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.