The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson (Book Review)

What does a Scottish theological controversy from three hundred years ago have to teach believers today? A lot. And Sinclair Ferguson (perhaps my favorite living theologian) shows its relevance to the church today in his new book, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, & Gospel Assurance - Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters

I am torn between giving this book three or four stars. Ferguson's handling of the Marrow controversy is interesting and informative and his exposé of the heart of legalism is biblical and incisive. There are some penetrating insights in this book concerning the gospel and how legalism and antinomianism are not so much opposite errors as they are "non-identical twins" that are born from the same womb, namely a distrust of the goodness of God. Ferguson explores the varied expressions of this distrust. 

Some of the most striking insights in this book concern: 

  • the danger of separating Christ from his benefits, 
  • the basis of the free offer of the gospel and the warrant of faith, 
  • the problem of preparationist teaching in some streams of Reformed theology,
  • and the relationship of Calvin's view of faith/assurance and the view of the Puritans. 
My qualms with the book are two: 

(1) I think the book could have benefited from better editing. It was interesting, but seemed uneven in its pacing. I really wanted to read and understand this book, and therefore stuck through the difficult bits. But I could imagine lots of readers giving up earlier. Overall, I didn't feel that this book was as well-written as Ferguson's other books (most of which I've read). 

(2) More importantly, I wasn't as satisfied with Ferguson's discussion of antinomianism as I was his discussion of legalism. In particular, I'm not sure he sufficiently emphasizes the discontinuity between the old covenant and new covenant and the extent to which a believer's relationship with the Mosaic law has changed. Ferguson seems to accept the traditional position of Reformed theology, which sees a fair bit of continuity between the old and new covenants. But more recent scholarship has challenged this perspective in several important ways. (I'm thinking, for example, of Brian Rosner's important work Paul and the Law in the NSBT series, published by IVP.) I would like to have seen more interaction with these varied perspectives on the law within Reformed theology. 

As it stands, Ferguson's book remains very helpful with much to which I can agree. But I'm not convinced that his treatment of the law in the life of the believer is sufficiently nuanced. 

Note: Readers who are interested in these theological issues, specifically legalism vs. antinomianism, might wish to consult my book Active Spirituality: Grace and Effort in the Christian Life. Unlike Ferguson, I do not discuss the Marrow controversy. But my book does address the spiritual dynamics of sin and grace, the relationship between law and gospel, and the issues of justification, sanctification, perseverance, and assurance.  

Best of 2015: Books

Lists are a staple in the diet of any blogger. Lists of books, albums, and films make regular appearances, especially around New Years. I'm late to the game this year, with most people's lists already read and probably forgotten. 

And, honestly, I had to pause, after reading Mark Jones' challenge regarding the motivation and value in writing such lists for others to see. He heads his post with the words of Bertrand Russell, "There are only two motives for reading a book; one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it," and then helpfully reminds us that the only book we must read is the Bible. I agree. 

Let it furthermore be said that there is no virtue in the reading of many books -- especially from someone like myself, an introvert who loves to read books the way some people love to eat chocolate. I have always been a reader. Before I became a Christian, I consumed books. And if I had never become a Christian, I would still be devouring books. In other words, reading is, for me at least, more the result of nature than grace. Grace, thankfully, has shaped many of my reading choices. And only God's grace can make spiritual reading truly beneficial to my life and the lives of others. But my penchant for reading is not in itself any indication of grace, virtue, or holiness. 

Nevertheless, I love books and I love book lists. And for my fellow bibliophiles, I happily share mine. These, of course, are just my personal favorites. They are not necessarily the best books out there, nor were they all published in 2015. 

Christian doctrine

I'm always on the lookout for books on Christian doctrine that are orthodox, clear, winsome, fresh, and written for the person in the pew, rather than the academy. Donald Macleod's books, A Faith to Live By: Understanding Christian Doctrine and Christ Crucified: Understanding the Atonement ably fill this theological bill, providing accessible instruction with that rare but beautiful combination of evangelical fervor and irenic tone. 

The Puritans

Anyone who knows me, knows that I love the Puritans, and especially John Owen. These "Redwoods" of Christian history (as J. I. Packer called them) tower over all extra biblical authors in their capacity to shepherd my soul and point me to the Savior. One of the best Puritan books I read last year was Walter Marshall's The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification. Another one (also using the word "gospel" as an adjective) was John Owen's Gospel Grounds and Evidences for the Faith of God's Elect, which is bound in Volume 5 of Owen's Works. I read this book multiple times, and even had the privilege of editing and modernizing it for republication as part of Reformation Heritage Book's series Puritan Treasures for Today. This new edition will be released in April, and is retitled Gospel Evidences of Saving Faith. I hope many of my readers will purchase it and benefit from it as much as I did. 

For those who prefer to read these older theologians with a guide, you should check out one of my favorite new series, Crossway's Theologians of the Christian Life. I read four books from this series last year - the entries on WarfieldCalvinNewton, and Owen. All of them are excellent, but of the four, my favorite was Michael Horton's Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever

For preachers 

Fellow-preachers shouldn't miss Tim Keller's new book Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism, which stands alongside the classic books on preaching by John Stott, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Bryan Chappell and others not as a replacement, but as a supplement. 

As a preacher and pastor, I also spend a lot of time in commentaries, usually working through commentaries of whatever book of the Bible I happen to be preaching on. Last year, that book was 1 Peter. I consulted many commentaries, but read two all the way through: Karen Jobes' 1 Peter in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament and Ed Clowney's The Message of 1 Peter in The Bible Speaks Today. I found these two commentaries wonderfully complimentary. Jobes provides scholarship that is sensitive to both the original cultural context of the letter and the very different social situation of our own day. Clowney, on the other hand, is almost poetic in his eloquent exposition of the biblical-theological dimensions of the text, while also remaining practical in his pastoral applications. 

On homosexuality 

A number of new books on homosexuality were published this year, including Kevin DeYoung's What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality? and Ed Shaw's Same Sex Attraction and the Church. DeYoung persuasively holds the traditional evangelical position and is must-reading for any Christian seriously engaged in this issue. I haven't finished Shaw's book yet, but my friend Dave Dunham included it in his top five list, and it promises to be one of the most sensitive, nuanced, and practical books on the subject. I also read Wesley Hill's 2010 book Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality, a book that is both beautiful and moving. While it's not the only book one should read on this topic, it is one that could go a long way towards helping the church adopt a posture of understanding, love, and compassion towards people with same-sex orientation.

My two favorites 

I think my favorite two books of the year were Gerrit Scott Dawson's Jesus Ascended: The Meaning of Christ's Continuing Incarnation and Scott Manetsch's Calvin's Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609. Dawson explores the ascension of Christ, an often neglected aspect of Christology, with biblical clarity, theological acumen, historical awareness, and pastoral practicality. Manetsch, on the other hand, mines both primary and secondary sources to sketch a fascinating account of Calvin and Beza's pastoral vision and leadership -- and faults, foibles, and failures - in sixteenth century Geneva. What struck me most about this historical study was the centrality of the public ministry of the word in the Reformation. Calvin and his company were incessantly preaching, teaching, and catechizing (albeit, sometimes to the chagrin of their people!). There are both things to emulate and things to avoid in their example, but oh for such hunger for, confidence in, and devotion to God's word in the hearts of church leaders today! 

My #1 recommendation

Though I especially loved the aforementioned books, my #1 recommendation (along with Aaron Armstrong) is probably Donald Whitney's new book Praying the Bible. I can't imagine that any believer could fail to benefit from reading and applying this simple little book. If your prayer life needs the equivalent of a blood-transfusion, take it and read. 

For fun

Finally, and just for fun: my favorite novel of the year was Marilynne Robinson's Home (I still haven't read Lila). And my favorite graphic novel was Batman: Earth One, Vol. 2 by Geoff Johns. 

And, for the three people who may be interested, here are my reading lists from past years: 


15 Ways to Feed on the Word in the New Year

Jesus said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4), and the prophet Jeremiah wrote,

“Your words were found, and I ate them,
   and your words became to me a joy
   and the delight of my heart,
   for I am called by your name,
   O LORD, God of hosts.” (Jer. 15:16)

And yet, believers often struggle to regularly and intentionally read and study the Bible. Sometimes it helps to get fresh ideas for feeding on the Scriptures. Here are 15 ways to feed on the word in 2016.

1. Read through the Bible in a year.

Don’t write this off as overly difficult or too time-consuming! The Bible contains about 800,000 words, which the average person can read in just 54 hours – or about 8-10 minutes every day of the year. In contrast, some surveys indicate that the average person spends 5 hours every day watching TV, plus another 1-2 hours on social media. You have time. You just need a plan.

Check out this website to test your reading speed and get a customized Bible reading plan for 2016.

2. Journal through a book of the Bible. 

I first learned this from Jim Elliot, the famous 20th-century missionary and martyr. When I was a teenager, someone loaned me Elliot's journals. Most of his entries were short meditations on a chapter from the Bible, interspersed with the personal details of his life. I started following his example and filled more than a dozen journals over the next decade.

The method is simple: pick a book of the Bible and read a passage each day, whether a single verse, or one or more chapters. Then write your observations about the passage. It doesn’t have to been eloquent or scholarly or profound. It just needs to be something based on the text. Then, write out a brief prayer. You may be surprised at how much you grow.

3. Read through a book of the Bible with the help of a study bible or commentary.

Sometimes the Bible can be a difficult book. It is filled with unfamiliar names and places and often uses theological terms we don’t understand. This is where a good study bible or commentary can be helpful. The eighteenth-century evangelist George Whitefield reportedly read through the entire Bible four times with the help of Matthew Henry’s commentary, the last time on his knees.  “I began to read the Holy Scriptures upon my knees,” he wrote, “This proved meat indeed and drink indeed to my soul. I daily received fresh light and power from above.”

Using a commentary has helped me, especially when reading difficult books in the Old Testament, like Leviticus. The new NIV Zondervan Study Bible is perhaps the best study bible on the market today, full of detailed notes, full-color photographs, and maps, and insightful essays and articles. Or, for an excellent one-volume commentary on the whole Bible, produced by a team of top-notch evangelical scholars, check out the New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition, published by IVP.

4. Read through one book of the Bible every day for a month.

I learned this method from John MacArthur. The idea is to take one book of the Bible, such as Ephesians or 1 John, and read it every single day for a month. When taking a longer book, such as the Gospel of John, MacArthur recommends breaking it down into smaller sections (e.g. John 1-7 every day for the first month, then John 8-14 the next month, and so on). By the end of the month you’ll have read the book thirty times and be more familiar with the themes of that particular book than you ever were before.

5. Read through a genre of Scripture in search of a particular theme.

With this method, you take one genre of Scripture (e.g., the Gospels, or the Minor Prophets, or the Letters of Paul) and read through in search of a particular theme. For example, I’ve read through all the New Testament letters to hunt down every reference to prayer. You could even take a couple of themes, such as the characteristics of God and the varied expressions of human emotion in the Psalms; the themes of kingdom and discipleship in the Gospels; the themes of wisdom and folly in Proverbs, or the themes of justice and mercy in the prophets.

6. Read the Bible before meals.

Many Christians pray before every meal. Have you ever thought about reading the Bible before (or after) each meal? This is a practice I observed at a Bible college I visited in Africa. At every single meal, three times a day, the faculty, staff, and visiting missionaries pause to read Scripture aloud at the table. My friend, Carrie Ward, learned to do this with her children, and read through the entire Bible aloud, by simply reading a chapter a day at the breakfast table. She chronicled her experience in a wonderful little book called Together: Growing Appetites for God.

7. Mark up your Bible!

Studies show that writing uses a different part of the brain than reading. One of the best ways to push Scripture deeper into your memory and heart is to mark up your Bible. Buy some colored pencils or highlighters and start circling, starring, bracketing, and drawing lines. By paying attention to repeated words, the literary structure of the narratives, and the logical flow of sermons and letters, you will see things you’ve never seen before. For pointers on how to do this, check out Jim Hamilton’s article, How I Mark My Bible.

8. Use a journaling Bible.

The eighteenth theologian Jonathan Edwards actually took a Bible apart and inserted blank pages between the pages of Scripture, and then sowed it back together again in order to give himself a place to record his notes.

We don’t have to go to such trouble ourselves: we can just purchase a journaling Bible that includes wide margins designated for the purpose of writing down your notes. Here are links for journaling Bibles in the NIV, ESV, and NASB.

9. Write out a full book of the Bible in a journal.

Instead of simply writing your thoughts about the Bible down in a journal, consider writing out the actual words of Scripture. The kings of Israel were required to write a full copy of the law in their own hand (Deut. 17:18). I have a friend who found this practice especially helpful to his spiritual life. You can even purchase journals that are designed for this specific purpose.

10. Memorize Scripture.

The psalmist said, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Psa. 119:11). There are two ways to store up the word in your heart. You can either absorb Scripture through hours, days, and years of long familiarity through reading and re-reading, or you can memorize through intentional and focused effort. Both approaches are valid.

Committing entire books to memory has enriched many believers. I have one friend who has memorized all of Proverbs and Romans, and another who regularly works on Scripture memory while running on the treadmill. If you don’t know where to start, check out An Approach to Extended Memorization of Scripture by pastor and author Andy Davis.

11. Read a daily devotional.

My favorite is D. A. Carson’s For the Love of God: A Daily Companion for Discovering the Riches of God's Word. You can also read these daily readings in the format of a blog or subscribe to have them emailed straight to your inbox each morning. 

12. Read a children’s Bible Storybook.

Yes, even if you are an adult! Here are three to choose from; each one is well-written, with beautiful illustrations.  

The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones, illustrated by Jago

The Big Picture Story Bible by David Helm, illustrated by Gail Schoonmaker

13. Watch the Bible

For people who are more accustomed to image than text, watching the Bible may be a good entry point into feeding on the word. While this shouldn’t generally replace actual reading the Scriptures themselves, high quality video productions of Scripture can be a helpful supplement. For example, check out The Visual Bible - The Gospel of Matthew, which uses the text of the NIV.

I’m also quite impressed with The Bible Project, which is in process of producing animated videos introducing and explaining each book of the Bible, along with many biblical themes. Here, for example, is their video for Hebrews. 

14. Listen to the Bible on your smartphone.

I still remember when you had to pay a lot of money to get recordings of the Bible on cassette tape or CD. Now you can just download the YouVersion App and listen to the Bible at the press of a button. Consider listening to the Bible on your daily commute or during your morning run. It still counts!

15. Listen to expositional preaching on the Bible.

Finally, we all need not only the individual disciplines of reading and studying Scripture, but also the corporate practice of hearing the preached word. The Internet gives us access to some of the best preaching in the world, with sermons of pulpit stalwarts like John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones available for free. But there is no substitute for gathering with other believers in the local church to feed on the word in the context of gathered worship. 

NOTE: This post was originally written for Crosswalk

How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds

How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds
In a believer’s ear! 
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds, 
And drives away his fear. 

It makes the wounded spirit whole, 
And calms the troubled breast; 
'Tis manna to the hungry soul, 
And to the weary, rest. 

Dear Name, the Rock on which I build, 
My Shield and Hiding Place, 
My never failing treasury, filled 
With boundless stores of grace! 

By Thee my prayers acceptance gain, 
Although with sin defiled; 
Satan accuses me in vain, 
And I am owned a child. 

Jesus! my Shepherd, Husband, Friend, 
My Prophet, Priest and King, 
My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End, 
Accept the praise I bring. 

Weak is the effort of my heart, 
And cold my warmest thought; 
But when I see Thee as Thou art, 
I’ll praise Thee as I ought. 

Till then I would Thy love proclaim 
With every fleeting breath, 
And may the music of Thy Name 
Refresh my soul in death!

--John Newton, 1779

Four Books I'd Like to Write

Today I'm going to try a little experiment. 

This post is about books I'd like to write. As someone who has been teaching and preaching for over twenty years, I've accumulated thousands of pages of content and lots of ideas for books. I always have a list of books I'd like to write, along with raw material filling up Word docs and Evernote. Some of these books will eventually be written, and hopefully published, while others will never see the light of day. 

So, I'm writing about some of my book ideas, and am doing so with two goals in mind: 

First, I'm interested in the response of readers. Several thousand people cycle through this blog every month, but only a few leave comments. I would like to hear from you. In particular, I'd like to know which (if any) of the ideas below grab your attention. 

Second, I'm curious to see if an acquisition editor somewhere might respond to one or more of these ideas. Having published several books now and knowing a little bit about the filtering process, I don't have high expectations. But who knows? The digital age has changed a lot of things. (I have a friend who married someone they met through Twitter!) So maybe there is a publisher out there somewhere who is looking to pick up a new author, but one who already has some published books to their name. And maybe one of these ideas will spark enough interest to generate a conversation. 

So here are some of the projects I have in mind. For each one I am writing a one-sentence description of the book idea, one or more potential titles, a brief synopsis, and why I want to write it. 

1. Idea: A book on the biblical metaphors of thirst, fountains, rivers, and water. 

Potential title: Thirst; or Spiritual Thirst

Synopsis: This book would show that God is the fountain of living waters, and therefore the only true satisfaction for our soul's thirst. Here is a rundown of the chapters. I would cover: man's longing for God (chapter 1); how the Triune God is himself the source of life and satisfaction (chapter 2); how we have turned from God to idols (chapter 3); the fatal consequences of that choice (chapter 4); how Christ has born the consequences of our idolatry on the cross (chapters 5-6) and now invites us to come to him for salvation (chapter 7) and the gift of his Spirit (chapter 8); and finally, how God satisfies our souls even as we journey through "the valley of tears" (chapter 9), but promises that someday we will be thirsty no more (chapter 10). 

Here are the chapter titles: 

1 | Thirsty 
2 | The Fountain
3 | Broken Cisterns
4 | The Flaming Sword
5 | “I Thirst” 
6 | The Fountain Opened
7 | The Invitation
8 | Springs of Living Water
9 | The Valley of Tears
10 | Thirsty No More

Why I want to write it: When I was a kid, I began to experience longings and desires that were bigger than any experience in this world could satisfy. I didn't know how to categorize these desires until I started reading C. S. Lewis, and later John Piper, Jonathan Edwards, and Saint Augustine. From Lewis I learned about sehnsucht, the inconsolable longing, while Piper gave me the categories of Christian Hedonism and set me on a life-long study of Jonathan Edwards who spoke of God as a fountain. As the years have passed, I have noticed how often the Scriptures use the rich imagery of thirst for water as a picture of our longing for God. See, for example, David's soul thirst in Psalm 63, or Jesus's conversation with the woman at the well in John 4, or his promise of the Holy Spirit in John 7. This book would be my attempt to explore that biblical imagery in a semi-autobiographical way, weaving in the insights I've learned from Lewis, Piper, Edwards, Augustine and others, along with the echoes of this inconsolable longing in many of our films, songs, and stories. 

2. Idea: A manual for spiritual warfare and Christian living based on Paul's description of the armor of God in Ephesians 6. 

Potential titles: Put on the Gospel Armor; or Armed and Dangerous: Standing Strong in the Armor of God

Synopsis: This book would be a biblical and practical study of the realities of spiritual warfare in the everyday life of Christians. Based on a careful study of Paul’s most extensive treatment of spiritual warfare (Ephesians 6:10-18), this book would be written with the two-fold conviction that we have a real and dangerous adversary, and that Christ our brother, captain, and king has given us everything we need for standing in triumph against the powers that assail us. I would devote a full chapter to each piece of armor, weaving in both research from current scholarship on Ephesians and many of the rich insights on the armor from the Puritans and their heirs (especially Richard Rogers, John Bunyan, and William Gurnall).

Why I want to write it: I've always been intrigued by Paul's description of the Christian's armor. My interest has only grown over time, especially as I've come to see how the seventeenth-century Puritans used the armor to provide pastoral instruction for the whole of Christian living. William Gurnall alone wrote over 1200 double-columned pages of fine print! I think a fresh treatment of the armor of God for 21st century Christians would be useful, especially if it makes the insights from the Puritans more accessible, while still addressing modern pastoral needs and concerns.  

3. Idea: A pastoral and theological treatment of the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Potential titles: Spirit of the Living God; or The Breath of God: Life in the Spirit 

Synopsis: This would be a full-scale treatment of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, written for the person in the pew. It would cover everything from the Spirit's deity and personhood to his unique ministry to believers in the new covenant, including chapters on Jesus' promise of the Spirit, the meaning of Pentecost, the nature and necessity of regeneration, the Spirit's role in sanctification, what it means to be filled by the Spirit, how spiritual gifts function the church, the Spirit's role in revival, and more. I would be writing from an Evangelical Reformed position, with Cessationist leanings - though not without sympathy for those who believe all the gifts of the Spirit continue today. 

Why I want to write it: One reason is because most books on the Holy Spirit written from my theological perspective are either too academic for the average reader or very old. Books written on a popular level are often more inspirational than theological. What is needed (in the tradition of J. I. Packer's excellent book Keep In Step with the Spirit) is a fresh theological study, written with ordinary Christians in mind. I also want to write this book as something of a sequel to my first book Christ Formed in You: The Power of the Gospel for Personal Change, which was an attempt to present a comprehensive and gospel-centered approach to spiritual formation in the Reformed tradition. There is a lot about the Holy Spirit in Christ Formed in You, but not a systematic treatment. A third reason I'm interested in writing this book is that I'd like to synthesize the insights of John Calvin, John Owen, and Jonathan Edwards with the insights of more contemporary Reformed theologians such as Richard Lovelace, Richard Gaffin, Sinclair Ferguson, and Graham Cole - but in a way that ordinary people will enjoy reading. 

4. Idea: An examination of spiritual formation and the practice of spiritual disciplines in the writings of John Owen.

Potential title: Renewed in the Image of God: Learning from the Spirituality of John Owen 

Synopsis: This book would present a careful study of the themes of spiritual renewal and the Imago Dei (image of God) in Owen's writings, along with a detailed exposition of Owen's practical instruction on the exercise of faith in and through the means of grace and what we now call spiritual disciplines. 
Why I want to write it: Some very good books have been written on John Owen, including Sinclair Ferguson's classic John Owen on the Christian Life, and more recently, Owen on the Christian Life: Living for the Glory of God in Christ by Michael A. G. Haykin and Matthew Barnett. Both of these are excellent additions to the growing corpus of Owen scholarship. But with twenty-four thick volumes to Owen's credit, no single book can cover everything. In my own study of Owen, two things I've noticed are; first, how frequently Owen discusses the renovation (or renewal) of God's image in believers (this shows up, for example, in both Owen's Christological treatises in volume 1, as well as his books dealing with sanctification in volumes 3 and 6); and second, how many of Owen's theological works include chapters full of rich, practical, pastoral instruction on spiritual practices such as watchfulness, meditation, prayer, and confession of sin. I think there are rich veins of theological and pastoral gold to be mined in Owen's Works. One more reason why I want to write this book is that I want to research it. 

Well, there you have it. If you read all the way to the end, do me a favor and vote in the comments:  which book are you most interested in reading and why?