An Interview with Sinclair Ferguson
We recently interviewed Dr. Sinclair Ferguson, author of In Christ Alone (Reformation Trust Publishing, 2007) and speaker at this week’s 2008 National Conference:
You begin your book In Christ Alone with a poetic treatment of a passage from John Calvin’s Institutes. Many folks have a view of Calvin that he was cold, stern, and rigid. Yet, you clearly appreciate Calvin’s contribution to the everyday Christian life. In every chapter, your book exudes a practical and passionate view of the Christian life. Has Calvin been misunderstood?
I think you are right in suggesting that Calvin’s reputation gives a very lop-sided view of the man. In some respects he was “stern.” (I think I would be if I suffered from as many serious illnesses as he did.) He was always in earnest about spiritual things. But the passage I re-translated from his Institutes is a piece of prose that sings like poetry and really does underline that — like many serious, even “stern” people — he had a poetic spirit, born out of his love for Christ.
We need to remember that Calvin was a man who, in his early twenties, knew that his life was forfeit because of his Gospel convictions. He was on the run! In his mid-twenties he was already a significant author and theologian, having spent much of the second half of his life training young people for a life of cross-bearing consecration and even martyrdom. I have never forgotten a Korean doctoral student I once had who began a seminar on Calvin’s teaching on “Life under the Cross” by saying: “I am so grateful for the opportunity to have studied these chapters. They have helped me understand my grandfather. You see, he was a martyr.” Actually, in my own view probably no theologian has understood the deep humanity of the Lord Jesus better than Calvin. It seems to me that is often the measure not only of a man’s mind, but also of his heart.
In your view, what are the most horrific ways in which people misrepresent the person and work of Christ?
Well, “horrific” is fairly strong language. But perhaps an illustration will help. Many years ago there was a scholarly movement that became known as “The Quest for the Historical Jesus.” Scholars said “Let’s try to get behind the Gospels to find out who Jesus really was and what He was really like.” So they took bits and pieces of the Gospel testimony and made a picture of Christ. One of the shrewdest things said about this movement was that these scholars were like people looking down a well to find Jesus not realizing that the “Jesus” they saw was really just their own reflection in the water at the bottom of the well!
Sometimes I feel this is actually what has happened in popular evangelicalism. Our “jesus” is actually a reflection of ourselves. This is the constant danger. We simply don’t open the Scriptures and listen to their testimony about Jesus. We make a “jesus” in our own image, usually domesticated. Sadly, much that dominates the Christian media seems to fall foul here. Any Jesus who isn’t Savior and Lord, Sacrificial Lamb of God and Reigning King, cannot be the Jesus of the Gospels. Any Jesus who does not call us to radical, sacrificial, and yes, painful, discipleship, cannot be the real Jesus.
I sometimes think that our danger as evangelicals is that we use what I occasionally, tongue-in-cheek refer to, as the “Find Waldo Method” of reading the Gospels. Remember Waldo — the little fellow in the red and white sweater in the midst of the vast crowds? The whole point of the Waldo books was to try to find him. Many people read the Gospels that way, always asking, “What does this have to say about me?” But that means we’re always looking for what they have to say about me, and my life, and my improvement. Yes, the Gospels have much to say to me. But they aren’t about me…they’re about Christ. And we need to listen to them, master them, and be mastered by them and by the Christ they describe.
The subtitle of the book is “Living the Gospel-centered Life.” What does a Gospel-centered life look like?
A “Gospel-centered life” implies several things. First and foremost, it implies that we trust in Christ as Savior and submit to Him as Lord. Everything in our life is subordinate to Christ Himself. This means also that we live as children of the Father and walk in the presence and power of the Spirit. So a “Gospel-centered life” is also a life that has been bent back from its natural condition to have its center in God the Trinity.
To live a Gospel-centered life we also need to learn the “grammar” of the Gospel. We need to see that all the imperatives (commands, exhortations) we find in the New Testament are rooted in the indicatives of God’s grace. So we see the Gospel’s “therefore” (for example in Romans 12:1) as underlining for us that all of our Christian living arises out of our new life in Christ.
You dedicate the book to a long time friend, Al Groves who exemplified Paul’s exhortation to Timothy to live so “that your progress may be evident to all” (I Tim. 4:15). What is Paul referring to?
Paul is giving his younger friend Timothy, perhaps in his 30s, some specific instructions about his ministry. He places special emphasis on godliness (1 Tim 4:7b-8) both in his speech and his lifestyle (1 Tim 4:12), and urges him to be an example to his fellow Christians. (The word he uses is tupos — so Timothy is to be a model for his congregation.) Furthermore, he is to use the gift God has given him. These things have to become Timothy’s godly obsession, so much so that his congregation will see and feel that their leader is growing all the time, and that as he teaches them they are being led ever more deeply into the Scriptures.
I find these words challenging, and in some senses haunting, simply because I wonder how true they are, either of my fellow ministers or myself. I am thankful that they were wonderfully true of my friend Al Groves to whose memory the book is dedicated.
Referencing a quote from the book, regarding the secret of being a Christian as having a “clear understanding of who Jesus is,” how do we do that? Why is it important to understand what ministry He exercises? How will this knowledge help us better reflect Him in our relationships?
If we are to know, and in some measure, understand the Lord Jesus, we can never get too much of the Gospels. Again, I think it is so important that we don’t read the Gospels as though they were about us. Of course, they do speak to us, but we need to get our focus on the Lord Jesus. In addition, it is so helpful to read the Psalms as the hymnbook and prayer book of Jesus. Clearly the apostles learned to do this, as their use of the Psalms makes clear. I have also found meditating on the teaching of Hebrews on the humanity of Jesus a particular help. How does this affect us in our relationships? Perhaps the simplest answer is to say that we become like the people with whom we live.
How did solus Christus (Christ alone) become a rallying cry during the Reformation?
The short answer is that in the late Medieval Church, Christ had become hidden and distant, and obscured behind the way in which the Church “dispensed grace.” The Church taught that salvation is to be found in the Church. The Reformers agreed with the idea that there is no salvation outside of the church (extra ecclesiam nulla salus est was the Latin phrase they used.) But, they emphasized that the Church was only the context for, not the dispenser of, salvation. The Church emphasized that “grace” was almost a commodity that could be distributed through the sacraments. As the Reformers read the New Testament they realized that grace is the loving, pardoning disposition of God in Christ towards us. So the great need is to know, trust, love, and live in Him. The Church had also taken the role that the New Testament ascribes only to the Holy Spirit who unites us to Christ.
What doctrinal import is contained in that simple statement?
Believers now come to see that every spiritual blessing is ours in Christ immediately when we come to Him in faith and repentance. The result? Believers may enjoy assurance of salvation. As I think I note in the book, the Roman Catholic theologians held that the idea that all Christians can enjoy this assurance was virtually heresy. The Reformers, on the other hand, enjoyed so much of it that “In Christ Alone” was a wonderful way of summarizing the Gospel.
What are some of your concerns related to the health of Protestant Christianity we see in present-day America and in your beloved Scotland?
I try not to focus my gaze too much or too long on the discouraging things I see simply because I think I need to be careful not to become jaundiced, and cynical. As a Scottish person I already have enough native tendency to be melancholic! Yet it is true that there are many things to cause concern. The passage which was expounded at my ordination to the Gospel ministry was 2 Corinthians 4:1-6, and it has served as a kind of guiding light to me ever since. Paul says that he has put aside not only disgraceful, underhanded ways, but also that he does not “do” things just because “they work.” Instead he expounds the truth and does so in such a way that the truth of the gospel and his own integrity are clear. By contrast we have become a very pragmatic church; we have a thirst for size (bigger is seen as better.)
We have also spawned a cult of the personality and the guru. I have seen pulpit search committee material stating in black and white that they need an “outstanding communicator” to be their minister. Much of our thinking has actually become very worldly.
One indication of this recently is in the ease with which Christians now speak about “the quality of our worship.” But unlike their forefathers, they worship only once on Sunday. Many ministers know that an evening service would not be well attended for all kinds of reasons that I suspect will not hold up before the God of the universe who is worthy to be worshiped and adored, world without end! I wonder what He thinks of the quality of our worship.
It is also a concern to me that we are living in the age of the worship leader and the counselor rather than the preacher (what we do and what we talk about — sadly usually ourselves — takes precedence over God talking to us.)
Again there is the lack of prayer and of the Church praying. This is to me the most alarming, for this reason: we have built apparently strong, large, successful, active churches. But many of our churches never meet as a congregation for prayer. I mean never! What does that indicate we are saying about the life of the Church as a fellowship? By contrast, the mark of a truly apostolic spirit in the church is that that we give ourselves to prayer and the Word together (Acts 6:4). No wonder “the Word of God continued to increase and the number of the disciples multiplied” (Acts 6:7). If this is so, it should not surprise us that while many churches see growth, it is often simply reconfiguration of numbers, not of conversion. I greatly wish that our churches would learn to keep the main things central, that we would learn to be true Churches, vibrant fellowships of prayer, Gospel ministry and teaching, genuine mutual love. At the end of the day, such a Church simply needs to “be” for visitors who come to sense that this is a new order of reality altogether and are drawn to Christ.
What are the biblical remedies to recover a vibrant faith?
Well, that is an enormous question, isn’t it? But in many ways it is answered by Jesus himself in Revelation 2-3. Like the Church in Ephesus (that had Paul, Timothy, and apparently also John as ministers and yet still was in spiritual danger) we need to remember what we were, repent, and return to the main things. Indeed it is interesting to see how regularly that note of repentance is struck (2:16, 2:22; 3:3). Perhaps that is the greatest need. It is certainly our first need: repentance in the light of God’s grace to us in Christ, with the holiness of life that springs from it, the humility that is always its fruit, the desire for God’s Word and prayer it always creates, and the impact it makes on our witness.
Do you see encouraging signs of renewed interest in biblical Christianity and the Reformed tradition?
Yes, indeed. And this is surely one of the paradoxes of our time. While the churches of the historic reformed tradition that have been given so much have often sold their birthright, God has been raising up a new generation of young men and women who want to be serious students of Scripture, who want to learn to pray, to build strong families and solid churches, and to work the Gospel into their everyday lives at home and in the workplace. Fifty years ago looking for the Reformed faith could be like trying to find a needle in a haystack. It was preserved in a few rather small denominations.
Now it is possible to find biblical ministries in all kinds of churches and denominations as evidenced in the diverse church affiliations of the speakers at Ligonier this year. There are untold riches in Reformed literature, too much for any of us to read in an entire lifetime. There are magazines like Tabletalk as well as others. There are new denominations or connections, like the PCA, Sovereign Grace Churches, Reformed Baptists. I belong to an old and traditional Reformed denomination, but I marvel at the amazing privilege the Lord has given me when I think of close friends God has given me in all kinds of churches, some of them very different in ethos from my own. Then there are many conferences, like this one, attended by large numbers of hungry young people. A Reformed conference of the variety, size and scope of the Ligonier National Conference would have been unimaginable in the years immediately following the Second World War. But here we are! And Ligonier is not alone!
Yes, on the world map the numbers are still small, and there is still so much yet to do. But it would be churlish always to be lamenting how bad things are. (That often seems to be to be more of a psychological twist than a theological virtue!) And this spread of the Reformed faith is a worldwide phenomenon. We have much for which to thank God, and every reason to praise Him for the extraordinary privilege of being brought into His Kingdom for such a time as this!