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Posts Tagged ‘assurance of salvation’


In 1980, Sinclair Ferguson published Add to Your Faith. In 1981 this was republished in the U.S. under the title Taking Your Faith Seriously. In his introduction to Maturity: Growing Up and Going On in the Christian Life, he calls it a “young man’s book.” As a result, Maturity is not simply an old book with a new title, but a re-working of the old book to reflect his greater understanding and wisdom 40 years later. Having not read the original version of this book, I am not qualified to compare the two volumes. I will, however, say this is a much-needed and excellent book.

Similar to Devoted to God, Ferguson notes that he prefers passages to proof-texts as his method. In Devotion, he used a passage that illustrates one of the illustrates an aspect of sanctification. This book is not structured that way, but as he approaches aspects of Christian maturity he looks a themes in books, focusing on a few passages instead of exegeting one passage. The 12 chapters are organized into 5 sections: Growing Up, Standing Firm, Facing Difficulties, Pressing On and Maturity.

In the first section, Growing Up, Ferguson tackles the topics of the Importance of Maturity, the Symptoms of Decay and Abiding in Christ. As indicated by the final chapter in this section, there is a strong emphasis on union & fellowship with Christ as essential to growing up in Christ. We are getting a bit ahead of ourselves in this matter. Maturity does take time and effort (an effort born of that mystical union with Christ, not an effort of the flesh). He begins with some of the hindrances of maturity including contemporary society, our personal history, “Christian” influences that don’t value maturity or communicate the process. Discipleship is not about quick returns, but delayed gratification. We are setting our hopes on God’s promises relating to the future which are often fulfilled when we see the Lord either thru death or His return. They are not all about the present or immediate future.

Ferguson points us to Jesus who also grew into maturity (Luke 2:42). He’s not simply our example, but the source of the resources necessary through the aforementioned union. As man, he was a real man who grew in wisdom and stature. He was a boy as a child, not a man in a boy’s body. Ferguson then surveys a number of epistles to show the importance and need of maturity. We see the great importance of love, and our need to hear the Word preached if we are to become mature.

“The disease diagnosed here is a failure in concentration, an inability to fix the heart and mind on Christ and to make him the chief object of devotion and attention.”

Decay is indicated by attention deficit, the inability to concentrate on spiritual matters. We become governed by our desires instead of the will of God. He also notes a poor appetite as a symptom of decay. This of course is about whether we are feasting on the Word or the world and its delights. One of these will shaping our thinking, desires/values and will/choices. When we are not chewing on Scripture, we begin to be conformed to the world instead of transformed by the renewing of our minds.

“Secret failure cannot remain hidden. If we do not deal with our indwelling sin, it will eventually catch up with us. We may disguise it for a while, but we will lack the perseverance to do so permanently; one day our spiritual failure will become clear.”

Another symptom is a lack of discernment, the inability to spot the problems in a teacher’s doctrine or practice. This doesn’t mean we should all be discernment bloggers, but that we do practice discernment: affirming what is good while rejecting what is bad. It is a rejection of man-made rules, and a dependence upon the grace of God. Weakness of worship is another sign of decay. We look for the pep rally instead of worshiping the exalted Christ who suffered for us, and calls us to suffering.

The third chapter in this section focuses on John 15 and the parable of the vine. We are branches that are grafted in, and this provides a picture of life-giving union with Jesus. The Father prunes us for greater fruitfulness thru providences and interventions. He begins to remove that which is unhelpful for our spiritual life and maturity, as well as shaping and molding us. Abiding with Christ is connected to having His Word dwell in you richly. He returns to the subject of feasting and chewing on the Scripture to gain nurturing truth.

“We need to learn to see our lives within his purposes and plans, not to think of him as fitting into ours!”

Standing Firm focuses on assurance and guidance. Moving toward maturity requires that we are assured of our salvation, and receive proper guidance from God. Otherwise we flounder wondering if we are saved and what we should do with our selves. He develops the idea, as he did in The Whole Christ, of faith as a direct activity and assurance as a reflex activity of faith. To we saved we must be sure that He saves those who believe, and believe. Assurance as a reflex activity has to do with whether or not Jesus has saved us because we believed, not simply whether there is salvation in Christ. Calvin focused on the objective assurance of faith as necessary. The reflex activity, which is reflected in the Westminster Confession of Faith, not necessary, nor infallible (some sure they are saved are not because their certainty is based on something other than Jesus’ person and works). Ferguson spends time exploring Romans 8 to see the foundations of our assurance through the series of questions that Paul asks. If we are in Christ, no one can accuse us, condemn us or separate us from Christ. Opposition while seemingly great, is unable to thwart God and his purposes for us.

He then looks to some obstacles to assurance of salvation, also focusing on Romans 8 (Kevin DeYoung, for instance, goes to 1 John). He reflects the Westminster Confession, again. One is an inconsistent life as a Christian. He’s not talking about the presence of temptation, but the practice of unholiness. Forgetfulness of the indwelling Spirit is another obstacle for assurance. We can also be confused by suffering which often makes us think God does not love us.

Ferguson then looks at marks of assurance. They are laid out as:

  1. Satisfaction with God’s way of salvation.
  2. A new sense of security in Christ stimulates a new desire to serve him.
  3. Assurance fills our hearts with love for Christ.
  4. Boldness to live our lives for Christ.

“God does guide his people.” The question for the chapter is how God guides his people. We have to recognize that we won’t and can’t always understand what God is doing or up to in our lives. We can have guidance, but we won’t have comprehension. To illustrate the general views of guidance, Dr. Ferguson points us to the differences between Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. The point of using them is that neither was an extremist and is esteemed within the Reformed community most likely to read Ferguson’s book. Whitefield was prone to rely on “impressions”. Edwards focused on “the application of the precepts and principles of his word.” During an overnight stay in Northampton by Whitefield, the two talked about this. Edwards was concerned about the dependence on this sudden impulses. How do we know they are from God unless they are consistent with biblical commands or principles. The Spirit may bring these things to mind when we need them, but we should still stop to consider whether that impression or impulse is consistent with Scripture properly understood. But this reliance on impulses is highly subjective, and God doesn’t speak to which legitimate job I should take, which single Christian woman I should marry, which house I should buy, etc. God reveals those not by impressions but largely through circumstances (which offer is better for me and my family overall, which woman actually wants to marry me, or which house can my spouse and I agree upon).

The difficulties we face, which God works for our maturity, are largely things we have little to no control over. These are realities that can often dismay and discourage Christians. We need to begin to see them from a different angle as under the providence of God who uses them for our good, even if they themselves are not good. Those difficulties he covers are sin, temptation, spiritual warfare and suffering.

“Sin is the internal enemy of spiritual growth.”

The sin in question is our original corruption, the sinful nature, the remaining presence of sin as a power in our hearts. This corruption which produces temptations and transgressions is one of God’s means to keep us humble, and amazed at the glory of the gospel. This is something that gets lost in the SSA discussion for some. Some seem to grossly minimize the problem of pride, and the great means God uses to root it out of our hearts.

“There is a profound correlation in the Christian life between the consciousness of sin and the realization of the wonder and power of the gospel. … Until we realize how great the weight of sin is, we will not make much progress in pursuing holiness without which we will never see the Lord (Heb. 12:14).” … He sets up an ongoing cycle in our lives, convicting us of sin in order to deepen his work of sanctification in us.”

In this chapter, Ferguson keeps returning to Psalm 119. It is the Word that exposes sin and its power, the Word that holds out gospel promises, and the Word that the Spirit uses for our sanctification thru these means.

His chapter, Overcoming Temptation, is probably the best in the book. I read this just after reading the PCA Report’s section on temptation, and thought they would have benefited from talking with Dr. Ferguson. This, while only one chapter, is great stuff. As one friend would say, he puts the cookies on the counter when the kids can reach them. The cookies being John Owen’s penetrating but heady work on this topic. He defines temptation, and notes that as such it is not sin (by this I believe he means transgression based on the larger context of the chapter). He speaks of indwelling sin remaining and producing an inclination and disposition to sin (verb, to transgress, or actual sin). In temptation, however, the enemy speaks as if we are already condemned. Maturity begins to tune this out, not in a way that minimizes the real danger we are in, but in a way that we don’t fall into the trap that means we might as well go ahead and sin anyway, or that we are so vile we are beyond hope because we experience such temptations.

“So the distinction between temptation and sin is vital theologically and also pastorally.”

He then explores Owen’s distinction between temptation and “entering into temptation.” In that process he explores the process of temptation.

Internal desires ==> stimulated further by the world ==> weakness exposed & opportunity for the devil to stimulate further

But the key to “entering into temptation” is a sentence I missed somehow in Owen that ties it together well.

“Whilst it knocks at the door we are at liberty; but when any temptation comes in and parleys with the heart, reasons with the mind, entices and allures the affections, be it a longer or shorter time, do it thus insensibly and imperceptibly, or do the soul take notice of it, we ‘enter into temptation’.” John Owen, Works, VI, 97

We enter into temptation, or transgress (I think he uses them interchangeably if we recall that transgressions include thoughts). There is a parley or dialogue instead of immediately saying “no” to temptation. We begin to argue with our temptation, or entertain that temptation. At this point the temptation becomes transgression.

In this context, Ferguson goes to David’s temptations regarding Bathsheba and Uriah for illustration and explanation. Then he shifts to the complementary accounts of the census to discuss the doctrine of concurrence in the context of temptation.

“Here, taking the statements together, God, Satan, and David are all involved in one and the same action. We should not try to resolve the tension here…”

In terms of overcoming temptation, he advocates watchfulness, prayer and being armed against the enemy. He then writes about spiritual warfare. Spiritual conflict is another difficulty we must face. He brings us to Ephesians 6, like so many other books I’ve read recently. Our ordinary life is the context, the setting, for our spiritual conflict. Here the Enemy seeks to disrupt and discourage. The conflict reminds us that we are intended, and only successful as a result, to depend upon the Lord’s provision to us in Christ for this warfare. As in other chapters, we see references to Pilgrim’s Progress. There is also the influence of William Still, his pastor while a student. The following sounds like a paragraph in Still’s book Towards Spiritual Maturity:

“… sudden sinful and distasteful thoughts and temptations; moments of feeling overwhelmed by a sense of darkness; doubts that appear in our minds from nowhere.”

Suffering can, sadly, define us. I’ve seen men crippled by suffering. By this I mean all roads lead to their particular and personal suffering. They seemed unable to really move beyond it. Their fixation stunts their growth. Forgetting our suffering can also stunt growth. Ferguson brings us back to Psalm 119 to show us that God intends us to learn from our suffering but not be ensnared by that suffering. He breaks it down this way:

  1. Affliction brings our spiritual needs to the surface.
  2. Affliction teaches us the ways of God.
  3. Affliction shows us the faithfulness of God.

Ferguson then brings us to Paul and his thorn to help us understand these realities in the flesh. It was a sharp pain in his life. He was “‘cuffed’ by it, beaten black and blue as it were.” Our usefulness for the future necessitates our prior suffering. We need to be changed, and shaped by that suffering.

“Satan desperately tries to drive the holy man insane.” John Calvin

Ferguson then moves into the areas we have more control over in the section Pressing On: service and endurance. Serving moves us beyond ourselves and our needs to the needs of others. He interacts with 1 Corinthians and Hebrews. God gives us grace to serve just like He gives us pardoning and purifying grace. He covers some of the pitfalls and dangers if we don’t deal with our selfishness when seeking to serve.

Crossing the finish line at the London Marathon (Image: Reuters)

The reality is that Christians must keep going to become mature. They keep running that race, by grace. Ferguson again provides some hindrances like indwelling sin, sluggishness, discouragement and more. He then provides some encouragements focusing on Christ who has run the race before us.

The book concludes with a short chapter on living maturely. In many ways he reiterates much of what he has already said. Maturity doesn’t mean “retirement” but continuing the life you’ve been living to the glory of God by the grace of God. As a result, the repetition makes sense.

This is a book drenched in Scripture that continually encourages the reader to dig into and chew on Scripture as one of the primary means of grace for maturity. This book also bleeds Bunyan and John Owen. Ferguson loves the Puritans, but his loves are not narrow. There is plenty of Calvin, as well as Augustine and other church fathers. He also refers to some recent books which means that Ferguson is reading in “community” past and present as Richard Pratt encouraged us as students.

Sinclair Ferguson provides us with another great book in his “retirement”. This book could well serve as Sinclair Ferguson on the Christian Life, thinking of the Crossway series. It makes the theological practical and pastoral as Ferguson usually does. It’s a keeper.

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My list differs in that I’m focused on books I actually read in 2017, not books released in 2017. I’ve got a variety of books in this list. It is not simply theology, Bible and ministry related. Perhaps there are some you will be prompted to read. I hope so, because you might benefit from them. So, here we go.

Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification by Sinclair Ferguson. This was probably the best book I read in 2017. Ferguson focuses on a series of texts that provide a framework for our sanctification. He does a great job of defining sanctification in terms of our devotion to God, and unpacking those texts. I highly recommend this book.

From the Mouth of God: Trusting, Reading and Applying the Bible by Sinclair Ferguson. Yes, another book by Sinclair Ferguson. This is an updated version of one of his earliest book. He addresses the authority of the Bible and how to benefit from reading it. Both novices and experienced readers of the Bible can benefit from it.

Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom by Carl Trueman. I’ve loved this series by Crossway. This is another impressive contribution by Trueman. He is not trying to repaint Luther to look like a 21st century evangelical. Luther places great stress on the Word of God in our worship and Christian living. It is an emphasis that should mark us more than it currently does.

Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever by Michael Horton. This  is another excellent volume in the series by Crossway. It is fairly theological, but not for theology’s sake. Like the Luther volume, we see the very different context in which the Christian live is lived. The church was close to the center of life for most people with services offered daily. Horton focuses on the story of redemption and how this shapes Calvin’s views. Not just a man of his times, Calvin was also a man ahead of his time.

Faith Seeking Assurance by Anthony Burgess. This Burgess is the Puritan, not the author of A Clockwork Orange. The focus of the book is assurance of salvation. Assurance is viewed subjectively (Calvin tends to view it objectively- assurance God saves sinners), meaning that God has saved this particular sinner. He holds to the view expressed in the Westminster Standards. In my review I note that this is not a perfect book, but that it is a very good and worthwhile book.

Keeping the Heart: How to Maintain Love for God by John Flavel. Another Puritan volume worth considering. It is not long but focuses on maintaining our love for God in a variety of difficult circumstances that Flavel lays out for us. He notes the particular temptation of each set of circumstances and provides means to help us maintain our love for God in them. This is a very good little book.

Good and Angry: Redeeming Anger, Irritation, Complaining and Bitterness by David Powlison. This book is unusual in that it doesn’t frame anger as essentially wrong. He does address our anger problems, tying them back to what we love. Often our anger problems reveal love problems. This was a very helpful book.

Making All Things New by David Powlison. This is a short book focused on God’s plan to restore our broken sexuality. He addresses both the sexual sinner and sexual victims though it is weighted toward the sinner. He is realistic as he views this within the framework of our sanctification. Though brief, it was helpful by providing an overview of God’s goals and purposes.

Dream with Me: Race, Love and the Struggle We Must Win by John Perkins. If you haven’t read any of John Perkins’ books before, this is a great place to begin. He is an activist for civil rights as viewed through the framework of the gospel. He sees Christ as the only real hope for racial reconciliation. The books is full of stories compiled according to the themes he explores.

Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God by Rankin Wilbourne. This is a very good and accessible book on the subject of union with Christ. It doesn’t address all that it could. What it does cover, it covers quite well. It is written for laypeople so you won’t get lost in abstraction or in over your head theologically.

Getting the Gospel Right: The Tie that Binds Evangelicals Together by R.C. Sproul. I read the recently updated volume which was originally published in the 1990’s. Sproul examined and critiqued the controversial Gift of Salvation document which followed after Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Generally winsome and irenic, Sproul explores the reality of the communion of saints and its connection to the doctrine of justification. In the process, R.C. sheds light on a recent theological controversy as well as the one we call the Reformation.

Rejoicing in Christ by Michael Reeves. I like Reeves’ books. He writes with a sense of humor, sense of history and wanting a doxological focus. This volume focuses on Christology and presents it in an interesting and accessible fashion.  This is a very helpful book for laypeople wanting to understand Christology.

Jonah (The Exegetical Commentary of the Old Testament) by Kevin Youngblood. This was my favorite commentary while preaching through Jonah this fall. It has a very good blend of exegesis and application. It strikes a very good balance. Knowledge of Hebrew was not essential to benefit from his discussion of the Hebrew text. He talked about how each passage fits within the canon of the Bible. I’m looking forward to other volumes in this series by Zondervan.

War Room: The Legacy of Bill Belichick and the Art of Building the Perfect Team by Michael Holley. Holley has written a number of books about the New England Patriots. So far, all the ones I’ve read have been interesting. This book focuses on the staff, though it includes some material about key players and the draft process.

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Sometimes “life” just gets in the way of all good intentions.

A few years ago I read Antinomianism by Mark Jones and when discussing the doctrine of assurance he mentioned Anthony Burgess (the Puritan, not the author of A Clockwork Orange). While reading The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson the subject and Burgess came up again in the footnotes. So I bought a copy of recently released version of Faith Seeking Assurance (FSA) by Burgess in the Puritan Treasures for Today.

While I finished reading the book in December, I went on vacation and returned to a crazy schedule that included preparing for a church trial, and presbytery meeting. I came down with “the” cold (I’m still coughing 4 weeks later), experienced a pastoral crisis or two, helped interview a church planter and we hosted a financial seminar. I think I am returning to normalcy and this review is still waiting for me.

That is how my brain works. I need to clear this out so I can move on to the next review of a book I just finished.

The doctrine of assurance is one of those neglected doctrines these days. Recently we’ve seen a spat of books about the Trinity and union with Christ which had been neglected for a long time. Maybe this doctrine will experience a literary resurgence. But until then … we pretty much have this book. Thankfully it is a very good book, but since I just worked thru this subject in the Westminster Standards for a SS class- there is more to be said.

FSA is a typically Puritan book in its style and structure. If you aren’t familiar with the Puritans, one way to describe them would be a dog with a bone, chewing, chewing, chewing. I’d say a cow chewing its cud, but that sounds too “gentle”. Perhaps another way of putting it is drilling down deep into a doctrine, looking at it from a variety of angles.

“… ecclesiastical discipline being to the church what the sword is to the Commonwealth.”

The assurance of which we speak is assurance as a reflex action- the assurance that we are saved by knowing we have believed and depend upon the merit of Christ. As a direct action, faith believes that God actually saves sinners. In this way, following Calvin, assurance is an element of faith.

“In his reflex acts of faith, the confidence that a believer has of the truth of grace wrought in him comes more from God’s Spirit removing his slavish fears and disposition and supporting the soul than it does from the excellence and beauty of grace within him.”

He begins with the necessity of assurance by bringing us to Corinth and Paul’s letters to them. Professing Christians can be quite content in their lusts. Paul advised them to examine themselves to see if they are in the faith rather than continue to exhibit presumption. In this way we differ from Roman Catholicism in which only those who receive a secret revelation can have such knowledge (think the saints, not ordinary Christians). But Scripture indicates we can know, and God generally wants His children to know that they are in fact saved.

Its advantage is likened to the man who has actually tasted honey and knows its sweetness experientially instead of simply theoretically. It provides a security in affliction, rather than a false security in our guilt. It also helps us to enjoy the sweetness of the sacraments, ceasing from useless arguments with others and focusing on your own heart (warning: we can be overly introspective however, and we are supposed to be looking outward to Christ who is our salvation), focusing on obedience and service. What gets in the way? He notes self-love, carnal confidence and the temptation to unbelief. We can also use false standards to determine whether or not we are saved.

“… some Christians rest in knowing the doctrine of the gospel and in the outward use of ordinances without ever feeling the weight of sin.”

From these introductory matters he spends time addressing the reality of hypocrites. Some have an historical faith: “They have the kind of historical faith that the devils possess. It is no real faith at all, but, at most, only a human assent.” There is intellectual agreement of a sort, but no resting in Christ. There are also those, like in the parable of the sower, who are temporary believers. They are part of the visible church, seem to be filled with joy, but eventually return to their sin and unbelief.

True Christians: “These Christians are incorporated into Christ’s body and so receive a vivifying influence from Him as a living branch in the vine or a living member in the body.”

One of the more interesting obstacles to gaining assurance that Burgess mentions is that we can resist the ministry of the Spirit to provide it. The basic notion is that the flesh resists all motions toward holiness, and all reception of spiritual blessings. Other obstacles are guilt over sins committed, temptations experienced and the Evil One who wants to destroy the joy of our salvation since he can’t actually destroy our salvation.

This means a believer may actually be saved, but not have assurance. They may have doubts and fears. But gaining assurance gives us greater peace and joy in our salvation.

Thomas Goodwin spoke of a father and son walking on the road. The father picks up the son, holds him and kisses him. The son was just as much his son when he was standing by the father, or even running from him. But his experience of being a son was better, more nurturing when the father held and kissed him. Assurance is like being held and kissed, our experience of salvation is sweeter. But we may still be saved even when we don’t experience this.

Burgess provides remedies for carnal confidence and directions for those who lack assurance. While God generally wants us to have assurance, it is not all He wants for us. He also wants us holy and humble. If assurance will make you proud or slothful at a given point in time, God may choose to withhold assurance for this greater good.

“We should not so gaze upon ourselves to find graces in our hearts that we forget those acts of faith whereby we immediately close with Christ and rely upon Him only for our justification.”

Assurance starts with the simple question, do you believe in Christ? If you don’t you have no ground for assurance. In seeing if you truly believe or have a counterfeit faith (see Edwards’ Charity and Its Fruits), you look to sanctification and whether common graces are at work in you. You aren’t looking for perfection, but progress. And in this someone else may help for often we see the sin, not the progress. In terms of common graces, is there a desire for worship, prayer, Bible reading, fellowship etc. These are faith at work. The desire for them is a work of the Spirit. The one who has never and doesn’t currently desire them has no grounds for assurance. There can be dry spells, and during them we generally don’t have assurance.

This is not a perfect book. It is a good and worthwhile book. For those who are not familiar with the Puritans, there is a learning curve. There is much to discover here, but I did find myself wanting more when I was done. Sadly, I can’t recall exactly what that more was. At this time, this and the chapters in The Whole Christ are the primary works on this important and often misunderstood subject.

 

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One of the things I appreciate about Sinclair Ferguson is how he combines astute theological thinking with pastoral wisdom. This characteristic is what makes his latest book, The Whole Christ so good, so timely and helpful.

It is also what makes reviewing this book so difficult. I started to review it, describing many of the great insights, distinctions, historical issues etc. that are in this book that the review was becoming a tome. It would be easy to have a short review that just doesn’t do the book justice, that doesn’t really give you a clear idea as to why you should read it. And you should!

The story of the book began decades ago when Ferguson delivered a number of messages on pastoral reflections of the Marrow Controversy at a conference. Over the years people have asked if he would put them in book form (I hadn’t seen him since I heard the lectures, so I just hoped and prayed). As he noted, and I have also discovered firsthand, it is much harder to adapt messages than to just write a book. The last person to ask him was Tim Keller. Ferguson’s retirement provided the opportunity. Having heard the lectures, I am thankful that it has come to pass. Having read the book, I am even gladder he did.

Ferguson brings us back to the Marrow Controversy that troubled the Church of Scotland in the 1700s. It was a controversy prompted, in part, by The Marrow of Modern Divinity by E.F. But it was really a disagreement about legalism, antinominanism and assurance in the Church of Scotland.

He necessarily interacts with the book, written years earlier but discovered by Thomas Boston, and how the controversy played out in the Church. He brings The Westminster Confession of Faith, various Puritans and John Calvin into the fray. Most importantly, Ferguson also writes about the human heart since these are not simply abstract theological ideas, but issues that plague us.

For instance, he resolves an alleged conflict between Calvin and the Westminster Divines on the subject of faith and assurance. Calvin wrote of assurance being essential to faith which is contrary to the Confession. But Ferguson shows that Calvin meant we must believe that Christ is able to save. This differs from assurance of salvation, meaning that Christ as saved a particular sinner. In other words, they were discussing two different kinds of assurance. This is a very helpful distinction, with pastoral implications. The first is an issue of one’s justification, the other is an issue of their subjective confidence before God. You have to identify the proper problem so you give them the proper instruction, otherwise you can do spiritual damage.

This book is rife with such pastoral implications whether for our preaching or our counseling. This is what makes the book so excellent, and a must-read. He gets to the heart of legalism and antinomianism, and presents us Christ and the gospel as the resolution for both (and the issue of assurance as well).

Ferguson asserts that both legalism and antinomianism severe the law from the character of the law Giver. They do it in different way, but come from the same root. He brings us to Eve and the original temptation. Satan got her to doubt God’s goodness and love. She developed a legalistic spirit, which hardened her heart towards God, which resulted in her antinomianism, or rejection of God’s law to the original couple.

He unpacks how both legalism and antinomian manifest themselves. They also appear in how we think of assurance. They also affect how we preach, and how we hear the gospel, or shall I say mishear.

Much of what Ferguson does is bring us back to the gospel and the character of God. Law then finds its appropriate place, and assurance seen aright.

What started this mess that divided the Church of Scotland, and many Christians today. The controversy started over a Presbytery creed that rejected “preparationism”, a form of hyper-Calvinism that taught that the gospel only for those who showed signs of grace, who have repented (yeah, confusing). One thing that becomes evident is that theses Scots wrote questions in a very convoluted fashion. One man had his license to preach the gospel removed by not affirming the creed. The General Assembly reversed the decision and condemned the creed. One frustrated member of the Assembly sat next to Thomas Boston who recommended The Marrow of Modern Divinity.

Some have taken issue with the book. The controversy over the book is not the issue so much as the views of the Marrow Men. The controversy spiraled out of control, and wider.

The first issue was the free offer of the gospel, contra preparationism. The Marrow Men held to limited atonement. They also believed that the gospel was to be freely offered to all sinners. There are no qualifications that must be met before the offer of Christ, and pardon in Him, is made to sinners.

“The fallacy here? The subtle movement from seeing forsaking sin as a fruit of grace that is rooted in election, to making the forsaking of sin the necessary precursor for experiencing that grace. Repentance, which is the fruit of grace, thus becomes a qualification for grace.”

The Marrow Men rejected the notion of separating Christ from His benefits. We receive all of them in Christ, not in isolation from Him. They upheld a robust theology of union with Christ. “This, to use an Augustinian term, is totus Christus, the whole Christ, the person in whom incarnation has been accomplished and in whom atonement, resurrection, ascension, and heavenly reign are now realized.”

In the midst of this, Ferguson sneaks in an application regarding the New Perspectives on Paul. Yes, he says, the Pharisees believed in grace. It was a conditional grace, however. This was the error of preparationism. It is similar to a conversation I had with some Mormons. We obey, and grace covers what lacks. Ferguson brings us back to the nature of God as good, gracious, and loving. This is what the Enemy seeks to keep from us via a legalistic spirit.

From here he discusses the various forms of legalism which essentially sees God as “He-whose-favor-has-to-be-earned.” Just as in preparationism, where repentance is separated from Christ, in legalism the law is separated from God, from “his loving and generous person”, and “not as the wisdom of a heavenly Father.” The solution is not in rejecting the Law, but embracing God as our delight (see WSC #1). He brings John Colquhoun in to remind us of “what the heart hears”. We can mis-hear solid gospel teaching because of our legalistic hearts. “But it is also all too possible to have an evangelical head and a legalistic heart.” This is important to remember in pastoral counseling. But it means that some hear the offer of free grace as antinomianism.

From there Ferguson moves into the “order of grace”. He touched briefly on the ordo saludis before, but now spends more time there. Faith is the instrument of justification. Repentance does not occur before faith (preparationism), nor after faith, but “within the context of faith’s grasp of God’s grace in Christ.” Further, “while we cannot divide faith and repentance, we do distinguish them carefully”. He also moves to the implications of free grace, a life seeking joyful obedience. Grace produces obedience, and not the other way around. The Mosaic Covenant is to be seen this way, not as a republication of the covenant of works that undoes the Abrahamic covenant. Many preachers, sadly, focus on the law’s exposure of our sin to drive us to Christ with a stark law-gospel distinction. For those justified, it shapes our salvation. It provides direction …

Do you see what I mean?

How we think about law and gospel matters. The default of our hearts matters in terms of how we hear discussions of law and gospel. Where we look for our assurance matters. Why we want to obey matters.

This is a book that can have a profound effect on how a pastor, elder or ministry leader goes about ministry. This is why I find this a book that should be in the hands of pastors, elders and ministry leaders. I want them to bring gospel wisdom to the people they serve: not legalism, not cheap grace. But to do so they have to embrace, and preach, the whole Christ.

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The final view of sanctification addressed in Christian Spirituality is that of the contemplatives. The Church has a long history with contemplatives, or mystics, that transcends geography and denominations. Some well-known names were contemplatives: Bernard of Clairvoux, St. John of the Cross, Teresa Avila, Thomas Merton and more. In my younger days as a Christian I read Brother Lawrence and The Great Cloud of Unknowing. How does E. Glenn Hinson describe contemplative Christianity?

Contemplatives try to balance the inner and outer life. They usually assert that being will result in doing (which is a far more biblical idea than doing will result in being). They do spend most of their time addressing the inner life: being. Its focus is on communicating, communing and contemplating with God internally. Like Wesleyian sanctification the focus is on one’s love for God. Instead of gaining this thru a second blessing, one pursues it, so to speak, through a series of activities that leads one thru the stages of increasing communion with God. I’m trying to do this justice on its own terms.

“Contemplation has to do with this loving attentiveness to God.”

In contemplation there is an assumption that God is immanent in the created order. He is inescapably near to us. There is no disputing this, the question is “how is He near?”.

In Hinson’s description, there is a “naturalness” to this pursuit of the Divine Lover. He does not clarify and it can sound awfully Pelagian to many ears. Since contemplatives typically eschew theological distinctions, lots of things are vague enough to be misunderstood. Or properly understood.

At the very best, it is typically Arminian. God is a gentleman who never knocks our door down but respects the freedom He gave us. There is a resistibleness to this “grace.” Let me clarify: in Reformed Theology God does not violate the will of the creature, but in regeneration changes the character/nature of the creature so the person’s will is changed. We cannot thwart God’s purposes and plan. In most contemplative theology we, not God, are in the driver’s seat.

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No, it isn’t about the immigration issue. It was Dual Citizens‘ subtitle that interested me: Worship and Life Between the Already and the Not Yet. I eagerly anticipated the day when I could get a copy and begin reading. That day come recently and I read much of it on the way back from General Assembly.

Let’s say the anticipation far exceeded the reality.  Jason Stellman is a former missionary who was associated with Calvary Chapel. He has since discovered Reformed Theology, attended Westminster West and is now a PCA pastor in the Pacific NW.

The forward was written by Michael Horton. The book reminds me of Horton’s earlier work. Years ago I used to love Horton’s books. Not so much anymore. The problem is not that I have shifted theologically. I found him to be reactionary and prone to over-correction. That is how this book reads.

At times you can’t really be sure who he is reacting against. Evangelicalism is too broad to say “evangelicalism”. At times I wonder if it is his Calvary Chapel background, but sometimes it is the church growth movement and Rick Warren. But the end result is a book that was more critical than instructional. When he is instructive, the book is better.

I was hoping he would develop the reality of the already/not yet regarding worship and life. He doesn’t really spend much time developing the idea of the already/not yet and how both under & over-realized eschatology plagues the church by distorting our expectations and practices. That could have been a great book.

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Some more from the Westminster Confession of Faith for you.  Since I’m covering the Perseverance of the Saints today, I’ll toss out a great quote as a freebie.

“There is one grace you cannot counterfeit … the grace of perseverance.”  Gardiner Spring

Chapter XVI: Of Good Works

168. What makes a good work good?  They are works that God has commanded, done in faith by the power of the Spirit to the glory of God.

169. Is man saved by his good works?  No!

170. Why are good works necessary for a Christian?  They are fruits and evidence of saving faith (James 2).

171. Can a sinner outside of Christ do any good work? No, their acts remain sinful for they are done from an impure motive (not from the love for God- violating the 1st commandment).

172. Are the good works of believers meritorious? No, they are not meritorious.  We cannot attain eternal life through them.  Our good works are only accepted in Christ.

173. What is the motive for good works?  Our motive is to be the glory of God, and trust in His Word accompanied by love for God and gratitude for such a great salvation.

174. Is any good work ever pure? If not, then how are they accepted by God as good?  No, all our best works remain tainted by sin.  They are accepted as good by God because of Christ whose blood removes the stains from our works.

175. How would you respond to a statement such as the following: “I know people who make no profession of Christian faith and yet they live morally better than many Christians. Does that not please God? Does He take note of this?”  Outwardly they live better lives than many Christians- but Christianity is not about how righteous we are, but how Christ alone saves us.  God not only demands perfection, but truly good works flow out of a person’s love of God (Ex. 20).  Those that don’t violate the first commandment and are therefore actually sin.

 

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