How shall they hear?

McGraw HowShallTheyHear

Here is a book on preaching which non-preachers are invited to read. Ryan McGraw’s recent book, How Shall They Hear? is subtitled, ‘Why non-preachers need to know what preaching is.’

This is an important topic, and yet I’ve come away faintly dissatisfied.

Overview of the book

The explanation of preaching itself is not unsatisfying. McGraw opens by showing from 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2 what the task of preaching is: “Preaching is a public, authoritative proclamation of the gospel, through ordained ambassadors of Christ…” (p3). Then using Romans 10:14-17 he shows why preaching is necessary: “preaching is the ordinary means by which we must learn Christ and hear his voice” (p13). From 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 he shows that preachers must preach Christ crucified, in the power of the Spirit. Then from Colossians 1:28-29 he shows that preaching is hard work, because its aim is nothing lower than the salvation (justification and sanctification) of the hearers (p31). And from John 16:8-11, 14-15 he shows that the preacher’s aims in preaching must reflect what Christ has sent the Spirit to do through preaching – bringing people to Christ by convicting them (of sin, righteousness, and judgment) in relation to Christ (p42).

These five points take up the first five chapters, and so far these basic principles are clearly and persuasively laid out. This is a straightforward, comprehensive view of preaching and the preacher’s task and the preacher’s hope of success. If more preachers were more familiar with these principles and more consistently putting them into practice, without doubt we would all be happier and spiritually healthier hearers.

There is also certainly great value for hearers in having this clear a statement of what preaching is meant to be like, and what it’s meant to achieve. As McGraw says, although preaching is the primary means of grace, hearers often sit under preaching every week with only very little understanding of why it is the primary means of grace and what we can expect from it (p ix). But when this is left unspoken, and as it becomes forgotten, preachers lose heart (and confidence and authority) and hearers come and go mystified and unimpressed (and wither and weaken in their spiritual liveliness).

But for the next several chapters, the book seems to lose its focus slightly. Not so much its focus on preaching, but on what preaching means for the non-preacher. Chapters 6 to 12 are on topics like ‘proper methods for preaching Christ’ and ‘what should sermon application look like.’ It’s good material, there is plenty to think about, but it is geared for the preacher, with the applications for non-preachers having the distinct flavour of the afterthought.

It is only in the final two chapters that the non-preacher comes back into the picture again. In Chapter 13 McGraw argues that all Christians have a role in participating in sermons. He advises non-preachers to pray for preachers as they study and prepare. ‘Do we pray that the Spirit would increase love for Christ in our ministers so that they would preach him devotionally? … Do we pray that Christ would give them the ability to apply their sermons wisely…?’ (p104). He also reminds us to take diligent heed during the service to what we hear and how we hear. After the sermon is over, we can discuss it in conversation, ‘ready to highlight what is good in the sermon and to overlook any faults in the preacher’ (p105), and put it into practice in our lives. Overall, he comments that ‘the purposes of preaching should set the tone for our prayers for the preached Word,’ and for our aim in listening to sermons (p107). This is all good advice, because often you get out of a sermon (by way of spiritual profit) only as much as you put in (by way of self-preparation and believing expectation during and after).

Finally, in Chapter 14, McGraw tackles the question, ‘What if I sit under preaching that does not match the biblical model?’ This is perhaps the trickiest question in the book. The advice in response is necessarily given in broad outlines. If the preaching denies or neglects cardinal doctrines, it is time to find a new church (p110). But when preaching is doctrinally adequate but feels like watching a train wreck (p110) then hearers should have a charitable attitude which looks for what is good in the sermon, and they should be patient with the preacher, ‘looking to the Lord to develop them as preachers’ (p112). In general, we should pray always (p113): ‘first pray for the preacher, then talk to him about his preaching if necessary, and then talk to the elders of the church’ (p113).

The stated aim of this book is to be helpful to all believers, preachers or not. “It is only indirectly a homiletical manual for pastors; directly, it is a guide to believers” (p xi). In my view this should have been phrased the other way round. It is more directly addressed to preachers, and although it does perhaps have listeners more prominently in view than other homiletical manuals do, it is not geared towards them (us) directly. The book is not necessarily unsatisfying for its content but because it does not match its own sales pitch.


My disappointment with this book arises from the fact that for some time now I have been on the lookout for a book that would be helpful for non-preachers. In denominations which have a high regard for the Word and its truths and the preaching of it, there is a noticeable famine of the Word. For every person who says they love their pastor’s preaching and continually get spiritual benefit from it, there is at least one other person who loves their pastor and wouldn’t countenance leaving their church, but whose soul is not being fed by the preaching they hear.

I used to assume that if you didn’t get benefit from a sermon preached by a faithful minister, the problem was on your side. This is more or less the implication arising from McGraw’s book and others like it. Ministers quite rightly don’t want to blame the Holy Spirit for lack of appreciation of and/or fruit from their ministry, but this means that the next obvious place to put the blame is on the hearers. And there are after all plenty reasons why the problem could genuinely be on the hearer’s side. No doubt if we aren’t acting on the advice McGraw gives in Chapter 13 on praying and preparing to hear and receive the preached word, some portion of the blame does belong to us as poor hearers. We’re not spiritually hungry enough, we’re not expectant enough, we’re too distracted by other problems (in everyday life, or our wriggly children in the pew), we’re too critical of the preacher, we’re too easily tricked by the devil’s temptations.

But there are also poor sermons, and poor preachers. There are worship services where, however well prepared and expectantly you come, the likelihood of spiritual nourishment is small because the content of the sermon is the equivalent of spiritual cardboard rather than the feast of fat things the hearer longs for. You wonder whether these preachers themselves get anything out of their sermons – whether they would really be satisfied if they were in the pew listening to someone else saying these same things from the pulpit.

When a hearer is disappointed over a period of time by the sermons of their faithful pastor, what can they do?

McGraw is offering basically the same advice as Christopher Ash gives in his booklet, ‘Listen Up! A practical guide to listening to sermons’ – pray, be patient, be charitable. Of course this advice is sound. It is however very difficult to put into practice, especially when someone’s problem with the preaching they hear has been ongoing for a long time. Little recognition is given to how demoralising and spiritually debilitating it is to sit under inadequate preaching long term.

Simply because preaching is the primary means of grace, it’s those who sit under disappointing preaching who are least well placed to pray and be patient and charitable. Easy enough for writers of homiletics manuals, who presumably preach fairly decent sermons to fairly appreciative congregations, to urge those less favoured to sit tight and exercise more of the graces of patience and charity. Much harder when the feeding you should be getting from the preaching is starvation rations and you’re resorting to dietary supplements in the form of your own reading and your own listening (with all the associated limitations and risks) in order to sustain spiritual life in your soul.

Hard too when you love your pastor and it feels like a betrayal to acknowledge that his sermons are not bringing any benefit. Or it’s a series of supply preachers because you don’t have a pastor, and none of them could preach their way out of a paper bag, but you feel guilty even thinking that because all of them are lovely Christians and gracious saints and they pray so beautifully. Or the sermons are always preached from such lovely texts, so surely it must be your fault for not getting something out of it.

What can you do? How can you keep turning up? What coping strategies are there? How can you turn a poor sermon to some benefit?

I suppose we could pray again. It’s the Lord’s day, it’s the Lord’s truth, it’s the Lord’s ambassador – it makes sense to ask for the Lord’s blessing.

And there are tough-love truths we could try to take in – the possibility that some people may be benefiting from the preaching even if we’re personally not, and the fact that there is more to being a believer and a member of the congregation/church than consciously benefiting from all of the services all of the time.

Sometimes it might help during a sermon to think your own thoughts on the text and whatever aspects of its meaning and implications the sermon would ideally be bringing out (although when does this become a disrespectful refusal to engage with the sermon the Lord has arguably given this preacher to preach to this congregation including you at this time?).

Or there are sanity-check measures we could take, like educating ourselves on what it is and isn’t realistic to expect from preaching, so that we can evaluate sermons on objective criteria rather than simply failing to profit from personal failings or prejudice, or continually doubting our own judgment. (For this, I would recommend How Sermons Work by David Murray, as exceptionally helpful – it equips you with concepts and a vocabulary to understand what’s going on in a sermon, so that when things go wrong, you can at least identify it to yourself.)

At institution level, those who are responsible for arranging supply preachers should perhaps do a more careful cost-benefit analysis of having poor preaching supply versus no preaching supply, in the light of what kind of preaching the congregation appreciates and needs more than simply who might be available to fill gaps in the rota. Churches perhaps need to be more rigorous in assessing who they accept as preachers, not just in terms of the clearness of the call they feel but also in terms of whether they have any gifts for preaching. Perhaps a case could be made of reviving the old practice of ministers meeting to preach to other ministers specifically for the purpose of getting brotherly feedback on their preaching.

But these are only partial answers (and at institution level virtually impossible for the average hearer to do anything at all to implement). Why does the Lord provide preaching as the main means of growth for his people and then let the preaching be dull, ineffective and wearisome even when you really want to benefit from it? To me this is still a conundrum, and I’m still waiting to find someone to explain.

Review: Beyond Authority and Submission

Miller Beyond AuthorityRachel Green Miller has written an exceptionally helpful book: Beyond Authority and Submission: Women and men in marriage, church, and society (P&R, 2019).

In it, she articulates a balanced and scriptural view of the nature and roles of men and women, identifying the good bits of feminism and rejecting the bad bits of ‘complementarianism’ to express a sane and satisfying position on what is often an unpleasantly contentious set of topics.

1. The focus on authority/submission is too narrow

For one thing, Miller zones in on a most troubling aspect of how male-female relationships are treated in contemporary conservative discussions – namely the reductionistic insistence on authority (men’s, obviously) and submission (women’s, obviously).

Complementarianism, for anyone who hasn’t come across it, is a response from within conservative Christian circles to various (sometimes unbiblical) cultural shifts blamed on feminism. (Although it presents itself as simply biblical, transcending history and culture, it is a response from within basically North American conservative Christian circles.)

It is perhaps because complementarianism was birthed as a response, or reaction, to perceived threats to men’s roles in marriage and church office bearing that it often fails to get beyond some version of ‘he says jump, she says how high (and that’s the biblical way)’ – varying only in the degree to which the accompanying rhetoric modulates its harshness towards women and its glorification of testosterone.

But rather than rejecting, or seeking to remove, authority and submission from the discussion altogether, one of Miller’s important contributions is to recognise and emphasise three further biblical principles for how men and women should interact – unity, interdependence, and service.

  • Unity. Men and women are united in that we were all originally created in the image of God, and we are all fallen in Adam. In Christ, men and women are also equally re-made in the image of God, and joint-heirs of eternal life. (p37-39)
  • Interdependence. Men and women need each other. That is how we were originally created, that is how things work post-fall, and that is how all the members of Christ’s body are meant to function. (p39-41)
  • Service. Men and women have the same chief end, to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever. We are equally obliged to love our neighbour as ourselves, and to use our gifts for each other’s benefit more than for our own. (p42-43)

Miller states in the Introduction that husbands should lead their wives and wives should submit to their husbands (p16). This understanding comes from Ephesians 5:22-33. She is evidently and explicitly neither a feminist nor an egalitarian (egalitarians, for the uninitiated, are complementarians’ next-biggest bogeypersons after actual feminists). Rather, as Miller says repeatedly, it is the ‘hyper focus’ on authority/submission that is problematic for our understanding of sex and gender.

When you reduce human relationships to this one principle, it can only be unhealthy. But by presenting these three additional biblical principles of unity, interdependence, and service, Miller identifies the context in which authority/submission can be safely affirmed. It is safe, in the sense of not demeaning to women and not an ego trip for men, to affirm authority/submission when authority/submission is just one component of a well-rounded view of how we should relate to one another.

(This is also incidentally helpful for providing a framework that you can use when evaluating whatever latest teaching or resources you may encounter on marriage, or ‘a woman’s place’ – if it falls into the trap of reducing marriage (or whatever relationship it may be) to authority/submission to the neglect of these other principles, equipped with Miller’s three topics you can identify that reductionistic approach and specify the areas where it is defective.)

2. The theological problems of complementarianism

Secondly, Miller lays bare the theological problems of complementarianism, or at least of the brand of complementarianism that maintains this excessive, reductionist focus on authority/submission.

Problem 1: Extra-scriptural requirements for how men should behave and how women should behave.

Complementarianism is at heart an American cultural response to an American manifestation of a cultural problem. And so it not only presents a one-size-fits-all approach to being a ‘good Christian man’ or a ‘good Christian woman,’ but that one size is American-shaped.

The straitjacket itself cannot but stunt and entangle. If you like sports, science, maths, and holding opinions, you must be… not such a good example of a woman. If you like baking, art, and nurturing, you must be… not such a good example of a man. But these markers of ‘good’ masculinity and femininity are cultural, not scriptural.

Miller walks us through a series of examples from the Bible of women who did allegedly masculine things – Deborah, Miriam, Abigail, Jochebed, Zipporah, Esther, Ruth, Rachel, Lydia, Dorcas, Priscilla, the Shunammite woman, Shiphrah and Puah, Rahab, Mephibosheth’s nurse, Jehosheba, Jael, Manoah’s wife, Lois and Eunice, Anna. (Chapter 8) ‘The Bible gives us positive examples of women who led, initiated, provided, protected, demonstrated strength, and had theological discernment. Making decisions, earning money, running businesses, being physically strong, and being interested in theology don’t make women less feminine.’ (p136)

And of course, if you want good biblical examples of meekness, gentleness, or tender-heartedness, the best are men – Moses, David, or Paul for starters (Miller gives more examples and discussion in Chapter 9). Her point is, ‘What we need to be careful about is conforming to narrow or wooden definitions of masculinity and femininity … the Bible gives us a much broader picture of what it means to be masculine and feminine than many conservative Christians do. Jacob and Esau were extreme opposites, but both were masculine. Deborah and Esther were very different, but both were feminine.’ (p148)

This point needs emphasising because what Scripture holds out as non-gender-specific graces are, after all, graces – supernatural gifts of the Spirit, as distinct from natural temperaments. Being culturally conditioned or personally temperamentally inclined to be ‘meek,’ or ‘bold,’ for example, is not the same thing as having the grace of meekness or the grace of boldness. These are the fruit of the Spirit, not the culturally defined ‘right’ way of expressing masculinity or femininity.

Miller also mentions in passing that there is often variation from culture to culture in what is deemed appropriate behaviour for women and men. She doesn’t particularly expand on this point, but it is instructive. In Scotland, for example, we have a tradition in conservative Christian circles of ‘the godly old woman in the north.’ This is a woman who could cut and thrust in doctrinal discussions with women and men, she didn’t spare to dish out rebukes to wrong-doers in the community, and she was renowned for witty one-liners putting down the pretentious and the sanctimonious. She does not fit the complementarian ideal of what a biblical woman should be, but that really only proves that complementarianism is a localised phenomenon that simply cannot accommodate cultural manifestations of Christianity other than its own.

Problem 2: Making gender a ‘gospel issue’

There is also the astonishing presumption of elevating complementarianism – this ideology, these pieces of advice about how to be a suitably submissive wife and an adequately authoritarian husband – to a ‘gospel issue’. As Miller summarises it, ‘We’re told that these beliefs about gender and gender roles are inseparable from the gospel. “The two are one.”’ (p165, quoting Strachan and Peacock, 2016) It is hardly believable, but she has to spell this out: ‘Complementarianism is not the actual gospel. We’re not saved by faith in or faithfulness to a particular understanding of gender, men, and women.’ (p165)

Gospel issues, you’d imagine, might be things like justification by faith, the extent of the atonement, or perhaps the doctrine of the trinity, the divinity of Christ, or his mediatorial work. Things which, if you get them wrong, would either prevent you being saved at all, or else deprive you of much spiritual comfort and maturity. Gender roles really do not belong in this category.

Yet many proponents of complementarianism rely on a wrong understanding of the trinity in order to bolster their teachings on authority/submission. They claim that the Son has eternally been submissive to the Father, and that there is a hierarchy in the Godhead in which the Father has the supreme authority. This teaching is false. It goes right to the heart of our most basic understanding of who God is. It contradicts the fact that the three persons in the Godhead are ‘the same in substance, equal in power and glory’ (Shorter Catechism Q6). Miller (who deserves credit anyway for her previous work resisting this false teaching) here succinctly summarises the false teaching, its bad consequences, and the orthodox position (p114-117).

Additionally, some proponents of complementarianism distort and undermine Christ’s threefold mediatorial roles of prophet, priest, and king. They teach that a husband has the authority to act as prophet, priest, and king for his wife, somehow assisting Christ in sanctifying her (p156-197). Again I find it hard to understand how these teachings could ever find a foothold in even vaguely Reformed circles. When you think of the work that is actually involved for our Redeemer in his prophetic, priestly, and kingly offices (Shorter Catechism Q23-26), it is practically blasphemy to attribute that work, or any participation in it, to any human. Either it trivialises and secularises the work of Christ in accomplishing our redemption, or it puffs up (men’s side of) earthly, everyday human interactions beyond all proportion and propriety. The disparagement of Christ’s offices, in either case, can only result in loss of spiritual comforts and entanglement in spiritual bondage. Whereas the Reformation repudiated the role of priests, defined ecclesiastically, complementarians seem happy to reintroduce it, along with a couple of additional roles, defined on the basis of gender. But no man is competent to take on the role of applying redemption to any other person, and no woman has the right to look to a man instead of Christ, or between her and Christ, for the benefits of redemption. Gender is irrelevant to soteriology.

So there is a double problem associated with calling gender a gospel issue. On the one hand, it distracts from the actual gospel, the good news of salvation for sinners on the basis of what Christ has done, to focus on something of vastly less significance. On the other hand, it distorts the actual gospel, chipping away at its foundations by teaching a wrong understanding of who God is and a wrong understanding of Christ’s mediatorial functions. Miller is right to say, ‘Equating gender roles with the gospel, equating marriage with the gospel, and putting men in the role of Christ as priest and mediator for their wives and families creates a type of works righteousness: “Do this and live.” … When marriage is emphasised as living out a picture of the gospel and as the highest calling for women, along with bearing children, it tends towards making marriage and family into idols. This is especially harmful for singles and widows and for those who don’t fit the neat box of a nuclear family unit.’ (p165)

There is more, but I’ll be briefer.

Problem 3: Mere authority isn’t loveable

God’s grace makes God’s law loveable and a pleasure for God’s people to submit to. This is basically the whole point of the gospel, of finally finding the law in the hand of Christ instead of in the hand of Moses. But men have nothing comparable to grace to offer to make their rule with rod of iron something for women to joyously embrace. They are only fallen sinners like the rest of us. In fact, reducing our relationships to questions of authority (whether that is everyday relationships in society, ecclesiastical relationships in church, or what should be the loving relationship of marriage) only breeds antagonism and resentment. (p203) Pitting men and women against each other, in an endless battle for who gets to be in charge, is foreign to the spirit of the gospel. And the suspicion and hostility it fosters between one and another is increasingly pernicious the more close and loving the relationship is meant to be.

Problem 4: Presenting complementarianism as a sure way of getting your behaviour right

If only wives were more submissive! If only husbands would man up and be proper leaders! Sign up to complementarianism and save Western civilisation and your marriage!

But Miller is right to flag that abusers can take cover under complementarian teaching. (p237) Complementarians say things like, ‘Of course a wife shouldn’t be downtrodden by her husband!’ as if it’s the last thing that’s ever going to happen. Yet this is such naivety. Partly for the obvious reason that if you grant all this power to a sinner, it is inevitable that some will misuse it.

But partly also, and of more concern to the Reformed, it is so quaintly blind to the realities of our original and actual sinfulness and the human impossibility of sanctification. No ideology is capable of dealing with the corruption of our hearts, the transgressions of our lives, or the problems in relationships between sinful individuals. Complementarianism, for all its deployment of Scripture texts and its overlap with Christian concepts, is only another ideology. At its best, it offers some good advice which might help some people in some contexts. But it is not a means of grace, or something we can pin our hopes of temporal or spiritual salvation on, or something that can really enable or motivate us to be better people or have better relationships.

3. Moving on from complementarianism

Hopefully, in a decade or so people will only be talking about complementarianism the way we talk about woodchip wallpaper now – it played such a huge part in so many people’s lives, yet the question now on everyone’s lips is, ‘What on earth were we thinking?’

Miller is right to want to move the discussion beyond authority and submission. She has proposed those three further principles – unity, interdependence, and service – and fleshed them out across several chapters. This is a major piece of progress which deserves to be built on by others going forward.

Miller concludes with an invitation to “evaluate our beliefs and attitudes about women and men and test everything against Scripture.” (p258) Perhaps the most important of her diagnostic questions is, ‘Do your relationships with others tend toward co-labouring or toward antagonism?’ The tendency within complementarianism is towards antagonism, stoking conflicts and mistrust between men and women.

By contrast the co-labouring Miller recommends is Scriptural. It is solidly grounded in familiar truths: (1) men and women have the same chief end (WSC 1) and both bear the image of God (WSC 10), (2) we have all sinned in and fallen with Adam (WSC 16), (3) the same way of salvation is open to both men and women (WSC 20-37), and (4) the faith and obedience required of a saved sinner is almost entirely non-gender-specific (WSC 39-107).

Going back to Scripture and back to Scriptural expressions of orthodoxy and orthopraxy will grant us a perspective and an approach which restores friendship and mutual helpfulness to broken and inadequate relationships, and will adorn the gospel much more successfully.

now available in the UK

HughMartin-selected-cover2-416x622I’m delighted to say that the collection of Hugh Martin’s writings edited by Matthew and myself is now available in the UK.

It’s worth reading (we only wrote the preface) – Hugh Martin was a genius, and the pieces in this volume are superb. He excels at diving deep, and then deeper, into the truth of a passage of Scripture and pressing home inescapably how much comfort the believer can have from this or that truth, showing from all sorts of angles how much glory it gives to our triumphant, victorious Saviour.

Providence and grace

Back in the mid to late 80s (it must have been) I read an article by Carine Mackenzie in the FP Young People’s Magazine. She wrote about taking the family dog to the vet because of some illness. As far as I remember, the dog was distressed about being at the vet and having an injection (or whatever treatment it was), and so they longed to be able to comfort their beloved family pet by explaining what was going on and how this experience, even though it was upsetting, was really the only way to get better.

But if they’d tried to explain, how could the dog have processed the information? Its only hope was to accept what was happening because the vet knew what she was doing and was acting in its best interests.

The point of the story was to illustrate how incapable we are of understanding everything that happens to us in providence. Often we can only respond with perplexity and distress to the things that happen to us. Then our only hope is the fact that the Lord is good, he knows what he is doing, and it is not only for his glory but also for the good of his people.

The effect of this article, for me and hopefully others, was not only to give me an abiding affection for Carine Mackenzie and her ilk, but also to provide a basic framework for understanding providence. I can’t have been older than 8 when I read it.

And of course, over time, some more things about providence have swum into clearer focus. In particular these two.

1. Providence is not a mark of grace

To hear some people talk, the mere fact that unexpected things have happened to you in providence is a sign that the Lord has saved you. It is an integral part of some people’s testimony, or account of their call by grace, that certain events happened in their lives with certain details in certain circumstances and it was all very remarkable.

This is, unfortunately, a fallacy. Time and chance happen to us all. (Ecclesiastes 9:11) If you were to write the biography of any single individual on the planet, it would be full of unexpected events and remarkable deliverances. Nobody, Christian or not, could have predicted five years ago where they would find themselves today. The fact that things have turned out better for you than you feared, or that you have learned some things the hard way, is no sign of grace. It is simply your own personal version of a universal reality, an experience shared by every other human being who has ever lived.

This is not to deny that when the Lord does save people, he does so in a way that interweaves his supernatural grace with the very specific, concrete, natural facts he has ordained for their lives. You were born to these godly parents and grew up under that pastor’s faithful preaching and your job created those opportunities to consider the truths of the gospel, and so on. Providence and grace are inextricably linked for every one of the Lord’s people, because grace reaches us in exactly the situation we’re in.

But when the Holy Spirit unites sinners to Christ, we have to understand his work in theological terms, far more than in providential terms. It’s not so much that he sends this affliction into our lives or brings about that deliverance in our circumstances, but that he convinces us of our sin in the light of God’s holy law, enlightens our minds in the knowledge of Christ and his salvation, renews our wills to incline us to wisdom’s ways, and enables us to believe and repent.

If someone’s testimony majors on their personal life events, while leaving big gaps where they could have talked about their grasp of the mercy of God in Christ, then, assuming they really are saved, their account of what the Lord has done for them is sadly defective when it comes to giving him the glory that is due to his name.

Of course believers should acknowledge what God does in providence. But the God of providence works marvellous things in the lives of the most hardened reprobates. Marvellous providences are not a distinguishing feature of the believer. To believers alone he makes himself known as God the Lord, who keeps covenant and mercy, and that’s what people’s call by grace is really all about.

The other side of the coin from this is of course that when dramatic things have not happened in someone’s life where they can discern the hand of the Lord manifestly working, this is not a sign that they have no grace. Far more important than remarkable stories is evidences of the new birth – trust in Christ, love for the Lord, grief over sin, prayerfulness, and willingness to walk in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

2. Providence is not a means of grace

Perhaps it overstates the case to say that providence is not a means of grace. The Lord does use events and circumstances to further his people’s growth in grace. His goodness in everyday things should lead us to repentance. The difficult things he sends (illness, bereavement, relationship breakdowns, financial hardship) should nudge us to cling closer to him and less tightly to our sins and our secondary supports. Believers towards the end of their lives have grown in grace in ways that can sometimes be easily connected to events that happened in their personal providences. 

But granting all of this, it is still missing the point to treat providence as a means of grace. For two reasons. 

a) Nothing we learn from providence is not already more clearly expressed in Scripture 

Providence itself is not sufficient to inform us of what repentance is, what faith is, or what sin is. How could it? Whether you study the rise and fall of empires, or the life cycle of a gnat, you would never get a hint of how the Lord answers the request of his disciples, ‘Increase our faith.’ Study any conceivable sub-discipline of epidemiology or meteorology or criminology or sociology to the highest possible levels of expertise, and you will still be none the wiser how to follow the apostle’s direction, ‘Grow in grace.’ Drill down as detailed as you like into the chains of causes and effects and the webs of events and their interactions in your own life, and you will never know whether or not ‘ye be in the faith.’ It is not the job of providence to explain these things. For this, we need Scripture. 

Also, providence is not self-interpreting. Events do not come with a label attached to explain their purpose. When a problem arises, for example, you can’t automatically tell whether it is a rebuke (because you’re walking the wrong way and need to change course), or a test of resolve (something you need to persevere in spite of, as you walk in the path of obedience). Your walk needs to be judged by the Word, not by providences. 

Providence may well be a nudge from the Lord to remind us of something we should already know (from Scripture). But it is not providence itself that informs us. It is not providence that explains things to us. Too much of providence is completely inexplicable and impenetrably mysterious – not because we aren’t working hard enough to make sense of it, but because it is inherently beyond our grasp. Our questions should be directed to the Word. Our search for explanations should take place in the Word. If we want to grow in grace, we need to study the Word, far more than our providences. 

It is a big, perplexing, hindrancing mistake to think that if we are going to grow in grace we need to understand what the Lord is doing in our providences. We may never know what he is doing, now or even much further down the line. We may never know why we needed to have toothache at that particular time or why that particular train was cancelled – or the reason for that bereavement or losing that job or having that serious accident. 

But we do not need to understand what the Lord is doing in order to be convinced that he is doing everything exactly right and in order to push our sins further away and cling closer to him. That conviction, and the certainty of the rightness of that response, comes from Scripture, our unfailingly clear guide to the Lord’s character and purpose, and not from providence, where the Lord’s way is in the great waters and his footsteps are not known. 

b) Nothing that happens in providence gives the believer any grace they didn’t already have

No amount of providential blessing is enough to make a sinner thank the Lord for his pardoning mercy in Christ Jesus. No amount of providential hardship is enough to make a sinner turn from their sin to the Lord in penitence and faith. Grace in the heart of a sinner only ever comes from the Holy Spirit planting it there. The faith he gifts is a response to Christ revealed in the Word (not in providence). The repentance he gifts is a response to the mercy of God in Christ revealed in the Word (not in providence). 

So when a believer encounters a fiery trial and eventually emerges from it like gold, it is not the hardship itself that does them good. This is obvious because sometimes, when a trial comes, the believer makes a bad use of it. They take it as a reason to complain, to overlook the Lord’s kindness, to lash out at their loved ones, to look for a solution in creature comforts, and in general to distrust God. This is because trials are essentially evils. Good does not come from the evil itself. If any good comes from it, it is because the Lord is using it to bring the believer to make a good use of it. 

The role of providence in someone’s life is to expose, or reveal, the reality of what’s in their heart. Trials don’t give repentance, or meekness, or thankfulness. They can only make it clear whether someone is a penitent, or meek, or thankful person. They remove the dross, not to make the underlying substance into gold, but to demonstrate that it really is gold.

Far more effective as helps to growing in grace are the ordinances which the Lord has explicitly given for that purpose – especially the reading and hearing of the Word, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper, and prayer.

Delving deeper into the Word, hearing it expounded from the pulpit, walking in the light of your baptism, feeding regularly on Christ in the supper, and pleading with the Lord for mercy for Christ’s sake – these are the activities which strengthen the believer’s graces. They grow in love, joy, peace, long suffering (etc) as they participate in activities like these. 

Then, it doesn’t really matter whether providentially they spend their lives lurching from one crisis to the next, snatched from the lion’s paw one moment and like a brand from the burning the next, or whether they plod along unremarkably and insignificantly from week to week and year after year. Spiritually, i.e., far more importantly, their stability comes from the immutability of the love of their Saviour, and the highlights of their lives come from new breakthroughs of light from the truth of the Word.

Conclusion: our circumstances are measured out by the God of all grace

Undoubtedly, in the experience of any believer, it may well be in the midst or in the upshot of some providential situation that some aspect of the truth can become precious, standing out with stark clarity and warm comfort precisely as it meets them in their situation. That is because the God of providence is the God of grace. But the truth and its preciousness remain true and precious irrespective of our situations in providence, and certainly irrespective of our comprehension of our providence. We can leave ourselves safely in the Lord’s care, whether or not we understand what’s happening. That is because God’s grace includes God’s providence, and surpasses it, since ‘over all his other works his tender mercies are.’ (Psalm 145:9)

Devoted to God

Devoted to God by Sinclair B Ferguson

I guess, if you’d asked me out of the blue how believers grow in grace, I would have reached for the Shorter Catechism’s special trio, ‘the Word, sacraments, and prayer.’

Well, I’ve now read Sinclair Ferguson’s recent book, Devoted to God (Banner of Truth, 2016).

In this book, Ferguson takes ten passages from the New Testament, identifying them as so many blueprints for sanctification. Each passage gets a chapter-length treatment, where he explains its teaching and draws out its implications for the believer.

In this way, the book consists of ten mini-commentaries of the selected passages, or perhaps a better term would be mini-sermons, if you are used to sermons which expound the doctrine in a text and apply it to your case. The value of structuring the book this way is that it shows how explicit and specific Scripture itself is about the believer’s need for holiness and how to grow in grace. What is set down in summary form in definitions like the Catechism’s (Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness) is here shown to spring directly from actual texts of Scripture – texts you can consult, meditate on, memorise, and consult again.

Although the question of sanctification has its difficulties, both conceptually and practically, Ferguson excels at getting across fundamental truths plainly and clearly. In particular, if I can pick out a few, he explains union with Christ, the indicative/imperative distinction, the significance of baptism, the priority of the mind, and the influence of the future we expect on our present experience.

1. Union with Christ. We are put in possession of the redemption purchased by Christ when the Holy Spirit unites us to Christ. United to Christ, we possess the vast blessings of justification, adoption, heaven, a glorious resurrection – and sanctification. If we have been made one with Christ, then we need to live like it. If we belong to him, we need to evidence it. “You are not your own; you have been bought with a price – the sacrifice of Christ; you are his, so live for his glory because it is for this that you have been purchased.” (p7)

2. Indicatives and imperatives. What we must do is grounded in what God has done. The gospel announcement that Christ has done it is the basis for the gospel precepts requiring things we must do. As Ferguson says, “divine indicatives (statements about what God has done, is doing, or will do) logically precede and ground divine imperatives (statements about what we are to do in response).” (p33) “If we are to understand the nature of sanctification and successfully pursue it, we must immerse ourselves in appreciating the grace of God expressed to us in Jesus Christ and applied in us by the Holy Spirit. Our response is dependent on it and motivated by it. … Justification, forgiveness, acceptance, and union with Christ are the logical and actual grounds for sanctification and obedience – not the other way round.” (p35)

3. The significance of baptism. Ferguson points out that baptism does not primarily point us to our faith, but to Christ and the benefits of redemption. The one-off event of baptism is meant to define all our subsequent daily life in Christ. Irrespective of what you believe about who should be baptised (a question which Ferguson completely and quite legitimately sidesteps), the purpose of baptism is to name us after the holy God and to be a means of helping us live like it. When we think of our baptism, Ferguson is saying, we can reason it through like this: “I am no longer the person I was in Adam; I am a new person in Jesus Christ. In Christ I am someone who has died to the dominion of sin and been raised to new life. In Christ I am someone who has been delivered from the dominion of sin and has been transferred into the kingdom of God.” (p88) He therefore goes on to ask, “Do you know who you really are in Christ? Do you understand what it means to be renamed in Christ? Do you think of yourself each day as someone who has died to sin and been raised into newness of life and therefore cannot go on living in sin?” (p89)

This chapter on baptism is exceedingly helpful. As the Larger Catechism says, baptism is something we can and should make use of all our lives long, for example, “by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptised, for the mortifying of sin and quickening of grace.” (LC 167) When we neglect to build on our baptism like this we deprive ourselves of a major means of strengthening to faith and obedience.

If there is a quibble I would hesitatingly make, it is that the counterpart point about the Lord’s supper is not made (at all, I think). The Westminster Confession and Catechisms refer to the Lord’s supper as intended “for spiritual nourishment and growth in grace” or “spiritual nourishment and growth in Christ” (WCF 29.1, LC 168, SC 96). Whereas baptism is a sign and seal of regeneration and union with Christ, the Lord’s supper represents Christ as the spiritual nourishment of the soul and confirms our continuance and growth in him (LC 177). Both sacraments have weighty implications for our sanctification, and while Ferguson’s exposition of baptism is very much needed and very helpful, there isn’t an analogous treatment of the Lord’s supper. (Perhaps there isn’t such a clear ‘blueprint passage’ for the Lord’s supper, compared to Romans 6 for baptism?)

4. The priority of the mind. It is primarily our mind which we must engage in order to grow in grace. Ferguson says more than once that we must develop a mindset. How we think shapes how we feel and act, and not the other way round. We are sanctified by the truth. “We refuse to allow our minds to dwell on the flesh. But we must also seek to flood our minds with the things of the Spirit. This then allows us to experience ‘the expulsive power of a new affection.’ … [W]e allow the fruit the Spirit produces in us to become the object of our thinking and aspiring. For what we think about and love will have a determinative influence on our character. What fills our minds will shape our lives. We become what we think!” (p157-158)

A couple of additional points struck me leading on from this.

(a) Ferguson is writing this for believers, those who have been called by grace into union with Christ, justified, and given a new heart. Some people fear ‘dry doctrine,’ sometimes to the extent that they fear that exposure to any doctrine at all is dry and deadening. But this fear can only lead to their own spiritual impoverishment. ‘Doctrine’ is after all just another term for ‘beautiful truth about our glorious Saviour,’ and it is difficult to understand how the Lord’s people can be content to know as little as possible about him and his doings instead of longing always to know more and more. Undoubtedly when truth falls on stony ground and among thorns it makes no beneficial impact, but it’s when the Word falls into an honest and good heart, that that heart yields fruit.

(b) Ferguson’s view of sanctification encompasses the whole person, yet priority is given to the mind. We are made holy in our thinking, our emotions, our preferences and inclinations, and indeed our body (“our eyes, hands, ears, lips, feet, and every other part of us. They are the instruments of either sin or holiness,” p41). Yet the main psychological driver for sanctification is not willpower, nor feelings, and obviously not behaviour. “[T]he key to the way the gospel transforms us” is “what happens in your mind” (p45). We have to think straight about God and correctly understand God’s way of salvation and have an accurate grasp of our need as sinners. God’s Word is addressed to our minds, revealing things we wouldn’t otherwise know and explaining things we could never otherwise understand. Without the response, ‘Now I see! Now I get it! Now it makes sense!’ it is hardly possible to feel the desirability of salvation or walk in the right way.

(c) Ferguson’s mind is predominantly focused on Scripture rather than anything else. Our minds are not to be taken up with ourselves (although of course we have to know ourselves). Nor are we to be focused on the things of the flesh (although of course we have to be aware of fleshly things to avoid).

And something else we should not especially absorb ourselves in is providence. Some believers are so preoccupied with what the Lord seems to be doing in their providences that it gives the impression that providence is more important than Scripture for sanctification. They scrutinise the Lord’s dealings in their everyday life looking for signs, confirmations or leadings. They expect to learn humility, dependence and thankfulness through what they discern to be the Lord’s hand in arranging the affairs of their everyday lives.

Yet in doing so they are distracting themselves from the main means which the Lord uses to teach his people what they need to learn – namely, his Word. Of course the Lord is in control of all our providences, and is managing everything for the good of his people. Of course the Lord uses trials and difficulties to discipline his people and bring them into closer conformity to himself. But providence is never self-explanatory. In order to understand providence we have to listen to the teaching of Scripture. The lessons that we are supposed to learn from providence are already plainly presented to us in Scripture (and it’s only our slowness to heed the plain teaching of Scripture that means we have to learn the hard way from providence).

The mind of the person being sanctified is therefore supposed to be mostly grappling with Scripture, not providence. Setting our minds to questions such as, ‘How doth Christ execute the office of a priest?’ or, ‘How are we made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ?’ is almost always going to be more spiritually profitable than trying to work out what the Lord might or might not be teaching us from this illness or that financial worry or the next remarkable way we’ve been delivered from a difficulty looming on the horizon.

5. The influence of the future. Finally (because I have to stop somewhere), Ferguson points us to the eternal weight of glory that is ahead of believers, and how the expectation of this shapes our way of living here and now. “The Christian lives from the future into the past. He or she sees time in the light of eternity and therefore views affliction through lenses tinted with glory.” (p219) The resurrection is ahead of us and an eternity in the comfortable presence of the Lord. “[T]his gospel perspective – the hope of the resurrection of the body, the prospect of being finally delivered from the influence of sin so that we will find it ‘natural’, even ‘easy’ to love, serve, obey, worship, and delight in the Lord – alone makes sense of the long, sometimes hard process of sanctification. And if we want to be wholly the Lord’s then, we will want to be wholly his now as well as then.” (p223) Maybe this consideration weighs more heavily on people who are closer to the end of their lives than the start of their Christian walk, but it would ideally be near the forefront of our minds all the time. We are headed for glory because that’s where Christ is taking us, and surely we could do more to live out that reality in our daily walk.

Verdict. Space fails to comment on other valuable features of this book (how clearly the difference between justification and sanctification is explained, the discussion of the three dimensions of the law and the role of the moral law in the life of the believer in chapter 8, the appendix on Romans 6:10, the appendix on the fourth commandment, just for example). And while there remains nothing wrong with the Shorter Catechism’s trio, ‘the Word, sacraments, and prayer,’ Sinclair Ferguson’s treatment of this topic is an exceptionally helpful contribution. I can’t think of any believer I know who wouldn’t benefit from this book.

how to stop sinning

“Here’s the thing. Every week I go to church and someone at the front tells me I’m a sinner and that I should stop. But no one ever tells me how.”

That’s how Nick Page opens his article, 7 Ways To Stop Sinning, in Premier Christianity the other month.

I’d not long read Sinclair Ferguson voicing much the same complaint.

“Here again it is possible to become a little frustrated with Paul. Once more we find him issuing the same directives – put on, put off, put to death. But we may feel like saying, ‘It is all very well for you to keep talking about these things, Paul, but how are we to do them?’”

That’s in his recent book, Devoted to God (Banner of Truth, 2016, p140).

Nick Page’s article takes insights from psychology to help us sin less. There are seven helpful suggestions for how to break (or at least weaken) bad habits. Of course, he says, “we need forgiveness, salvation, and all the grace we can get.” “We need prayer. We need the Holy Spirit.” But the seven pieces of advice are all to do with your willpower and how to increase it, so as to establish new habits, or break addictions and compulsions.

Admittedly this is a 2,000 word article and Sinclair Ferguson has written a 200+ page book, but the two approaches to answering basically the same question are strikingly different, and I prefer Sinclair Ferguson’s.

There is more to the Christian’s challenge than simply sinning less. There is also a need for becoming more holy – growing in specific, actual graces.

Putting our sins to death is one thing – pulling our graces into life is another thing. But Christian is called to do both. Both are impossible for a sinner acting off their own bat, but both are possible and expected for a sinner who is united to Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Sinners have to become holy.

Sinclair Ferguson explains: “whatever the precise nuance of meaning of ‘holy’, it involves not only belonging to God but being influenced by him – being claimed by him in order to be possessed by him and to become increasingly like him. In that sense holiness involves being separated off from whatever is sinful. The effect of this will be a new shining in our lives, a new brightness beginning to emerge. … This is why in the Old Testament holiness and beauty belong together.” (p11-12)

There is more, even, to the problem of sinning less, than simply adjusting problematic habits and behaviours. We also need to factor in the underlying source of bad habits and sinful behaviour.

It is obviously important to exercise self-discipline and strive against our own characteristic bad behaviours. In this struggle, insights from psychology are undoubtedly useful. We need all the help we can get. But our external behaviours have their source in the heart, in our attitudes, in our nature. The only effective way to stop sinning is for sin to be tackled at its root, by getting a new nature, a new heart. Then it will dawn on us that the goal is not really to sin less, but to not sin at all. Granting that we will never achieve sinlessness until we reach glory, there is still no excuse for aspiring to anything less than not sinning at all. We have to go and sin no more.

We do actually need the Holy Spirit for this. Nobody can give themselves a new heart. As Sinclair Ferguson explains:

“The Spirit brings us to new life and into the family of God. … He brings about a rebirth in us that creates new dispositions. … We experience not only a change of status (as in adoption) so that we belong to God’s family, but also a real transformation of our lives so that we begin to develop the characteristics of our adoptive family. … [T]he Holy Spirit who unites us to Christ for justification, in that very act of union also sanctifies us, transforming our dispositions and desires. Now we love what we once despised, and despise much that we once loved. Now, while the Christian life remains a battle to the end, we find that there is all the difference in the world between seeking to be holy when that is a burden, and seeking to be holy because we belong to the family of God and have the new family nature.” (p25-26)

“[There is a] difference between mortifying sin (i.e., putting it to death), and merely diverting it – so that it lives on in a different but less obvious guise. We are all past-masters of doing this. Social pressure, or expectations within Christian fellowship, cause us to divert obvious sin to some other less obvious sphere. Sin is not so much put to death as channelled in a different direction. … We have not made any real progress in overcoming sin as sin.” (p153-154)

There is more to our psyche than just willpower. If you take a holistic view of the human person, you also need to reference the mind, or the intellect. Maybe other things too, but at least also the mind.

In fact, the intellect is supposed to inform the will, when human beings are at their best. Which is perhaps why the New Testament, especially in the epistles, is so keen to explain things – to present truths to our minds for us to grasp and then act on – to engage our intellects and expand our intellectual horizons with always bigger and more sharply focussed truths about God our Saviour.

When Sinclair Ferguson begins to answer his own question about sanctification, ‘But how?!’ his first port of call is not the will, but the intellect. His Principle Number One is ‘Developing a mindset.’

“The Spirit does not bypass our minds and work directly on our emotions or affections. It would be both bad theology and poor psychology to think so. Rather he addresses our minds through the Word of God, simply because we are created as rational, thinking beings. How and what we think determines how we feel, will, and live. … As we have already seen, we are transformed through the renewing of our minds.” (p141-142)

So here are some things we need to understand.

For one thing, that our salvation is the work of the triune God. How the Father has loved us and what Christ has done for us and what the Spirit is doing for us. (1 Peter 1:2: “Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ.”)

For another thing, our identity in Christ. “I am no longer the person I was in Adam; I am a new person in Jesus Christ. In Christ I am someone who has died to the dominion of sin and been raised to new life. In Christ I am someone who has been delivered from the dominion of sin and has been transferred into the kingdom of God.” (p88) “Do you know who you really are in Christ? Do you understand what it means to be renamed in Christ? Do you think of yourself each day as someone who has died to sin and been raised into newness of life and therefore cannot go on living in sin?” (p89)

For a third, the things of the Spirit. These things, Paul advises, are what we have to fill our minds with: “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable.” “If we are to overcome sin we must develop the ability to fix our minds on the things of the Spirit and the glory of Jesus Christ. And that can take place only when we are being filled with the truth of Scripture. … The remedy is soaking ourselves frequently in God’s word: allowing our minds to be filled to saturation point with its truth. … There is no immediate pathway to getting to know God’s word intimately. There is no quick fix. We can only do this the old-fashioned way, by reading it often and learning it well.” (p158-159)

This isn’t a proper review of Devoted to God but I would thoroughly recommend it. Anyone who prays, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me,” can’t fail to benefit from its teaching.