A Masterpiece of Exegesis on Ten Texts Dealing With Sanctification

A favorite topic of Reformed theologians since the days of Luther and Calvin has been justification. And rightly so; after all, what could be more important than discussing how a sinner is made right with God—by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone—and confronting the many errors that have challenged this essential doctrine?

But equally important is sanctification, which is the lifelong process of growing in grace and dying to sin. While I’m not suggesting sanctification has been ignored, it has historically gotten far less attention than justification.

In recent years, though, theologians have returned to studies on sanctification. And one of the finest is Sinclair Ferguson’s treatment of it, Devoted To God: Blueprints For Sanctification.

His thesis, found on the first page of the introduction, is straightforward:

“It takes a long time to read the Bible, longer to know it well, and even longer to master it. But what if we were to take one of the central themes of the Bible—like holiness, or sanctification—select important passages on that theme, and then try to gain some mastery of them?”

In the next ten chapters, Ferguson takes his reader through ten passages that deal with sanctification, with the motif that these are blueprints that one would use to build a house or other structure.

Chapter 1: Ferguson takes us to 1 Peter 1:1-9, which emphasizes “the secure foundation on which the Christian faith is built,” namely, “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood” (verse 2), and “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”

Chapter 2: In what may be my favorite chapter, the author exegetes Paul’s admonition in Romans 12:1-2 to “not be conformed to the patterns of this world,” but to be “transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Here, he teaches the meaning of “gospel grammar” (i.e,. imperatives and indicatives), and their role in the Christian life. Also helpful is his section on worship, and how that impacts our sanctification:

“We come on Sunday morning out of a world that has sought to squeeze us into its mold. We add to that our own spiritual lethargy. But then we are fed in God’s presence by God’s Word, read, sung, spoken, and prayed. We are sanctified through the truth…Our thinking has been recalibrated in a Godward direction; our affections have been cleansed and drawn out in love for our Lord; our desires to serve Him are purer, our affections for God’s people are greater, and our wills are more submissive to His Word. The more we are thus fed the more we want to be fed and to feed.”

Chapter 3: Ferguson raises the question, “What does God do in order to bring us to the Christlikeness which is His ultimate goal?”

The answer is found in the critical doctrine of union with Christ, as set forth in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”

What is the importance of union with Christ? Ferguson presents the answer:

“If there is to be both justification and transformation for sinful human nature, then the resources for both must come from one who has shared that nature, and in it lived obediently for us, and then, in further obedience to his Father, died in our place for our sins and broken the power of death in his resurrection. Only a Savior who accomplishes this double obedience for us can resource a full and real salvation in which we are not only forgiven but also counted righteous, and then are transformed into his likeness by the Spirit.”

Chapter 4: The author dives into what may be the most crucial passage on sanctification in the Bible (and hence the most important chapter in this book), Romans 6:1-14. The focus here is on how we are dead to sin in Christ.

“As believers we possess a permanent and irreversible new citizenship. We are ‘in Christ’—this is who we are. He once died to sin and now lives forever to God. We are inseparably united to him in this. It is what constitutes are ‘national identity’ and ‘spiritual ethnicity.’ To continue living the old life in sin would be a denial of who we really are.

“The challenge? Until we grasp this teaching we do not yet fully understand what it means to be a Christian.”

As an aside, my Baptist brethren would do well to be challenged by Ferguson’s brief treatment on infant baptism vs. baby dedication.

Chapter 5: Ferguson tackles the tension of living in the spirit vs. living in the flesh, from Galatians 5:16-17.

He writes, “If you are going to resist the desires of the flesh (negative), you will need to live in the power of the Holy Spirit and walk according to his disciples (positive).”

Chapter 6: The practical ramifications of living in light of our union with Christ are considered, as Colossians 3:1-17 is the focus.

Ferguson outlines that passage thusly in what he calls “powerful gospel logic”:

  • “All the privileges of union with Christ are made over to us in Christ.
  • Our new identity is determined by what Christ has done for us.
  • Through faith we become new men and women in Christ, people with a totally new identity.

“Since this is so,

  • “We must get rid of everything that is inconsistent with that new identity—all that belonged to the old life in Adam.

“And in addition,

  • We must grow in the graces that are the hallmarks of our new life in Christ.”

Chapter 7: The mortification/putting to death of sin (Romans 8:12-13) is considered. Ferguson notes that in this passage, we have a practical application of Philippians 2:12-13, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Ferguson adds, “We do not say, ‘If God is working in me, then I can just sit back and relax.’ No, we say, ‘Because God is working in me I must work out what he is working in.’”

Chapter 8: Dr. Ferguson explores the question, what role does love play in obeying God’s Law?

“Not only does love not abolish law,” he explains, “but law commands love.

“The explanation for this is clear enough: love provides motivation for obedience, while law provides direction for love.”

Chapter 9: Hebrews 12:1-14, which calls believers to run with endurance and also speaks to God’s discipline of his children, is considered.

Ferguson discusses why this is necessary:

“It is always a shock to our pride when we discover that we are sinners—and not merely people who occasionally sin. By nature we excuse our sins as infrequent aberrations when in fact they are revelations of our deepest nature. Sin is not superficial to us, a mere flesh wound. It is a deep distortion, a twisted hostility towards God and his reign over us. And although believers now belong to the new creation in Christ, we still live in the old one, and in the same body. So long as that is true, sin remains and entangles us, and needs to be unmasked, untangled, and thrown off.”

Chapter 10: In the closing chapter, perhaps the most comforting verse for Christians, Romans 8:28, is exegeted and discussed.

Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good,  for those who are called according to his purpose.”

As Ferguson states, the practical ramifications are both staggering and reassuring: “[T]he Christian lives from the future to the past. He or she sees time in the light of eternity and therefore views affliction through lenses tinted with glory. Nor is the relationship between the two merely chronological—suffering now, glory then; it is casual: ‘This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.’ It is as though struggles, suffering, trials, are, in the Spirit’s hands, the raw materials out of which he creates glory in us.”

The volume closes with five appendices on related topics, including “The Trinity In The New Testament,” and “The Fourth Commandment.” While these appendices skim the surface of deeper topics, they are nonetheless useful.

In sum, Devoted To God is a marvelous work that will add significantly to the study of the biblical doctrine of sanctification. While it may be a little too detailed in parts for the average layman (especially the section on Romans 6), it is on the whole a very accessible read, and will aid any reader who wants to know more on this topic.

I highly recommend it.

Politics in the Pulpit?

They’re at it again.

A group of pastors wants to repeal a 1954 amendment that prohibits them from endorsing political candidates from the pulpit; doing so means losing their tax-exempt (501c3) status.

According to The Aquila Report, the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) launched an effort in 2008 called “Pulpit Freedom Sunday”–a coordinated effort to get pastors to preach on political issues, then send their recorded sermons into the IRS. Since then, some 1,200 pastors have done so, essentially daring the IRS to act, which would then set up a court challenge. Once a judge hears the case, it is believed, the Johnson Amendment would then be declared unconstitutional.

“I believe this really is becoming a nationwide movement of pastors who are saying, ‘You have no constitutional right to in any way interfere with what I preach from the pulpit to my congregation,’” said Bishop Aubrey Shines.

What to do with this?

In one sense, repealing the Johnson Amendment is not a bad thing. After all, the First Amendment allows the freedom of speech, and until 1954, pastors could–and did–freely endorse political candidates from the pulpit without fear of government reprisal.

On the other hand, is it wise for pastors to do this? Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians that “all things are lawful, but not all things are profitable.” Applied to this situation, while it might be Constitutional for pastors to endorse candidates from the pulpit, is it necessarily the right thing to do?

There are at least three reasons why it is not.

First, endorsing candidates for political office is not the church’s calling. Jesus Christ commanded His Church to proclaim the gospel. The Apostle Paul resolved to proclaim nothing but Christ crucified. On the latter passage, Paul admits that this is “foolishness” to the gentiles, but this was nonetheless the content of his message. Surely there would have been some who pleaded with Paul to preach on more “relevant” topics, such as how the local Rome-appointed magistrate was doing. But Paul stuck to his Christ-appointed task of preaching the gospel.

The goal of preaching is simply this: to proclaim the life-saving Gospel of Jesus Christ, and then to edify, comfort, encourage, and confront the congregation with God’s Word. Yes, this will include the ethical implications of God’s Law, which will inevitably lead churchgoers to draw certain conclusions on how to vote. There is nothing wrong with that; in fact, that is how it should be, assuming the Bible is faithfully taught and applied. The problem comes when pastors cross the line from ethical implications and dictate who their flock should vote for.

This leads to the second reason why candidates shouldn’t endorse candidates from the pulpit: it binds the consciences of believers.

A very important principle of Christian living is that only God’s Word can dictate how believers are to live. Christ constantly warned about the Pharisees who added onerous restrictions to God’s Law. The Apostle Paul likewise wrote against those who “forbid marriage and require abstinence from food” and force outdated requirements upon believers (see Rom. 14:1-6, Col. 2:16-17, 1 Tim. 4:3). In the midst of his discussion on Christian liberty in 1 Corinthians–essential reading which the Church needs to return to from time to time–Paul asked the poignant question, “For why should my liberty be governed by someone else’s conscience?”

Let’s place this in the present context. Suppose you have two people running for Congress: one supports abortion in every instance, the other is strongly pro-life. Granted, there may be all kinds of reasons why you wouldn’t want to vote for a candidate who supports abortion. But what if the pro-life candidate has been involved in shady business practices? Would that not involve a violation of the Eighth Commandment? And suppose for a moment that someone in the pews on that pre-election Sunday was directly affected by the pro-life candidate’s malfeasance. If he rebuts his pastor’s endorsement and leaves his ballot empty for that particular contest, is he sinning? Not at all: this would be a picture-perfect example of causing a weaker brother to sin.

Surely, then, it is best for the pastor to proclaim the Bible, and let the people vote according to their consciences as it is informed by God’s Word.

That is not to say it’s wrong to have church meetings to educate congregants on the issues that are at stake. Some time ago, I went to such a meeting where an elder (who is a lawyer, has been at that church for many years, and so is trusted by the congregation) did an excellent job in educating the people on what the various propositions and local candidates. Never once did he tell us how to vote, and we left that meeting better for it.

Suffice to say, there is a big difference between educating church members on often complex issues, versus mandating who they should vote for. The first is permissible, and even desirable in many cases. The second is not.

Third, placing the church’s imprimatur upon a candidate puts the church’s (and hence Christ’s) credibility at stake.

Let us retreat for a moment to our first point about the church’s role: proclaiming the Gospel and the whole counsel of God. These days, we have plenty of people who are very skeptical about Christianity. We also have had lots of politicians supported by churches who were either clouded by scandal or otherwise made a mess of things.

Take President George W. Bush, for instance. In my view, while he did some good things (he had a strong pro-life record, appointed several strict constructionist judges to the federal courts, and prevented another 9-11 attack on our soil), he also made some big mistakes: at best, the Iraq venture was very poorly handled, and over $4 trillion was added to the national debt on his watch–both of which are deleterious to our nation’s future.

Granted, much more could be said on the Bush presidency. My only point in bringing it up is to illustrate the problem of endorsing candidates from the pulpit: while I’m certain that many pastors just preached the Bible and let the chips fall where they may in 2000 and 2004, how many Christians heard an outright endorsement of Bush from their pulpits? How many people voted for him despite qualms about his handling of Iraq, the national debt, or other concerns? How many people voted for him because their pastor told them to, only to be later disillusioned about the gospel later on?

We’ll never know for certain, but these are questions we ought to be asking very seriously, given the church’s role.

And yes, it may very well be true that many other pastors declared that their people should vote for other candidates of different partisan and ideological stripes. They are wrong, too.

So back to the original question of whether or not the 1954 Johnson Amendment should be repealed: from a purely legal perspective, it should be.

But is it really worth it, given what’s at stake?

A Must-Read for Every Pastor

Christians of all kinds need to be ministered to. This is true regardless of their financial status, vocation, nationality, and whether or not they were reared in a Christian household. For that, believers can be thankful for the ministry of the preaching of God’s Word.

However, there is one group of people which is usually deprived of ministry, and thus left spiritually hungry. Which group is this? The answer will surprise many Christians: pastors.

Why is that? For many reasons, as Paul Tripp documents in his brand-new book, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry.

Tripp begins with a horror story of what can happen to many successful pastors: a man does well in ministry, but the persona he projects to his congregation is brazenly at odds with how he is behind closed doors: he is prideful, and often says contemptuous things about those whom God has charged him to minister. He is also increasingly distant toward his family.

Who is this pastor that Paul Tripp is writing about? 

Paul Tripp.

By God’s grace, he came to realize that his life and ministry were headed for a wreck, and that he needed to be realistic about his own shortcomings and spiritual needs. 

But more than that, Tripp’s main thesis is that pastors also are in need of the very gospel they are called to preach to others. So he seeks to encourage his readers to feed their own souls. Tripp’s thesis:

“As a pastor, you’d better be ready to fight for the gospel, but you’d better also be ready to war for your own soul. You’d better be committed to being honest about the battles that are going on in your own heart. You’d better be prepared to preach the gospel to yourself. You’d better arm yourself for the inner conflict that greets anyone in ministry.”

Furthermore, Tripp admonishes pastors to avoid the many traps that can overtake their ministries:  overcoming a seminary mindset (i.e., valuing academics over ministering to people), being blind to one’s own heart issues, avoiding the temptation to succumb to an isolated lifestyle, slouching towards mediocrity, and losing one’s sense of awe. 

Dangerous Calling also offers practical points to church governing bodies (sessions/classis/elder boards) to help their pastors get the ministry they so vitally need. 

With so many pastors leaving the ministry every year, the publication of Dangerous Calling is a much-needed elixir. I encourage all pastors, seminarians, and elders to read it very carefully.

Bottom line: Pastors, get this book. Put it at the top of your list, and the very day it comes in the mail start reading it. 

Trust me: you’ll be glad you did.

The Preacher’s Portrait: A Classic Not to Be Ignored By Pastors

In the twentieth century, John Stott was a gift that kept on giving to the Christian Church. Yes, there were some theological issues on which I would differ with him. That said, he nonetheless contributed many valuable writings to the Church.

One of them was his little book, The Preacher’s Portrait. Just five chapters and a little over a hundred pages in length, it can easily be read in one or two sittings. But don’t let its brevity fool you: it is full of some very theological and practical helps to pastors, whether they are fresh out of seminary or been in the pulpit for decades.

The premise is simple: Stott looks at five words that are used to describe pastors in the New Testament, then extrapolates from them what his calling should be.

The first word is steward; or someone who manages something on behalf of its rightful owner. This makes sense for a pastor; after all, he does not proclaim his own word, guard his own flock, or protect his own made-up truths. Rather, a pastor proclaims God’s Word, guards the flock of God’s sheep that has been entrusted to him, and guards the Lord’s truth.

As a steward, the pastor is also the manager of that to which God has entrusted him. That is to say, the pastor does carry with him a degree of authority. The difference with worldly authority, however, is that a pastor’s authority does not stem from himself; instead, he has the right and duty to declare what the Bible says on any given topic, and to remind those whom God has entrusted to him of this.

Second, a pastor is a herald. That is to say, a pastor is called to go into the marketplace and proclaim salvation through Jesus Christ.

Within this, the pastor as herald must do two things: first, he must proclaim what God has done. As Stott notes, “[T]he gospel is not so fundamentally an invitation to men to do anything. It is a declaration of what God has done in Christ on the cross for their salvation. The invitation cannot properly be given before the declaration has been made. Men must ask the truth before they are asked to respond to it.”

Only after the proclamation can the pastor as herald then perform his next task: to appeal to sinners to embrace Jesus Christ. The one must never go without the other.

Third, a pastor is a witness. The Greek word used for this term is one that has been used in a court of law; one who testifies under oath what he has seen. But since we were not with Jesus physically in the first century, how are we to witness of Him?

Stott replies, “Our task is not to lecture about Jesus with philosophical detachment. We have become personally involved in Him. His revelation and redemption have changed our lives. Our eyes have been opened to see Him, and our ears unstopped to hear Him, as our Savior and our Lord. We are witnesses, so we must bear witness. Certainly we shall teach men systematically about Him, and we shall boldly herald the good news of what He has accomplished by His death. But we shall not fail to commend Him to our hearers out of our own personal experience.”

Fourth, a pastor is a father. The reason for this is that, as Stott explains, “Preaching involves a personal relationship between preacher and congregation…A loving family relationship exists between them. They belong to each other.”

This is primarily what people tend to look for in a pastor: they want someone who is going to care for them, show them compassion, and the tender love of Christ. Granted, this will sometimes entail a rebuke, but it should never be done harshly or with a wrong motive. Instead, it is to correct the person in question and lovingly show them how to live in a Christlike manner in light of God’s grace.

On this word, Stott has a special word of admonition for pastors: get to know your congregation. Empathize with them. This is crucial because many pastors won’t know what some of his flock go through in their own lives (i.e., coping with a rebellious child, working with non-Christians, or go through a daily commute). And the congregation knows it. As Stott puts it, many a pastor “talks glibly about the Christian life and Christian witness. But has he ever had to stand alone as a Christian in an office or store or factory with no fellowship with other Christians?”

He continues, “It really is of the greatest importance that we think ourselves into the situation in which our people find themselves; that we identify ourselves with them in their sorrows, responsibilities, and perplexities; and that we do not live, or appear to them to live, in a remote ivory tower. Such an estrangement between preacher and congregation is most harmful  both to the proclamation and to the reception of the message.”

A father must also be gentle; that is, never unduly harsh. He must also be simple; that is, he must not preach in such a manner that his flock cannot understand him. A pastor must also be an example to the flock; they must be able, as Paul says, to imitate him as he imitates Christ. And lastly, a pastor must be a prayer. He must be on his knees, diligently praying for the sheep.

Fifth, the pastor is a servant. In demonstrating this, Stott shows how many of the preachers in first century Corinthians were showing reverence to various preachers who should have been showing it to God alone. This is an attitude which Paul had to correct. As he wrote in 1 Corinthians 3:5, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.”

Based upon this, Stott shows how pastors must thrive not upon their own power, but on God’s power, which He provides.

The above is merely a summary of each of these five points; Stott has far more to say about them than I could possibly repeat here. But this makes it a very worthwhile read. Future, brand-new, and longtime pastors will all benefit from reading The Preacher’s Portrait. It will educate them on the multi-faceted nature of their calling, convict them of their unworthiness to perform their duties, and comfort them by reminding them of Christ’s bountiful provision.

I highly recommend it.