February 11, 2011 by Tony Reinke
Christians have a long list of daily priorities. Two of the most important priorities are voiced in these two questions:
- How do I focus my life on God’s priorities in the midst of such a busy and complex life?
- How do I grow in demonstrating deeper love to others in the midst of what is often a very self-centered life?
On the surface, these questions may seem unrelated, but for John Newton simplicity and sincerity were indivisible.
For Newton, these two topics merge in the Apostle Paul’s proclamation: “For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience, that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God” (2 Cor. 1:12).
From this passage Newton coined an important axiom for the Christian life: vertical simplicity in our relationship with God leads to horizontal sincerity in our relationships with others.
Let me explain how he makes this connection.
To be simple is to be single-minded, to have one aim, no hidden agendas, and no selfish ambition. Simplicity is another word for “pure devotion,” and it is evidenced by a fear of God in all of life (2 Corinthians 11:3, Colossians 3:22).
The simple heart is revealed in two ways: simplicity of intention and simplicity of dependence.
The Christian seeks to live with simplicity of intention. By this Newton means that the Christian has “but one leading aim,” and it is this: “to yield ourselves to him [God], so as to place our happiness in his favor, and to make his glory and will the ultimate scope of all our actions.” The Christian can (and should) peer through the busyness and fog of life with the single aim of pleasing God in all things. This is simplicity of intention.
Secondly, the Christian seeks to live with simplicity of dependence. This is a “faith in the power and promises of God” that “inspires a noble simplicity, and casts every care upon him, who is able and has engaged to support and provide.” This simple-hearted dependence is the fruit of the gospel in the heart.
The true simplicity, which is the honor and strength of a believer, is the effect of a spiritual perception of the truths of the Gospel. It arises from, and bears a proportion to, the sense we have of our own unworthiness, the power and grace of Christ, and the greatness of our obligations to him. So far as our knowledge of these things is vital and experimental, it will make us simple-hearted.
As we look to our own spiritual weaknesses, our obligations to God, our desperate need for the grace of God and the gospel, we begin to see our dependence. This need brings us to wholehearted trust in God. This is what it means to live in simplicity before God.
Simplicity is forever. This single aim—to live eternally for God’s glory, and to live in full dependence upon him—is what draws together all the Christians on earth, all the Christians in glory, and all the angels in heaven, into a unified chorus of eternal praise to the Savior (Revelation 5:6–14).* And it’s a simplicity we need for today.
But what about the other question, the one about displaying genuine love toward one another? The ability to love with sincerity is bound up with a life of simplicity. Newton writes, “I need not take time to prove, that the effect of simplicity will be sincerity.” Of course not. Simplicity in our aim (glorifying God alone) will influence our treatment of others.
Their behavior will be all of a piece, because they have but one design. They will speak the truth in love, observe a strict punctuality in their dealings, and do unto others they would others should do unto them; because these things are essential to their great aim of glorifying and enjoying their Lord.
This explains why for Newton, vertical simplicity in our relationship with God leads to horizontal sincerity in our relationships with others. The outward expression of sincere love hinges upon our simplicity before God. Or to put it another way, the drive behind our love for others is a singular life purpose to live for God’s glory.
May God give us more of this simple-hearted dependence upon the gospel, that we may more and more echo Paul’s words. May we strive to live as single-minded Christians who honor God by loving and serving others from a heart of sincerity.
Note: As an aside, this same theme rings in the missional motives of Jonathan Edwards. To read more about how vertical simplicity creates a horizontal compassion for the lost, see John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad! (Baker, 2010), chapter 6: “A Passion for God’s Supremacy and Compassion for Man’s Soul: Jonathan Edwards on the Unity of Motives for World Missions.”
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.
Primary source letter: John Newton, Works of John Newton (London: 1820), 1:298–304. Secondary reference: *Works, 4:571.