Since I have benefited greatly from Sinclair Ferguson’s ministry, I decided to read what I can find from his mentor William Still. I was given a copy of The Work of the Pastor and have been working my way through that when I have time. I recently purchased Towards Spiritual Maturity: Overcoming All the Evil in the Christian Life. I had some extra time to read so I did just that. It was worth my investment of time.
It is not a long book, being less than 100 pages. But we cannot judge the significance of a book by its size. What matters is what is found inside. This is a great little book on sanctification.
He starts with a short chapter called He is Our Peace. Sanctification necessarily starts with justification. We are sanctified because we have been justified, not so we can be justified. Still notes that the greatest blessing of the gospel is peace, he calls it the foundation stone, and top stone of our Christian experience. While in justification God imputes Christ’s righteousness to us, in sanctification he imparts righteousness to us. He makes us like Jesus.
“The laws tell us what God is like. They also imply that since God is like this, holy and righteous, he desires his creatures to be like this also.”
He begins to explore the three dimensions of the work of Christ in his death upon the cross. The first is the removal of sins. Jesus must deal with our guilt and condemnation. I’ve recently come across people arguing that Jesus died for sin, not sins (trying to justify an Amyraldian view of the atonement). He must deal with both, not just one or the other (as I argued back). If he only deals with our condition, we are still guilty for our actual sins which stand between us and God. We must have peace with God, which was broken by our sins, and Christ re-establishes this in dying for our sins.
God still hates the sins of saints. The penal consequences have been removed by Christ. But our sin as Christians creates an estrangement as between the Father and his children. We are still in relationship with him. Justification is not undone by our post-conversion sins. But the degree of fellowship we enjoy is affected, prompting us to confess those sins. This is why, in the church I pastor, we confess our sins as a part of our ordinary worship each week. The saint must continue to hate sin, in part, because God hates sin, and how our sin inhibits our fellowship with God.
The second dimension is overthrowing the reign of sin. This is just as important as the removal of our sins. Jesus also deals with our sinful condition. He deals with the root (sin) as well as its fruit (sins). When we preach the gospel to ourselves, we need to remind ourselves that Jesus not only forgives us, but has broken the power of sin in our lives. We are no longer compelled to sin. We have no obligation, or debt, to the sinful nature (that is one of Paul’s commonly used words in Romans with regard to our sanctification). In regeneration, as procured in the atonement, we have new resources for living the Christian life. We begin to live out the new identity we have in Christ from that regenerate (though still imperfect) nature we receive from him. We work it out because God is at work in us. Grace, received by faith, is at work in us.
“We do not deny the process of sanctification, but the process is but a drawing upon the resources imparted in the crisis, the new birth.”
The flesh, our sinful nature, remains but we must resist its influence over us. Every part of us has been renewed, but not yet renewed completely. The dregs of sin remain, tempting us. But there is a new internal principle as the Spirit leads us into righteousness. We reckon, or consider, ourselves dead to sin because of the work of Christ for us.
The third dimension is the defeat of Satan. That Christ is victor is only part of his work on the cross. We must not neglect this, nor should we make this the whole. For many evangelicals, this dimension is overlooked and ignored. This explains the push back by the emergent church at the expense of the first 2 dimensions. One extreme does not correct the other. We must embrace all the Scriptures teach about the atonement.
“Men overcame Satan, through Christ’s victory over him.”
The devil continues to work through the remnants of sin in us. He hides there, so to speak. We think we are only dealing with the flesh, but we are also dealing with him. We are no longer under his control, we no longer have to follow along with the world, but he seeks to steal from us the enjoyment of our salvation. He can hinder our growth in grace. He can obscure our experience of justification with his accusations.
The three dimensions of the work of Christ are the foundation for our training in spiritual warfare. Still moves to a short exposition of spiritual warfare from Ephesians 6. This is actually the bulk of the short book. He puts this in 3 parts: strategic retreat, unyielding defense and all-out-attack. There are parts of our lives that must be removed. At times we must flee. And from our new position we gain better understanding of his methods. We must know our enemy well so we may defeat him.
We must not be like the silly knights in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, always running away. There are times we must stand. Having learned his methods, we must stand our ground against him in the power and armor of the Lord. Here is where he brings Ephesians 6 to bear.
Here I found material that few speak about. I was reminded that my experience with temptation is not unusual- though the Enemy wants me to think it is.
“At this stage we may expect massive attacks upon basic virtues. We should not be surprised, even although we are appalled, at some of the impure and dishonest thoughts he causes to pass through our minds. These are not ordinary temptations of the flesh, although they may come through the flesh. … their sudden coming is generally related to some opportunity about to present itself for fruitful witness or service.”
Here we find why we have those temptations that come from out of the blue. There have been moments when I’ve had the most bizarre, depraved thoughts enter my mind. And usually on the brink of an opportunity. I can remember such an experience while traveling to Arizona for an interview with the congregation I now pastor. If he can get us to wallow in mis-placed guilt or shame, he cripples us at key moments. And try he does!
We must also engage in all-out-attack. We just the Word and prayer to bring the fight to him. We are not meant to merely withstand his assaults, but at times we bring the fight to him. Some of us are skilled in one of the two weapons, not both. But Jesus equips us with both through the Spirit. We must use both to effectively fight against him for our good and the good of others.
He ends with a few short chapters. One of them is on spiritual maturity. He gives a good definition of mature.
“It is love to Jesus, and enjoyment of God. This is the highest worship, highest maturity and highest service, all in one. It runs side by side, with the mighty warfare of intercession and with effective public service for Christ.”
Note the elements there: love for Christ, enjoyment of God, intercessory prayer and effective service. If we lack any of these we are not yet mature. As we grow in them we are maturing. Biblical knowledge is necessary for maturity but is not itself maturity. It is common to confuse them. It is a necessary means to maturity that must move us toward love, enjoyment, prayer and service.
This was a great little book. I can see how understanding this has helped a man like Sinclair Ferguson become a mature man in Christ. I have met a few “celebrity pastors” in my day. He is the one that most clearly struck me as a godly man. Unlike so many, his sins are not visible for all to see. I’m sure, like Paul, he views himself as the biggest sinner he knows. He sees the corruption of his heart, but he has also learned to withstand the enemy, and take the fight to him. This is a book I will have to read periodically.