Sinclair Ferguson: When the wonder of the gospel breaks into your life, you feel as though you are the first person to discover its power and glory. Where has Christ been hidden all these years? He seems so fresh, so new, so full of grace. Then comes a second discovery—it is you who have been blind, but now you have experienced exactly the same as countless others before you. You compare notes. Sure enough, you are not the first! Thankfully you will not be the last. If my own experience is anything by which to judge, discovering Romans can be a similar experience. I still remember, as a Christian teenager, the slow dawning of this thought in my mind: all Scripture is God-breathed and useful to me, but it also seems to have a shape and structure, a center and circumference. If that is so, then some biblical books may be foundational; these should be mastered first. Then came the realization that
Sinclair Ferguson: God’s covenant commitment to His people, made in successive promise-bonds, forms the scaffolding within which He builds His church; its shape and growth are determined by it. But like a medieval cathedral, the church is built over centuries; and like a great book, its story is divided into chapters. The word covenant (Hebrew berith, Greek diathēkē) first occurs in the context of the judgment-flood from which only Noah and his family were saved: “I will establish my covenant with you,” God promised (Gen. 6:18). While God brought judgment-curse on the earth (vv. 11–13), by contrast He promised to bless Noah and his seed (9:1). “Establish” here reflects an earlier promise-bond. God’s command to Noah to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (v. 1) echoes His command to Adam (1:28) and hints at an earlier covenant. Certainly, the Lord’s bond with Adam included essential covenant ingredients: His commitment to Adam would lead to blessing for faith and obedience (1:28; 2:3), but mistrust and
Sinclair Ferguson: While shaking hands at the church door, ministers are sometimes greeted with a spontaneous, “I really enjoyed that!”—which is immediately followed by, “Oh! I shouldn’t really say that, should I?” I usually grip tighter, hold the handshake a little longer, and say with a smile, “Doesn’t the catechism’s first question encourage us to do that? If we are to enjoy Him forever, why not begin now?” Of course, we cannot enjoy God apart from glorifying Him. And the Westminster Shorter Catechism wisely goes on to ask, “What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him?” But notice that Scripture contains the “rule” for enjoying God as well as glorifying Him. We know it abounds in instructions for glorifying Him, but how does it instruct us to “enjoy him”? Enjoying God is a command, not an optional extra: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Phil. 4:4). But how? We cannot “rejoice
Sinclair Ferguson: Someone I know recently expressed an opinion that surprised and in some ways disappointed me. I said to myself, “I thought he would have more discernment than that.” The experience caused me to reflect on the importance of discernment and the lack of it in our world. We know that people often do not see issues clearly and are easily misled because they do not think biblically. But, sadly, one cannot help reflecting on how true this is of the church community, too. Most of us doubtless want to distance ourselves from what might be regarded as “the lunatic fringe” of contemporary Christianity. We are on our guard against being led astray by false teachers. But there is more to discernment than this. True discernment means not only distinguishing the right from the wrong; it means distinguishing the primary from the secondary, the essential from the indifferent, and the permanent from the transient. And, yes, it means distinguishing between the
Sinclair Ferguson: Sometimes people ask authors, “Which of your books is your favorite?” The first time the question is asked, the response is likely to be “I am not sure; I have never really thought about it.” But forced to think about it, my own standard response has become, “I am not sure what my favorite book is; but my favorite title is A Heart for God.” I am rarely asked, “Why?” but (in case you ask) the title simply expresses what I want to be: a Christian with a heart for God. Perhaps that is in part a reflection of the fact that we sit on the shoulders of the giants of the past. Think of John Calvin’s seal and motto: a heart held out in the palm of a hand and the words “I offer my heart to you, Lord, readily and sincerely.” Or consider Charles Wesley’s hymn: O for a heart to praise my God! A heart from sin set free.
Sinclair Ferguson: Reformed theology owes a special debt to the principles of biblical exposition recovered for the church at the time of the Reformation. It is particularly associated with the work of John Calvin, but was later developed by such seventeenth-century Puritans as John Owen and Thomas Goodwin (in England), and Thomas Hooker and John Cotton (in New England). Many later Christians have owed a special debt to the Reformed theological tradition. They include preachers like George Whitefield, C. H. Spurgeon and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones; and theologians such as Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge, Abraham Kuyper and B. B. Warfield; as well as such influential twentieth-century Christian leaders as J Gresham Machen and Francis Schaeffer. From one point of view, most evangelical theology in the English-speaking world can be see as an exposition of, deviation from or reaction to Reformed theology. A cursory glance at the biographies or writings of these men under lines the fact that Reformed theology has always
Sinclair Ferguson: When the gospel is proclaimed, it seems at first sight that two different, even alternative, responses are called for. Sometimes the summons is, “Repent!” Thus, “John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matt. 3:1–2). Again, Peter urged the hearers whose consciences had been ripped open on the day of Pentecost, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38). Later, Paul urged the Athenians to “repent” in response to the message of the risen Christ (Acts 17:30). Yet, on other occasions, the appropriate response to the gospel is, “Believe!” When the Philippian jailer asked Paul what he must do to be saved, the Apostle told him, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). But there is no mystery or contradiction here. Further on in Acts 17, we discover that precisely where the response of repentance was
Sinclair Ferguson: Antinomianism takes various forms. People do not always fit neatly into our categorizations, nor do they necessarily hold all the logical implications of their presuppositions. Here we are using “antinomianism” in the theological sense: rejecting the obligatory (“binding on the conscience”) nature of the Decalogue for those who are in Christ. Antinomianism, it was widely assumed in the eighteenth century, is essentially a failure to understand and appreciate the place of the law of God in the Christian life. But just as there is more to legalism than first meets the eye, the same is true of antinomianism. Opposites Attract? Perhaps the greatest misstep in thinking about antinomianism is to think of it simpliciter as the opposite of legalism. It would be an interesting experiment for a budding doctoral student in psychology to create a word-association test for Christians. It might include: Old Testament: Anticipated answer → New Testament Sin: Anticipated answer → Grace David: Anticipated answer → Goliath Jerusalem: Anticipated answer → Babylon Antinomianism: Anticipated answer → ?
What Is the Greatest of All Protestant “Heresies,” according to Roman Catholic doctrine? Sinclair Ferguson: Let us begin with a church history exam question. Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621) was a figure not to be taken lightly. He was Pope Clement VIII’s personal theologian and one of the most able figures in the Counter-Reformation movement within sixteenth-century Roman Catholicism. On one occasion, he wrote: “The greatest of all Protestant heresies is _______ .” Complete, explain, and discuss Bellarmine’s statement. How would you answer? What is the greatest of all Protestant heresies? Perhaps justification by faith? Perhaps Scripture alone, or one of the other Reformation watchwords? Those answers make logical sense. But none of them completes Bellarmine’s sentence. What he wrote was: “The greatest of all Protestant heresies is assurance.” A moment’s reflection explains why. If justification is not by faith alone, in Christ alone, by grace alone — if faith needs to be completed by works; if Christ’s work is somehow repeated; if grace
Sinclair Ferguson: Luther’s story is well known; Calvin’s less so. Luther was wrestling with the concept of the righteousness of God, and had come to hate it; Calvin had an immense thirst for a secure knowledge of God, but had not found it. While not the whole truth, there is something in the notion that Luther was looking for a gracious God while Calvin was seeking for a true and assured knowledge of him. In Luther’s case, the ordinances of late medieval Catholicism could not “give the guilty conscience peace or wash away the stain.” In Calvin’s case, neither the Church nor the immense intellectual discipline he had displayed in his teens and early twenties, and certainly not all his acquisition of the skills of a post-medieval humanist scholar, could bring him to an assured knowledge of God. ROMANS 1:16 For all the differences in their backgrounds, educations, dispositions, and personalities, a good case can be made for thinking
Sinclair Ferguson: The aftermath of a conversation can change the way we later think of its significance. My friend — a younger minister — sat down with me at the end of a conference in his church and said: “Before we retire tonight, just take me through the steps that are involved in helping someone mortify sin.” We sat talking about this for a little longer and then went to bed, hopefully he was feeling as blessed as I did by our conversation. I still wonder whether he was asking his question as a pastor or simply for himself — or both. How would you best answer his question? The first thing to do is: Turn to the Scriptures. Yes, turn to John Owen (never a bad idea!), or to some other counselor dead or alive. But remember that we have not been left only to good human resources in this area. We need to be taught from “the mouth of God”
Sinclair Ferguson: “What is the opposite of antinomianism?” Would it be fair to assume that the instinctive response … would be “Legalism”? It might be the right answer at the level of common usage, but it would be unsatisfactory from the standpoint of theology, for antinomianism and legalism are not so much antithetical to each other as they are both antithetical to grace. This is why the scripture never prescribes one as the antidote for the other. Rather grace, God’s grace in Christ in our union with Christ, is the antidote to both. The wholesale removal of the law seems to provide a refuge [for the antinomian]. But the problem is not with the law, but with the heart – and this remains unchanged. Thinking that his perspective is now the antithesis of legalism, the antinomian has written an inappropriate spiritual prescription. His sickness is not fully cured. Indeed the root cause of his disease has been masked rather than
Tony Reinke: The Christian’s “union with Christ” is the mysterious dark matter of the spiritual cosmos, so to speak. It is a kind of glue that holds us together with the constellation of salvation and sanctification and glorification in Christ. And it is very hard to describe and explain. How, then, can we talk about it? Is such a mystery too deep for words? Where do we begin — and where should we stop? And in our search to explain this new bond to Christ, can we use the language of mysticism? How much of our union with Christ is legal and positional, and how much of it is felt? With these important questions brewing, I called Sinclair Ferguson, author of the new book Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification. He has been talking about union with Christ for a long time and is as good a teacher as any on this vital subject. 1: Is union with Christ objective
Adapted from The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters by Sinclair Ferguson. As Old As Eden The root of legalism is almost as old as Eden, which explains why it is a primary, if not the ultimate, pastoral problem. In seeking to bring freedom from legalism, we are engaged in undoing the ancient work of Satan. In Eden the Serpent persuaded Eve and Adam that God was possessed of a narrow and restrictive spirit bordering on the malign. After all, the Serpent whispered, “Isn’t it true that he placed you in this garden full of delights and has now denied them all to you?” The implication was twofold. It was intended to dislodge Eve from the clarity of God’s word (“Did God actually say . . . ?”). Later the attack focused on the authority of God’s word (“You will not surely die”). But it was more. It was an attack on God’s character.
Sinclair Ferguson, in Feed My Sheep: There is a center to the Bible and its message of grace. It is found in Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected. Grace, therefore, must be preached in a way that is centered and focused on Jesus Christ Himself. We must never offer the benefits of the gospel without the Benefactor Himself. For many preachers, however, it is much easier to deal with the pragmatic things, to answer “how to” questions, and even to expose and denounce sin than it is to give an adequate explanation of the source of the forgiveness, acceptance, and power we need. It is a disheartening fact that evangelical Christians, who write vast numbers of Christian books, preach abundant sermons, sponsor numerous conferences and seminars, and broadcast myriad TV and radio programs actually write few books, preach few sermons, sponsor few conferences or seminars, and devote few programs to the theme of Jesus Christ and Him crucified. We give our best and
Before all time; prior to all worlds; when there was nothing ‘outside of’ God Himself; when the Father, Son, and Spirit found eternal, absolute, and unimaginable blessing, pleasure, and joy in Their holy triunity — it was Their agreed purpose to create a world. That world would fall. But in unison — and at infinitely great cost — this glorious triune God planned to bring you (if you are a believer) grace and salvation. This is deeper grace from before the dawn of time. It was pictured in the rituals, the leaders, and the experiences of the Old Testament saints, all of whom longed to see what we see. All this is now ours. Our salvation depends on God’s covenant, rooted in eternity, foreshadowed in the Mosaic liturgy, fulfilled in Christ, enduring forever. No wonder Hebrews calls it ‘so great a salvation’ (Heb. 2:3). — Sinclair B. Ferguson In Christ Alone (Orlando, Fl.: Reformation Trust, 2007), 136 (HT: Of
Sinclair Ferguson: Sometimes people ask authors, “Which of your books is your favorite?” The first time the question is asked, the response is likely to be “I am not sure; I have never really thought about it.” But forced to think about it, my own standard response has become, “I am not sure what my favorite book is; but my favorite title is A Heart for God.” I am rarely asked, “Why?” but (in case you ask) the title simply expresses what I want to be: a Christian with a heart for God. Perhaps that is in part a reflection of the fact that we sit on the shoulders of the giants of the past. Think of John Calvin’s seal and motto: a heart held out in the palm of a hand and the words “I offer my heart to you, Lord, readily and sincerely.” Or consider Charles Wesley’s hymn: O for a heart to praise my God! A heart from sin
Nathan Bingham: In Sinclair Ferguson’s book, In Christ Alone, he shares the sad reality that many Christians have a Christology that is more informed by Santa Claus than Scripture. For them, the message of the incarnation has been so twisted or diluted that they have in fact created for themselves a savior who is nothing more than aSanta Christ. As you prayerfully read Sinclair Ferguson’s words, ask yourself the following question this Christmas season: “Do I believe in a Santa Christ?” 1. A Pelagian Jesus is a Santa Christ Santa Christ is sometimes a Pelagian Jesus. Like Santa, he simply asks us whether we have been good. More exactly, since the assumption is that we are all naturally good, Santa Christ asks us whether we have been “good enough.” So just as Christmas dinner is simply the better dinner we really deserve, Jesus becomes a kind of added bonus who makes a good life even better. He is not seen as the Savior of helpless sinners. 2. A Semi-Pelagian
Justin Taylor: James S. Stewart wrote that “union with Christ, rather than justification or election or eschatology, or indeed any of the other great apostolic themes, is the real clue to an understanding of Paul’s thought and experience” (A Man in Christ [Harper & Bros., 1955], vii). John Calvin said that union with Christ has “the highest degree of importance” if we are to understand justification correctly (Institutes 1:737). John Murray wrote that “union with Christ is . . . the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation. . . . It is not simply a phase of the application of redemption; it underlies every aspect of redemption” (Redemption—Accomplished and Applied [Eerdmans, 1955], pp. 201, 205). Lewis Smedes said that it was “at once the center and circumference of authentic human existence” (Union with Christ [Eerdmans, 1983], xii). Anthony Hoekema wrote that “Once you have your eyes opened to this concept of union with Christ, you will find it almost everywhere in the
The great gospel imperatives to holiness are ever rooted in indicatives of grace that are able to sustain the weight of those imperatives. The Apostles do not make the mistake that’s often made in Christian ministry. [For the Apostles] the indicatives are more powerful than the imperatives in gospel preaching. So often in our preaching our indicatives are not strong enough, great enough, holy enough, or gracious enough to sustain the power of the imperatives. And so our teaching on holiness becomes a whip or a rod to beat our people’s backs because we’ve looked at the New Testament and that’s all we ourselves have seen. We’ve seen our own failure and we’ve seen the imperatives to holiness and we’ve lost sight of the great indicatives of the gospel that sustain those imperatives. Woven into the warp and woof of the New Testament’s exposition of what it means for us to be holy is the great groundwork that the self-existent, thrice