Friday, February 29, 2008

Book review: The Holy Spirit by Sinclair Ferguson


Chapters one to four trace the ‘history of the Spirit’ in the Bible, discussing in turn the Spirit in the Old Testament (1), the Spirit in the life of Christ (2) and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost (3 & 4). Chapters five to eight examine the work of the Spirit in the individual believer under the themes of union with Christ (5), regeneration (6), sanctification (7) and communion with Christ (8). Chapters nine and ten look at more corporate dimensions of the Spirit’s work, focussing on baptism and the Lord’s supper (9) and spiritual gifts (particularly the nature of tongues and prophecy, with a defence of cessationism) (10). The final chapter discusses the extent of the work of the Spirit in the world, finishing on the eschatological role of the Spirit in resurrection and the new creation. (11)


It would be an enormous pity if this book were dismissed or ignored because of the author’s stance on the issue of the cessation of certain spiritual gifts, for there it is extremely stimulating and instructive.

At the heart of the book is the relationship between the Spirit and Christ. While the Spirit is present in the Old Testament (where the primary connotation is that of energy/power), it is in the ministry of Christ that He is more fully revealed. Jesus Christ is the Spirit-filled man; it is Christ who gives the Spirit to His Church and it is union with Christ that undergirds all other aspects of the individual believer’s salvation.

In terms of Christ’s own life, Ferguson presents a carefully-argued case that the work of the Holy Spirit in the conception and birth of Christ was vital to maintain his holiness/sinlessness and therefore essential to our salvation: “the work of the Spirit preserves both the reality of his union with us in genuine human nature, and his freedom from the guilt and curse of Adam’s fall” (because he was not born of Adamic stock) (p.42)

When later Jesus receives the Spirit at his baptism, he is being equipped for his public ministry which is in essence a “holy war” in which he, as the messianic figure, is driving back the powers of darkness. The Spirit “serves as the heavenly cartographer and divine strategist who maps out the battle terrain and directs the Warrior-King to the strategic points of conflict.” (p.50) The surprise is that the OT messianic prophecies of the Day of the Lord are being fulfilled at this point in time by Christ, in the power of the Spirit – not at the end of history (cf.Mt 8.29). Jesus as The Spirit-filled Man is also seen in him being the paradigm for human holiness.

Because of the close relationship between Jesus and the Spirit, which Ferguson also identifies in the crucifixion & resurrection, Christ, on His ascension, is able to send the Spirit. Ferguson here picks up on the amazing statement of 1 Cor 15.45 that “the last Adam [became] a life-giving spirit”: “Christ on his ascension came into such complete possession of the Spirit who had sustained him throughout his ministry that economically [although not ontologically] the resurrected Christ and the Spirit are one to us.” (p.54) Therefore the Spirit is another parakletos to us.

So, when Ferguson turns to the question of the Spirit’s work in the Christian, the foundation is that the Spirit unites us to Christ. All other aspects of our salvation make sense in the light of our union with Christ. It is not that Jesus Christ is ‘over there’ and passes the blessings of salvation to us from a distance, but that we are brought to Him and into Him and thus receive what He has. Indeed, we are saved by sharing in Christ’s own salvation. The section on pp.103ff that discusses “Christ as paradigm and source” is quite stunning. Ferguson talks about Christ’s resurrection as his salvation: “The resurrection is nothing if not his deliverance from the power and curse of death which was in force until the moment of being raised… it and no other event in his experience is the point of his transition from wrath to grace.” (104, quoting Gaffin Resurrection and Redemption, p.116). Christ’s resurrection is his vindication, his sanctification, his adoption, his glorification, and by being uniting to him, the believer also receives all those benefits.


There is actually very little about the corporate dimensions of the Spirit’s work. There is a lot about the Spirit’s work in the individual believer, and when Ferguson turns to the Spirit’s work in the church, he seems to move straight to areas which to my mind are slightly tangential, namely baptism and the Lord’s supper and tongues and prophecy. Is that all there is to the corporate dimensions of the Spirit’s work? What about other gifts of the Spirit, given for the building up of the body? What about more generally, the work of the Spirit in creating a community, a people of God where God dwells? And are not the themes of sanctification and communion with Christ also corporate themes? (he seems to discuss them mostly in individualistic terms). The book left me wanting much more on the Spirit’s work in the people of God.


There can be a certain nervousness within conservative, ‘non-charismatic’ circles about the Spirit – or, at least, the excesses of parts of the charismatic movement that seem to overemphasise the Spirit – and the emphasis of Scripture (as brought out by Ferguson) on the fact that the Spirit glorifies Christ can lead to a call to focus more on Christ: it can be seen as more biblical to downplay the Spirit since, it is argued, he downplays himself. But Ferguson will have none of this: “His task is to glorify Christ, not to speak or draw attention to himself. But to draw the conclusion from this that we should not focus our attention on the Spirit at all, or grow in personal knowledge of him, is a mistake. The fact that within the economy of the divine activity he does not draw attention to himself but to the Son and the Father is actually a reason for us to seek to know him better, to experience communion with him more intimately, not the reverse.” (p.186)

In conclusion, the main application of this book is to seek to know the Spirit better. This includes the kind of careful, penetrative study of the Scriptures exemplified by Ferguson that helps us to understand better what he does and who he is. It also includes a deeper desire to experience the work of the Spirit in my own life. Finally, I am left with a desire to understand better and experience that dimension which perhaps Ferguson neglects: the corporate work of the Spirit in the church.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Christianity as Historical and Experimental

How do the 2000-year old events surrounding the life & death of Jesus connect to our lives today? How is the chronological gap bridged? I have found John Stott's comments on Galatians 1.1-5 very helpful on this. To them should be added some discussion about the role of the Holy Spirit (He is not mentioned in the Galatians text):

What the apostle has in fact done in these introductory verses of the Epistle is to trace three stages of divine action for man's salvation. Stage 1 is the death of Christ for our sins to rescue us out of this present evil age. Stage 2 is the appointment of Paul as an apostle to bear witness to the Christ who thus died and rose again. Stage 3 is the gift to us who believe of the grace and peace which Christ won and Paul witnessed to.

At each of these three stages the Father and the Son have acted or continue to act together. The sin-bearing death of Jesus was both an act of self-sacrifice and according to the will of God the Father. The apostolic authority of Paul was 'through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead'. And the grace and peace which we enjoy as a result are also 'from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ'. How beautiful this is! Here is our God, the living God, the Father and the Son, at work in grace for our salvation. First, He achieved it in history at the cross. Next, He has announced it in Scripture through His chosen apostles. Thirdly, He bestows it in experience upon believers today. Each stage is indispensable. There could be no Christian experience today without the unique work of Christ on the cross, uniquely witnessed to by the apostles. Christianity is both a historical and an experimental religion. Indeed, one of its chief glories is this marriage between history and experience, between the past and the present. We must never attempt to divorce them. We cannot do without the work of Christ, nor can we do without the witness of Christ's apostles, if we want to enjoy Christ's grace and peace today.

Source: Stott, John (1968) The Message of Galatians (Leicester: IVP), p.19, here

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Explaining the necessity of the atonement

From Tim Keller, notes from talks given at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary on preaching, here

Why is there need for atonement? Why does Christianity say that Jesus had to die in order for us to be re-united with God? Why can't God just forgive us? The answer is that no one can "just" forgive any serious wrong. If someone has betrayed you deeply and caused great harm - how do you forgive them? Forgiveness means refusing vengeful actions when you deeply want to make them pay for what they did. It means refusing to 'run them down' to others when you deeply want to slice up and ruin their reputation. It means even refusing thoughts of ill-will and rather turning your thoughts to pity and hope for their change. And as time goes on - if you stay the course, the anger will go away and the forgiveness is complete.

As anyone knows who has ever tried it - this is extremely painful, costly, and agonizing. If you do not forgive, you become hard and angry yourself, and a cycle of revenge and conflict goes on and on - so evil triumphs. On the other hand, if you do do the way of forgiveness, you will experience a great deal of pain and suffering yourself. There is no middle ground. Either you can make the perpetrator pay down the debt you feel (as you take it out of his hide in vengeance!) in which case evil wins - or you will absorb the debt yourself. It is the same in the economic realm as in the psychological realm. If someone knocks over your $100 lamp and says, "I'm so sorry" and you say "forget it!" you have forgiven them. But the $100 debt does not vanish into thin air. Either you make them pay it or absorb it yourself (by buying a new lamp or going without light in that corner.) So we see this principle - that when a serious wrong is committed, there is a "debt" that cannot be ignored or dismissed but must be dealt with, and that it must be dealt with through suffering.

Now, if we see this principle at our human level - that only way to defeat evil is through forgiveness that entails suffering - why are we surprised when we hear God telling us it is the same with him?... If when we are wronged we sense a debt cannot be just willed away, that must be paid for with suffering - how much more is God aware of the enormous debt of human beings' sin against one another and against the creation and against God himself. Either there must be judgment so that we suffer, or there must be forgiveness so God must suffer! There is no middle way. He cannot "just forgive" either. On the cross, God paid the debt himself. There we see at the spiritual and cosmic level what we know unavoidably at the psychological and relational level.