The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

“In Christ Alone: Living the Gospel Centered Life”

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In Christ Alone: Living the Gospel Centered Life by Sinclair B. Ferguson

Reformation Trust, 2007 (241 pp, hbk)

B. B. Warfield defines Calvinism as lying in “a profound apprehension of God in his majesty, with the inevitably accompanying poignant realization of the exact nature of the relation sustained to Him by the creature as such, and particularly by the sinful creature.”[1] That being an accurate statement, and recognizing that true Calvinism is by definition experimental, this collection provides a simple yet profound introduction to and example of genuine Calvinism.

Fifty brief chapters – drawn from two decades of brief articles for two periodicals, Eternity Magazine and Tabletalk – lie between the covers of this book.  The whole volume centers about the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, revealing the consistently Christocentric substance of Professor Ferguson’s thought and ministry, as well as particular emphases that are plainly close to his heart.  The book is clearly and neatly set out, and well-edited, the only slight gripe being that the margins are quite narrow, leaving little space for annotated engagement with the text!

The book is split into six fairly even sections: ‘The Word Became Flesh,’ ‘The Heart of the Matter,’ ‘The Spirit of Christ,’ ‘The Privileges of Grace,’ ‘A Life of Wisdom,’ and ‘Faithful to the End.’  The weight toward the beginning seems to lie with indicatives, and shifts toward imperatives as we progress through the volume.  This slight shift in balance is sufficiently subtle that one only notices it when the holy punches start to fall harder and with greater regularity.  That is not to say that there is no application toward the beginning of the book.  On the contrary, almost every chapter ends with a single thrust, a nail driven home into the heart and mind with one swift blow.  Rather, the more the book develops, the more the author unpacks our hearts and exposes us to the truth, enforcing the quoted distinction made by John Owen between the knowledge of the truth and the knowledge of the power of the truth.

Certain notes are sounded, and certain themes develop.  Professor Ferguson has the happy knack and particular gift of being able to step back from the Scriptures and view a whole book or letter with freshness and clarity, not crippled by the uninspired chapter divisions.  At the same time, he discerns patterns and developments in thought and direction.  Taken together, these capacities allow him to throw light both on the broad scheme and the particular details of the inspired page.  The reader is led by a guide who is able to display the panorama of the whole building and identify its overall structure as well as zoom in on the detail and show its artistry and beauty, often in combination.  In this collection, the Gospel of John, and the letters to the Romans and the Hebrews, particularly benefit from this treatment, although there are also helpful insights on the letter of James.  Given the nature of the material, there is sometimes overlap between chapters, but rarely redundancy.

Neither is Professor Ferguson shy of dealing with debated issues.  In the course of the profound and gripping pneumatological section, he plainly but irenically addresses such matters as the continuity of elements of the Pentecostal realities, and the cessation of others.  At the same time, it is plain that the book is not about point-scoring: Reformed believers are presented – and often – with penetrating questions and vigorous challenges.

There is a lot of personality in the book, and an unashamed humanity.  Judicious anecdotes draw us in to the reality of the subject matter, and spark our interest.  Those who have heard Professor Ferguson preach or lecture will often hear his voice in their heads as they read.  As one would expect from a scholar of his stature, he is aided by apposite quotes from or allusions to Calvin, Owen, and Luther, as well as references to several well-known hymns.  The style is at once accessible without being condescending, intelligent without being highbrow, accurate without being pedantic.  In these respects the style of writing is eminently worthy of emulation, to say nothing of its substance.  Depth of thinking, clarity of purpose, and warmth of intent are all in evidence, without the reader feeling patronised, manipulated, or browbeaten.  The author’s learning is not paraded, but employed in servant’s garb.

However, the simplicity of the writing and real clarity in the substance do not mask the searching profundity of the material.  The stance of the true Calvinist is plain: the author is a man unpretentiously awed by the grace of God in Christ, and we are called to the same awareness, the same profound apprehension of God as he is revealed in Christ’s person and work.  Whether teaching, reproving, correcting, or instructing in righteousness, Professor Ferguson brings us time and again to consider the excellency and wonder of Christ the Son of God, in his complete deity and perfect humanity. We come face to face with our Redeemer, the Conqueror, our Prophet, Priest and King.  We wonder at the ministry of Christ’s Spirit in his relation both to him and to us.  We marvel at what it means to be born again, and to enjoy union with the Lord Christ himself.  We feel the challenges of a life lived out as a true disciple of the Saviour.  We are faced with the realities of kingdom life in a fallen world; of pilgrims, strangers in the earth, who need to know the commandments of God, who need to have our unmortified affections for the stuff of this life drowned in the blood of Christ, overwhelmed by our ever-increasing love for him who loved us and gave himself for us.

There is no magic here.  There is nothing simplistic or shallow.  It is a simple yet profound declaration of the substantive realities of God’s truth, a call to consider with deeper insight and warmer heart the unseen and eternal verities.  Gospel ministers will wish to read this volume as Christians, as theologians and as preachers.  As Christians, for who does not need to be brought back repeatedly to first things, and to have our hearts burn within us again at the wonder of God’s grace in Christ to sinners like us?  As theologians, for who would not wish to be better instructed in God’s merciful dealings with sinners through his Son, Jesus Christ?  As preachers, for who has spoken of the person and work of our Saviour with anything like a satisfactory clarity and fullness, and does not need to learn how to do so with ever greater warmth and force?

In these respects, we would do well to spend careful and prayerful time with this book.  Pastors will find their minds and hearts enlarged, will come away prompted as to how they might preach from a particular topic or passage, will rise from their reading chairs – and perhaps from their knees – with a greater determination to be more Christlike undershepherds of the Good Shepherd’s precious flock, and to call those committed to their care to a deeper and higher appreciation of Christ the Lord than they have yet attained.  They could do worse than to begin by commending this book.


[1] B. B. Warfield, Calvin and Calvinism, vol. 5 in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield (1931; reprint, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1991), 354.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 22 May 2008 at 09:10

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