The Dawn of Redeeming Grace: Daily Devotions for Advent by Sinclair Ferguson. The Good Book Company. 160 pages. 2021
Sinclair Ferguson follows up his 2018 Advent devotional Love Came Down at Christmas with The Dawn of Redeeming Grace, based on the first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel. Ferguson tells us that Advent is all about the new beginning God has made possible by sending his Son for us and that Matthew’s opening words are good news for anyone who needs a new beginning.
Each of the twenty-four devotions ends with the lyrics of a hymn and a prayer. I enjoyed reading and discussing this book with my wife Tammy and also with a group of friends this past Christmas. I would recommend it to you for your devotional reading during the next Advent season.
As Christmas approaches, the author invites us to join him in exploring what Matthew says about those days that marked the dawn of redeeming grace and about how Christ’s light breaks into our lives today.
Below are my favorite quotes from the book:
- Written into his genealogy is this message: God keeps his promises; he knows what he is doing; he knows exactly where he is going; and he is able to rescue us even from past sin and shame.
- God guides our lives by teaching us to live according to his will revealed in Scripture. We are to apply its principles and precepts to the circumstances and situations in which we find ourselves.
- What we see in Joseph’s life is a striking illustration of a permanent principle: the Christ we receive by faith is also the Christ who shapes our life of faith.
- Lord, reassure us today that we have nothing to fear if we live in your presence and do your will. You have promised never to leave us and never to forsake us. Give us all the help we will need today to be obedient to your word. Amen.
- I was taught as a child that joy is spelt Jesus first, Others next, and Yourself last. If you want to experience true joy this Christmas, then that’s the place to start.
- So today, in light of the journey of the wise men, take a moment to trace your own journey, and to give thanks for the people and events that combined to bring you to worship Christ.
- It is possible to know the Bible well and yet to be tone deaf to its message.
- In this Christmas season—as we sing the same carols and listen to the same Bible passages, and hear sermons on the same familiar themes, and follow the same traditions as we have for many years—we are perhaps in more danger than at any other time of year of saying the right things with our lips without really engaging our hearts.
- The important thing is not how spectacular God’s work is but how effective it has been. All that matters is that we have come to Christ, and have found in him what we were looking for, even if we did not at first know what that really was. And that is a reason to be profoundly thankful.
- When we see Christ, and when we recognize him as King, we too will fall down and worship him, and offer to him the richest treasures of our life—we lay at his feet the brightest and best of the things we hold dear.
- There was something unique about the wise men’s experience. But we can also trace a pattern. An awakening takes place, and then a drawing, and then a discovering, and then a worshipping.
- Christmas has a way of bringing our grief into focus. We know families for whom this year’s festivities will be touched with sadness.
- It is a wonderful thing at Christmas time to want to give your children a home where Jesus is welcomed and an example of a life devoted to him.
- Jesus was the King born in Bethlehem who would become the Savior crucified at Calvary. The cross was the destiny of the newborn infant. It is the watermark on every page of the gospel story.
- The Christmas story was heading to the Cross from the very beginning.
To Seek and to Save: Daily Reflections on the Road to the Cross by Sinclair Ferguson. The Good Book Company. 162 pages. 2020
This book, by one of our most respected theologians, will remind readers of his excellent 2018 Advent devotional Love Came Down at Christmas: Daily Readings for Advent. In that book, the author took readers through 1 Corinthians 13. In this new book, he takes us through Luke’s Gospel, beginning with chapter 9, verse 51, in which Luke records all the events in Jesus’ life in the form of a journey to Jerusalem. This travelogue eventually brings us to Calvary and to the empty tomb. In his travelogue, Luke describes Jesus’ encounters with a wide variety of individuals and groups of people. The author tells us that there was something they all had in common: they were either drawn to him in their need, or repelled from him by their pride. No one was neutral.
In this series of short reflections for Lent, the author lets us listen in on most of these conversations. Each encounter will build up a picture of the journey’s real purpose; for, as he tells one man he meets along the way, Jesus is “the Son of Man [who] came to seek and to save the lost” (19:10). The key issues for all of those who encounter Jesus in Luke’s Gospel are these:
- Do they know why he is on the road in the first place?
- Will they follow him as his disciple?
The author tells us that this Lent, Jesus asks those same questions of us.
These readings will fit nicely in with your daily devotional readings. They will be equally helpful in preparing your heart for the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus, or really at any other time. If you choose to use it for the former, you will start the readings on “Ash Wednesday”, which falls on February 26 in 2020. After each reading is a “Reflect” section with questions, and a time to “Respond” to what you have read.
I recommend this book for your personal or family devotional reading.
In the Year of Our Lord: Reflections on Twenty Centuries of Church History by Sinclair B. Ferguson. Reformation Trust Publishing. 229 pages. 2018
In this book, Sinclair Ferguson, one of today’s most respected theologians, gives us an overview of church history in twenty short easy to read chapters. The book is dedicated to Vesta Sproul and in deep gratitude for R.C. Sproul.
The author tells us that that book is intended to be a very simple but informative, encouraging, and enjoyable introduction to some members of “the Christian family”—the worldwide, history-deep, eternity-long church of Jesus Christ. He tells us that it is a book of people, stories, words, and songs—a kind of family narrative accompanied by a songbook. It is not a history of the church, rather, it is but fragments of her story. It is not the work of a professional historian but of a family member. The books looks at the period of first-century Jerusalem to the present day.
The author tells us that none of the figures featured in the book were perfect. Some of them did much good, wrote much that is helpful, and demonstrated enormous courage. On the other hand, they also did harm by their inadequate or confused teaching about the Christian faith or by the style in which they lived it. He tells us that what we can honor and imitate we should, but we ought never to be blinded by unthinking admiration. Throughout the book he includes some helpful lessons we might take to heart for the life of the present and future church.
Each chapter opens with a reading from that particular century. That is followed by a brief narrative of individuals and events from that century. Each chapter ends with a hymn written that was written in that particular century.
The origin of the book comes from a series of talks the author delivered at the church he was serving in the closing months of 1999.
I thoroughly enjoyed this historical overview and would recommend it to you. Below are 10 helpful quotes from the book:
- As we read about the Christian centuries and live in the contemporary world, we need to learn this: gospel advance always evokes opposition. That is as true in our personal lives as it is in the life of the church.
- Jesus Christ has built His church through the centuries by permitting suffering and martyrdom.
- It is becoming increasingly clear in our society that while the lordship of Jesus Christ may be permitted as a private religious conviction, for an individual to act in a manner consistent with that conviction may well contravene laws created by the state. Confessing Jesus as Lord is permitted, but to express His lordship may be a different issue altogether.
- The early Christians knew that martyrdom could never ultimately kill either the believer or the church. But false teaching always does.
- Put simply, the new assumption is this: since we cannot have certain knowledge of God (if He exists at all), all we are left with is that all religions are descriptions of religious experience. Ultimately, they all are doing the same thing, some better than others. But more than that we cannot say. Thus, in our modern world, Christianity and Islam are seen as two different forms of the same basic religion, two expressions of man’s “spiritual side.”
- Islam is a way of submission and good works. There is no good news there. By contrast, the gospel is a message of God’s grace, of faith and hope and love—a message about God’s seeking us and finding us.
- When the church begins to have power and influence not merely in society but over society, it tends to become more interested in its own voice being heard than in the word of the gospel being proclaimed.
- How unnerving, therefore, to see churches today with massive indebtedness for constructing hugely impressive church buildings, organizing services as though they were concerts, and apparently measuring the “quality of worship” by a grid appropriate to performance rather than faith. And, in most instances, either having no second service on the Lord’s Day, or one that is vastly diminished in attendance.
- Throughout the history of the church, it has always been those who have given themselves to the simplicities of day-by-day devotion to Jesus Christ who have made the deepest and most enduring impression for Him in the world.
- We cannot avoid being citizens of two worlds. But we endanger the gospel if we confuse these two worlds. And doubtless, to some extent, this was true of the Crusades.
Maturity: Growing Up and Going On in the Christian Life by Sinclair Ferguson. Banner of Truth. 248 pages. 2019
Sinclair Ferguson is probably my favorite living theologian. His latest book, one of the best I’ve read this year, is a significantly revised edition of his first book, published in the UK in 1980 as Add to Your Faith, and in the U.S. as Taking the Christian Life Seriously in the U.S. in 1981. The book would be appropriate for believers in any stage of their Christian walk.
The author tells us that the writers of the New Testament had a deep concern to see Christians grow to spiritual maturity. Mature Christians possess the qualities which only Jesus Christ can produce, because he alone has exhibited them perfectly. We must go on to maturity, because Jesus went on to maturity.
The author spends a lot of time in Hebrews, which he calls “the letter about maturity”. In that book, Jesus’ experience is seen as the foundation for our going on to maturity. In addition to the teaching of Hebrews, the author tells us that we should not be surprised that there are frequent references to the importance of spiritual maturity in Paul’s letters. The author tells us that If maturity was the great goal of the apostles’ ministry, then it ought to be a goal in our own lives too, and the deep desire of our hearts. He also looks at Psalm 119, which he refers to as “the psalm of maturity”, Psalm 131 and also Ephesians 6.
Subjects that the author touches on are hindrances to maturity, indwelling sin, spiritual discernment, the Father’s pruning, abiding in Christ and living in union with Him, God’s guidance, assurance of salvation, suffering, tests, trials and temptations, opposition and perseverance.
Throughout the book the author refers to many heroes of the faith such as John Bunyan, J.C. Ryle, Anselm, Augustine, Calvin, Luther, John Owen, Robert Murray M‘Cheyne, and many more.
The author tells us that there is no easy way to maturity, no shortcuts. The path to maturity is: Lay aside your own ambitions. Lay aside your own wisdom. Lay aside your own self-assurance. Make the Lord your ambition. Make the Lord himself your hope and your only wisdom.
I highlighted a number of passages in this excellent book. Here are 20 of my favorite quotes:
- Ability to focus our gaze, fill our minds, and devote our hearts to Jesus Christ is a basic element in real Christian growth. Inability to do so is a sign of immaturity.
- Secret failure cannot remain hidden. If we do not deal with our indwelling sin, it will eventually catch up with us.
- Grace, not man-made rules and regulations, produces spiritual maturity.
- Growing in spiritual discernment is an essential element in spiritual maturity.
- The Father’s pruning includes his providences and interventions in our lives, which are designed to produce in us mature and well-rounded Christian character.
- In a sense our Lord bore more fruit through his dying than through his teaching, and through going to the cross than through his coming to the manger.
- Abiding in Christ, living in union with him, drawing all our spiritual resources from him, involves allowing his word to ‘abide’ in us, that is to fill our minds and affections and dominate our lives.
- Feeding our minds with the word of Christ is essential if our hearts are to be filled with the joy of Christ.
- Applying the precepts and principles of Scripture with the Spirit’s help leads to a life of obedience and ultimately to Christlikeness.
- God has made it possible for his children to enjoy assurance. More than that, as a loving Father he wants us to be sure of his love for us.
- Faith alone justifies, through Christ alone. It is Christ alone who saves through faith. Assurance is our enjoyment of that justification and salvation.
- If God has given his Son for our salvation, we can be sure he will withhold nothing from us that is for our good.
- For rather than destroy the purposes of God, afflictions in our lives form an important part of those purposes. Ultimately, they serve to build rather than demolish the believer’s assurance of salvation.
- Assurance of salvation is assurance of Jesus. He becomes everything to us.
- Knowing that the Lord will lead and guide us is one of the great stabilizing blessings of the Christian life.
- Wanting God’s guidance means seeking his will and not my own.
- God’s guidance in our lives today is related to his long-term ongoing work of transforming us. It is shaped to our growth in grace. His goal in the specific guidance we seek is secondary to the life-transformation he is determined to pursue.
- The way God’s sovereign will unfolds for us is through our knowledge of, and submission to, his revealed will.
- Sin is the internal enemy of spiritual growth.
- For the more we see our sin the more wonderful the grace of Christ will seem to be.
20 more great quotes:
- If you become a Christian, you must both expect and be prepared for opposition.
- Growth in grace and the conquest of sin come only when we allow ourselves to be exposed before God, hide nothing from him, confess our wanderings, are ashamed of our own failure, and long for a clean heart and a new spirit (Psa. 51:10).
- We cannot embrace the cross, or, more accurately, embrace the Christ who died on it and now lives forever, without renouncing sin.
- Tests, trials, and temptations abound in the Christian life. If we are to grow to maturity, we must learn how to handle them.
- In temptation we seem to be offered a more abundant life but wrapped within its folds lies death.
- God works in our lives through temptation. So, for us times of temptation can be means, not of destruction, but of sanctification.
- In God’s purposes, when we are tempted, we discover the truth about ourselves; we learn to think less of ourselves and more of our Savior.
- The Lord has promised to hear us; he will not turn a deaf ear to our cries for help. The dependence that is thus produced in our hearts, as we later discover, is simply one further way in which he brings us through temptations to maturity. After all, he makes everything work together for our good.
- How easily our witness is marred and nullified because we fail to be the son or daughter, parent, husband, wife, colleague or boss that God has called us to be!
- What the gospel provides for us then is the armor which Christ himself wore in his battles with the enemy. When engaged in conflict with Satan those who are in Christ wear his armor.
- Wearing the breastplate of righteousness means knowing this: I can never be more justified than I was the first moment I trusted Christ. And I can never be any less justified than Jesus. Nor can I be one whit less justified than the greatest believer who has ever lived.
- The New Testament teaches us that suffering is part and parcel of the Christian life.
- God uses tribulations to separate the spiritual chaff in our lives from the spiritual wheat.
- The believer does not interpret events in his life by the wisdom of men but by the word and wisdom of God.
- Afflictions focus our attention on the things that really matter, and thus restore us to single-mindedness and recalibrate our love for Christ.
- How slow we are to learn that God is willing to go to any lengths to transform us. No matter what it costs he has set his heart on us. The cross proves his determination. He means to make us like his Son, Jesus Christ. For this is the goal of our maturity.
- When we go through seasons of suffering, we should not forget that we are living our Christian life on the battlefield on which Satan is at war with the kingdom of God.
- True service is always marked by a recognition that we live for and serve others, not ourselves.
- Clearly perseverance is a basic feature of Christian living. Persevering is as important as initiation; continuing is as important as beginning.
- All sin, every sin, sin in any shape or form must be put off.
Some Pastors and Teachers: Reflecting a Biblical Vision of What Every Minister is Called to Be by Sinclair Ferguson. Banner of Truth. 824 pages. 2017
Sinclair Ferguson is one of today’s most respected Reformed theologians. In fact the late R.C. Sproul called him his favorite theologian. Anytime Dr. Ferguson publishes a new book it is going to get my attention. This eight-hundred plus page volume is no ordinary book, and will be a welcome addition to any pastor’s library.
The book, which covers many of the themes and tasks of Christian ministry, is broken into five major sections, which include 39 chapters. The major sections are:
- Pastors and Teachers: Three Johns
- John Calvin: Pastor-Teacher
- Puritans: Pastors and Teachers
- The Pastor and Teaching
- The Pastor and Preaching
The title of the book comes from Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:11. The author tells us that many of these chapters were first published in relatively obscure places in the context of busy pastoral ministry. Now, he sees how the essays seem to self-select and rearrange themselves into a coherent whole. He hopes that these pages will encourage other pastors to stretch themselves beyond their normal pulpit or lectern preparation and accept invitations to study, speak and write on subjects outside of their norm.
He encourages pastors and teachers to utilize their gifts for fellow pastors. He sees this book as representing some of the gifts that the Lord has given him for others who have an interest in and a concern for the ministry of the gospel.
Although this is a massive volume, each chapter is an entity on its own. The author states that readers can enter and leave at any point they choose as no chapter is completely dependent on the previous chapter or any other chapter in the book. Though a seminary graduate, I’m a ruling elder not a preaching pastor. The arrangement of this book will allow me to focus on those sections that focus on teaching, rather than preaching, for example.
I look forward to benefiting from the wisdom contained in these pages for many years. This would be an excellent addition to any minister’s library.
Deserted by God? by Sinclair B. Ferguson. Banner of Truth Trust. 2013 edition. 182 pages.
Sinclair Ferguson is one of the most respected Reformed theologians of our day. He has been a pastor and seminary professor in churches and seminaries around the world. Among other roles he has currently, he is a Teaching Fellow for Ligonier Ministries and a regular speaker at their conferences where I have seen him speak several times. I’ve also read several of his books.
In this book, he addresses the issue of people having the sense that God has deserted them. He writes that the subject is deep and in many respects mysterious, belonging to the darker side of spiritual experience. But he believes it is a subject of greater importance than we often care to acknowledge and it seems that more and more people struggle spiritually. He writes that the psalmists were our brothers in affliction, and his prayer is that the consolation God has brought to many others through their words may be as real for us today as it was for them.
Dr. Ferguson writes that the book discusses what our forefathers in the Christian church called ‘spiritual desertion’, the sense of God having forgotten us that leaves us feeling isolated and directionless. He believes that many Christians know what it is to feel at the end of their rope. The book will not remove all of their difficulties, but it may be a helping hand on the way and provide encouragement.
The format that the author uses, studies in the Psalms, is not accidental. Each chapter draws attention to experiences that did, or could, lead one to feel that God had deserted him. The Psalms show us how the people of God have grappled with their questions, doubts, desertions, and how God lifted them up and brought them into new light and joy.
As I was reading this book I was also reading through the Psalms and also using a devotional on the Psalms from Tim and Kathy Keller; it was a perfect time to read this wonderful book. Many themes – such as repentance, purity and contentment – are included in its pages.
If I Should Die Before I Wake: What’s Beyond this Life? By K. Scott Oliphint and Sinclair Ferguson. Christian Focus. 128 pages. 2014 Edition.
This book was first published in 1995 and updated in 2004. This edition was published by Christian Focus in 2014. The book’s title comes from the two-hundred year old children’s prayer, a prayer for mercy and for grace at the time of death.
The book discusses the subject of death and asks the question: ‘Why do you expect to get to heaven?’ and looks at both true and false answers. The book helps explain what the Bible has to say about the future and about what heaven is like.
The authors state that the majority of people believe in heaven, and also believe they have a ‘good-to-excellent’ chance of going there. However, some people may admit that they are rather vague about how God’s assessment will be made. After all, in our modern rights-oriented society it has become unthinkable that we might not go to heaven when we die. When asked why they expect to go to heaven after death, most people answer in such terms as: ‘Because of what I have been and done.’ The authors also tell us that a poll indicated that the most offensive teaching of the Christian faith is that Jesus Christ is the only way to the Father and therefore to heaven.
The fact that people feel at liberty to flaunt the laws of God as they do is itself an indication that the judgment of God has already begun. God’s response to our sin is appropriate to our response to Him. His judgments are completely righteous in this respect. The authors state that the New Testament is clear that each one of us will be judged by God on the basis of what we have done.
The authors state that Heaven is the presence of God and that being in heaven means living with Him forever. Jesus said that He is the One through whom we must come in order to be with the Father. This is the essential condition for our going to heaven. The authors emphasize that those who hope that they can enter heaven in some other way than through His grace will be sorely disappointed (Matt. 7:21-23).
But some religions teach that the way to heaven is by our own efforts. Those efforts may take the form of personal discipline and sacrifice, humanitarian acts, sincerity or honesty in one’s beliefs, or even gifts to charity. But Jesus tells us that there is nothing we can contribute to our salvation. No matter what we offer to God it will never be adequate enough to compensate for our sins.
The Bible has much to say about heaven, one of the most basic being that God is present with his people. In heaven Christians will experience a deepened relationship with Christ.
People wonder what our bodies will be like in heaven. The Apostle Paul tells us that our bodies will be spiritual, glorious, and unrecognizable.
Some people want to know if we will be able to recognize each other in the future. The authors tells us that the resurrection of the body implies that we will be identifiably the very same persons we are now, even though we will not be constituted of precisely the same physical substance.
But what about those who do not belong to Christ, who do not trust him as the way, the truth, and the life? The authors tell us that the New Testament is clear that there will be those who will one day go to the left hand of Christ. They will be forever lost. Their destiny is described by Christ himself in a series of vivid, terrible pictures. Jesus also teaches that there are graduations of punishment for the lost. This is the final operation of God’s perfect justice.
Some, most notably the respected theologian John Stott, have believed that the lost simply cease to exist, usually referred to as annihilationism. The authors do not believe that the idea of annihilation is supported by the scriptures and include a detailed appendix on the subject to support their argument.
The authors ask how we can develop a Christian attitude toward death, and state that the Christian views death as a defeated enemy. They see death as the entrance to a yet-more-glorious life that gives a clearer vision of Jesus. The Christian also looks forward to a wonderful reunion with those who have already gone to be with Christ.
The authors communicate in a very readable manner on these important topics. This would be a good book to read and discuss with those who may have questions.
ICHTHUS: Jesus Christ, God’s Son, the Saviour by Sinclair Ferguson and Derek Thomas. Banner of Truth. 166 pages. 2015
The authors, two pastors and good friends who have known each other for 40 years, are both Ligonier Ministries Teaching Fellows and recently for a period of two years served a congregation in South Carolina. They write that the symbol ICHTHUS is the Greek word for fish. More importantly, the five letters which spell ICHTHUS are also the first letters of a simple confession of faith “Jesus Christ is the Son of God and Saviour.”
In the final weeks of their time together at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina, the two preached a series of sermons on the high points in Christ’s life and ministry. This wonderful book is the written form of those sermons. Ferguson and Thomas chose as the high points in Christ’s life and ministry those noted in pastor and hymn writer Benjamin Russell Hanby’s hymn “ICHTHUS”. Interestingly, Hanby also wrote the popular Christmas carol “Up on the Housetop”. Each chapter of the book begins with a verse from the hymn and the corresponding passage from Scripture that will be discussed in that chapter.
These sermons can be read devotionally. The authors write that the book is for everyone and anyone – believers and non-believers. I believe both will profit from the reading of this book.
Here are 10 great quotes from the book that I would like to share with you:
- We need to see him as he really is and not as we imagine he was. Not as a “great moral teacher”, or as a convenience to help us along in life, but as the inextinguishable Light who shines in the darkness.
- In summary then, Jesus’ baptism is an act of obedience. In submission to the Father’s plan he is publicly identified as the covenant-breaker who is taking the place of Adam and his posterity. He becomes the sin-bearer before the judgment seat of God.
- Yes, there is a great deal we can learn about how to respond to temptation from the temptations of Jesus. But that is not Luke’s point. He wants us to fix our eyes on Jesus.
- We have a thousand different needs. But at the end of the day, there is only one need. The satisfying of this one need will relegate all our other needs to the margins. It is to see the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ, and to know that “he is able to save to the uttermost those to draw near to God through him”.
- The crucifixion was in the deepest sense a liturgy of shame, but it was also a fulfillment of the Scriptures.
- Jesus’ ascension to heaven appears in the very earliest forms of the (Apostle’s) Creed. Yet perhaps this is the most frequently neglected element in Jesus’ ministry.
- The Ascension is about the kingship of Jesus.
- The Ascension therefore is the forerunner of Pentecost. And Pentecost is Christ’s assurance to us that he has kept the promises he made in the upper room on the night of his betrayal. He has not forgotten us now that he is ascended.
- The return of Christ is the next great redemptive moment on the divine calendar. Whatever God may do between now and then does not form the horizon on which we are to fix our gaze. No, the Ascension teaches us to keep our eyes fixed heavenward.
- How marvelous it is that although we are brought to faith one by one, on different dates and in different times in history, we will all be transformed, glorified, on the same day, at the same time! No Christian will be left out. None can arrive early, none will come late.
The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance – Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters by Sinclair Ferguson. Crossway. 256 pages. 2016
Sinclair Ferguson is one of the most respected Reformed theologians of our day. In the past few months he has released three new books, with this one being the latest and arguably the most important. It is a challenging read, theologically deep and heavily footnoted. However, if you persevere, you will be highly rewarded. It is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time and although early in the year, will be a strong candidate for my book of the year. While many of Ferguson’s books are written for the church as a whole, I believe this book will most benefit pastors.
Tim Keller writes the Foreword for the book, and his contribution may well be worth the cost of the book. He writes that “One of the striking features of the Marrow Dispute is that supporters of the Marrow were accused of defending antinomianism, and at least some of its critics were, in turn, suspected of legalism—even though all parties had subscribed to what the Westminster Confession says about justification and works.”
The Marrow Controversy is an event that not many will be familiar with. It occurred nearly 300 years ago in a small Scottish town and centered on Edward Fisher’s book The Marrow of Modern Divinity. The core issue was whether or not a person must first repent of his sins before coming to Christ. The Marrow Men agreed with Fisher’s book, while their opponents did not.
Ferguson starts with the Marrow Controversy and then applies it to our present day. Keller writes “Against the background and features of that older dispute, he wants to help us understand the character of this perpetual problem—one that bedevils the church today.”
The books tells us that legalism and antinomianism are much more than doctrinal positions and that the root of both legalism and antinomianism is the same. It also tells us that the cure for both legalism and antinomianism is the gospel, and a “fuller, biblical, and profound understanding of grace and of the character of God.”
Ferguson tells of a speaking request that came to him in Scotland in 1980 asking him to speak about the Marrow Controversy at a pastors’ conference in the United States. He states that since that time many have told him that they have listened to those messages. That speaking engagement was the genesis of this book.
He tells us that on the surface the “Marrow Controversy was about how we preach the gospel; what role, if any, God’s law and our obedience play in the Christian life; and what it means to have assurance of salvation.”
Ferguson tells us that the book is not a study of The Marrow of Modern Divinity, although reference is made to it. It is not a historical analysis of the Marrow Controversy, although that serves as the background to it. It is also not a study of the theology of Thomas Boston, although he is mentioned and quoted often in the book. Rather, it is “an extended reflection on theological and pastoral issues that arose in the early eighteenth century, viewed from the framework of the present day.” He writes that central elements in the Marrow Controversy remain some of the most important pastoral issues of today.
The book includes themes such as gospel grace, legalism, antinomianism, assurance, and union with Christ. The book concludes with an appendix “Thomas Boston on Faith”. There is much that we can learn in these pages. I read the book rather quickly (given all of the footnotes). It is certainly worth repeated readings.
Child in the Manger: The True Meaning of Christmas by Sinclair Ferguson. The Banner of Truth Trust. 203 Pages. 2015.
Sinclair Ferguson is one of today’s best Reformed theologians. I have read many of his books and heard him speak many times at the Ligonier National Conference. He has been a pastor and seminary professor in numerous churches and seminaries throughout the world, and is also a Ligonier Teaching Fellow. I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed and was blessed by this new book.
Dr. Ferguson writes that this book sets out to explore the question of the real meaning of Christmas. He tells us that when we find the answer we realize that it isn’t only for the Christmas season. He states that at the center of history stands the person of Jesus Christ. He does so because he is at the center of God’s story. Christ who is the creator of all things has entered his own creation in order to become our Savior. That is what gives Christmas meaning. It is what gives history and our lives meaning too.
He tells us that the meaning of Christmas is this: the Light of the world has come into the darkness of the world, in order to bring light into the darkness of our hearts, and to illuminate them with the grace of forgiveness. He tells us that Christmas is not coming, but it has already come. The Word already has been made flesh. He already has lived, bled, died, and risen again for us. Now all that remains is to receive him. For Jesus is the meaning of Christmas.
He tells us that Philippians 2:5-11, which he calls a bold, even a daring passage, tells the inside story of Christmas. As we mature as Christians, we begin to count others as more significant than ourselves. This is what the Christmas gospel does. Or to state it differently, this is what the Christ of Christmas does. But he does so only when we discover the true meaning of Christmas.
The author tells us that the New Testament does not obligate Christians to celebrate Christmas. However, he writes, the wisdom of the church throughout the ages suggests that if we do not celebrate the incarnation of Christ deliberately at some point in the year we may be in danger of doing it all too rarely, perhaps not at all.
In his writing and speaking, Dr. Ferguson has a wonderful way with words. Here is an example as he writes of the birth narrative: “The one who populated the forests with trees lies within the bark of one. The one who has always been face to face with his Father now stares into the face of his teenage mother. The one whom the heavens cannot contain is contained within a stable. He who cradles the universe is himself cradled in an animal’s feeding trough.”
Today, most people in the United States celebrate Christmas. The author states that they love to hear Christmas music, even to sing the familiar Christmas carols. But, he tells us, their hearts seem to go cold when they hear about the true meaning of Christmas, that Jesus came into the world to save sinners. The response is then, whether they say it or not, “Let’s sings the songs, but don’t talk to us about being saved from sin!” Let us enjoy Christmas without Christ!”
Finally, Dr. Ferguson tells us that the true meaning of Christmas is seeking, finding, trusting, and worshipping the Lord Jesus Christ.
I so enjoyed reading this book just a few weeks before we celebrate the birth of the One who came to save our sins. Ferguson writes about Jesus “The heart of the Christmas message is a baby bound in swaddling bands and lying in a wooden manger who is destined to be bound again in later life and laid upon wood on the cross of Calvary.”
This book is about guidance. Ferguson states: “There are three particular areas in which we form patterns of life which largely determine the whole course of life. We form patterns of behaviour—a life-style. We decide which occupation and career we will pursue. We decide to marry or not to marry. To each of these areas of vital concern, I have devoted a chapter. You will find principles which, when conscientiously applied to your own circumstances, will keep you in the pathway along which God’s will may be discovered. To that extent I have tried to deal with practical issues.”
Ferguson writes that he has tried to convey that we learn about guidance primarily by learning about the Guide. It is the knowledge of God and His ways with men which ultimately gives us stability in doing his will. His prayer is that the book will provide the reader some help and clarification about how God will guide us and perhaps be granted illumination on the very areas of our lives which perplex us at the moment.
For a short book, I highlighted a significant number of passages. I would like to share some of them with you below:
- The very idea that God guides us implies that we live according to the path which he has laid down, that our lives have a purpose in the present, as well as a destiny for the future.
- There is, in fact, no more basic question for us to ask than this: Will this course of action tend to further the glory of God? Is the glory of God the driving principle of our actions? If we do not seek his glory, we cannot be walking in the way of his blessing. If we seek his glory, then we can be sure that we shall discover his light shed on our paths.
- What does it mean that our lives should reflect his glory? It means likeness to Jesus. To live for the glory of God means to imitate Jesus. It means to live in dependence on the Holy Spirit who has been given to us with the specific function of bringing glory to Jesus in our lives (John 16:14). It means to live in dependence on the Holy Spirit who has been given to us with the specific function of bringing glory to Jesus in our lives (John 16:14). According to Ephesians 4:20-24, it means to live in righteousness and holiness.
- If there is one critical issue we must face about divine guidance it is this one. Is Scripture our guide? Is Scripture ultimately ‘the only rule to direct us how we may glorify’ God?
- How then does God make his will known to us? Primarily by teaching us about himself and our relationship to him. As we come to know the character of God, and his ways with men, we shall increasingly discover this wisdom—that is, the practical knowledge of his will and the ways in which it is to be put into action.
- The chief need we have, therefore, is that of increased familiarity with and sensitivity to the wisdom of his Word.
- Very often when young people say they are having problems about guidance, what they are really faced with is a problem about obedience. The issue at stake is whether we will walk along the paths of righteousness in which God will lead us.
- The experience of discovering the will of God has two aspects to it. We have been considering some of the objective guidelines which Scripture provides. But there is also a subjective element in coming to know God’s will. After all, it is my life, not another’s, and my obedience, not another’s, which are involved in my coming to the conviction that one specific course of action is the Lord’s will for my life.
- The point of contact between God’s revealed will and my personal obedience and walk in his will for my own life lies in the heart.
- Before God, as we seek his guidance, there must be a developing harmony between our motivations to serve him, and a true condition of the heart. There must be fear and humility, and also obedience and trust.
- How are we to walk worthy of God? Paul indicates that it is by living in a way that is consistent with his revealed character. To live in the will of God is to walk in love, to walk in light and to walk in wisdom.
- The first characteristic of walking in the light is separation. The child of God will not become a partner in sin, nor with men in the pursuit of sin. The second characteristic—his life is identified by contrast. He was once darkness, but now he is light in the Lord!
- There is no sincerity in our profession to want the will of God in our lives if we are not in tune with his will for personal holiness.
- Few things are more common among those who complain that guidance has become a very frustrating thing for them than the failure to use the present opportunities God has given to them!
- Guidance is the way in which God leads us as we think through the implications of his truth, and seek to find practical application of it in our lives. It involves using our minds to think through the path which God wants us to take in his service. It requires familiarity with Scripture, and fellowship with the Spirit, who alone knows the mind of God (1 Cor. 2:11-13).
- Wherever we search in Scripture for teaching on the guidance of God, we invariably meet this combination. Guidance is supernatural; the will of God is made known to us spiritually. That is why we need to walk in the Spirit. But it is also made known to us through the Word. That is why we must walk intelligently in the Spirit.
- No action which is contrary to the plain Word of God can ever be legitimate for the Christian. No appeal to spiritual freedom or to providential circumstances can ever make what is ethically wrong anything else but sinful. For the Christian is free only to love and obey the law of God. Therein lies his true freedom.
- The question I must learn to ask is: Will it bring benefits, as far as I am able to judge, so that my relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ is strengthened? Will it draw me nearer to him? We are no longer speaking about whether a course of action is lawful for the Christian. We are considering only actions which are. But something which has a neutral influence on one person may be detrimental to another.
- So the real question is: Can I take Christ there and look him in the face without shame? Is this course of action, this decision I am taking, totally consistent with my personal confession that ‘Jesus Christ is my Lord’?
- We must not rest content with asking whether a course of action will be personally helpful. Will it have a like beneficial effect on others? Indeed, do I engage in it with a view to serving and helping them?
- ‘What would Paul have done?’ ‘What would Christ himself have done?’. These are the questions we can now ask. Are there incidents, or is there teaching in Scripture, which can be applied to the situation in which I find myself?
- Is it lawful? Is it helpful? Is it enslaving? Is it consistent with the Lordship of Christ? Is it helpful to others? Is it consistent with the example of Christ and the apostles? Is it for the glory of God? For that matter, am I living for the glory of God?
- For the Christian the choice of a life-calling will be seen as one of the most important decisions he ever makes. It will determine many aspects of his life. It is essential therefore to be assured that we are doing the will of God.
- There is no text in the Bible which tells you: This is what you are to do with your life. There are texts which say: These are things which you must not do. How then are we to arrive at the personal knowledge of God’s will?
- We will never come to know and enjoy the will of the Lord, and find it good, perfect and acceptable until we first gain a true view of God and his fatherly character towards us.
- If we are to marry, only God can bring us to the person we are to marry. There are principles enshrined in Scripture which will give stability, safety and wisdom to you as you contemplate the prospect, or possibility, of marriage.
- For such people, there is a final word of biblical counsel. It has a wide application and is relevant to every Christian who longs to know the will of God. It is the one word: WAIT! Wait for the Lord!
- We are sometimes unwilling to bow to the sovereign providences of God in our lives. We become bitter against him, and consequently refuse to wait for his leading. We become frustrated with God.
- All impatience can be traced back to a disbelief in God’s ultimate goodness. That is why, if we are to appreciate the wisdom of God’s guidance, it is important for us to understand not only the nature of his guidance, but the character of the Guide himself. Trust him for his goodness, and we will trust him for his guidance!
- God has his own place and time to act. He has his purposes to fulfil in us as well as his will to reveal to us.
- The fact that we cannot see what God is doing does not mean that he is doing nothing. The Lord has his own timetable. It is we who must learn to adjust to it, not vice versa.
- Do you not see that only in his will can you ever find the glory of God and the joy for which he created you? Will you not respond, and begin again to walk.
A few months ago Banner of Truth finally announced that they would begin offering some of their excellent books in an e-book format. That was great news for me as I almost exclusively read e-books on Kindle, while also listening to audiobooks. Sinclair Ferguson is one of my favorite authors/preachers, and I’ve seen him at Ligonier Ministries National Conferences since 1997 and read several of his books. This one is well worth reading in any format.
I read most of this wonderful book (one of my favorites of the year), by one of my favorite authors sitting along the Saluda River in Cleveland, South Carolina over the Thanksgiving weekend. We were in the area for the marriage of our nephew Mark and his bride Tiffany. We had rented two cabins on the Saluda River, located near Table Rock State Park. It was an incredible setting to read this book about the Trinity – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
I have always found Owen very difficult to read, so I was a bit concerned about the book. Not to worry, Ferguson offers a very readable book on the Puritan.
The book is a part of The Long Line of Godly Men Profiles, which highlights key figures in the age long procession of these sovereign-grace men. Other books in the series have covered John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon and others. Many of the books have been written by the series editor Steven Lawson. Lawson writes: “The purpose of this series is to explore how these figures used their God-given gifts and abilities to impact their times and further the kingdom of heaven. Because they were wholly devoted followers of Christ, their examples are worthy of emulation today.”
Ferguson begins the book with his personal connection to Owen. He writes that Owen’s style is usually regarded as notoriously difficult. Latin was virtually his first language. But in God’s Providence he writes: “There was no discussion, as far as I can remember, about whether we would study Latin. It was a key to further education, and therefore nonnegotiable. Little could my father and mother have imagined that the guidance they gave their eleven-year-old son would make it much easier for him, some six years later, to read the greatest, if possibly the most difficult, of all the seventeenth-century English theologians.”
He goes on to write: “Owen stretched my mind, analyzed my soul, taught me theological devotion, and prescribed spiritual medicine. Theologically and pastorally, he helped shape what I thought a minister of the gospel should know, believe, and preach. He showed me how to think through the gospel and its application. Thus, this seventeenth-century Oxford academic and minister has been one of the most significant influences on my life.”
Ferguson writes of the privilege of introducing Owen to some who may never have heard his name, much less read his works. He writes: “In particular, it provides an opportunity to say something about the enormous importance and relevance of a central theme in his theology. This theme can, I think, be summed up in the following way. There is nothing in all the world more important to you than these truths:
(1) God is Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
(2) If you are a Christian, it is because of the loving thought and action of each person of the Trinity.
(3) The greatest privilege any of us can have is this: we can know God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We can enjoy fellowship—what Owen calls “communion”—with God.
Ferguson then provides us with a brief biographical sketch of Owens, who he states in his own time was England’s greatest living theologian. He died in 1683, leaving behind him a legacy of writings that now occupy twenty-four large volumes averaging around six hundred pages each.
I would also like to recommend to you Tim Challies’ excellent series on Owens book Overcoming Sin and Temptation. You can read it here: http://www.challies.com/writings/reading-classics-together
As I mentioned, reading about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in a beautiful setting was a wonderful experience for me. I highly recommend that you read this book. I highlighted a number of passages in the book and would like to share them with you below:
- There can be no doubt, for all his massive intellect and prodigious self-discipline (how does one man write twenty-four volumes using seventeenth-century writing materials?), that the secret of Owen’s life lay not in his natural gifts but in his deep devotion to God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
- To be a Christian is, first and foremost, to belong to the triune God and to be named for Him. This is the heart and core of the privileges of the gospel.
- Yet, is it not true that, despite some signs of encouragement, many Christians rarely give much thought to the importance of God’s being Trinity? Sometimes it seems that a one-person God is enough to satisfy us—whether that one person is Father, or Son, or Holy Spirit. Thinking of God as triune simply complicates matters. Or so it would seem, since the doctrine of the Trinity is surely (1) the most speculative and (2) the least practical of all Christian doctrines—is it not? Speculative—for how can God be three-in-one? And impractical, since it makes no real difference to day-to-day Christian living.
- But what was once the position of liberal Christianity has now reappeared and has been woven into the warp and woof of evangelicalism. We live in an age that stresses practical Christian living; we have little patience for the difficult doctrine of the Trinity.
- Owen believed that rather than being speculative, the doctrine of the Trinity provided the light by which everything else became clear. Rather than being impractical, it was the most practical truth of all—for what can be more practical than knowing God in Jesus Christ and through the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit?
- For far from seeing the Trinity as an impractical and abstract doctrine, it is for him—by necessity—the most practical of all doctrines, simply because knowing God is eternal life.
- Owen stands unashamedly on the shoulders of multitudes of Christians before him. He sees that the biblical teaching is in fact very straightforward: God is one. Yet the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are each seen as divine.
- The external works of the Trinity are indivisible. This is another way of saying that when God acts, He always acts as God the Trinity.
- In all God’s actions and expressions of love and purpose toward the cosmos, and especially toward men and women made in His image, each person of the Trinity is engaged. This is especially clear in His epoch-making actions of creation and incarnation.
- If the doctrine of the opera Trinitatis underscores the unity of the Trinity, the doctrine of the appropriations underscores the diversity of role and functions among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
- Our experience of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is shaped by the specific role that each plays in relationship to our lives and especially to our salvation.
- The more we reflect on the way Scripture details the activities of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, the correspondingly fuller and richer our communion with God will become. It will no longer be communion with an undifferentiated being, but fellowship with a deeply personal, indeed three-personal, Being in all that He is in His three persons, each one in the undivided Three making Himself known to us in special and distinct ways.
- Quote: I am quite aware that Owen’s writings are not fashionable in the present day.… Yet the great divine … [has] more learning and sound knowledge of Scripture in his little finger than many who depreciate him have in their whole bodies. I assert unhesitatingly that the man who wants to study experimental theology will find no books equal to those of Owen. —J.C. Ryle
- Christians enjoy fellowship with the Father in love.
- Outside of Christ, we know God only as full of wrath; we cannot think of Him in any other way.
- In common with other theologians who tried to think through such issues, and to make careful analytical distinctions, Owen employed a series of categories to distinguish the ways we love, and especially the ways in which God loves: the love of benevolence, the love of beneficence, and the love of complacence.
- According to Owen, we must reflect on the love He had for us before we were born, and the purposes He then planned for our lives (the love of benevolence). This divine love stretches back into eternity and downwards into time. Then there is the love that He has displayed in history in doing good to all people (the love of beneficence). And then there is the love, planned in eternity and expressed in Christ that we have now come to experience (the love of complacency).
- The observations of pastors before and since simply confirm Owen’s judgment that there is a spiritual sickness that often spoils our enjoyment of fellowship with God.
- The problem as he sees it—surely rightly—is that many Christians, in their heart of hearts, are not deeply convinced that the Father indeed loves them.
- There are Christians who are not deeply convinced of the love that their heavenly Father has for them. They may grasp the love of Christ, but there seems to be a cognitive gap or a dissonance between their trust in Him and their trust in the Father.
- Yes, people will tell us they believe in a “God of love.” But they are self-deceived, and their lives reveal it. They neither love Him with heart, soul, mind, and strength in return, nor do they worship Him with zeal and energy. The truth is that their mantra “My God is a God of love” is a smokescreen, a phantasm of their imagination. Underneath it all is a deep mistrust of God—otherwise, why not yield the whole of life in joyful abandon to whatever He says or asks?
- There is no gap between the love of the Father and that of the Son. Christ died for us because the Father loves us, not in order to induce or persuade a reluctant Father to love us.
- We need to take daily doses of the Father’s love and reflect on the high privilege of being His adopted children. Jesus is the beam, but the Father Himself is the sun of eternal love.
- Owen’s prescription is that we must first receive, and then return, the Father’s love.
- We receive the Father’s love by faith.
- Yes, the Father’s love for us, and ours for Him, differ. His is a love of bounty; ours is a love of duty (albeit love, not duty, is its motive). His love is antecedent to ours; our love is consequent to His. Our love goes to Him although we were once haters of God; His has come to us because He is a lover of man. We love the Lord because He has first loved us. His love is, like Him, unchanging and unchangeable; ours is mutable.
- For to become a Christian means to have fellowship with Christ in all that He has accomplished for us.
- Grace is, ultimately, personal. Grace is Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ is God’s grace. For grace is not substantial in the sense of being a quality or entity that can be abstracted from the person of the Savior.
- The New Testament’s most frequent, and indeed most basic, description of the believer is that he or she is a person “in Christ.”
- But what is paramount and striking in Owen’s thinking is that being a Christian involves a deep affection for Christ. He is a person to be known, admired, and loved. Fellowship with Christ, therefore, involves a “mutual resignation” or self-giving between ourselves and Him.
- We cannot spread our sin further than He can spread His grace.
- We are often (and rightly) reminded that we do not live the Christian life on the basis of our emotions, but we must never make the mistake of thinking that the gospel leaves our emotions untouched. Rather, it cleanses and transforms them by its power. We come to love what we formerly hated and to delight in what we formerly despised.
- Thus, one of the features of the spiritually minded believer is that his desires are greater than his words. By contrast, the person who does not delight in Christ will pray with words that far exceed his desires.
- We have come to delight in Christ only when we have begun to live for Christ and a new sensitivity to and distaste for sin has been produced in us by His delight in us and ours in Him.
- Rather than producing carelessness, spiritual delight produces carefulness.
- Our true worth is found in the value Christ has placed upon us, not in the valuation of our self-assessment. It is what He has done (and who He is as the One who has done it) that gives us real value and creates a sense of worth in us.
- Christ parted with everything for us; but He will never part with us.
- The privileges we enjoy, then, in Christ are shaped and determined by what He did as our representative and substitute. This Owen sees as three-dimensional: Christ’s obedient life, His atoning death, and His ongoing intercession.
- If Christ’s obedience is limited to His death for us, then what He accomplished for us can only bring us back to the status of Adam before God on the day of his creation. It does not bring us forward to where Adam was called to be through a life of obedience. So Christ must die. But He must also do. Only then can He ground a full and final justification that includes both pardon for our sins through His death and our being counted fully and finally righteous through His life.
- Owen, like Calvin before him, held that Christ sees His covenant bond with His people to be so strong that He regards them in some sense as one with Himself.
- Consequently, He considers Himself to be incomplete without us. And so He lives in heaven not only for Himself in glory, but for us in order to bring us there.
- Christians find both stability and assurance in the application to themselves of our Lord’s words: “I have prayed for you.”
- Those who enjoy communion with Him are reassured there is no lack in them that He cannot meet, no emptiness He cannot fill, no sin He cannot forgive, no enemy that can withstand the fact that the Christ who died for them lives forever for them at God’s right hand. Having died to win our inheritance in the presence of God, He stands in that very presence to secure us for its full and final enjoyment.
- This—the highest privilege of all—is adoption into the family of God with all the rights and privileges of knowing Him as our heavenly Father.
- It is one of the chief distinctions between Christians and unbelievers. The latter seek but do not find any ultimate meaning in their suffering; as a result, unbelievers must attempt to create meaning. But not so Christians. For Scripture teaches them that, in Christ, trials have a goal. God is treating His people as sons by training them.
- More than that, suffering in the Christian life is the training ground of the soul. The Father is equipping His children through adversity.
- Axiomatic for Owen is that if we are to experience the power of the Spirit in our lives, and the wonder of the new creation, we must first become familiar with His ministry in the life of the Savior Himself.
- Owen walks his readers through ten specific works of the Spirit on Jesus. These can be summarized in four ways:
(1) The incarnation of Christ.
(2) The ministry of Christ.
At His baptism, according to Owen, Jesus entered into the fullness of the Spirit, not for progress in holiness, but for the fulfilment of His messianic ministry.
(3) The cross of Christ.
(4) The exaltation.
- What is the significance of this? It is that the Spirit cannot rightly be known (and therefore communion with Him cannot be fully enjoyed) apart from Christ—just as Christ cannot be known apart from the Spirit. For the identity in which we have communion with the Spirit is defined for us by His intimate relationship to the incarnate Savior. He is the Spirit of Christ. He is intimately knowledgeable about Christ. He takes what is Christ’s and gives it to us with the goal of transforming us into Christ’s likeness.
- Thus, within the life of God the Trinity, the Spirit proceeds from both Father and Son to one another. Just as He is the bond of union between the Father and Son and believers, so He is the bond of union between the Father and Son.
- Our union with Christ consists in this, the same Spirit dwelling in him and us.
- The Spirit comes to open the eyes of our understanding to the revelation God has given us, not to give each individual new revelation.
- The immediate fruit of the Spirit’s coming to us is the bond of our union with Christ. From this union flows all our communion with Him. As He comes to indwell us, He enlivens us, leads us, supports and strengthens us, and produces in us Christlike character and qualities. He both restrains us from sin and sanctifies us more and more.
- What, then, is the nature of the Spirit’s ministry? There are, according to Owen, four ways in which the Spirit evidences His presence and power in communion with the believer: indwelling, unction, earnest, and seal. Since, for all practical purposes, Owen regards the Spirit’s presence as both unction and earnest as aspects of His indwelling, we can reduce this to two: His indwelling and His sealing.
- Owen makes a distinction, which he shares with other Puritan writers on this theme, between the indwelling of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of holiness and His self-manifestation as Comforter. The former is a constant ministry. The Spirit is always, under all circumstances, at all times, making us holy. He uses every situation—joys, trials, successes, and failures—to conform us to the image of God’s Son.
- But the manifestations of the Spirit as Comforter, Owen argues, are intermittent. He does not always bring us a conscious sense of the comforts of the gospel.
- Owen believes we need to distinguish between the indwelling of the Spirit (a constant) and the manner in which He manifests that identity in and to the consciousness of the individual believer (a variable).
- Owen holds that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit brings with it several distinct blessings.
(1) The Spirit comes to give the believer direction and guidance.
(2) The Spirit also comes to give support; He helps us in our infirmities.
(3) Equally significant, the Spirit comes to exercise an ongoing internal restraint on our lives, to prevent us running headlong into sin. More than that, He injects into our obedience a spirit of joy and gladness that banishes our native sluggishness.
- Owen suggests four ways in which the Spirit and the serpent are to be distinguished:
(1) The leading of the Spirit, he says, is regular, that is, according to the regulum: the rule of Scripture. Thus, the fundamental question to ask about any guidance will be: Is this course of action consistent with the Word of God?
(2) The commands of the Spirit are not grievous. They are in harmony with the Word, and the Word is in harmony with the believer as new creation.
(3) The “motions” of the Spirit are orderly. Restlessness is not a mark of communion with the Spirit but of the activity of the evil one.
(4) The “motions,” or promptings of the Spirit, Owen says, always tend to glorify God according to His Word.
- Presence of the Spirit brings us already a foretaste of future glory, but also, simultaneously, creates within us a sense of the incompleteness of our present spiritual experience. This, for Owen, is how communion with the Spirit—understood biblically—brings joy into the life of the believer and yet a deep sense that the fullness of joy is not yet.
- The Spirit who comes to indwell also comes as a seal.
- It is the Spirit Himself who is the seal. This brings Owen back to our starting point: the Lord Jesus Christ is the One whom the Father sealed. He communicated the Spirit to Him. What was true of Christ then becomes true for those who are in Christ now. As the Spirit ministers as that seal, assurance of grace and salvation follow.
- Thus, the testimony of the Spirit that we are God’s children is the effect of the presence of the seal of the Spirit, which activates the believer’s sense of assurance.
- But what of the “returns” on our part of which Owen had spoken? What does all this mean for us in terms of our response to the privileges of communion with God?
- The Spirit brings us into union with the crucified and resurrected Savior and therefore into communion with Him in His death and resurrection. Since this is, as it were, the ground on which the Spirit operates, it also becomes the pattern of the Christian life: death and resurrection, mortification and vivification, putting off the old and putting on the new. Gospel negatives and gospel positives thus become the leitmotif, the melody line, for all of our fellowship with the Son. This was the Apostolic pattern.
- Owen gives us these three negative and three positive exhortations.
- 1. Do Not Grieve the Spirit
- 2. Do Not Quench the Spirit – If the metaphor of “grieving” reflects on our relationship with the Spirit, “quenching” reflects on His ministry.
- 3. Do Not Resist His Word – Our calling, then, is to fix our gaze where it properly belongs: the Word is the Spirit’s sword; its exposition is the Spirit’s instrument to release the Word into our lives to do its work of conversion and transformation.
- Owen well understood that the Holy Spirit does not bring glory to Himself but to the Son. But this should not be used as an argument for our failing to give glory to the Spirit as well as to the Son and the Father.
- Owen is at one here with the fathers of the church, who developed the doctrine known as perichoresis or circumincession —that in everything God the Trinity is and does, each of the three persons relates to and engages with each of the other persons. The “choreography” of the Divine Being is beautifully one in its diversity and diverse in its unity. Both internally and externally, the persons of the Trinity always function in the harmony of a single Deity.
- Just as we have been baptized into the name of the Trinity, we enjoy fellowship with each person in His distinctive expressions of grace toward us. As we do so, the frequently sung words of the “Doxology,” now better understood, give expression to our affections. For we have been loved by the Father, reconciled through the Son, and are being transformed “from one degree of glory to another” by the Spirit.
Ever since 1998, when we first encountered Sinclair Ferguson at the Ligonier Ministries National Conference, we have enjoyed his preaching and writing. His pastor’s heart comes through all of his work – and that Scottish accent certainly doesn’t hurt either! I’ve long been looking forward to reading this book by Dr. Ferguson, whom R. C. Sproul calls the world’s leading expert on the person and work of the Holy Spirit today.
I’ll admit that I’ve done an embarrassingly small amount of study of the Holy Spirit, short of Sproul’s own book The Mystery of the Holy Spirit more than 20 years ago. But a few years ago I did read Francis Chan’s short book The Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit. Unlike Ferguson’s more deeply theological book, Chan’s book was aimed at a general Christian audience. But the very title of that book alerts the reader that Chan believes that the Holy Spirit has been forgotten. How ironic it was then, when I began Ferguson’s book and I read in the “Preface”:
“It was commonplace in my student days for authors, lecturers and preachers to begin their comments on the subject of the Holy Spirit with such statements as, ‘The Holy Spirit has been until recently the forgotten person of the Godhead.’ No-one writing on this topic today would employ such language”.
Ferguson goes on to write: “The Holy Spirit is no longer thought of as the ‘forgotten person’ of the Godhead, and insofar as this is true, Christians of all persuasions should rejoice”.
Raised Roman Catholic, I did not become a believer until my late 20’s. Early in my time as a believer I heard of the charismatic movement. Consciously or not, I put up “walls” against anything that might even appear to be charismatic. I had an internal radar detector that went off whenever something even remotely appeared to be charismatic. Although Chan was criticized for not taking a position on the gifts issue, his book did create a new awareness of the Holy Spirit in my life. That awareness however, as I recall was more experiential than theological.
Chan wrote about how we don’t really believe Jesus when he says that it is better for us for him to leave so that the Holy Spirit will come:
Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16: 7)
After reading that book, I began to think more about the Holy Spirit and pray for the power of the Holy Spirit. Ferguson’s book on the other hand has given me a wonderful appreciation of just how involved the third person of the Trinity has been in literally every aspect of our lives – from the creation, through the order of salvation – regeneration, justification, adoption, sanctification and glorification – from the Old Testament to Revelation.
I think many who do not spend much time studying the Holy Spirit do it because of the excesses of the charismatic movement. Ferguson uses his pastor’s heart to carefully handle the subject of the continuation or cessation of gifts such as tongues and prophecy. He has equipped me to speak intelligently on this issue, knowing that there are sincere Reformed believers on both sides of this controversial issue.
When writing on union with Christ, a key theme in the New Testament, and a topic that I would like to study more, Ferguson states that: “The central role of the Spirit is to reveal Christ and to unite us to him and to all those who participate in his body”.
The second and third persons of the Trinity are so close to each other that Ferguson can write: “Thus, to have the Spirit is to have Christ; to have Christ is to have the Spirit. Not to have the Spirit of Christ is to lack Christ. To have the Spirit of Christ is to be indwelt by Christ”.
Ferguson writes that in Paul’s theology, no analogy is more central than the church is the body of Christ into which we are brought by the ministry of the Spirit.
The readers of this book will get a fuller understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit in all of the areas covered in the book – creation, the order of salvation, union with Christ, etc. I strongly commend this book to all.
Dr. Sinclair B. Ferguson is professor of systematic theology at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas. He is dean of the D.Min. program at Ligonier Academy and a teaching fellow of Ligonier Ministries. This book is inspired by a little known hymn written by an African pastor, Emmanuel T. Sibomana. Sibomana was born around 1915 and lived near Musema, a Baptist mission in central Burundi. In 1946 he published a hymn, which was translated by an English missionary in Rwanda as “O How the Grace of God Amazes Me”.
Ferguson writes: “The hymn captures the rich contours and multisided character of the grace of God. Its easily sung tune, Grace of God, has often brought its words to my mind unprompted. Reflecting on the themes of its verses led me eventually to work through the biblical material that lies behind them. This book is the result”.
Ferguson admits that there have been many books written on grace – so why another one? He indicates that not all Christians find it so amazing. He writes:
“Being amazed by God’s grace is a sign of spiritual vitality. It is a litmus test of how firm and real is our grasp of the Christian gospel and how close is our walk with Jesus Christ. The growing Christian finds that the grace of God astonishes and amazes”.
He goes on to say: “Yet we frequently take the grace of God for granted. We think: “Of course God is gracious.” Or: “Of course we deserve His grace. After all are we not His people?” We may never say these things. But when we think like this, the grace of God ceases to be amazing. Sadly, it also ceases to be grace”.
Using Pastor Sibomana’s hymn, Ferguson’s book reflects on God’s grace from seven angles, from each of the seven verses of the hymn. An example of this is the second verse. As I began reading the book, I was facilitating a Foundations class on Tim Keller’s book The Prodigal God. Ferguson uses that famous parable as he discusses the second verse of the hymn (reproduced below):
My God has chosen me
Though one of nought
To sit beside my King
In heaven’s court
Hear what my Lord has done
O, the love that made him run
To meet his erring son!
This has God wrought
For verse six of the hymn, he uses Job, which he says is the book of the Bible that analyzes Satan’s strategies in greatest detail.
Lord Jesus, hear my prayer
Your grace impart
When evil thoughts arise
Through Satan’s art,
O, drive them all away
And do you, from day to day
Keep me beneath your sway
King of my heart
This is a wonderful book on the subject of grace from one of my favorite writes and speakers. Ferguson’s “pastor’s heart” comes through with each word.
Name Above All Names by Alistair Begg and Sinclair Ferguson. Crossway. 192 pages. 2013.
At the 2012 Ligonier Ministries National Conference I asked Sinclair Ferguson what his next book would be. He said he had just written one with friend and fellow Scotsman Alistair Begg. I asked what it was about. He said “Why Jesus, of course!” This book is indeed about our Savior, and one that will cause you to fall in love with Him all over again.
The authors, who have been friends since the 1970s when they were both very young ministers in Scotland, write:
“This book, as its title suggests, is a brief exposition of what Christians often refer to as “the person and work of Christ.” Its focus is on some of the different ways in which the Bible portrays Christ’s identity and describes his ministry. The chapters are by no means exhaustive. They cover only seven of the many descriptions of Jesus found in the Bible, and none of those descriptions is treated exhaustively. So these pages are meant as a taster, a beginning exploration. Our joint prayer is that they will help some who are not yet Christians, be an eye-opener to those who already are, serve as an encouragement for mature believers, and be a pleasure for all who love Christ.”
The material for the book began to come together in its present form as the authors prepared for a conference at The Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tennessee.
The authors ask a favor from their readers:
“Standing in various pulpits in our native land of Scotland we have often seen words visible to the preacher but hidden from the congregation: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (John 12:21). We ask you to make that your prayer as you begin to turn these pages.”
The book features a number of helpful illustrations and references to hymns, many of them written in the 1800’s.
There is much to treasure in this wonderful book by two of my favorite pastors and authors. The book covers the following aspects of Christ:
• The Seed of the Woman
• The True Prophet
• The Great High Priest
• The Conquering King
• The Son of Man
• The Suffering Servant
• The Lamb on the Throne
Here is a sampling of the treasures that the book offers:
• If that is to happen, there is no better place to start than where we suspect Jesus made his beginning, in Genesis 3:15—here in this promise of the conflict between the two seeds. The antagonists are first described as the seed of the woman and the seed of the Serpent. But the climax of the conflict is destined to be more personal and individual—between the seed of the woman and the Serpent itself. The final evil antagonist is no longer the seed of the Serpent but the Serpent itself. Implicitly, then, the final seed of the woman is also an individual. Each would crush the other. But whereas the Serpent would crush only the heel of the seed of the woman, the seed of the woman would crush the head of the Serpent—a blow that would prove fatal.
• When Christ appeared, he came to undo what the Serpent had done. By his life and ministry and ultimately through his death and resurrection, he destroyed all the works of the Devil.
• And so these words, almost at the beginning of Genesis, give us an important insight into the whole message of the Bible. It is a library of books that traces an ages-long cosmic conflict between the two “seeds.”
• And so from the beginning to the very end, from the garden of Eden turned into a desert because of sin, until in Revelation 21 and 22 when that desert is turned back into a garden, the whole of the Bible is the story of this conflict
• Jesus, the Last Adam, had to conquer in the context of the chaos the first Adam’s sin had brought into the world.
• The reason there is so much demon possession in the time period recorded by the Gospels is not—as is sometimes assumed—that demon possession was commonplace then. In fact it was not. Rather, the land then was demon-invaded because the Savior was marching to the victory promised in Genesis 3:15. And all hell was let loose in order to withstand him.
• It is the cross alone that ultimately proves the love of God to us—not the providential circumstances of our lives.
• Very few books have made more impact on our lives than the Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M‘Cheyne. Robert M‘Cheyne was the Scottish minister of St. Peter’s Church, Dundee, from 1836 to 1843. He died at the age of twenty-nine. But his life, his preaching, and indeed his whole ministry were marked by a profound Christ-centeredness.
• We often reflect on his words: “Learn much of the Lord Jesus. For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ. Let your soul be filled with a sense of the excellence of Christ.”
• This is our great need—to have our minds and hearts filled with a sense of the greatness and incomparable glory of Christ.
• In many ways the church as a whole is indebted to John Calvin for explaining the importance of this “threefold office.”
• In a similar way we might say there are four R’s that are basic and essential to our knowing Christ as our prophet and enjoying communion with him.
• R 1: Required. Our fallen condition requires us to have Jesus as our prophet.
• Each of these three titles of Jesus—prophet, priest, king—contains an inherent judgment upon us. As king, Jesus comes to us to subdue our rebellion. As priest, he comes in order to deal with our sins. But the reason he comes to us as prophet is to deal with our ignorance.
• “Old Testament prophecy was a means by which an infallible God used fallible men to bring an infallible word to fallible people.”
• R 2: Revealed. Our second word is—not surprisingly—“revealed.”
• This prophetic, revelatory role is a vital part of the ministry of Jesus.
• It was as a prophet that Jesus was first acclaimed by his contemporaries
• R 3: Recognized. Ultimately Jesus must be recognized, not merely as a messenger of revelation from God but as the very source of that revelation. Jesus is not only the revealer; he is the revelation!
• The prophetic role of Jesus is required in order to dispel our ignorance. It is revealed in Jesus himself. It is recognized in all of its fullness at the end of his earthly ministry.
• These first three aspects describe his finished work, his fulfilled ministry. But there is a fourth aspect—his unfinished work. The fourth R is realized.
• The task of sharing the gospel involves simply and clearly bearing testimony to Christ. It involves saying who he is and what he has accomplished historically, explaining the significance of his death, the wonder of his resurrection, the fact of his ascension, and so on. And the promise of Christ is that in this ongoing ministry of God’s Word, he is present and he continues to speak.
• There is a vast difference between simply conveying information to people, which can be cold and ineffectual, and true preaching and witness.
• Quick as a flash, Professor Murray responded in Paul’s words: “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”That’s it! This is not just for the pulpit and the big public occasion. This is for the grocery store, for the golf course, for the coffee shop. Wherever we tell others about the Lord Jesus, through God’s power and with an awareness that Christ himself is the great prophet of God, we say—in our own words—“I implore you. Be reconciled to God. Receive the reconciliation that he has provided.” And when God begins to work, people say, “I didn’t know about that; tell me more.” And we can respond, “Well then, I will be glad to tell you about it. Let me tell you the story.” And so we have the opportunity to speak into the darkness of their minds and the futility of their thinking.
• Listen to Calvin on this same theme: Some of us are good at boldness but not so good at compassion. We gravitate to all the bold verses but turn away from the gospel’s call to show genuine empathy.
• As Christ’s ministry now begins to unfold, we see that the designation “prophet” is inadequate to fully express the wonder of all he is and does. That is why we should never think of him as prophet except in the context of his threefold office. His prophetic ministry must never be isolated from his other two offices, as if somehow or another we could view Christ as prophet apart from his also being priest and king.
• “Priest” is the only title given to Jesus that has virtually an entire book of the New Testament devoted to explaining it—the letter to the Hebrews.
• We saw that Jesus’ ministry as prophet has both. They are both present in each of Jesus’ offices—prophetic, priestly, and kingly.
• He has cried, “It is finished.”In his death and resurrection he has done everything necessary for our salvation to be accomplished. But then he applies it.
• There is also, therefore, an unfinished work of Christ. Jesus has an ongoing ministry. As prophet he continues to speak to man from God.
• But Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice—man in place of men. His full, perfect, appropriate sacrifice was accepted by God. That is why God raised him from the dead. He is now seated at God’s right hand. He does not continue to stand like the priest of old, in a daily repetition of his sacrifice. He has no need to! As the high priest who is himself the sacrifice, he has finished his atoning work. In Christ our sins are fully and finally forgiven!22
• You may be the music director in a church, or its organist, or sing in its choir, or play in its worship ensemble; you may even be its minister. But the one thing you are not is the worship leader. Jesus is the worship leader.
• A man once told us that his son had been far from the Lord, but one night as he came home, he “happened” to pick up a recording of a sermon we had preached. The young man listened to the sermon every day for a month. On the last day of the month, he came to a living faith in Christ. What happened? He presumably did not realize what was happening to him; Christ was calling him; only slowly did that dawn on him. He heard the same human voice again and again, but then at last he heard the voice of Christ and responded.
• Jesus often spoke about the kingdom of God—it is a central theme in his message. He both preached and demonstrated that the kingdom of God had broken into the world in his coming.
• We have considered how Christ came as a prophet to oust our ignorance and as a priest to deal with our alienation and to lead us into God’s presence. Now we see him as a king who subdues all the tyrannical forces that are arraigned against us, and, yes, those that fight within us too.
• First, how he is king in relation to our salvation, then in relation to the cosmos, and finally in relation to the future.
• So Jesus has done everything that we needed to be saved from sin. He has done everything we needed in order for us to be saved from the judgment of death. And he has done everything necessary to set us free from the bondage of the Devil. In a word, he has done everything we need done for us but could never do for ourselves.
• When Paul wrote of the day when, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow . . . and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, “he was not describing the devotion of the worshiper but the identity of the one who is worshiped. He is proclaiming the divine identity of Jesus. Jesus is Lord. This isn’t a statement about my attitude to Jesus; it is a statement about who Jesus is. He is Lord.
• In the Gospels Jesus calls himself “the Son of Man” on about fifty separate occasions (not counting parallel passages).
• Have you, for example, ever noticed in all fifty or so times Jesus is called “the Son of Man” in the Gospels that the speaker is always—Jesus himself? Nobody else in the Gospels ever refers to him as the Son of Man.
• Simply on the basis of these statistics we could say that “the Son of Man” was Jesus’ favorite self-designation. And when you analyze the fifty separate times Jesus uses the title, it seems fairly clear that, in his mind, this was the most comprehensive description of his identity, his work, and the significance of his ministry.
• The background, therefore, to Jesus’ use of the expression as a self-identifier seems to lie in the creation of Adam, the ministry of Ezekiel, and the vision of Daniel.
• So the immediate focus of Daniel’s vision is the completion of the earthly ministry of Jesus. Yes, he will come again in majesty and glory to end all history and bring in the new heavens and the new earth. But the focus of this vision is on the fruit of his first coming.
• The fifty or so individual sayings in which Jesus refers to himself as “Son of Man” fall essentially into three categories.
• “Category 1” sayings describe the incarnate Son of Man establishing his kingdom.
• The entire first half of our Lord’s earthly ministry is marked by this: his making inroads into the kingdom of darkness (by preaching, restoring, and instructing).
• The second category of Son of Man sayings focuses not just on the incarnate Son of Man establishing his kingdom but on the suffering Son of Man paying the redemption price for that kingdom.
• This brings us to the final category of these Son of Man sayings. We have seen that: Jesus is the incarnate Son of Man who establishes his kingdom. Jesus is the suffering Son of Man who purchases his kingdom. But now we must add a third dimension: Jesus is the triumphant Son of Man who will consummate his kingdom.
• The fourth of these songs, Isaiah 52:13–53:12, is by far the best known. Here the servant appears as the Suffering Servant—a portrait that profoundly influenced the way in which the New Testament writers spoke of Jesus.
• There is a mental dimension to this suffering. It has an intellectual aspect. There is also a psychosomatic aspect. Jesus is engulfed by the emotion of the occasion. He had repeatedly asserted the divine necessity of his suffering. But now he is imminently confronted by the ordeal.
• There is a physical aspect to this suffering. That bears saying. There is little need for elaboration, is there? Crucifixion is, surely, the most brutal, cruel, and unnatural punishment ever devised by man. We need to be clear that there was nothing in Christ’s humanity to blunt his emotions or to anaesthetize him to lessen his suffering. The horrific way the death penalty passed on him was carried out—despite all his innocence—is not part of a novel. It was reality.
• There is a social dimension to his suffering. You may never have thought that this could be of any real significance for Jesus. But think about it now. Jesus was friendly. Jesus didn’t go through his ministry as a rock or as an island.
• Our churches will have all too little ministry to the least and last, the lost and left out, until we are prepared to acknowledge that Christ himself was a suffering servant who entered into the depths of our humanity. We therefore, as followers of Jesus, albeit still sinners, must be suffering servants also.
• Yes, the servants of the Suffering Servant must suffer with him. It is the pathway to glory.
• The Triumphant One has two great titles. One—the Lion—goes back to Jacob’s dying prophecy about an individual who would come through the line of his son Judah—a lion-like figure who would reign, and whose reign would be marked by a divinely given abundance.
• But John looks and sees a lamb. His vision is filled with a tapestry-like presentation of the humility of Christ. Here is the one who was obedient to his Father, even to the point of submitting to death on a cross.
• They knew that God’s exodus deliverance came through the sacrificed Passover Lamb. They must also have thought of Isaiah 53 with its description of the Suffering Servant who was “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter.” This is the Lamb whom John sees—the “Lamb, standing as though it had been slain.” But he is no longer slain. He is standing! He is alive with resurrection life and power.
• But notice something else. It is still obvious that he once had been slain; his wounds are still visible. The wounds remind us of the costly death by which our redemption has been achieved; the fact that this slain Lamb stands reminds us of the triumph of his resurrection.
• Perhaps if we read the book of Revelation more with our eyes fixed on the Lord Jesus, we would be more enthusiastic about some of the older hymns.
• Christ sends us out into the neighborhoods, the workplaces, the institutions of our society, into the coffee shops, and into daily interaction with the warp and woof of life with a story to tell the nations. Christians have a story unlike any other story.
• And then John adds a beautiful little footnote with a little bit of poetic license in it: the Lamb who was slain for them has now become the Shepherd who leads them: The Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water. and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
• Here it is, then—God’s final answer to all our alienation and dislocation. Here is the answer to the angst of our generation and of every generation. Who else can wipe away every tear from our eyes? Who else can enter into the depths of our circumstances and deal with them? Who else can supply living water so that we will never thirst again? Only Jesus. Only the one who is the Lamb of God.
• One day the shadows will flee away. The days of preparation will all come to an end. The final day will dawn. Already we acknowledge that Jesus is Lord. But then we will know him as we have never done before—in face-to-face fellowship. Then we will be made like him, for we shall see him as he is.
• We shall then see Jesus as the Seed of the Woman who crushed the Serpent’s head, as the Prophet of God whose word directs our lives, as the Great High Priest who intercedes for us, and as the King who subdues all our enemies and reigns over us forever. We will recognize him as the Son of Man seated beside the Ancient of Days, and as the Suffering Servant who is now exalted as the Lamb on the throne. On that day we will see with unclouded vision why his Father has given him the Name above All Names.