(A continuation of C.J.’s interview with pastor and author Dr. Sinclair Ferguson)
Sinclair Ferguson: The struggle of our minds is to submit to Scripture, because our minds wander all over the place. I sometimes wonder why it’s so difficult for us to sit down and think about the Lord Jesus for five minutes when we can think of almost anything else in the world for five minutes. And when I think about that I think, “My, how far we have to go.” And, therefore, it is going to be very hard discipline to bring my mind and my spirit under the Word to really listen.
This was the thing that professor John Murray helped me with. The development of the humanity of the Lord Jesus has meant more to me than I think—than I have ever even tried to communicate. To think that he grew in stature—I understand that. And I can understand that he grew in wisdom, although that is a bit of a shock sometimes to Christians.
How did he grow in wisdom? He grew in wisdom by meditating on the Scriptures, not because it kind of fell on his head because he was the Son of God.
And that he grew in favor with God as well as with man—I just find that stunning. And when you get over the other side of that statement, that he grew in favor with God, then you realize I have got to see why. I read the rest of Luke’s Gospel. I have got to see why that was.
C.J. Mahaney: Ok, so how did he grow in favor with God (Luke 2:52)?
SF: How long have we got?
CJM: As long as it takes you to explain it.
SF: When I think about the Lord Jesus, I’m thinking about the way in which here he is—at twelve years old—asking questions. And I think he was asking questions. I think he wanted to know the answers. And as he explored the answers, they were obviously startled by his insight. I think the reason for that was because in a twelve-year-old-boy kind of way, like some of our youngsters, he can come out with very direct questions that after years of managing to manipulate themselves around people and avoid the important questions—they just get straight to the heart of the matter.
I assume by twelve he had memorized a lot of the Scriptures, and now as he grows, the level of obedience to which he is being called, the tests are getting harder. And as he advances through each of these tests, the Father responds like any father who goes along to watch his children play in a competition or something.
I could imagine a boy running down the touchline with a football and scoring and the father, if he is a Christian, doing it very quietly, but just saying, “That’s my boy. I have always loved you. And I always knew you had talent. But now I see it.” Or a child overcomes a huge obstacle and the father’s heart just leaps. Or in a marriage relationship, the day you got married you thought, “It is not possible for man to love woman more than I love this woman!” And now you look back and think, “I have so many more reasons to love her.”
And so the relationship between the Son and the Father in the Son’s incarnate and humiliated days is a relationship.
With respect to his having taken our flesh, in that flesh the relationship grows and the tests become harder. And the test in Gethsemane is unspeakably hard for him. Because it seems to me that what is happening there is he is being called to do what his humanity can never want. He has been called to give himself to the abandonment of the One who has favored him all his life.
I really do see that as the ultimate reverse of Eden. In Eden God is saying to Adam, “Do this just because I am God, not because you can read off this tree, ‘Do not touch.’” And I personally don’t think that tree was really any different. I don’t think the fruit was poisonous. I don’t think you could have walked past it and said, “It is obvious that we shouldn’t eat it.” That would not so much have been a test as an instinctive response. But I think it’s in its sameness to the others that God says, “For my sake, trust me. Don’t eat from it.”
And yet we are told—and I find this fascinating, that in Genesis 2 we are told about all the trees, that they were attractive and delicious. And in 3 we are told that this tree was also attractive and delicious, so that the only thing that stops me is because God has said, “Don’t eat.” I am going to trust him.
And here is Jesus in a position where, for Adam, every natural instinct is to take the fruit of the tree, but God has said don’t do it. And Adam should have not taken it because God said it. And here, for Jesus, his natural instinct is to say, “Please, not the cross, not the cross.” But the reason he does it is because “the cup that my Father gives me to drink, will I not drink of it?” (John 18:11) I mean, it’s unspeakable, really.
CJM: It is, indeed. [weeping]
SF: I think we all will be weeping in a moment, C.J.
It’s just, you know, that you can’t see this truth by thinking about yourself. So that’s what lies behind this “smuggling character into the work of grace.”
When we sit round like this and start talking about it, we begin to realize the depth of this truth. When we are preaching we are kind of trying to hit the ball down the middle of the fairway. But in a way it is easier to communicate this, I think, when we are just sitting around like this, as friends talking, than when we have got the multidimensional distractions of a preaching situation.
Photo © 2008, Lukas VanDyke
(A continuation of C.J.’s interview with pastor and author Dr. Sinclair Ferguson)
C.J. Mahaney: We are continuing this wonderful, memorable time with Sinclair Ferguson. And here is the second quote and we eagerly anticipate, Sinclair, your response.
The glory of the gospel is that God has declared Christians to be rightly related to him in spite of their sin. But our greatest temptation and mistake is to try to smuggle character into his work of grace. How easily we fall into the trap of assuming that we can only remain justified so long as there are grounds in our character for justification. But Paul’s teaching is that nothing we do ever contributes to our justification.
So if you would comment in particular on that great temptation and mistake, which is, I think, a daily tendency and temptation: to try to “smuggle character into his work of grace.”
Sinclair Ferguson: I guess, C.J., what lies behind this, the thought is that at the end of the day what Satan did in the Garden of Eden was to introduce the notion of legalism into the nature of the relationship that Adam and Eve had with God. And although there is a dialogue in which Eve is defensive in Genesis 3, what Satan asks is, “Has God put you in this garden and said, ‘You are not to eat of any of the trees of this garden?’”
And I think you can see in the narrative from that point onward she struggles with the answer. “Well, now there is this one tree.” But there is no recognition that he has showered upon us these great things, these other trees.
I was reared in the notion that what Satan was doing there was questioning the authority of God’s word (which he does). But more important, in that context, he was really questioning the character of the God by saying, “Don’t you see he really isn’t generous?”
Satan is saying God is like a father who takes his child into some phenomenally wonderful children’s department store the week before Christmas, shows him everything, and says to him with a cynical laugh, “And none of this is going to be yours this Christmas.”
It is the distortion. I am no psychiatrist, but I think at the human level that inevitably produces a child who will either willfully rebel or find himself always feeling he has got to do something to earn his father’s love.
It may be speculative to ask what it is the deepest thing in Satan’s heart against God. But I think there clearly is that jealously to demean his character. And the demeaning of the character of God, I think, injects into all that lies behind what we call legalism.
Geerhardus Vos has some amazing one-liners in the midst of all that kind of very dense language...
CJM: Is he known for his one-liners? I have not heard him characterized as a one-line kind of guy.
SF: There is a great book produced by P&R of quotes from Geerhardus Vos [A Geerhardus Vos Anthology]. It’s great because Vos is so heavy and thick that sometimes it’s difficult to read and you lose the good things.
Anyway, Vos says that the heart of legalism is when we separate the law of God from the person of God. And what we have got then are bare imperatives that don’t have an indicative that will sustain them.
God himself in his grace, love, kindness, and generosity was the indicative that would have sustained the imperative of “Don’t eat the fruit of this tree.” And I see that distortion of God’s character, and the notion of legalism that seeks to earn what now as fallen creatures we can never earn, and blinds us to his a priori love for us in Christ.
Satan is cast out in terms of his dominion over our lives from the beginning of our Christian lives, yet we are still living in a world and with a memory and as a being for whom, I think, that battle against legalism is a lifelong reality.
And this gets back to the quiet time. I have met a lot of very fervent Christians who, if they haven’t had their quiet time, feel things will go wrong in the day. They turn the gospel on its head.
There are imperatives that flow out of the indicatives of God’s grace, but it is so easy for us, I think, to just fall back into that old trap—as Owen would have said—mix the rubbish of our own qualifications into the foundation of our Christian life, which is absolutely, purely, completely, totally the unmerited (and de-merited) favor of God.
And I think it’s interesting in the history of the Christian church. One of my areas of special concentration has been in the seventeenth century and the antinomian controversies in the seventeenth century. Reading the men who were involved on the antinomian side, I was fascinated by the fact that they all said basically they had been legalists. One of the things I began to notice was that everybody who I ever read who was known as antinomian in the technical sense, this had become their way of dealing with legalism.
They were godly men and their theology could be a bit slippery. But reading what they wrote, it really kind of impressed upon me that Paul does not deal with legalism by saying, “Now what you need is three grains of antinomianism, and that will dissolve your legalism.” No. He always said, “It is the grace of God in Jesus Christ that will dissolve both legalism and antinomianism.” I saw the way Paul keeps dragging people back to the same basic principles in the gospel.
It kind of underlined to me: If he is doing that, then actually whatever spiritual sickness may be presented—if I can use like a medical analogy—the good spiritual diagnostician is going to see that the fact that you are hurting here doesn’t mean that the source of the problem is here.
And that, of course, was a helpful thing for me to think about both theologically and pastorally.
One thing that dawned on me was I had met people, as you do in certain branches of the Reformed church, for whom assurance is a great problem. And they get fixated on assurance and they want to talk about assurance. And I realize: Well, but, the resolution of assurance doesn’t lie in the doctrine of assurance. It lies in the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. And so, you know, we have got to struggle with this person who is becoming obsessed with the pain of not having assurance. You have got to drag them out of that and say, “No, really, the source of this is to be found in something even more fundamental than that.”
And so that takes us back to our golf conversation. I have noticed listening to others (and in a minor way) from my own experience that when you hit your best golf shots, you are not actually thinking. It flows out of an instinct. And you are “in the zone” as they say. And that is true of all sports, isn’t it? You see a basketball player in slow motion. When you see what they are actually doing, you realize there is no way they could think through all that’s going on.
I sometimes say you have got to be “thunked” about the Christian life. It has got to get into you, to be part of you. Otherwise you are saying, “Oh, there goes a little antinomianism. I’ve got to balance there. There goes my legalism, got to balance that.” No, it’s more and more the penetration of the gospel of grace and the person of Christ.
The Ferguson quote at the top originates from Know Your Christian Life (IVP, 1981), p. 73.
Photo © 2008, Lukas VanDyke
(A continuation of C.J.’s interview with pastor and author Dr. Sinclair Ferguson)
C.J. Mahaney: Sinclair, I am going to ask you to elaborate on four quotes. I have chosen four quotes among so many that I have benefited from personally in my study and used consistently in messages and books. I want to read them and then simply want you to comment on them, noting anything about their origin, or anything from them that you want to elaborate on. I would be most grateful.
The first quote states as follows:
The evangelical orientation is inward and subjective. We are far better at looking inward than we are looking outward. We need to expend our energies admiring, exploring, expositing, and extolling Jesus Christ.
What’s the origin of this statement? You obviously were observing this evangelical orientation as being inward and subjective and then drew attention to that orientation, exhorting us to expend our energies admiring, exploring, expositing, and extolling Jesus Christ. Why?
Sinclair Ferguson: This comes from a course on the doctrine of the church and the sacraments, and therefore since I am not saying anything here about the church or the sacraments, it is probably an off the top of my head comment in passing and I am not able to contextualize it.
CJM: By the way, I find that a little discouraging. This is off the top of your head?
SF: Well, come on, now. C.J., you say things off the top of your head.
CJM: Oh, yes, but they never make their way into print.
SF: I think it has arisen from a variety of things I have noticed over the years in the evangelical world. If I were to explain in a technical sense, I would say that I think one of the places where the impact of the Enlightenment has come home to roost is in the way in which I see the impact of a man called Friedrich Schleiermacher on the church. He was reacting to the intelligentsia of his day who were demeaning the gospel. And he really, in a way, turned the gospel on its head by saying it’s what happens internally that’s important.
And I think over my Christian life I have seen more and more how that has become true of evangelicalism. I mean, evangelical Christianity has a very broad subculture that now, probably since the 1960s, has been the kind of “born again” generation, where the really important thing was that you had been “born again” and you had an “experience.”
I began to notice that often being “born again” in the teaching of John 3 was dislocated from the rest of John 3, which had to do with believing in the Lord Jesus Christ and, through him, having salvation. And so sometimes when you had people interviewed who had been “born again,” there was no connectedness to the person of Christ at all.
And so I think I saw the pervasiveness of that and also in my own subculture—the Reformed subculture (if that is the best way to put it). I have been in that subculture all my life. I am a Presbyterian. I have never been anything but a Presbyterian, and that’s been my world.
I noticed in the revival of Reformed theology a glorious worldwide phenomenon. The revival of Calvinism brought much of the interest in terms of literature. The books that people read and were encouraged to read (and rightly encouraged to read) tended to be the ones that dealt with subjective experience.
And so in my subculture we were somewhat critical of the rest of the subculture of evangelicalism, and maybe particularly critical of the charismatic subculture that was all taken up with experience. We didn’t notice that actually, in some ways, we were just using a different mathematics for our experience. One of the books to which many people referred was John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, a hammer on the top of an Arminian’s head. And I observed that people, as I would put it, changed their mathematics about the atonement. But perhaps hadn’t really grasped what this was saying about the Lord Jesus himself and his glory.
And I guess, too, many people became Calvinists through their understanding of the application of redemption (sometimes called the ordo salutis). I began to see and hear people speaking about this almost without reference to the Lord Jesus, saying things like, “Regeneration causes faith, faith brings repentance, faith leads to sanctification.”
You remember those Find Waldo books? In the midst of all this I was saying, “But where is Jesus here?”
SF: I remember on one occasion listening to a series of sermons through one of the Gospels. Here was the basic motif of the sermons: Where are you in this Gospel story?
Now, there is an authenticity about that, but the real question is: Who is Jesus in this Gospel story?
And so, watching all this, I realized by looking at the literature that was being produced (including the literature I was producing), that it had more about how to live the Christian life....And so I think that is what lies behind this quote.
Curiously, I think it was C.S. Lewis that gave me the clue to this. When an undergraduate, I remember reading his book A Preface to Paradise Lost (on Milton’s book). And that wee book is not a well-known book of Lewis’s, but it is a great wee book with some stunning quotes.
In that book Lewis discusses what I had noticed in the kind of discussions as a student: Why is it that in Paradise Lost, if you ask who the hero is, just in terms of the literary power, Satan turns out to be the hero? And the literary critics had discussed this a good deal. But Lewis said it very simply. He said it’s far easier to portray evil than it is to portray perfect good.
And the more I thought about that, the more I realized: For preachers it’s much easier to seek to bring about conviction of sin and expose sin than to magnify and glory in the Lord Jesus.
Photo © 2008, Lukas VanDyke
March 26, 2008 by C.J. Mahaney
: I am sitting here at Grand Bohemian Hotel in Orlando, Florida, with one of my heroes in the faith, Dr. Sinclair Ferguson, a man who has had a profound effect on my life through his example, through his teaching, and through his writing. He is one of my favorite authors, someone whose books I promote and could easily sell door-to-door.
We have this privilege to spend a few minutes with Sinclair.
Thank you, Sinclair, for agreeing to meet with us and answer a few questions. We have just finished a lengthy discussion about golf, which I think should have been included in this interview and might be as much of interest to anybody listening than what we are about to say because—
Sinclair Ferguson: No, no, don’t say anything, C.J.
CJM: —you’re still a great golfer.
SF: No, I’m not.
CJM: Yes, you are.
SF: I repudiate that.
CJM: No. You were a scratch golfer.
SF: I was a good golfer.
CJM: And you played in college.
SF: I played for Scotland and for Great Britain when I was a youngster.
CJM: You played for your country in international competition. Oh, my. See, I know this is awkward for you, but you were a great golfer.
SF: It is very awkward.
CJM: I’m sorry.
SF: It’s extremely awkward.
CJM: Well, you get used to it when you hang around me. And you were lamenting a few minutes ago that now your game is in decline.
SF: Oh, please don’t. Please don’t tell anybody about this.
CJM: Yes, I want to tell everybody about this because this is how good you were. You are lamenting that your game is in decline because you don’t regularly shoot in the 70s anymore! But you still are shooting regularly in the 80s, even though you play only occasionally. And what I was seeking to remind you and comfort you with was that most golfers (99%) stink, so you are still in the 1% elite, and for that I commend you.
SF: Oh, it’s a fallen world.
March 26, 2008 by C.J. Mahaney
It’s not often you get to hang with one of your heroes in the faith, but this was my experience at the recent Ligonier conference.
Actually, I was able to spend time with and learn from not one but two of my heroes in the faith, R.C. Sproul and Sinclair Ferguson. And, because I am always looking out for you, the blog reader, I interviewed Sinclair Ferguson.
Sinclair was kind enough to spend a few hours with Tony and me in our hotel and respond to a few questions. From my perspective it was quite the interview. I think you’ll agree. What a wealth of grace and wisdom one encounters in this interview with Sinclair Ferguson!
Pastors, you will benefit big-time. The content of this interview will make a difference in your soul, your pastoral ministry, and your preaching.
So for the next week we’ll be featuring select portions of this extraordinary time. If it isn’t already obvious to you, I am really jazzed about this because Sinclair has had a profound effect on my life through his example, writing, and teaching. I think I have read every book he has written and I would encourage you to do the same.
I will always be indebted to this man because he introduced me to John Owen. I first met Owen in the pages of Sinclair’s book John Owen on the Christian Life
. Owen has been teaching me ever since.
I have read Sinclair’s books
and listened to his preaching
, finding myself regularly quoting the man when I preach, and for good reason. You will discover why as you read and listen to this interview. Tony suggested that I choose a few of the quotes from Sinclair that I have appreciated the most and ask him to elaborate on these quotes. So in this interview you will discover the wealth of insight that lies behind these choice quotes. And most important, as you read you will be reminded of the Savior’s substitutionary sacrifice on the cross for your sins, and I think you will marvel afresh at the love of God for sinners like us.
March 25, 2008 by Tony Reinke
Living the Cross Centered Life by C.J. Mahaney will soon be available in Spanish under the title Vivamos Centrados en la Cruz. We’ll let you know when it’s available to order.
Title: Vivamos Centrados en la Cruz (Living the Cross Centered Life)
Author: C.J. Mahaney
Text: perfect text
Topical index: no
Scriptural index: no
Text: perfect type
Publisher: Editorial Unilit (Multnomah)
Year: May 2008
ISBNs: 0789914867, 9780789914866
“And let me state from the outset that if this blog bombs I am holding Tony responsible...” – C.J., 1/28/2008
March 24, 2008 by Tony Reinke
Well, if you subscribe to this blog’s RSS feed then you’re undoubtedly aware of the way it has bombed your inboxes and feed readers with multiple copies of the same blog post. Our apologies for the inconvenience; and today I’m glad to announce that we have fixed the problem!
If you use RSS, please unsubscribe from the feed you are now using, and then add the new feed published here: http://feeds.feedburner.com/sovereigngraceministries/CJMBlog
. (Alternatively, if you would like blog posts delivered by email, you can submit that address to a service like rssfwd.com
The power and implications of what the church celebrates this weekend are well captured in this moving trailer for an upcoming Resolved conference
. But beyond its use to promote a conference, this short film provides a capsule of the horrors and implications of the cross of Christ. At the cross the Father crushes his Son with his wrath for our sin. At the cross we see the Son’s death as our substitute. By faith his blood and sufficient atonement brings full forgiveness, unshakable hope, and eternal joy.
The entirety of C.J.’s Resolved 2007 conference message seen in this video (“The Suffering Servant”) can be downloaded here
or listened to here:
Every morning we need God as desperately as we did the morning before. And every morning indwelling sin offers distractions and protests. In this excerpt from the latest Leadership Interview Series podcast, “The Pastor and His Soul
,” C.J. and Jeff describe ways to win the early-morning battle.
With the pressures of just life, not to mention ministry, it is easy for devotions to become rote. It is easy for it to become a perfunctory activity. So C.J., what brings you to the cross so early in the morning?
Well, what brings me here so early in the morning is my need for the Savior, an awareness of my need for the Savior, and some eagerness that I will, through my meditation on Scripture, freshly encounter the Savior. So that is what brings me here.
Although I need to add that I am never brought here apart from a conflict in my soul. Indwelling sin is a particular and formidable opponent against all practices that involve the spiritual disciplines.
So this does not take place effortlessly.
I’m now 54 years old, so even after 35 years, I can assure you that tomorrow morning when I first awaken, the first voice I hear will be a voice of protest. That voice will be distinctly the presence of indwelling sin appealing to me and seeking to persuade me to stay in bed. That voice never subsides. And that voice also negotiates, so that if I make an initial movement, that voice doesn’t subside and assume that that voice has lost. No. That voice continues to exert effort, and then presents to me various distractions.
OK, Well, just check the email before you get started.
Exactly. Or What happened in the world of sports last night?
The checking being justified because you are in the process of waking up. So since you aren’t alert, wouldn’t it be wise for you to go to ESPN.com and just see what happened?
There are all these types of appeals from our indwelling sin.
Actually, I would say that the initial challenge is just getting out of bed. That is why I would recommend for all who are listening to set your radio alarm across the room. Here has what’s helped me in the past: place the radio alarm across the room and set it to a country radio station. That motivates me out of bed.
But the point here is that we must have these practical strategies. I have people approach me at times who seem to assume that if one is called to pastoral ministry there is some special provision from God.
No, in my flesh, in your flesh, these battles take place. Take great comfort. If you watched me in the morning, you would not be amazed. There is no incredible display of giftedness present because I am called to ministry. No. I am a guy hearing these same protesting voices every morning as I get out of bed, making his way downstairs, eventually to his Bible, accompanied by a hot drink and a power bar.
And there I don’t have any angelic visitations. I am aware of numerous things in terms of distraction and aging and aches and pains, and certainly the day in front of me is seeking to rush in and interrupt me right now from what I am doing.
Jeff, what about you? Talk about your own practice of the spiritual disciplines.
Well, mine sound very similar to what C.J. has just described, especially those opening moments. I never cease to be amazed at how cold my heart is in the morning. And I used to think, “No, if I am really saved then I wouldn’t feel this way in the morning.”
It encouraged me one time to hear Dr. Piper say, “I feel like I have to get saved every morning. I wake up and the devil is sitting on my face.” I can relate to that.
So now I am no longer surprised. I can be discouraged at times, but the coldness that I feel just reminds me how badly I need God. Because apart from him I can do nothing. And apart from getting food for my soul this morning, I will be starving.…
So I’m very pragmatic in my devotions. I don’t feel obligated to continue along a track that is not bearing fruit. Because of how cold I am in the morning I am desperate in the morning. Obviously, I think that is a gift of grace. But I just have this feeling because I am so cold I must
meet with God, I must
connect with him, I must
be addressed by him. I must
reach a point of faith for that day, knowing I have indeed encountered his presence, that the flames of affection for God in my heart have been stirred, that I have brought myself under his sway, and under the control of the Holy Spirit.
That doesn’t mean that I am dependent upon an emotional feeling. I suppose it’s very similar to what George Mueller talked about, getting his soul happy before God. That is what I am after in my devotions. I am not there to learn more data about God (although hopefully I am constantly learning as I read and meditate upon Scripture). I am not there studying (I will study at other times). But I am desperate in those moments not merely to complete a regimen, I am there to, as James put it, to “draw near to God.” I am banking on his promise, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (4:8 ESV).
And so I do follow a plan, but if I am in a book, say, a book of Scripture or a chapter, or maybe if I am supplementing that with another book, and it is not accomplishing this, then I don’t feel an obligation to trudge through and finish this book.
I am seeking to encounter God, to draw near to him and to experience a sense of his presence—again, not an emotional encounter—but a sense of his presence. To have my heart set upon him. To have my faith in his promises stirred, and now facing this day standing on his promises, standing on the truth of his Word.
The full hourlong podcast, “The Pastor and His Soul
,” is available for download.