January 17, 2023

The Austere Christian

Sinclair Ferguson
The Austere Christian

Christians ought to prize knowing God’s Word and obeying His precepts. But if our discipline doesn’t produce gentleness, we’ve gone dangerously askew. Today, Sinclair Ferguson addresses the problem of a loveless faith.


Yesterday, I mentioned a letter by the great hymn writer John Newton where he makes the point that sometimes one blemish in our Christian character can be like a spot on a tie, or a mark on a shirt, or a dent in our car. But everybody seems to notice. That’s what they notice rather than the shirt, or the tie, or the new car because it seems to take over.

I remember when our children were young, we used to read a series of books by a man called Roger Hargreaves called the Mr. Men books. They were cartoon books where people’s faults seemed to stick out in the pictures—Mr. Nosey, Mr. Fussy, and so on.

Well, in this letter, in a very wonderful and gracious way, John Newton writes a kind of Christian version of the Mr. Man, and he gives Christians some rather interesting names. Now, since he was writing in the eighteenth century and had a good sense of humor, all these names are in Latin, but you don’t need to worry about that. You’ll recognize these people immediately.

He talks about Mr. Austerus, Mr. Austere. And you probably know somebody like him. In many respects, Mr. Austerus, or maybe Mrs. Austerus, is an admirable Christian, knows the Bible well, is absolutely committed to living on the basis of every word that comes from the mouth of God, studies the Scriptures, prays, is disciplined and giving.

And the one thing you can be sure about Mr. Austerus is that he won’t bend. He’s not going to bend to the prevailing winds in society. He knows we’ve moved a lot closer to George Orwell’s 1984 than society was when Orwell wrote it in 1949. And he’s not impressed by fads in the church either. He doesn’t like worship that resembles a pop concert or preachers who remind him of stand-up, t-shirt-wearing comics. Not Mr. Austerus.

And you know, in this world, there’s probably a good deal to admire in Mr. Austerus’ principles and his courage. He’d die rather than compromise. But John Newton says a very insightful thing about Mr. Austerus. He says he prizes the precepts of God’s Word, but there’s one thing he seems to have forgotten. He’s forgotten to be courteous and loving. And instead of having the gentleness of the Lord Jesus, there’s something about him that seems to demand attention but never stimulates love for him. For all his admirable qualities, there’s a kind of armor-platedness about him that repels rather than attracts.

Newton puts it like this:

His intimate friends are satisfied that he is no stranger to true humility of heart, but these friends are few. By others, he is thought proud, dogmatic, and self-important. Nor can this prejudice against him be easily removed until he can lay aside that cynical air which he has unhappily contracted.

And the problem with Mr. Austerus is that he doesn’t realize that his virtue has got twisted out of shape. It’s become disconnected from the other graces that are so vital to a Christlike life. And that’s the problem. And that’s actually why he doesn’t have many intimate friends, unlike Jesus, the friend of sinners.

And as I say, the problem is he doesn’t see this about himself yet. But if you were Mr. Austerus, maybe here’s one way you would begin to recognize yourself: if what I’ve just said irritates you a little and you want to defend him. I can imagine Mr. Austerus’ self-defense might be, “But Jesus was austere too.” Yes, Jesus could set His face like flint to go to Jerusalem, but the same Jesus could say, “I am meek and gentle and heart, and you will find my presence restful.” And that’s what Mr. Austerus is missing. And that’s why nobody unburdens themself to him. He’s forgotten what the Savior is really like, and he needs to be made like that too.