Sanctification

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

Advertisements

Sinclair Ferguson on the Law and Love

devoted7a-810x1280__82818.1478970628.315.315Many in our day seem to pit law and love against each other, as if love somehow renders the law of God unnecessary, or as if rules and relationships (or loving ones anyway)  were mutual exclusive. But is this the biblical way of looking at it? What is the right way to view the relationship between law (specifically the ten commandments) and love?

In his book, Devoted to God, Sinclair Ferguson writes,

“In fact love was always at the heart of God’s law. It was given by love to be received in love and obeyed through love. The divine commandments could be summed up in the great commandment to love God with heart, soul, and strength. Thus Jesus himself teaches that if we love him we will keep his commandments. Paul adds that rather than nullify[ing] the law the gospel strengthens it. Moreover specific laws from the Decalogue are almost casually sprinkled throughout the New Testament. Not only does love not abolish the law, but the law commands love!” (p.162-163)

Even in the very text of the ten commandments themselves this is explicitly stated. Look at the text of the 2nd commandment (as stated in Exodus 20:4-6):

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (ESV, italics mine)

Those who commit the sin of idolatry are said to “hate” God. Why? Because they commit idolatry. In other words, if they truly loved God, they would not commit idolatry (or have other Gods before Him, or take His name in vain, etc.). Love, in many ways, is defined by its actions. So while love certainly involves more than our outward actions (i.e. it includes right motives), it does not involve less than our outward actions (i.e. it doesn’t render them meaningless or unnecessary).

And how does God Himself describe those who love Him? As those who “love me and keep my commandments” (v.6). So love and commandment-keeping go together – and they always have. And (as the saying goes), what God has joined together, let no man separate.

Sinclair Ferguson on Union with Christ

devoted7a-810x1280__82818.1478970628.315.315In his book, Devoted to God, Sinclair Ferguson makes an “staggering” observation about how often the Apostle Paul used language in his epistles denoting the doctrine of the believer’s union with Christ. He writes,

“Contrast Paul’s frequent use of the specific expression ‘in Christ’ (over eighty times), and ‘in the Lord’ (over forty times), not to mention the variations of it such as ‘in him.’ The statistic is staggering. It is the basic way Christians in the Pauline churches were taught to think about themselves. They were ‘in Christ’, united to Christ, and therefore sharing ‘with Christ’ in all that he had accomplished for them. After all, as we have seen, they had been ‘baptized into Christ Jesus.’ (p.114)

Think about that for a moment. By Ferguson’s count, not even including Paul’s frequent use of phrases like “in him” (e.g. Ephesians 1:4, 7, 11), that adds up to no less than 120 times that the Apostle Paul used language related to the believer’s union with Christ!

No wonder John Murray once wrote that, “Union with Christ is really the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation not only in its application but also in its once-for-all accomplishment in the finished work of Christ” (Redemption Accomplished and Applied, p.161). Do we think about our union with Christ in such terms, as being central to the whole doctrine of salvation?  Or do we read through the epistles of Paul and simply pass right over such phrases, either not noticing them in the first place, or not giving them much thought at all?

The next time that you are reading through one of the epistles of Paul, take some time to note (highlight?) the numerous times that you come across such phrases as “in Christ”, “in Him”, and the like. You may be surprised to see that the doctrine of union with Christ, as central as it is to the biblical doctrine of salvation, has been hiding under your nose in plain sight all this time!

“The Master of the Jigsaw Puzzle of Our Lives” (Sinclair Ferguson on the Providence of God)

devoted7a-810x1280__82818.1478970628.315.315In his book, Devoted to God, Sinclair Ferguson includes a chapter dealing with what Romans 12:1-2 has to say about the doctrine of sanctification.  In v.2 the Apostle Paul says the following:

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (ESV)

There Paul describes the will of God as “good and acceptable and perfect.” Now this passage, strictly speaking, primarily refers to what is known as the preceptive will of God. That is, the will of God as it has been revealed in Scripture regarding how we as believers in Christ are to live. We are to seek to discern and do the will of God. And in doing so, we will find His will to be good, acceptable, and perfect.

But, as Ferguson points out, this passage also has application to the will of God in general, and so even to what is known as His secret or decretive will. And so that means that it has application to the providence of God as well. He writes,

” . . .God’s will is ‘perfect’ because his wisdom is flawless. We see this in small things, perhaps sometimes in great things. The Lord is the master of the jigsaw puzzle of our lives. The pieces may be strangely shaped; often we cannot see how they fit together; but eventually when the big picture is complete we will see that each piece was perfectly shaped. He leads us by ways we could not have guessed, into situations we never expected, to fulfil [sic] purposes we never could have imagined.” (p.52)

What a beautiful way to describe the believer’s perception of God’s providential care over his or her life. It is sometimes very difficult for us to understand what God is doing in our lives. But God truly is the “master of the jigsaw puzzle of our lives.” And He knows what He is doing in our lives, even when we do not. It brings to mind the old, classic hymn by William Cowper, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” One of the verses of that hymn puts it this way:

“Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.”

What a comfort to know that the will of God is indeed perfect, and that behind every frowning providence He hides a smiling face. Our lives may sometimes seem like a jigsaw puzzle to us, but never to God!

A Mutilated Faith

calvin-commentaryWhat does it mean to believe in Jesus Christ? What is faith? The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines faith as follows:

Q. 86. What is faith in Jesus Christ?
A. Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.

So saving faith is faith that ‘receives and rests upon’ Christ alone for salvation. And true saving faith receives and rests upon Christ “as he is offered to us in the gospel.” It must be said that much of what often passes as preaching of the gospel of Christ does not fit that description. For how is Christ offered to us in the gospel? Is Christ offered as the Savior from the penalty of sin only, or as the Savior from sin – from its penalty, power, and (in the life to come), even its very presence?

The Scriptures plainly tell us that Jesus came to save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21), and that His gospel is sent forth to offer both forgiveness and sanctification (Acts 26:18). Clearly, then, Christ is offered to us in the gospel both for our justification as well as our sanctification, and He must be received as such.

Calvin (in commenting on Romans 8:13), puts it this way:

“It is, indeed, true, that we are justified in Christ by the mercy of God alone, but it is equally true and certain, that all who are justified are called by the Lord to live worthy of their vocation. Let believers, therefore, learn to embrace Him, not only for justification, but also for sanctification, as He has been given to us for both these purposes, that they may not rend him asunder by their own mutilated faith.” (Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 10, p.167)

Those who would believe in Christ for justification alone (i.e. for forgiveness and acceptance before God as righteous as in His sight), but not also for sanctification, have a (to use Calvin’s phrase) “mutilated faith” that effectively seeks to ‘rend Christ asunder’ (or split Him in two). But a divided faith in a divided Christ saves no one. So let us learn, as Calvin says, to embrace Christ for sanctification as well as justification, for “he has been given to us for both these purposes.”

John Owen on the Incomprehensibility of God

mortificationofsinJohn Owen (1616-1683) is often referred to as “the Prince of the Puritans.” The more I read of his considerable works, the more I wish he had put together a volume(s) of systematic theology. In reading through his various writings, though, one could nearly cobble one together. (Perhaps a new book idea for one of the accomplished Puritan scholars of our day?)

For instance, in one of his most well-known works, The Mortification of Sin, he touches on the subject of the incomprehensibility of God. I dare say that if one wanted to know Owen’s view on that great and humbling subject, The Mortification of Sin would probably not be the first volume of his writings that would spring to mind.

There he writes,

“First, we know so little of God because it is God we are seeking to know. God Himself has revealed Himself as one who cannot be known. He calls Himself invisible, incomprehensible, and the like. We cannot fully know Him as He is. Our progress often consists more in knowing what He is not, than what He is. He is immortal and infinite and we are only mortal, finite, and limited.” (p.92)

Now when he says that God “cannot be known,” he is not saying that we cannot know God truly, or that God is completely unknowable. After all, note that he says that “God Himself has revealed Himself” as such. So we can most certainly know God as He has revealed Himself, but we can never fully or comprehensively know God, primarily because He is infinite, and we (as mere creatures) are finite.

It is surely no accident that this quote is found in a chapter on “Humility.” And, considering the subject matter of the book as a whole (i.e. mortifying sin, per Romans 8:13), we can see how eminently practical even the biblical view of the incomprehensibility of God can be! Who says that theology isn’t practical!

Note: While there may not be a volume available (yet?) on the systematic theology of John Owen in particular, there is a truly outstanding book available that pieces together something of a systematic theology of the Puritans in general. That book is A Puritan Theology, by Joel Beeke and Mark Jones.

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!