Book Review: Devoted to God, by Sinclair Ferguson
Sinclair Ferguson, Devoted to God: Blueprints for Santfication. Banner of Truth, 2016. 296 pp, $18.00.
Whenever the latest book on sanctification comes out, the evangelical knee-jerk reaction is often, “Am I sure I want to read this?” Reading books on holiness can feel like choking down our greens. But as anyone knows who’s ever had green beans wrapped in bacon, eating your greens can be surprisingly pleasant. The gospel does for holiness what bacon does for green beans: it makes holiness not only tolerable, but irresistible. And Sinclair Ferguson’s latest work, Devoted to God, does exactly this: it makes holiness irresistible by wrapping it in the gospel.
As we’ve come to expect, he points us to the gospel, to our identity in Christ, and to all that Jesus is for us for the purpose of making us more like him.
Ferguson organizes the book around treatments of nine biblical passages on gospel holiness. Before he treats them, though, he defines our holiness in light of God’s. But Ferguson doesn’t predictably define God’s holiness as separation from sin. Instead, he defines God’s holiness in relation to his own triune being. God’s own holiness, in Trinitarian context, is his own whole-hearted, affectionate devotion to himself—the loving devotion of each member of the Trinity to the other two (2).
Since God’s holiness is communicable, this definition holds for us as well (4). Instead of thinking about holiness primarily (and negatively) as our separation from sin, we should think of our holiness primarily (and positively) as devotion to God. Like a censer or a utensil in the temple, our holiness means being devoted to loving and serving him, because he has claimed us for himself (11, 13). And this devotion leads to both separation and transformation (14). This is God’s purpose, and so it should be our priority (14–17).
Ferguson then traces the Trinitarian silhouette of sanctification, reminding us that the Father commands our devotion, the Son died for it, and the Spirit works it in us (29). With the table now elegantly set, Ferguson then begins his nine-course meal, with chapters on the following texts: Romans 12:1–2, Galatians 2:20, Romans 6:1–4, Galatians 5:16–17, Colossians 3:1–17, Romans 8:12–13, Matthew 5:17–20, Hebrews 12:1–14, and Romans 8:29.
Dessert includes brief appendices on the Trinity, what it means to for Jesus to die to sin, Saul’s conversion, and a treatment of the fourth commandment. By the end, you know you’ve eaten well, but somehow, you’re not too full. Indeed, you’ll find yourself still reminiscing over every bite.
Where to begin when strengths abound? How about Ferguson’s unwavering focus on the gospel? Because Ferguson grounds this treatment of sanctification not only in the text of the Bible but in the truth of the gospel, there’s an irresistible attraction to the argument. Election (131) and eschatology (27) don’t marginalize devotion; they motivate it. Throughout, Ferguson emphasizes the indicatives that motivate the imperatives so that God’s truth in Christ produces in us the very conformity it commands (e.g., 112). Nowhere is this more clear than in his meditation on Galatians 2:20 where union with Christ takes center stage. Yet his treatments of both Romand 6:1–14 (esp. 84) and Galatians 5:16–17 (esp. 99, 102–103) ensure that while we remain hopeful for real progress in this life, we cannot ditch biblical realism for base triumphalism.
Definitions stabilize foundations. By defining holiness as whole-hearted, loving devotion to God, Ferguson concretizes his point while also pulling the rug out from under the common but false dichotomy between love and holiness. Holiness is loving devotion—or, we might say, holiness is whole-hearted devotedness, “the intensity of the love that flows…among and between each of the three persons of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” (2, cf. 18). This wavelength is echoed in Ferguson’s note on Jesus’ fulfillment of the law that “law is love-shaped and that love is law-shaped” (162).
One thing I loved about his exposition of Romans 8:12–13 was the complementary emphasis on our Spirit-empowered personal responsibility for killing sin (144–145). I’m afraid too many Christians from the Reformed evangelical tradition, while critical of “let-go-and-let-God” clap-trap, often use the Reformed anthropology of helplessness to excuse a lack of initiative in mortification. Thus they give in to self-pity—“Poor me, I want to kill my sin, but I just can’t until God enables me.” Ferguson helpfully clarifies that the Christian is not at all helpless; the indwelling Spirit has already moved into our hearts to enable us to say no to sin and yes to righteousness. This harmonic note of both Spirit-empowered ability and personal responsibility not only refutes the ambient Keswick assumptions we’ve all inhaled, but also filters out any temptation to abuse monergism (“There is a kind of synergism in our sanctification,” 226).
His treatment of Matthew 5:17–20 on the relationship between the law, the gospel, Christ, and the Christian, is first-rate, even though more innovative theological minds might disagree. Ferguson roots the law’s permanent validity in its pre-Fall origin (166–171), calling it a “republishing [of] his original blueprint for life” (167). This language made me wonder if he also thinks of the Mosaic law as a republication of the covenant of works such that there is a genuine works principle in the law (“do this and live”) and Israel becomes another failed (but now corporate) Adam. Alas, the answer is not forthcoming, at least in this volume. What is wonderfully clear, though, is that Jesus not only fulfills the law in his obedience and exposition of its commands, but in his endurance of its curse and his sending of his Spirit to write the law on our hearts so that we ourselves increasingly fulfill not only its letter but its spirit in our own obedience.
A few more staccato strengths: Readers will appreciate the essentially expositional plan of the book, systematically working through discrete passages until the shape of gospel sanctification becomes clear. There are also moments where he deals with specific sin examples that, if my own experience is any indication, will prove convicting to most readers (exasperation and gossip, 121–122; worldly entanglements and idolatries, 195).
And yet, you always feel from Ferguson’s tone that you’re being discipled by a seasoned pastor who’s careful not to bruise the fruit. He includes some helpful diagnostic questions on 195–196, and he’s even got a section on the importance of sitting under God’s preached Word that ends with a sweet admonition to re-instate the practice of Sunday evening services, since “when we come together later in the day, some degree of this transforming of our lives through the renewing of our minds, has already taken place (49–50). He then returns to this corporate dimension of holiness at the end of his treatment of Hebrews 12:1–14, even if only briefly (210–212).
Of course, no book save the Bible is perfect, even if it’s written by perhaps my favorite of all modern pastoral theologians. Perhaps the most surprising imperfection was that of the nine major passages treated, none had the local church as its main focus. Col 3:1–17 came closest with its one-anothers, but there the exposition featured the putting off and putting on metaphor.
This is not to say the church is neglected altogether (see 123–130; 212). Nor is it to say that every book on Christian holiness must feature a lengthy chapter on the church (though who would I be to object?). No author can emphasize everything—that’s the whole point of emphasis! Nonetheless, the role of the local church as both organism and institution, while not appearing unnecessary, also appears as less than the central relational context and organic incubator for growth in holiness. Individual union with and identity in Christ, while rightly emphasized, almost—almost—marginalizes the believer’s corporate identity in and solidarity with the church. To that end, I might have appreciated a full-chapter treatment on either Ephesians 2:11–22, Ephesians 4:11–16, Hebrews 10:19–25, 1 Peter 2:5–11, or any portion of Revelation 2 or 3.
I might have also liked to see more of a role for 2 Corinthians 3:18 in a book on devotion and likeness to Christ. Again, it’s not totally neglected, but it’s first mentioned on page 218. Becoming what you behold features prominently in the Bible—we look like what we look at (e.g. G.K. Beale, We Become What We Worship). Ferguson rightly cautions that his work is not a how-to, yet in a book that focuses more on principles than praxis, it might have been invigorating to see a trusted guide like Ferguson apply the positive habit of beholding Christ to become more like him.
Admittedly, this is accomplished from a different angle in Ferguson’s able treatment of Hebrews 12:2 (205–206). But that passage is looking to Christ as our example and forerunner, whereas 2 Corinthians 3:18 is looking to Christ as our object of worship, which in turn transforms the worshipper into the image of the worshipped (think here of Brian Hedge’s Christ Formed in You, or Piper’s Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ). So a treatment of the transformative power of worship in enhancing our devotion to God would have augmented Ferguson’s argument.
You really should read this book. It’s tremendously edifying, and will likely become a staple in church bookstores and libraries. Its readability makes it a great one-to-one discipling tool, and the text-based table of contents makes it a plug-and-play for quarterly adult-led applications, maybe with auxiliary contributions on the centrality of the local church in learning and expressing our devotion to God. I plan to read this out loud in 10-minute hors d’oeuvres before our midweek Bible Study, because it’s written in such a conversational style. So, if you’ve got two shirts, sell one and buy this.