Fighting the Good Fight

What encouragements do Christians have in the struggle against self, sin and Satan? Rev Hugh M Carwright (1943-2011) gave a series of addresses on the various pieces of armour listed in Ephesians 6.

These have now been published in Fighting the Good Fight, a new book from Ettrick Press. Also included in the collection in this book are addresses on union with Christ, and on the beatitudes, among others.

Describing the Christian life as a battle is not just a metaphor – it’s the reality. But though the Lord’s people have no strength of themselves, the Lord gives them strength, and he has provided armour to help them on the way.

More information about the book, including sample pages to preview, is available on the Ettrick Press website. You can order a copy either through the website or by emailing me directly.


The Mystery of Providence

The Mystery of Providence is a series of conference talks given by Rev John J Murray, newly published by Ettrick Press.

With plenty of examples from Scripture, Mr Murray sets out the Bible’s teaching on the wonderful works of God and shows how providence both brings glory to God and prepares God’s people for glory.

What God is skilfully weaving in providence is often impenetrably mysterious to us. But as Mr Murray shows, there is still an abundance of truth about providence to encourage and comfort us, and lead us to more adoring praise of the holy, wise and powerful God of providence.

As Maurice Roberts says in the Introduction to this volume, ‘There are vital lessons to be learned from his fine exposition of the doctrine of providence.’

This is a 142-page paperback. More info including preview pages can be found on the Ettrick Press website. Copies cost £4.95 plus p&p and can be ordered via the Ettrick Press website.

Rev John J Murray (1934-2020) was a highly respected minister in the Free Church (Continuing) and had an indispensible role in setting up the Banner of Truth Trust. An obituary appeared in the Evangelical Times.

why gathered worship is preferable to personal devotions

Which is more valuable, having your personal devotions or going to church to worship with other believers? If forced to choose, many people in our congregations would say personal devotions matter more. But that answer does not sit comfortably with how our forefathers in the truth understood the teaching of Scripture. David Clarkson (assistant and then successor to John Owen) would have chosen the opposite. Here is my summary of his sermon on Psalm 87:2, ‘The Lord loveth the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob.’ The unabridged sermon is available here (pdf).

‘The gates of Zion’ is a reference to the temple, the place where the Lord had settled as uniquely the place of his public worship. ‘The dwellings of Jacob’ refers to all the places where the Lord was worshipped privately, by individuals and families. Psalm 87:2 says that the Lord prefers public worship to private worship. Consequently, his people should too. (p187)

Of course there are differences between Old Testament temple worship and worship in the New Testament. But these differences are circumstantial – to do with the location and the ceremonies. The reasons for the Lord preferring public to private worship remain the same in both Old and New Testament times. (p189)

Here are some of these reasons (p189-197).

1. The Lord is more glorified by public worship than private. God is glorified by us when we acknowledge that he is glorious, and he is most glorified when this acknowledgement is most public. This is obvious. The Lord is most glorified when his glory is most declared – and it is most declared when it is declared by a multitude. It is apparent that God is all glorious when he is publicly magnified – when he is praised in the great congregation – when a multitude speaks of and to his glory.

2. In the public ordinances, the Lord is present with his people in a more effectual, constant, and intimate manner than he is in private. Efficacy is promised in Exodus 20:24 (‘In all places where I record my name, I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee’). Constancy is promised in Matthew 28 (‘I am with you always, every day, and to the end of the world’). Intimacy is promised in Matthew 18:20 (‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them’) and described in Revelation 1:13 (he walks and dwells not only with his church but in the midst of the church).

But isn’t the Lord with his people when they worship him in private? Yes, but he doesn’t promise so much of his presence in private as in public. Something is probably wrong if you can’t find more of the Lord’s presence in the place where he is ordinarily most likely to be found. Of course the Lord has promised to be with every individual believer, but when the individuals are joined together in public worship, there all his promises are united together. Each stream of his comforting, enlivening presence which he promises to individuals becomes a river when the individuals join together to worship him in public – a river which makes glad the city of God. The Lord has a dish for every individual believer, but when many individuals meet together, there he makes a feast – a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees (etc).

3. Public worship gives us the clearest views of God. David saw as much of God in private as anyone could have expected, but he still expected more in public worship (Psalm 27:4-5).

4. Whatever spiritual benefit is to be found in private worship, that much, and much more, may be expected from the public ordinances. When the spouse inquires of Christ where she can find comfort and soul nourishment, he directs her to the public ordinances (Song 1:7-8). The church is directed to the shepherds (the New Testament’s pastors and teachers) for food and rest, and spiritual comfort and nourishment. This is what Paul says in Ephesians 4. The purpose for which the Lord Jesus gave church officers and public ordinances is to edify, and in fact perfect, the church. This is how his people get knowledge, unity, conformity to Christ, strength and stability, and growth and fruitfulness. The public ordinances won’t fail to bring these things about, if we don’t fail in making use of them.

5. Public worship is more edifying than private worship. In private you provide for your own good, but in public you do good both to yourself and others.  

6. Public ordinances are a better security against apostasy than private. During David’s banishment, he devoted himself to private worship as much as anyone could have, yet because he was deprived of the public ordinances, he regarded himself as being in great danger of idolatry (1 Samuel 26:19).

Rejecting the public ordinances is the great step to woeful apostacies. Think of those who have fallen away from the truth and holiness of the gospel into licentious opinions and practices. Which of them didn’t first abandon the public ordinances? Is there anyone who has made shipwreck of the faith who hadn’t first thrown public worship overboard? The very reason the public ordinances were given was so that we would not be tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine (Ephesians 4:14).

7. In public worship the Lord works his greatest works. Perhaps they seem less wonderful to us than they really are, because of their ordinariness and their spiritualness. But they are greater works than he usually does by private means – conversion and regeneration, raising dead souls to life, turning sinners from darkness to light, curing diseased souls who are otherwise incurable. Of course the Lord does not restrict himself to doing these wonderful things only in public, yet the public ministry is the only ordinary means by which he does work them.

8. Public worship is the closest thing we have to heaven on earth. As far as Scripture describes it to us, heaven is a place where nothing is done in private – all the worship of the glorious company there is public. The innumerable company of angels and the church of the firstborn make up one glorious congregation and jointly sing the praises of God and the Lamb.

9. The most famous of God’s saints preferred public worship to private. David expresses himself rhetorically, ‘How amiable are thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts!’ He longed for them – nothing else could satisfy him. He fainted without them – they were his life, he would die without them. Hezekiah and Josiah are famous for their zeal for God – and that manifested itself in their zeal for public worship (2 Chronicles 29, 34-35). And the Lord Jesus Christ, however far above us he is, did not think himself above the public ordinances. He did not withdraw from public worship, even though it was corrupted. You find him frequently in the synagogues, frequently in the temple, always at the Passover, and his zeal for public worship was such that ‘it had eaten him up.’

10. Public worship is the most effective means for obtaining the greatest mercies, and diverting the greatest judgments. The Lord prescribes it (Joel 2:15-16). Jehoshaphat used it (2 Chronicles 20). Peter was delivered by it (Acts 12). It brought about the destruction of the Roman state (Revelation 8:4).

11. The blood of Christ is more relevant to public worship than to private. The private duties of worship (such as personal prayer and meditation) are due to God by the light of nature, supposing Christ had never died. But the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments are necessarily dependent on the death of Christ. Not only do they represent his precious blood, they are what his precious blood has purchased. As they display Christ crucified, so they are both the purchase of Christ crucified and the gifts of Christ triumphant.

12. God makes promises more to public worship than to private. If I listed all the promises made to the various ordinances of public worship, I would end up rehearsing the majority of the promises of Scripture. So here is a general outline of what the Lord promises in public worship. His presence, Exodus 20:24. Protection and direction, Isaiah 4:5. Light, life, and joy in abundance, Psalm 36:8-9. Life and growth, Isaiah 55:2-3. Life and blessedness, Proverbs 8:34-35. Acceptance, Ezekiel 20, 44:4. Spiritual communion and nourishment, Revelation 3:20. All that is good, Psalm 84:11 (this whole psalm speaks of public worship).

David Clarkson, The Practical Works of David Clarkson, Vol 3.

The whole sermon is available here:

From the Mouth of Lions

From the Mouth of Lions: Sermons on the Book of Daniel by Rev Hugh M Cartwright (1943-2011) is now available.

“O Lord, we thank thee for the witness of faithful saints in other times, and we thank thee for thy people in our own day who are enabled to be steadfast and unmoveable and always abounding in the work of the Lord, who are enabled in their own sphere to fear God and to keep his commandments. We pray that we might be among them, that we might not be made afraid by temporal consequences of fearing Christ, but that we might have our eye set on thee, the Lord, and on thy care of thy people, and on the prospect that is before each one of them. May we be kept by the power of God, and enabled by thy grace to be walking in the way of thy commandments, and to have thy presence going with us.” (p66, prayer after the sermon on Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego)


Coronavirus has closed the doors of our churches.

Many bad effects arise from this. Of these, the second-worst is that we can’t gather to hear the Word being preached.

The worst is that we can’t gather.

The loss of preaching can be mitigated. We still have the Bible. The message can still be got out. Anyone who wants to can still access written resources (published sermons, books about salvation). Recorded sermons are also available. Many preachers are also making live audio/video addresses.

Although each of these workarounds has its drawbacks, there’s nothing wrong with any of them. They are all ways of making sure that people don’t starve spiritually, and of hopefully helping people to feed spiritually, while they can’t get the real thing. We’re free to embrace these methods and exploit their potential, pandemic or not.

But they’re not the real thing. However closely we manage to approximate the experience of preaching and hearing the Word, there is no real equivalent. We can be thankful for the technology and the fact that the Word itself can still be ministered, while recognising the defects and limitations of these methods relative to the actual preaching of the Word.

Because for preaching, we need to assemble together. No assembly, no preaching, and live streaming is not assembling.

We should already know this from normal times. If you have to sit out the back with kids, you tell yourself it’s ok because there’s a relay and you can still hear. But it’s lonely out there, excluded from the others, and all you’ve got is a disembodied voice.

In the times before the virus, if you couldn’t make it to a service for some reason, and instead looked up a recorded sermon or listened in remotely, you might well have appreciated what you heard, but it was just you. You weren’t part of the service. The body was feeding, but it was missing a member – you.

For now, thanks to coronavirus, there is no body sitting down to feed on the Word preached, or for that matter, on the Word made sense-able in the sacraments. We are all dislocated, amputated, dismembered from each other.

Of course none of this affects the mystical union between believers and Christ, or between one believer and another. No amount of famine, pestilence or sword can break that.

But the best picture we’ve got of this mystical union, outside of heaven, is the physical assembling together of the saints on earth.

The whole visible body on earth, which reflects the church in heaven, is exemplified in the particular mini-bodies which meet as local congregations. Some are smaller than others, some are stronger, some are healthier. But when they meet for worship, each congregation models in its own limited way what the gathering of the saints is like in heaven. When we gather for Lord’s Day worship on earth, we are joining the outer courts of the sabbath worship in heaven.

Our physical assembling here on earth, where we’re bodily present in each other’s company, is important because it showcases and gives a foretaste of how eventually in heaven we will be physically in each other’s company for all eternity. Our resurrection bodies will be glorified, but they will be our selfsame bodies.

What we do in and with our bodies matters. When one member is missing from the assembly, there is a loss both to that member and to the remainder of the body. For now, when no members at all can assemble, the loss is incalculable.

In every normal worship service, the whole flock is supposed to feed together on the Word and in the sacrament. The individualism which only cares as long as I personally get something from the preaching, and which makes no attempt to grow along with and closer to the other members of the congregation under the Word, should not be encouraged.

The risk of that individualism is that now, when none of us can assemble with anyone else, we take no thought for the body – taken to pieces and isolated behind so many closed doors – as long as, by hook or technological crook, I can hear a message that suits me. This just anaesthetises us for now and weakens us for the future.

Because the future is nothing to comfort ourselves with. If we get through this crisis and simply revert to the old normality, that isn’t much to look forward to.

The most perplexing thing about our circumstances is that it’s the Lord’s providence that has silenced our pulpits and distanced us from each other. But it’s his own worship he’s stopped. The Lord is stopping us from worshipping the Lord. Why? During this situation and once things calm down afterwards, we need to do some hard thinking and soul searching. If we won’t hear the Lord’s voice crying in the city now, what will it take in the future to make us?

Of course, when the Lord sends any difficulty into our experience, we should react with faith not with fear. The Lord is working all things for our good.

But while we react with faith, we should conjoin it with repentance. Whatever the difficulty is, it’s less than we deserve, given our sins and shortcomings.

Personal difficulties should elicit personal faith and personal repentance. But we are all more than isolated individuals. We belong to families, communities, churches, and we share in their celebrations and crises. When the difficulties are family-wide, community-wide, church-wide, our faith and repentance need to be coextensive with the reach of the difficulty. No single individual, congregation, or denomination is affected by coronavirus – it affects us all.

Even as it pushes us apart, it forces us to reckon with the fact that we’re all in it together.

power and mercy

Why are these two joined together – power and mercy – by Moses, as well as by Daniel, Nehemiah and Jeremiah? Why does he join strength, and greatness, and dreadfulness with mercy?

I say, to exalt mercy the more.

It sets forth and aggrandises mercy the more, that a God so great, so dreadful, should yet be merciful. The lion in Christ commends the lamb that is in him (Revelation 5:5-6) – that he that is so great, and strong, and terrible, should be a lamb.

Look – as the unworthiness and sinfulness of us, whom God loves and shows mercy to, commends his love (as you have it in Romans 5:8), so the greatness and terribleness of the person that loves, advances and magnifies his goodness and mercy, that he who is so great and terrible, and has such power, should yet be so merciful.

Mercy in the 1st verse of Psalm 89 meets in this God who, in the 7th and 8th verses, is so great a God, so fearful to all that are round about him. They who are nearest to him know him best: they say this of him – that this God is a God of mercy.

This begets a stupor, an amazement, that he who is able to rebuke all, and destroy all with a nod, should yet have so much love and mercy. This exalts and sets out his mercy, and makes it a wonder.

[This is my summary of Thomas Goodwin’s argument in Justifying Faith (Works, Vol 8, p48)]

when MaHlabangana saw the sea

MaHlabangana2MaHlabangana had to travel from her home inland to the coast, some years before her death in 1943.

“I went to see her after her return. ‘What was the most wonderful thing you saw, MaHlabangana, when you were so far away?’ She did not speak of street cars or tall buildings as many did. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘the sea, the wonderful sea, which I never saw before. It stretched so far away, so far, and yet it was always running towards me. It was like the mercy of God, always without measure, and always running towards me. I felt how little of it I could carry away in these little arms.'”

Here is her obituary.


The photo is from Jean Nicolson, John Boyana Radasi: Missionary to Zimbabwe, Free Presbyterian Publications, 1996 (p24)


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.