement: “In Christ’s finished work I see an ocean of merit; my plummet finds no bottom, my eye discovers no shore.”* The ocean in many ways is a suitable metaphor.
The gospel is unfathomable, and that of course means there is always a need for us to grow in our knowledge of the Savior. By grace this is possible—by observation this is necessary.
Some knowledge of Christ indeed they [Christians] have, which is their differencing character from the world. How small a portion! That they know him a little, is plain, because they love him and trust him; but how little, is plain likewise, because their love is so faint, and their trust so feeble.
Newton elaborates on what these weaknesses expose.
Their doubts, fears, complaints, and backslidings, are so many mournful proofs that they are but poorly acquainted with him; and sufficiently evidence, that a great part of what we account our knowledge, is not real and experimental, but notional only.
The literal sense of what we read concerning Jesus, is attainable by study and human teaching; but the spiritual import can be received only from Him who teaches the heart, who increases it in us by the various exercises and dispensations we pass through; and the best have much more to learn than they have already attained.…
The knowledge of Christ, in the present life, may be compared to the knowledge that a shepherd has of the sea, from having viewed it at the top of a cliff. In a sense, it may be said he has seen the sea; but how little has he seen, in comparison of what lies beyond the reach of his eye! How inadequate is such a prospect to give him an idea answerable to the length, and breadth, and depth, of the immense ocean!**
Yes; or compared to a vacationing Nebraskan’s knowledge of the ocean. It is one thing to stand on the pebbled shore and to look out at a few miles of ocean, but another thing altogether to sail over the top of, or to dive down into the heart of, the wine-dark sea.
So it is with our knowledge of Christ in this life. Saving knowledge of Christ is not an exhaustive knowledge. Newton helps us see this point in two ways.
First, the more we learn the more we see how much more we have to learn. And our ignorance of Christ is behind our waverings, our doubts, our fears, our backslidings. Our propensity to sin reveals the shallowness of our knowledge of the Savior. We must press on not just for more learning, but for more of the experiential knowledge of the gospel, the knowledge that changes our attitudes, our thinking, and our behavior.
Second, a complete knowledge of Christ, like the majority of the ocean, remains beyond the reach of the eye. Right now our knowledge of the Savior is partial and fallible; one day our knowledge of Christ will be full and face-to-face (1 Corinthians 13:12).
A vacationer on the shore, a shepherd on the cliff—neither can see the breadth and length and height and depth of the ocean. Nor do we yet fully comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love for us shown in the gospel (Ephesians 3:18–19). Like a wide-eyed shepherd looking out from a window seat on a clear day from 40,000 feet over the ocean, one day we will more fully comprehend the dimensions (1 John 3:2).
And we will be stunned.
Tony Reinke serves as the editorial and research assistant to C.J. Mahaney. Reading Newton’s Mail is a series of blog posts reflecting on various published letters written by John Newton (1725–1807), the onetime captain of a slave trading ship—a self-described apostate, blasphemer, and infidel, who was eventually converted by grace. Newton is most famous for authoring the hymn “Amazing Grace,” or maybe for helping William Wilberforce put an end to the African slave trade in Britain. Less legendarily, Newton faithfully pastored two churches for 43 years, a fruitful period of his life when a majority of his letters were written. Reading Newton’s Mail is published on Fridays here on the Cheap Seats blog.
* Charles Spurgeon, sermon: “Bread Enough and to Spare,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 17 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1872), 389.
** John Newton, The Works of the Rev. John Newton, 3rd ed. (London: Hamilton, Adams, & Co., 1820; Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1985), 2:417–418.