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.