Posts Tagged ‘Sinclair Ferguson’

“That’s it?”

That was my general sense after finishing David Powlison’s book How Does Sanctification Work? after my study leave ended. That isn’t quite the fairest sentiment. It communicated some good things.

I found his similar book on sexual brokenness, Making All Things New, to be better. It too is short and therefore limited in scope. This one, on a much broader topic, seemed too limited in scope.

Powlison begins with an experience he and his wife had in reading Scripture. They read Deuteronomy 32:10-12. They each came in need of grace, but with different circumstances. God addressed each of them on the basis of His Word. Yet the Spirit “illuminated” (see WCF I) different aspects for them because they needed different aspects of the truth contained in that passage. There is a sense in which the means of grace as the same for us, but the way God uses them in “tailor made” to us and our circumstances. Sanctification for David and his wife looked both the same and different.

And so Powlison continues with the truth that there are many keys to sanctification. We often try to be reductionistic regarding sanctification. We pick one of many complementary truths as if it was the whole truth. As a result, we can easily go astray. What you have found beneficial in your circumstances and in light of your personality is not a magic bullet intended to sanctify everyone despite their different circumstances and personality.

In the midst of this he seems to allude to the recent controversy over sanctification in which a prominent Presbyterian pastor taught an essentially Lutheran view that sanctification is growing in our justification. Certainly, as we grow in our understanding of justification, it furthers our sanctification. But we must not conflate the two. And that certainly isn’t all that sanctification is. But it is not less than that.

For me, the third chapter was most helpful. It is called “Truth Unbalanced and Rebalanced“. I’ll let him briefly explain his point:

“Ministry “unbalances truth for the sake of relevance; theology “rebalances” truth for the sake of comprehensiveness.”

Timely words are selective, not comprehensive. They are not balanced in themselves and create a bit of an unbalance. He didn’t put it this way, but think of it as exerting more strength than usual to a person who is falling. We can over-correct but get them moving in the right direction where we then rebalance them. We are pulling people out of ditches or away from cliffs. There is not the time for comprehensive conversations in the moment. But we rebalance them by having subsequent conversations that are comprehensive. The “key” becomes integrated in a more holistic theology rather than a magic bullet.

“The task of ministry in any moment is to choose, emphasize, and “unbalance” truth for the sake of relevant application to particular persons and situations.”

This is the “key” contribution of the book. Dr. Richard Pratt expressed it as taking the proper medicine from the cabinet. Not all truth is pertinent to a particular circumstance. When the crisis is over, there is time for theological reflection to establish healthy patterns of living. You offer them “the rest of the story.”

Where he goes with all this is a view similar to the book How People Change. There are a number of interactive elements (union with Christ, focus on Christ’s work for us, God’s commands, fellowship with other Christians, suffering, my choices etc.). His point is that while all these are present and used by God in our lives, at any given point one may be more powerful than the others. We do well to remember that how God works in me and through me will not be the same as how He works in you and through you, at least at any given moment. My wife is a different person than I am, and the process of sanctification will look a little different in her life though the same general elements are there.

Sanctification ends up as something we cannot control or predict. God works in us by His Word and Spirit so we apply the Scriptures, understand our identity in Christ and our will and/or desires are shaped and molded (Phil. 2:12-13). He also uses other people and our circumstances in this gumbo of sanctification. People will bring us the Word and wisdom. Circumstances provide the opportunities to obey, experience consequences, limit or expand options. God is at work in all things things to conform us to the likeness of Christ (Rom. 8:28-9).

Powlison then gets personal. He tells his own story, first in terms of his conversion and then sanctification. He then tells the stories of Charles and Charlotte. In this we see the basic patterns at work in a personalized way. In this way the book is helpful for us. It arises from his decades of work as a counselor.

This could serve as a good counterpart or complement to Sinclair Ferguson’s excellent book, Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification, which is an exegetical look at sanctification. Both should help pastors, church officers and lay leaders walk people through God’s sanctifying work.


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I’m not wild about books about preaching. I often feel overwhelmed; how can I fit all that into a sermon? I already feel like I’m trying to do too much in my sermons.

But I know I can become better at my craft. This year during study leave, I decided to read some books on preaching. One of the books was Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism by Tim Keller. I want to do a better job of reaching those who aren’t “fully on-board” in addition to communicating the Reformed faith to those who already believe. I think Tim Keller is pretty good at that.

This book is not so much about the nuts and bolts of sermon preparation (there is an appendix that addresses much of that). It focuses on the bigger issues of preaching- how to communicate with people.

The introduction talking of the three levels of the ministry of the Word. The ministry of the Word is not the exclusive province of pastors. The ministry of the Word extends far beyond the sermon. Every Christian should have a ministry of the Word in that they should be able to communicate basic Bible knowledge and teaching to others. This is a very informal level of ministry. If the Word dwells richly in us, this is doable.

In between this informal ministry and formal ministry is those who have a gift of teaching but who are not ordained to preach. It is a formal setting, but doesn’t entail formal education or an office. Small group leaders, SS teachers, personal exhortation, counseling, and evangelism are examples of this second level of teaching. This book would be helpful for people in the 2nd and 3rd levels of ministry.

In the midst of this, Keller defends preaching from the attacks of those who want it done away with in our day. While God transforms churches through all three levels of the ministry of the Word, preaching is still an important part of that transformation. We see preaching as normative in the New Testament. It should be normative for us as well. He positively quotes Adam in saying the gospel ministry should be “pulpit-centered, but not pulpit restricted.”

Good preaching is faithful to the text, and the people to whom God calls you to preach. Great preaching lies mainly in the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the preacher and the listener. Later he’d refer to Martyn Lloyd-Jones talking about “logic on fire”. I recently watched the documentary on him and can identify with those moments during preaching when you are caught up in the truth you are preaching. A shift takes place in you as you preaching becomes worshipful, for lack of a better term. You are lifting up Christ to them, and yourself.

“Spiritual eloquence should arise out of the preacher’s almost desperate love for the gospel truth itself and the people for whom accepting the truth is a matter of life and death.”

Great preaching preaches Christ to the cultural heart. The preacher connects with the heart of the culture to challenge its conclusions and point to Christ for the fulfillment of its legitimate aspirations. Keller is an advocate of redemptive-historical preaching, connecting each text with the central message of the gospel for the justification and sanctification of those who listen.

He starts with preaching the Word. He explains the difference between expository and topical preaching. He advocates for focusing on expository preaching. He doesn’t think you should never do a topical sermon, but that it should be the exception, not the rule. He cautions against some forms of expository preaching which spend so much time in one text that book studies take 5+ years. The people will not hear the whole counsel of God this way.

“Preaching is not only explaining the text but also using it to engage the heart.”

I am generally an expository preacher. I have one text and preach it. During Advent, Lent or Reformation Day I may do some topical or thematic sermons. My goal is to preach the text, and point them to Christ through that text. I’ve spent about 2 years in a book like Genesis or John, but I try to balance that out with shorter series like Esther, Jonah or a summer series in Psalms. In my 7, nearly 8, years at my current congregation I’ve preached on Genesis, James, Colossians, John, Esther, 1 Peter, and Jonah. In addition to the summer series on Psalms, there have been series on the sacrifices, Advent Songs in Luke, the dreams in Matthew, prophecies of the Messiah and others I can’t recall at the moment.

I pick series based on my perception of the congregation’s needs. Expository preaching will drive us to preach on difficult texts and subjects we’d prefer to avoid as well as keeping us from our hobbyhorses and pet issues.

In the second chapter he focuses on our need to preach the gospel every time. We need to connect our text with the context (paragraph, chapter, book, Testament, whole Bible). We don’t want to merely provide moralistic “biblical principles” or generally inspire them. We need to show them Jesus because He is the One they need generally and in the particulars of their lives. I’ve heard too many sermons that never get us to Jesus.

Keller talks about law and gospel. He relies much on William Perkins who doesn’t divide the Bible or texts into law and gospel. It is more helpful to see law and gospel as uses of texts rather than categories of texts. Therefore we use the text to reveal the law and therefore need for the gospel, and how Christ fulfills that need. In this context he points us to Ferguson’s work (from the Marrow Controversy) on legalism and antinomianism. Both have the same root in the lie of the serpent that God is not good but withholds good from us. If you read only one chapter in this book, this is the chapter to read. This should filter into our preaching so that we bring the gospel to bear against both legalism and antinomianism. Both miss God’s loving grace, the loving grace we need to present to them each week. We can trace their idols down to these roots and show that Christ is the real answer.

Keller, without really saying it, indicates what gospel-centered preaching isn’t. He mentions two dangers to avoid. I have actually heard sermons that said “gospel” 50 times but never actually explain the gospel. Such a sermon is NOT gospel-centered preaching. Keller warns us to avoid preaching without preaching the gospel. You can mention Jesus frequently without mentioning His substutionary obedience, death, resurrection and ascension. You can mention Him without talking about imputed righteousness, union with Christ, His humiliation and exaltation etc. We can also preach Christ without actually preaching the text. Spurgeon did this sometimes. We need to know the main point of the author and spend time with it and going from their to Jesus. Spurgeon tells a story of a Welsh pastor telling a young pastor that every city in England had a road leading to London. Not every road led there, but one did. Every text has a road to Jesus (sometimes more than one), find it and go down that road with the people.

In the next chapter, he spends some time showing how to do this.

The section I really had interest in was about preaching Christ to the culture. This had much to do with proper contextualization so you are connecting too as well as challenging the culture. This is a hard balance. Antinomians accommodate the culture and legalists tend not to connect to the culture because they are overly critical. While culture is the produce of sinful humans, it is also the product of people made in God’s image and necessarily has some remaining connection points.

“We adapt and contextualize in order to speak the truth in love, to both care and confront.”

He notes a shift in Edwards’ preaching after he left Northampton. He took the Native Americans’ experience of suffering into consideration in his preaching. He used more narrative as well. He adapted his preaching style in order to connect with a different culture, a different audience.

“If you over-contextualize and compromise the actual content of the gospel, you will draw a crowd but no one will be changed. … You will mainly just be confirming people in their present course of life.”

He advocates for using respected cultural authorities to strengthen your thesis. Just as you may drop a few Calvin quotes for a Reformed audience, you may want to consider quotes from non-Christians or others who are generally respected by the non-believing members of your audience. Additionally you want to demonstrate you understand doubts and objections. Address the resistance instead of simply ignoring it and plowing through it. He brings up “defeater beliefs” people hold, that if true Christianity can’t be true. Acknowledge them and address them or people will just tune them out if they have those beliefs. He advocates affirming cultural narratives in order to challenge them. Often the aspirations are good but the means are not biblical. Affirm them as on the right track, but point them to Christ and His work as the real means to fulfilling those aspirations.

In the next chapter Keller addresses preaching to the modern and late modern mind. He talks about the impact of individualism, the web of secularity and the borrowed capital used by atheists. He tries to help pastors move from the cultural narratives into idols and true freedom and fulfillment in Christ.

Keller than addresses preaching to the heart. You preach the text (normative), addressing the culture (situational) and the heart (existential). We have to exegete all three and preach to all three. Each of us finds one of these easier and another harder. Tim is great at the culture in my opinion. The text must impact the heart of the pastor to help him impact the hearts of the congregation. He again draws on Edwards and his work on the affections. Truth produces holy affections. We are passionate and imaginative when we address the heart. We want to show them that Jesus is greater than the things they love. This is gospel motivation; more love to Thee.

One of the keys is getting out of the echo chamber. He doesn’t use that term, but we need to listen to a diversity of opinions. That can come from friendships, social media, sources of information and more. But don’t just listen to people you agree with. This will help you have broader understanding of the application of texts.

The book ends in discussion the demonstration of the Spirit and power. This includes the call to holiness. Giftedness will get you only so far. Holiness is essential to great long-term preaching. We are more convincing if we actually find Him to be great, not just assert He is great.

This is a very good book for covering the big picture of preaching which affect how we say it more than what we say. It is a challenging and encouraging book. I’d highly recommend this contribution to the science of preaching.


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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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We struggle to love God. We struggle with knowing what it means, or looks like to love God.

I wonder how many Christians avoid the Old Testament. I wonder if they avoid it because they don’t understand what Sinclair Ferguson calls “gospel grammar”. They read it as law, isolated from gracious realities. In their minds they still hear the law’s loud thunder.

Here is what I read to begin my personal devotions this morning:

“You shall therefore love the Lord your God and keep his charge, his statutes, his rules, and his commandments always. Deuteronomy 11

Love for the Lord involves warm & fuzzy feelings. It isn’t less than that, but it is far more. Love does something. If I love YHWH as my God, as my Father, it means I’m moving toward obedience. It doesn’t mean I perfectly obey, because in this life I can’t. But God is restoring me and that reveals itself in obedience.

“Wait!” some may say. “What about the Gospel? Be done with this talk of obedience.

When we read Deuteronomy 11, we should hear the voice of Jesus in John 14.

15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

And His disciple John in his first letter.

Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. 1 John 2

Love for God will produce the fruit of obedience in our lives. Love moves us down the road of sanctification so our inner experience and our outer actions become increasingly aligned. They also become aligned with God’s law as a reflection of God’s character. Love is not vague, shapeless, obscure, hard to pin down.

When Paul nailed it down he brought the Roman Christians, and us, back to the law.

For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. Romans 13

This discussion is missing something so far. Why do we love God in the first place? The answer is the same in the Old and New Testaments: because He first loved us. Now we’ve recovered Gospel grammar if we behold this.

“For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers,Deuteronomy 7

Why were they holy, or set apart, or devoted to God? Because God chose them as his treasured possession. Why did he choose them or set his love on them? Because he loved them. It all goes back to God’s love, a love we can’t explain, nor can he really explain to us. But it is a love that revealed itself tangibly in redemption. There is no understanding the law properly for the Israelite apart from Ex. 20:1 and Deut. 5:6. He redeemed them from Egypt!

Gospel grammar means that we understand the commands of Scripture in light of what God has done for us. Obedience is a response to God’s love and acceptance, not the cause for God’s love and acceptance. A grace that doesn’t result in growing obedience would be a counterfeit or cheap grace (Edwards & Bonhoeffer respectively). Which is the whole point of 1 John. Union with Christ changes us. Calvin speaks of the “double grace” received in our union with Christ. In justification our status is changed. In sanctification we are changed, progressively. We receive both because we receive the whole Christ in our union.

Egypt was intended to pay the way for the greater Exodus from sin.

10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 1 John 4

God loved us => we love God in return => we grow in love & obedience => experience more love

“Wait, where’d you get that last bit?”

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. John 15

If we aren’t careful, we can lose sight of the gospel grammar here. Jesus is not to be understood as earning God’s love and acceptance. We see the distinction between union and communion here. United to Christ we are loved and accepted. United to Christ we have power & desire to grow in obedience. As we grow in grace we grow in our experience of communion or fellowship with God. We experience more of his sweet dew and sunshine as one hymn puts it. We grow in assurance, for instance. We subjectively experience more of what we have objectively through our union with Christ.

We see this all the time in other relationships. My wife and I are married. We are united whether we like it or not at any given moment. Our communion, intimacy with one another, fluctuates depending on how we treat each other. Our union is not changed. It is static. Communion is dynamic.

The gospel holds these together. If we let go of union we fall into legalism, constantly feeling the need to gain approval. If we let go of communion, we fall into license where our love doesn’t matter and grace is cheap. The gospel is that we are united to Christ by grace through faith and fully loved and accepted by God who has taken us as his children. Growing in my love for God as I grow in my understanding, I grow in obedience. I’m not more or less loved and accepted, but I know more of the Father’s pleasure. All of this is love that is reflected in a human father’s love. They are always my children, but sometimes they experience my pleasure and others my displeasure. They never cease to be my children, even the adopted ones. As they mature and understand the many ways I’ve loved them, their love to me grows and changes them.

What does love to God look like? Growth in obedience (which includes engaged worship). How does love to God grow? By remember how God loved and loves me. Gospel facts (indicative) leading to gospel implications (indicatives or commands). Love and law are not opposed in gospel grammar, but have their proper place. If we reverse the grammar, we really mess things up.

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You might think it a challenge to review a book it took 3 years to read. You would be right. In this case it took 3 years to read a relatively short book. This was no John Frame tome. The problem was not the book, but my life. Other projects and books seemed of greater importance. This speaks not to the quality of this book but of the choices we all have to make.

The book of which I speak is Name Above All Names by Alistair Begg and Sinclair Ferguson. Though these two friends of Scottish descent and upbringing share a common love for Christ, they do have some differences in theology. These differences are not apparent here, nor should they be. It would be interesting if they wrote a book discussing their views of the Church and sacraments. But they wrote about Jesus Himself in this book.

You cannot really tell that two men wrote this book. Sometimes such books make references to this. For instance, sharing personal stories attributed to one of them. I don’t recall any of that (if it is there, it would be in the early chapters I read 2-3 years ago).

I would describe this book as a popular-level biblical theology focus on Christology developing 7 important titles or names of Christ in the Scripture.

“Standing in various pulpits in our native land of Scotland we have often seen words visible to the preacher but hidden from the congregation: ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’ (John 12:21).” from the Preface indicating their purpose.

It is popular-level because you don’t need to be an academic, professional or theology nerd to understand this book. As pastors, their pastoral hearts and minds are on display as they put the cookies where the average Joe and Jane can reach them. This does not mean the book is superficial, it certainly is not. But it is in “plain English” so ordinary people can understand and benefit from the book.

It is a biblical theology because it traces each of these themes through the Scriptures. Systematic Theology summarizes a doctrine. This means it can flatten out nuance, but it keeps you from heresy. Biblical Theology, when done well, shows the development through the progress of revelation and its importance to the history of redemption. It is the basis for the summary, such that they are meant to go hand in hand. This is not mere proof-texting but developing your theology from the texts in question. This book is an example of Biblical Theology done well.

It deals with 7 titles of Christ to develop our understanding of Christ, 7 being the number of completion so (okay, I’m kidding about this last part). I wish there were more chapter. One of the reasons I started the book was due to an Advent series that addressed some of these, particularly the Seed of the Woman. Over the last few years a quote or two from this book would pop up in a sermon. In addition to Seed of the Woman, they cover Jesus as True Prophet, Great High Priest, Conquering King, the Son of Man, the Suffering Servant and the Lamb on the Throne.

Each of these has great redemptive significance and they do a great job of fleshing that out for us in the book’s 180ish pages. That means the chapters are a tad long for our microwave, ADD generation. But the pages aren’t big, or writing dense so you can do it. Really!

They start with the protoevangelium, the Seed of the Woman. In other words they start in Genesis, in the Garden. In doing so they instruct the reader on why we have a Christ-centered approach to understanding the Old Testament from the words of Jesus to 2 disciples on the road to Emmaus. As Ferguson notes in another book, From the Mouth of God, the OT is a development of this theme from Genesis 3:15. How is the coming of the Seed of the Woman to crush the head of the serpent developed, and resisted. This conflict initiated and sustained by Satan, that old dragon, marks all of history. Tucked into this chapter they talk about Jesus as the Second Adam so it is a 2 for 1 deal. The Seed of the Woman crushes the head of the serpent by doing what the First Adam failed to do.

Over the next 3 chapters they delve into one of my favorite subjects, the three-fold office of Christ: Prophet, Priest and King. Jesus reveals to us the way of salvation as our Prophet, is the way as our Priest who sacrifices Himself for us and continues to intercedes for us, and applies that salvation to us by subduing our hearts and then protecting & expanding His kingdom in this world. In many ways this reveals the on-going ministry of congregations and pastors (a book for another time).

In the chapter covering the Son of Man, they spend a great deal of time in Daniel 7 before they get to the Son of Man sayings in the New Testament. The focus is not on a man but on Jesus’ role as “man as he was created to be”, an eschatalogical figure who ushers in the kingdom of God.

The road to the Son of Man coming before the Ancient of Days runs through the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. His is a representative suffering. He suffers not for His own sin but for the sins of others. He suffers not to deliver Himself but to deliver others. Before the crown comes the cross. This theme is developed in each of the last 4 chapters. They want us to grasp the theology of the cross and reject a theology of glory. Just as Jesus suffered here, we will too. But just as He was exalted, we are exalted in union with Him. But our life here is marked with suffering just as His was.

The final chapter focuses on the final book of the Bible, Revelation, to develop the title of the Lamb upon the Throne. Revelation is all about this Lamb who reigns for the comfort of His Church in conflict with the counterfeit trinity and church.

They help us to see Jesus more clearly through their examination of these 7 names. The reader will better understand the nature of Christ’s work for us. They will better understand how the Bible fits together. Begg & Ferguson have produced a book well worth reading. Tolle lege!

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I’ve said it before, I’m glad Sinclair Ferguson retired.

I miss listening to his sermons, so I wish he hadn’t retired too. But his retirement has meant a steadier stream of great books. One of those books is From the Mouth of God: Trusting, Reading and Applying the Bible.

“It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Matthew 4

This is not a new book such much as a revised and expanded version of Handle with Care! which was released in 1982. It was written to fulfill a commitment he’d made to provide a book on the Trinity. Unable to prepare that manuscript, they were willing to receive Handle with Care! Hopefully we will see that book on the Trinity some day.

In some ways, From the Mouth of God reminds me of Kevin DeYoung’s Taking God at His Word. They cover much of the same territory. Their styles are different due, in part, to differences in age and cultural background. Both are very good books and worth reading. Both are relatively short and accessible to lay people. I intend you use both in the teacher training, and officer training, that I am in the process creating and revising respectively.

As you might realize from the subtitle, the book is divided into three sections: trusting the Bible, reading the Bible and applying the Bible. The middle section is the longest. Unfortunately the section on application is the shortest. As one who can struggle with this aspect of sermon preparation, I would have liked this to be explored more thoroughly.

His opening chapter It Is Written covers the Bible as God’s self-revelation. He brings our depravity as expressed in a darkened understanding into the equation. Ferguson uses passages like Hebrews 1 to affirm that the Bible is historical, verbal, progressive and cumulative, and Christ-centered. He discusses the dual authorship of Scripture as an expression of the doctrine of concurrence. He also covers the doctrine of accommodation, that God speaks in such a way that we can understand. The second chapter, Getting It Together, focuses on questions of the canon. This includes the OT canon and Jesus’ view of that canon. He addresses inerrancy and infallibility, as well as finality. Inerrancy is often misunderstood. For instance, it includes the lies of men. It accurately reports those lies in some historical accounts. Faithfully communicating those falsehoods and errors does not mean the Bible itself errs.

He wraps up the first section with Is It God’s Word?, which evaluates the claims of Scripture to be God’s word. The Spirit who inspired the Scriptures also illumines the Scriptures for us. We see the depth of our dependence upon the work of the Spirit in knowing God.

Ferguson opens the section on reading the Bible with an example of how not to read it: allegory. Christians have struggled with how to read, and therefore understand, the Bible. The priest of my youth told us “Don’t read the Bible, you’ll get it wrong.” And many do. But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t Do-It-Yourself. We have a responsibility, and need, to read the Bible for ourselves. We aren’t saved by implicit belief in what the priest or pastor knows & believes. We must explicitly believe saving truths, and we know them through the Scriptures.

Explaining Paul’s statements, Ferguson discusses rightly handling the Word of God, thinking in the hopes the God grants understanding (2 Tim. 2:7). He then turns to the Westminster Confession of Faith to explain some principles for interpretation. He contrasts this with the medieval church’s 5-fold interpretation.

In Keys, he notes the 5 keys to interpreting Scripture: context, Christ, the unfolding drama, and gospel grammar. These keys help us by helping us grasp the historical and literary context, the redemptive-historical context, its connection with Christ and reminding us that the indicatives (facts) of the gospel precede the imperatives (commands) so we live by grace. In Prose, Poetry, Wisdom, and Prophecy focuses on the different literary genres in the Old Testament. He briefly provides the basics needed to understand each of these genres. He includes brief examples of how to interpret each. Similarly in Gospels, Epistles, and Visions Ferguson looks at the genres in the New Testament. In For Example, he interprets the book of Ruth. He repeats one of the keys he noted earlier: “in reading Old Testament narrative we must always have in mind the way in which the promise of Genesis 3:15 unfolds in terms of God’s covenant promise working out through deep conflict to establish his kingdom in Christ.”

Ferguson moves to application with What’s the Use?. Here he returns to 2 Timothy 3 to help us understand the use of the Scriptures in making us wise for salvation. This chapter will find its way into my officer training.

In Seed Needs Soil he addresses the condition of hearts that hear the gospel. This is one of the few places I disagree with Ferguson. It is a minor disagreement. I believe the parable is told to explain the different reactions to the ministry of the Word for the disciples. I don’t think it is meant for us to be self-reflective as if we could prepare our hearts. Still, he does a good job explaining the nature of those hearts.

He concludes with Speaking Practically, which is about how to implement the material you have read. He discusses the role of discipline to develop a routine, and a method for reading the Bible. We have to actually read the Bible, consistently and repeatedly, to bear great fruit. Each of the first 5 years or so that I was a Christian (until I went to seminary) I read the Bible through once a year. I gained a good working knowledge of the Bible as a result. Unfortunately it was the NIV, and many key phrases in my head don’t match up with the ESV. Even after 20 years in ministry, while reading the Bible for my own devotion I continue to see new connections points (I just read Exodus 22:28, noting its connection to NT texts about honoring the king).

Though Ferguson is done, the book isn’t. He includes two brief appendices. The first is John Murray on The Guidance of the Holy Spirit, and John Newton’s letter on Divine Guidance.

This is a good book that leaves you wanting more. I recommend it for all those interested in teaching others, and people interested in why they should trust the Scriptures and how to read them.

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Tim Keller says “This is the best book for laypeople on this subject.” This book is Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God by Rankin Wilbourne. I think he is right.

Union with Christ is one of the more neglected doctrines in the contemporary church. This neglect has been addressed with a few releases in the past few years like the books by J. Todd Billings and Robert Letham. These tend toward the more academic or pastoral in nature. Wilbourne’s book is written for the lay person and is easy to understand, though the topic can still stretch our minds. He provides a number of good illustrations to help us understand this rather nebulous concept. Or perhaps enchanted, for in his introduction he relates this to our disenchanted (materialistic) culture, and to understand union we need our imaginations again.

“Coming to see your union with Christ is like finally putting on a pair of desperately needed glasses- Wow!”

He begins with reality of a gap between what the Bible says and our experience of that reality. We can often feel exhausted by our efforts and discouraged by a lack of “progress”. The gap is real and must be acknowledged. But God’s answer to all this is union with Christ.

“First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us. Therefore … he had to become ours and to dwell within us.” John Calvin

Calvin, particularly his Institutes of the Christian Religion, is very present in this volume. United to Christ we have all the blessings of God (Eph. 1). Christ also dwells in us by the Spirit so we are empowered by Him to enjoy these many blessings. While this was understood by many in history (he quotes from Edwards and Goodwin, for instance) such talk is like a foreign language to many/most western Christians.

“If it ‘s true that nothing is more central or basic than union with Christ, and this book aims to show that it is, then it is fair to ask this: Why is union with Christ neither central nor basic to so many of us? Why, rather, is union with Christ, if it is talked about at all, reduced to some vague or optional aspect of Christian living…”

The only way we partake of the gospel promises is …. union with Christ. When we neglect this, the work of Christ for us is separated from the person of Christ in us and the gap between beliefs and experience begins to increasingly widen.

He moves on to what it actually is. One aspect of union is imputation: what happened to Him happened to us; what He earned we receive; and what we earned He paid the price for. Paul frequently uses the term “in Christ” to talk about how we live before God. Christ represents us so His death is our death to guilt & sin (Rom. 6; Gal. 2:20). His resurrection is our newness of life (Rom. 6; Eph. 2; Gal. 2:20). His obedience becomes our obedience. We have even been seated with Him at the Father’s right hand (Eph. 2).

“Faith is how union with Christ becomes operative and powerful in your life. Faith is a God-given gift that allows you to take hold of God’s having taken hold of you. … Your life, your story, becomes enfolded by another story- Another’s story.”

As Paul says in Colossians our life is hidden with Christ in God. United to Christ, Calvin says, we receive the double grace of justification and sanctification. Though distinct they are a package deal given simultaneously. We partake of His redemption because we are united to Christ, covenantally and spiritually. We enjoy our salvation as He works in us to transform us. Our faith is not simply in Christ’s work for us, but also that Christ continues to work in us and through us. He became like us to make us like Him so we look to Him to accomplish these things that are so beyond our doing.

Union with Christ also holds together some of the tensions that tend to tear God’s people apart. For instance, he mentions extravagant grace and radical discipleship. We see them both in Calvin’s double grace, but our tendency is to separate them. Apart from discipleship extravagant grace lapses into Bonhoeffer’s cheap grace. Apart from extravagant grace discipleship degenerates into legalism. This conflict that has periodically emerged in the church is resolved in union with Christ. These two songs, as he terms them, meet in harmony in Christ. They cannot be separated because Christ cannot be separated (Ferguson makes the same argument in The Whole Christ). Wilbourne then explains and applies the “double grace”.

“Because we are relentless in trying to justify our lives, because we will use anything, even our virtue, to keep God at a distance, we can’t hear this song of grace too loudly or too often. … That hit home because that’s exactly what I had been doing- using grace as an excuse not to follow Jesus. … Undiluted grace and uncompromising obedience meet in the person of Jesus. He is always full of both.”

Rankin then spends a chapter showing us where all this is in the Scripture, a chapter on where it pops up in Church History (Augustine, Athanasius, Irenaeus, Bernard of Clairvaux, Luther, Owen and Lewis) and then what happened that we have fallen to this low estate. As mentioned, there is the disenchanted or materialistic worldview, the increase in self-centeredness (due to the eclipse of the gospel), our poor pneumatology, sound-bite culture, and pragmatism.

“Paul is saying union with Christ not only gives you a new identity; it gives you a new mindset, a new grid through which to filter everything that happens to you. For it’s not so much what happens that defines you, as how you interpret what happens to you.”

From there he delves into the problems union with Christ solves. We have a new identity, new destiny, new purpose and new hope. So many of the stories we love focus on people seeking to discover their identity. We think we have to establish our identity so we are insecure and exhausted. Many famous musicians (interviews with Madonna and John Mayer come to mind) feel the need to re-establish themselves, prove themselves. In Christ, we receive an identity we neither win or can lose. We don’t have to prove ourselves. This identity also shapes how we live, providing appropriate boundaries for us. We have a new destination too- not simply to decompose in the ground or simply cease to exist. Our destiny is to be what Adam and Eve once were, the image of God. Jesus, in His humanity, the perfect image of God restores God’s distorted image of us. We don’t lose our sense of self (just as in a healthy marriage we are one flesh but don’t lose your sense of self). You become more fully you with the unique gifts and experiences but without the sin and weakness.

“The purpose of the gospel [is] to make us sooner or later like God; indeed it is, so to speak, a kind of deification.” John Calvin

“Because love was central in the life of Christ, love is at the heart of the image of God. Your win is learning how to love. And your greatest losses are your failures to love.”

We are here for holiness, which for many of us, as he notes, is like broccoli. Good for us but …. (personally I like broccoli). Holiness is good, beautiful and attractive. It is something we only pursue properly in union with Christ (see Walter Marshall’s The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification).  We are positionally holy due to our union with Christ, and dwelling in us He works to make us personally holy. These two tensions are brought together in harmony in Christ. The more holy we become the more we enjoy communion with God, in part because we now find His holiness more attractive and a greater source of joy.

“God wants us to grow in holiness, not as some sort of test or punishment, not even just as preparation for the future, but because he wants us to enjoy life with him more. The more we grow in holiness, the more we can enjoy his presence. He wants us not simply to press on but to soar. He wants holiness for us, for our joy.”

Our hope is life in the presence of God where Jesus currently is. This is unattainable for us apart from our union with Christ. He is there now, seated and interceding for us (Heb. 7:25). This means that our continuing sin does not separate us from God. We don’t have to look to our circumstances to gauge if God is pleased with us, we look to Jesus and know He is. Union with Christ holds the facts that God with for us and with us together.

“John Calvin said, ‘Let us therefore labor more to feel Christ living in us.’ John Owen added, ‘Labor, therefore, to fill your hearts with the cross of Christ.’ And Jonathan Edwards exhorted, ‘We should labor to be continually growing in divine love.'”

Wilbourne then moves into our daily life as people united to Christ. He begins with abiding. He brings up the illustration of sailing. Sailing depends on the wind, but you still need skills to get where you want to go in the power of the wind. This is communion with Christ, the subjective or experiential aspect of our union with Christ. We cannot be more or less united to Christ. But our sense of communion with Christ grows or diminishes. Faith always precedes our sense of communion for faith lays ahold of Christ. He warns us of our tendency to drift (pride, complacency etc.). If we are not manning the sail and the tiller we will not go where we long to go. He moves into the means of abiding, or the means of grace. Our sense of communion is tied to prayer, meditation on Scripture, and worship including the sacraments (signs of our union). This does not mean all will be exciting. There will be doldrums, just like in sailing. There will be times when all seems stagnant, and no progress is made.

“Jesus lived a perfect life and terrible things still happened to him. Jesus was the only one who ever trusted and obeyed God perfectly, yet he nevertheless was made to walk the way of suffering unto death…”

We are united to the Christ who suffered. As a result we should expect to suffer (Rom. 8; Phil. 1 & 3; 1 Peter 2-4). Because He suffered, He is able to comfort us in our suffering. He also provided an example for us in suffering, to continue to do good and entrust ourselves to our Creator. Will our suffering drive us from God, or deeper into God?

He then moves into the fact that each of us is united not only to Christ individually but also to one another. In Christ we are the people of God. Here, in a footnote, he surmises, that the tension revealed by the New Perspective of Paul finds reconciliation. In Christ we are justified by the imputation of His righteousness AND we are part of the community of God; soteriology and ecclesiology are united in Christ. Another tension that tends to tear the church apart is also reconciled in Christ: we declare and demonstrate the love of God to the nations. Many conservatives so fear the social gospel that they deny the social aspects of the gospel (and throw accusations at any who do). This is because Jesus not just declared God’s love but demonstrated it (see 1 John 3-4) and calls us to do the same (see also 1 Peter 2).

I found this to be a very encouraging book. He had a number of helpful ways to explain our union and its implications. I heartily recommend it to pastors, elders and ordinary people who want to grow in grace. He makes a difficult subject understandable, interesting and practical.


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