Holiness

Book Review: Devoted to God, by Sinclair Ferguson

devoted7a-810x1280__82818.1478970628.315.315There is a great deal of ignorance and confusion regarding the subject of sanctification in our day. Perhaps that has always been the case. There are, however, some very helpful books on the subject that are available to the modern reader. (See here.) Thankfully, you can add this recent book by Sinclair Ferguson to that list as well.

The title of the book points the reader to Ferguson’s working definition of holiness or sanctification as primarily involving devotion. He writes:

“To be holy, to be sanctified, therefore, to be a ‘saint’, is in simple terms to be devoted to God.” (p.4)

This is not exactly your typical book on sanctification (not that books on that particular subject are by any means common to begin with). As Ferguson himself puts it in his Introduction:

“This is not so much a ‘how to’ book as it is a ‘how God does it’ one. It is not one dominated by techniques for growing in holiness.”

What sets this book on holiness apart (Yes, that was a pun!) is that Ferguson provides us with what he calls a “manual of biblical teaching on holiness” (xi) that is almost entirely passagetical and exegetical. In other words, each chapter deals with a particular passage of Scripture on the subject of sanctification, and largely consists of an exegesis or interpretation of that passage.

That is not to say that there is not a systematic bent or logical progression of topics from one chapter to the next, merely that the overall thrust of the book is exegetical rather than strictly systematic. This, I think, is one of the real strengths of the book.

The passages that he deals with are as follows:

  • 1 Peter 1:1-25
  • Romans 12:1-2
  • Galatians 2:20
  • Romans 6:1-14
  • Galatians 5:16-17
  • Colossians 3:1-17
  • Romans 8:13
  • Matthew 5:17-20
  • Hebrews 12:1-14
  • Romans 8:29

You may notice that the above list consists exclusively of passages from the New Testament. While that is the case, Ferguson does refer to the Old Testament quite a bit throughout the book. If I were to nitpick, the only (admittedly small) thing that I would question would be the absence of a text from the epistles of the Apostle John.

Exegetical books can at times be a bit tedious to read, especially for the lay person, but this volume is not written like an exegetical commentary. Instead, it is both scholarly and accessible, which is one of the many strengths of this book. It serves as a basic introduction to the subject of sanctification, all the while teaching or modeling for the reader the ‘how to’ of exegesis or interpretation as a bonus of sorts.

So if you are looking for a helpful book on the subject of holiness or sanctification, and one that drives you more directly into a study of the Scriptures themselves, this is just the book for you! Read it devotionally, one chapter at a time. Read it with your Bible open in front of you as well. Either way just read it – you will be glad that you did!

You can order a copy for yourself here: Devoted to God

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Helpful Resources on Holiness & Sanctification

Books on Holiness.jpgI recently remarked in a sermon that if you were to go to a typical Christian bookstore, you would almost certainly find shelf after shelf of books on any number of subjects, including such things as finances, politics, psychology, raising children, successful living, and even Christian health or diet books (!). On top of it all, you would surely find all kinds of Christian fiction. But what about books about holiness? (The old saying about finding a needle in a haystack comes to mind.)

Thankfully, there are some really helpful books on the subject of holiness. Here are just a handful of them (in no particular order):

  1. Holiness, by J.C. Ryle. This is one of my all-time favorite books. It is a classic, and for good reason. It is one of those books, that I find myself turning to again and again.
  2. Rediscovering Holiness, by J.I. Packer. This was a real eye-opener for me. This was the book where I first learned that gratitude for God’s grace in the gospel of Christ is the primary motive for obedience for a Christian.
  3. The Pursuit of Holiness, by Jerry Bridges. Bridges is always, solidly-biblical, accessible, read-able, and eminently-helpful. (Is that enough hyphens and superlatives?) Another really good book by him on a similar subject – The Discipline of Grace.
  4. The Hole In Our Holiness, by Kevin DeYoung. If you are looking for a book to help you understand the Christian life – the what, why, and how of pursuing holiness and following Christ, then I highly recommend this book to you! (See my review here.)
  5. The Mortification of Sin, by John Owen. Owen can often be somewhat difficult to read, but this abridged version is an exception to that rule, and is tremendously helpful.

There are doubtless many other great books on the subject that are available (even if they aren’t the best-sellers in our day), but I hope that this short list of some of my favorites will be enough to help get you started!

The Elephant in the Room – Sexual Immorality & the Christian

elephantWhat is God’s standard for the sexuality of the Christian? The Apostle Paul doesn’t mince words – he gets right to the point. In Ephesians 5:3 he writes,

“But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.”

Here we are told that sexual immorality is not even be “named” among us! Now Paul isn’t saying that it should never be the subject of conversation among us (although he deals with filthy talk and dirty jokes in v.4). He himself is bringing up the subject in this very letter, so that can’t be his point. What he is saying is that sexual immorality should be so exceedingly rare in the lives of believers so as to be unheard of among us. It should be so rare that if someone were to accuse one of us of sexual immorality, no one would believe it because it would seem absurd.

But is that the case in today’s church?  Is anyone (inside or outside of the church) really shocked or even more than a bit surprised to hear a report of sexual immorality within the church? Sadly, I think not.

Ask yourself this simple question: If someone were to accuse you of sexual immorality, what would the people who know you think? Would they have a legitimate reason to think it might be true?

Sexual immorality in the church is the proverbial elephant in the room – it is the thing that everyone knows is there, but hardly anyone wants to acknowledge it or talk about. Maybe we are hoping that if we ignore it, it will just go away. It is the scandal of today’s evangelical church. How many professing Christians these days seem to think nothing of committing fornication, cohabitation, adultery, and even sodomy! How many “good Christian girls” get pregnant out of wedlock (and all too often not just once) without the slightest hint of church discipline being initiated for the repentance and restoration of the persons involved? In this we have become conformed to the world.

How has this mindset crept into the church? In our day preachers and teachers in the church often avoid the subject altogether for fear of offense. Or in many cases churches and even entire denominations go so far as to explicitly deny or contradict the plain teaching of Scripture on this matter. This should not be so.

Paul goes even further – he even includes our words. Not only should our lives be free from impurity of filthiness, but our speech should be free from it as well! In v.4 he writes,

“Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.”

A dirty mind expresses itself not only through filthy conduct, but also through filthy speech, foolish talk, and crude humor. Such things are truly “out of place” for those who call ourselves “Christians.” And what should take the place of filthy conversation? Paul says, “ . . .but instead let there be thanksgiving.” Why thanksgiving? Thanksgiving is what should describe the heart attitude of the Christian toward God’s good gift of sex within marriage between a man an a woman. Sex itself is not a shameful, unspeakable, dirty subject. It is a gift of our loving God, and it is not to be abused, twisted, or distorted.

Christians are not anti-sex. The Bible is not anti-sex. We are against sexual immorality. We are for celebrating and sanctifying God’s good gift of sex within the bounds where God has reserved it – between one man and one woman in marriage, which is also a gift from our Creator.

One of the things that should set believers apart from the world around us is sexual purity. In 1 Thessalonians 4:3 Paul writes, ” For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality.” Abstaining from sexual immorality is the will of God for our lives; it is our “sanctification” – the thing that marks us as being set apart unto the Lord. It is not the only important aspect of our sanctification by any means, but it is so important that Paul seems to sum up our sanctification under that one category!

May God grant His church grace and repentance, so that sexual immorality will become so rare as to be unheard of among us. To Him be the glory.

The Manifold Helps to Holiness in the Church

Gospel Mystery

In his book, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, Puritan author Walter Marshall (1628-1680) gives us no less than six (6) ways in which the fellowship of the saints in the local church is conducive toward growth in holiness and sanctification (p.211-212):

1.  The Word and Sacraments (i.e. the means of grace in public worship), as well as the ministry of pastors and elders in overseeing and caring for our souls (Hebrews 13:17) are a great help to believers in striving to grow in holiness. But how rarely do we consider the ministry of the local church in public worship or in pastoral oversight when it comes to our desire to grow in holiness? Marshall points out that none of these helps unto holiness can be enjoyed outside of the fellowship of believers in the church. If you desire to grow in grace and holiness, do not overlook the importance of the local church.

2.  Mutual Prayer – How great a blessing it is when believers not only pray, or even pray for one another, but also pray with one another? What a support and encouragement that can be! And how much greater when the whole church gathers to pray together!

3.  Mutual Admonition, Instruction, and Consolation – It is not without reason that Scripture so often tells us of the importance of “one another” ministry among believers in the church. We are to let the Word of Christ dwell among us richly, which includes “teaching and admonishing one another” (Colossians 3:16). And one of the reasons that the writer of the book of Hebrews tells us not to neglect to meet together is that we might “stir up one another to love and good works” (10:24-25). Marshall writes,

“In church fellowship there are many helpers, many to watch. Soldiers have their security in company [i.e. numbers]; and the church is compared to an army with banners (Song vi. 4, 10). So, for quickening affections, Iron sharpeneth iron (Prov. xxvii. 17)” (p.212).

So it is not just the pastors and elders who are of great assistance to us in our growth in godliness, but the entire church! We are each to be bother helper and helped!

4.  External Supports – When suffering afflictions, how greatly it helps us to have shoulders to lean upon or cry upon. Simply put, we bear each others burdens in the church.

5.  Excommunication (!) – Yes, you read that correctly. Excommunication is a benefit of being a part of a local church? So what difference is there between that and just not getting involved in the church in the first place? As Marshall explains,

This ordinance is appointed for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved (1 Cor. v. 5). Better and more hopeful it is, to be cast out by the church, for a person’s amendment [i.e. repentance and restoration], than to be wholly without the church at all times; and better to be a lost sheep than a goat or swine . . . ” (p.212).

6.  The Lively Examples of the Saints – How helpful it is to have godly examples set before our eyes throughout our days. And how often is this very thing actually neglected by those churches who seem to undervalue the elderly in our churches, all in the name of the supposed importance of youth. Both are important to be sure (as saints of all ages are), but how much more do the younger need to learn from the older! The dear senior saints who have walked with the Lord Jesus Christ for a great many years have much to teach the younger believers, who are often just taking baby steps in the faith.

Marshall has a lot more to say about the way of sanctification, and I highly recommend this book to you. But I hope that this small sample of what he has to say about it gives you a renewed appreciation for the importance of the church in the Christian life.

Shepherds Quake at the Sight (Have Yourself a Scary Little Christmas?)

Angel (Not Exactly)Did you know that there is a scary part of the Christmas story? (I know, I’ve never seen that part included in the children’s Christmas play either.) For the shepherds spoken of in Luke’s Gospel, part of the story was actually downright terrifying. Luke 2:8-9 says,

“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.” (ESV)

Remember, this was the night watch – the shepherds were “keeping watch over their flock by night” (v.8). It was dark outside, probably very cold, and all of a sudden there was before them “an angel of the Lord.” The Greek word in v.9 that is translated as “appeared” in the ESV has the idea of overtaking someone or coming upon them suddenly.  And v.9 also tells us that “the glory of the Lord shone around them” as well. (As if the angel were not enough already!) In Acts chapter 9 we are told that the glory of the Lord was so bright that it actually knocked Saul (later known as Paul) to the ground (v.3-4). Later in Acts 22:6 Paul says that this took place at “about noon” – the middle of the day! How bright would a light need to be at high noon to knock someone to the ground?!? 

So how did the shepherds react to all of this? They were terrified – afraid for their lives! Verse 9 literally says that they “feared a great fear.” Why were they afraid? Was it just because they were startled? The angel himself was certainly a big part of it. You have to understand that angels in Scripture are not little Hallmark card cherubs – the real McCoys would look very out of place on a Valentine. They are powerful spiritual beings. In v.13 when Luke describes the heavenly choir as “a multitude of the heavenly host” he is using military imagery. It was an army of angels. The heavenly host praising God for His glory and grace probably sounded a lot more like a company of Marines drilling on the parade field than a soprano boys choir.

And it was not like the shepherds realized that it was an angel of the Lord and then relaxed, saying, “Whew! It’s just an angel!” Far from it! It is no coincidence that this is already the 3rd time in the book of Luke where an angel appears to someone bearing a message of the gracious favor of God, only to have to tell them not to be afraid (Zechariah – the father of John the Baptist – Luke 1:13, Mary, the mother of Jesus – Luke 1:30). Angels are powerful servants of God who are fearsome to behold.

But the shepherds were also afraid because “the glory of the Lord shone around them” (v.9). They were ultimately afraid because they were sinners in the presence of a holy God. The glory of God is terrifying to sinners – and we are all sinners. Even the prophet Isaiah, when he got a glimpse of the glory of the LORD in a vision, cried out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”(Isaiah 6:5). When we are faced with the glory and holiness of God we suddenly realize that we ourselves are anything but holy.  Outside of Christ we all have good reason to fear. If you are outside of Jesus Christ, you are unholy. And Hebrews 12:14 says, “without holiness no one will see the Lord” (NIV). In the King James Version 2 Corinthians 5:11 says, “Knowing, therefore, the terror of the Lord, we persuade men.” That is why later in that same passage Paul described himself as an ‘ambassador for Christ,’ imploring with sinners on behalf of God to be reconciled to Him (v.20).

So why then was the angel able to rightly tell the shepherds not to be afraid? Was it because they were actually really good people? Was it because they were religious enough? Were they wrong to be afraid? None of the above. The only reason that the shepherds were rightly able to “fear not” (v.10) was because of the message that the angel brought. In v.10-12 we read,

“And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.””

Who was this baby Jesus and why was His birth such good news for sinners? First, He is the “Savior” (v.11). He came so that sinners like you and me could be made right with a holy God. And He did that by dying in our place on the cross and taking the wrath of God that we deserve upon Himself so that we might be forgiven and accepted as righteous in God’s sight! Second, Jesus is the “Christ” (v.11). That is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word, “Messiah,” which means “anointed one” or “chosen one.” Jesus is the One who was the foretold and promised Redeemer all through the pages of the Old Testament. He is the centerpiece of all of human history, and the only Mediator between God and man. Third, this Savior is also “the Lord” (v.11). This baby in the manger who would grow up to be a man, lead a perfectly sinless life, suffer under Pontius Pilate, be crucified, die, be buried, and rise from the dead on the third day is none other than the Son of God Himself! That is the good news of the gospel! God is for us in the Savior, Jesus Christ!

That is the good news that turned the “great fear” of the shepherds (v.9) into great rejoicing in the Lord (v.20). Only the gospel can do that! Only the message of Jesus Christ can take away the terror that sinners rightly feel in the presence of a holy God and replace it with great joy in His presence at being forgiven and accepted by Him through faith in Jesus. Only the message of true peace on earth (v.14) can bring such joy to the heart of a sinner.

Book Review: The Hole In Our Holiness

9781433533341m

Kevin DeYoung’s book, The Hole In Our Holiness (2012, Crossway) is one of the most helpful books that I have read in a long time regarding the Christian life.

In its brief 146 pages, DeYoung puts the horse (the gospel) firmly before the cart (living the Christian life), as it should be.  The cart can never truly get very far without the horse!  In our day it seems that many pastors and writers either put the cart before the horse (or practically omit the gospel altogether) by legalistic or moralistic teaching, or they focus on the gospel nearly to the point of omitting the cart (what can often amount to a soft form of antinomianism).  DeYoung ably shows that the writers of Scripture did no such thing – they taught doctrine and practice, faith and life – and that in the correct order.

So this book is both instructive and corrective.  He shows us that the right motivation and fuel for living the Christian life (to borrow Jerry Bridge’s phrase – the pursuit of holiness) is the gospel of Jesus Christ.  We who are in Christ have been saved by God for God – for holiness (chapter 2).  He also shows the correct biblical relationship between the gospel and the law of God (chapter 4).    In this chapter he fights against the unbiblical extremes of both legalism and antinomianism.

He notes what should be common knowledge among Christians today, but often is just not clearly understood – that sanctification, while a work of God’s grace in the lives of all true believers, still takes effort on our part.  He writes,

It is the consistent witness of the New testament that growth in godliness requires exertion on the part of the Christian. (p.88)

Amen to that!  Growth in godliness doesn’t just happen; it isn’t just automatic.  There is no “cruise control” or “autopilot” in the Christian life.

There is also a chapter devoted to the topic of “Saints And Sexual Immorality” (chapter 8).  This section is sadly all too necessary in our day and age.  DeYoung notes that often when it comes to sexual immorality, those within the church just do not seem much different from those without.  He writes,

If we could transport Christians from almost any other century to any of today’s “Christian” countries in the West, I believe what would surprise them most (besides our phenomenal affluence) is how at home Christians are with sexual impurity. It doesn’t shock us. It doesn’t upset us. It doesn’t offend our consciences. In fact, unless it’s really bad, sexual impurity seems normal, just a way of life, and often downright entertaining. (p.108)

If you are looking for a book to help you understand the Christian life – the what, why, and how of pursuing holiness and following Christ, then I highly recommend this book to you!  It is easily the best book on that subject that I have read in quite some time. (Other helpful books on the subject include J.I. Packer’s book, Rediscovering Holiness, Jerry Bridges’ book, The Discipline of Grace, and J.C. Ryle’s classic book, Holiness.)

You can order a copy here: The Hole In Our Holiness

“At Home” In Sin?

Murray

Some strong, but ever-so-timely words from the late John Murray (1898-1975) regarding the effectual calling of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers:

“If we find ourselves at home in the ungodliness, lust, and filth of this present world, it is because we have not been called effectually by God’s grace.” (John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, p.92)

What is effectual calling?  The Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q.31) defines it as “the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convicting us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, He does persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.”

So in other words, if we (to use Murray’s phrase) still “find ourselves at home in the ungodliness, lust, and filth of this present world” it shows that the Holy Spirit has not worked in us to convict us of our sin and misery.  Sinners who are “at home” in sin do not perceive the sinfulness of sin.  Sinners who are “at home” in sin do not see it as the source of their misery.

And so Murray is also saying that being “at home” in sin is also evidence that one has not truly been enlightened in the knowledge of Christ, nor has he or she truly embraced Jesus Christ by faith as He is freely offered to us in the gospel.  All this is to say that being “at home” in sin is evidence that one is not yet truly a believer in Christ at all.

Are you “at home” in sin?  Then, simply put, you are not yet a Christian.

But there is a world of difference between being “at home” in sin (in other words, seeing nothing wrong with it, being quite comfortable in it), and being a believer who simply struggles with sin.  Struggling with sin shows that one is convicted that it is, in fact, sin.  Struggling with sin shows that one is convicted of the misery of sin.

If you are a believer in Jesus Christ and are struggling with sin, welcome to the club!  You are in some pretty good company.  Even the Apostle Paul himself struggled with sin!  Look at his words in Romans 7:15-23 (ESV):

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.

Sound familiar? Feel familiar?

And what was his solution?  Look at what he wrote in the next two verses:

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Romans 7:24-25 ESV)

When you feel the weight of your struggle with sin, let that drive you all the more to Jesus Christ.  Cling to Him by faith.  Thanks be to God through Jesus our Lord, for He is the One who will deliver us from this body of death!