Towards the early half of his new work The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, & Gospel Assurance–Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters, Sinclair Ferguson asks a pointed question that may initially seem trivial:
…what is my default way of describing a believer? Perhaps it is exactly that: “believer.” Or perhaps “disciple,” “born-again person,” or “saint” (more biblical but less common in Protestantism!). Most likely it is the term “Christian.”
Yet these descriptors, while true enough, occur relatively rarely in the pages of the New Testament. Indeed the most common of them today (“Christian”) is virtually nonexistent in the New Testament, and the contexts in which it occurs might suggest that it was a pejorative term used of (rather than by) the early church.
“Okay”, you may think, “So what’s in a name? Why does it matter what our default term is if the reality is the same?” At it turns out, quite a bit.
Contrast these descriptors with the overwhelmingly dominant way the New Testament describes believers. It is that we are “in Christ.” The expression, in one form or another, occurs well over one hundred times in Paul’s thirteen letters.
Then draw the obvious conclusion: If this is not the overwhelmingly dominant way in which we think about ourselves, we are not thinking with the renewed mind of the gospel. But in addition, without this perspective it is highly likely that we will have a tendency to separate Christ from his benefits and abstract those benefits from him (in whom along they are to be found) as though we possessed them in ourselves. (45)
Ferguson goes on to link this problem to the main issue of his book, the 18th century controversy surrounding the theology of Edward Fisher’s little book on the gospel The Marrow of Modern Divinity and its implications for preaching the gospel.
I was struck by this section on not falsely separating Christ’s person and work in our thinking, preaching, and teaching of the gospel precisely because it’s so easy to do. Many of us know “the gospel” and how to clearly explain the nature of justification by faith, adoption, the free forgiveness of God, and so forth on their own, as atomized benefits, or gifts that God offers us.
The point Ferguson makes, which is central to the theology of the New Testament, Calvin, and the best of the Reformed tradition, is that all of these benefits only come to us in union with Christ. Paul didn’t go around preaching justification, or preaching adoption, or preaching sanctification. Paul went around preaching Christ and him crucified and risen, in union with whom we are justified, adopted, sanctified, and so forth.
Christ himself is the good news we are to preach. Ferguson notes, “while we can distinguish Christ’s person and his work in analytic theological categories, they are inseparable from each other” (46). As Thomas Boston, (one of the main heroes of Ferguson’s book), has it: “You must first have Christ himself, before you can partake of those benefits of him.” Or again, Kevin Vanhoozer has said that the declaration of the gospel is, “I now pronounce you man in Christ.”
Paul puts this message on blast in Ephesians 1:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:3-14)
Every single one of the many blessings, privileges, and graces enumerated here given to us through Christ’s work and in conjunction with Christ’s person.
The question we might ask ourselves, though, is if we were to preach this passage, or do a study through it, where would our emphasis be? Would it be on understanding the various benefits, (which obvious ought to be considered and expounded) or would the dominant note be on the Christ who gives them? Ferguson asks:
It is obvious to me and of engrossing concern, that the chief focus, the dominant note in the sermons I preach (or hear), is “Jesus Christ and him crucified”? Or is the dominant emphasis (and perhaps the greatest energies of the preacher?) focused somewhere else, perhaps on how to overcome sin, or how to live the Christian life, or on the benefits to be received from the gospel? All are legitimate emphases in their place, but that place is never center stage (50).
Emphasis matters, then. Our focus is not to get people to try to be better adoptees or feel more justified, which leaves them looking to themselves, staring at their own, spiritual navels. Instead, we want them to look to Christ in whom they are assured of their justification and adoption, and in whom they now can live out the Christian life.
A Recommendation for Preachers
I suppose I’ll conclude by sharing a segment that cut me to the bone:
In the nature of the case there is a kind of psychological tendency for Christians to associate the character of God with the character of the preaching they hear–not only the substance and content of it but the spirit and atmosphere it conveys. After all, preaching is the way in which they publicly and frequently “hear the Word of God.” But what if there is a distortion in the understanding and heart of the preacher that subtly distorts his exposition of God’s character? What if his narrow heart pollutes the atmosphere in which he explains the heart of the Father? When people are broken by sin, full of shame, feeling weak, conscious of failure, ashamed of themselves, and in need of counsel, they do not want to listen to preaching that expounds the truth of discrete doctrines of their church’s confession of faith but fails to connect them with the marrow of gospel grace and the Father of infinite love for sinners. It is a gracious and loving Father they need to know. (73)
This only happens when we preach Christ, the Son, who reveals the Father’s heart, not simply abstracted benefits procured in an instrumental fashion.
Honestly, I wish someone had handed me this book six years ago when I started preaching to my college students. It would have been so helpful to avoid the some of the mild, pendulum-swinging of emphasis in my preaching that could creep in despite my stated theology. Instead, much of this I had to learn the hard way, slowly recognizing a number of these tendencies only with time.
All that to say, Ferguson’s careful exposition of the issues of grace, the law, legalism, and antinomianism, while in the context of an initially arcane historical discussion, have been very helpful for thinking through the issues of contemporary gospel preaching. Simply put, I would commend Ferguson’s little book to you as a whole, and especially to any present or potential preachers.
Soli Deo Gloria