In Christ Alone – A Treasury of Theological Riches

It is not uncommon to hear someone refer to Sinclair Ferguson as being the best theologian in the English speaking world. Anyone who has read his books or heard his sermons and lectures will admit that this is in no way an unfit commendation. His style is simply yet profound, his expositions are terse but weighty–his insights are simply unparalleled. It is due in part to his mastery of the various theological loci . His uncanny ability to wed systematic, biblical, exegetical and historical theology in his expositions of Scripture demonstrate this unsurpassed giftedness.

There is another aspect of his ministry that is often overlooked (of the same essence as that which he has so often commended in the life and ministry of Richard Baxter). Ferguson has, on several occasions, alluded to the fact that Baxter would “set time bombs in Kidderminster” by illustrating divine truth with everyday objects in the city. The brilliance of this method was that, no matter where someone walked in the city they would be reminded of something Baxter had said in a sermon. Like Baxter before him, Sinclair Ferguson exhibits the ability to draw from Scripture and bring it to bear on the experiences and objects in the world. Without trivializing transcendent truths, he demonstrates their experiential relevance in the world in which we live.inc01_book_flat_web

All the strengths that Sinclair Ferguson brings to his biblical expositions are found in the articles republished in Reformation Trust’s recently released, In Christ Alone. Written over a twenty year period, articles from Eternity Magazine and Tabletalk have been edited and organized into a manageable volume. Even the cover art, designed by Geoff Stevens, demonstrates the time and effort that went into making this volume so impressive. In Christ Alone is a welcomed addition to the Reformation Trust series.

A consideration of the chapter titles alone suffice to stir the readers’ interest. While the book is divided into six sections, it could really be subsumed under two: Christ’s work for the Christian; and, Christ’s work in the Christian.

In the first part of the book, Ferguson sets forth the glories of Christ in His Divine person and work, both in His humiliation and exaltation. Here the reader will find invaluable exegetical insights for his own preaching and teaching ministry. Among the most useful material, found in the first section, is the chapter, “He Stoops to Conquer. Here Ferguson draws the parallel between what Jesus exhibits in His washing the disciples feet in the upper room, and the grand truth of Philippians 2: 5-11. He writes:

The foot-washing scene follows (13:1–17). Its inner meaning will not be understood until later (13:7). But it becomes clear to John, as he explains (13:1): Jesus is revealing the heart of both His identity and His ministry. In a remarkable way, the event is an acted parable for which Paul’s great exposition in Philippians 2:5–11 provides the theological commentary (33).

The second section focus’ more closely on the nature of the Gospel. Chief among the articles in this section is the chapter, “Hebrews, Does it Do Anything for You?” Sadly, many in the evangelical church do not understand the book of Hebrews. What has often been called the key to unlocking the Testaments, is now largely viewed as itself a locked box. Ferguson sums up the nature and value of the book in the following succinct way:

…there is no letter in the New Testament that tells us more about Christ and His work; chapter after chapter unfolds—ten in all—before we come to the hinge that brings the unknown author from exposition of Christ (“holy brethren . . . consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, Christ Jesus,” Heb. 3:1) to application (“Therefore, . . . let us . . . ,” Heb. 10:19, 22) (45).

The second section of the book also contains one of the most thought-provoking chapters. Playing off the central theme of the Bible–the appearances of Christ–Ferguson titles this chapter, “Christ of the Three Appearings.” The reader is automatically drawn in, wondering what this title could possibly mean. Continuing on with an exposition of certain portions of the book of Hebrews, he writes:

Hebrews is a key to the entire Bible, a road map to the whole history of redemption, as its opening verses make clear. And from time to time—as in those lofty opening verses—the author provides us with remarkable, and in some senses “simple,” summaries of the saving plan of God. In addition, he occasionally provides outlines that help us to see our own lives in the context of God’s ongoing purposes. One such summary comes in Hebrews 9:24–28. Within a few sentences, the author uses the verb appear three times with reference to three distinct events in the ministry of the Lord Jesus. He mentions them in the order of the argument he is pursuing; their significance underlines the way in which he thinks of Christ’s work.

First, Christ has appeared once for all to put away sin by His sacrifice
(Heb. 9:26b).

Second, Christ now appears in the presence of God on our behalf
(Heb. 9:24).

Third, Christ will appear to save those who are waiting eagerly for Him (Heb. 9:28) (49-50).

Ferguson proceeds to trace out these “three tenses” of the word “appear,” as they are found in the verses above. This chapter is an outstanding example of the insight and creativity with which the author approaches theological exposition.

Section three is an appropriate advance in the connection between the work of Christ for us and the work of Christ in us, as Ferguson comes to focus on the Person and work of the Spirit. It is by the Holy Spirit of Christ that the saving work He accomplished at Calvary is applied to the hearts and lives of believers. Those familiar with Sinclair Ferguson will know that he has done a considerable amount of work on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. In this section of the book, Ferguson employs a biblical theological approach to support the interpretation of the symbolism of the “living water” spoken of in John’s Gospel. He writes:

In John 4:13–14, Jesus said He is the One who gives the living water of the Spirit. Well-known Old Testament passages would then lie behind the statement that the Scriptures would be fulfilled:

1. The descriptions of Moses smiting the rock from which water rushed (Ex. 17:1–7; Num. 20:1–13).
2. Ezekiel’s vision of the new temple to which God’s glory returned (Ezek. 43:1–5) and from which rivers flowed (Ezek. 47:1–12).

Perhaps both are in the background here. Jesus is the smitten Rock (1 Cor.10:3–4). It is from the smitten Lord that the Spirit is given to us. Is this why John pointedly mentions that when Jesus’s side was pierced, water as well as blood flowed (John 19:34)? Jesus is also the temple to which glory returns (John 1:14). He is resurrected as the true tabernacle-temple in whom God’s glory is restored. It is from within Him, risen and glorified, that the Spirit comes to the disciples in the symbolism of Jesus’s breath (John 20:22) (77-78).

The Scriptures often draw the closest connection between Christ and the Spirit. For instance, in John 14 Jesus speaks of the Spirit as being “another helper.” Here Ferguson notes:

Jesus promises to send the Spirit as “another Helper” (John 14:16). Our English word another can mean two things—“another of the same kind” or “another of a different kind.” The Greek language has different words for these ideas. Here, “another” translates the Greek allos, which in this context means “another of the same kind.” The Spirit is a Helper just like Jesus!

While the Son and the Spirit are personally distinct, they are entwined with one another. Jesus is Teacher, Jesus is Guide, Jesus is Counselor, Jesus goes to make a home for His disciples. The Spirit is another like Jesus: He teaches, guides, counsels, and brings orphans into the home and heart of God. Moreover, because He is Spirit, He does this by personally indwelling our spirits in a mysterious yet wonderfully real and powerful way (81).

The section on the Holy Spirit also includes a chapter on revival that proves to be an intriguing exhibition of Ferguson’s ability to weave historical and theological truth together in a creative yet precise manner. Though written on a popular level, the author does not shy away from the difficult portions of the New Testament’s references to the Spirit of God.

The fourth section of the book, “The Privileges of Grace,” affords the reader a rich treatment of such a full range of topics as union with Christ to assurance of salvation. In the middle of this section lies another masterful biblical theological exposition of a portion of John’s Gospel–the account of the first miracle of our Lord. Drawing the close connection between this miracle at Cana and the events that follow in chapters 3 and 4, Ferguson explains that Jesus was teaching His disciples that He came to bring “new wine,” the “new Temple,” the “new birth,” and the “new water.” What was the point of the miracle at the wedding in Cana? Ferguson explains, “On the one hand, He was showing the inadequacy of the provisions of the old order. The sacrificial system could not bring the joy He offered. The old water gave only ceremonial forgiveness, and therefore short-lived and fading joy. But on the other hand, the Lord was demonstrating that in the gospel there is new wine that offers lasting joy (Isa. 55:1–3). Jesus Himself gives that wine (129).”

The fifth section in this volume, introduces the reader to some of the more interesting subjects with which the author deals. It is here that two of the least expected chapters in this book appear. “Eating Black Pudding,” and “Playing the Second Fiddle Well.” While in no way less important than the other chapters, they are somewhat unusual expositions in their own right. “Eating Black Pudding” is an attempt to explain Christian liberty in light of the blood laws and the teaching of the book of Acts. “Playing the Second Fiddle Well” is also a bit unusual–not because of the subject matter it covers, but on account of the manner in which the author approaches the subject of selfless serving. Giving consideration to the role that Barnabas played during the apostolic era, Ferguson suggests:

An inability to encourage someone else is usually rooted in an absorption with self that is blind to the needs or gifts of others, or a pride that cannot bring itself to praise God’s grace in them. It is interesting, in this connection, to observe that the Barnabas-quality was also present in Paul’s later “second fiddle,” Timothy: “I have no one else like him, who takes a genuine interest in your welfare.” How sad that Paul adds “everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 2:20–21, NIV). Is one of the reasons for the failure of some Christian leaders simply that they themselves have never been led? Is it that they have never humbled themselves under another’s leadership? Could it be that they do not know what grief their own unhumbled leadership is bringing to others (184-85)?

The final section of the book deals with the reality of spiritual warfare in the life of the Christian. It is the world, the flesh and the devil that are in view. The call is for a serious acknowledgment of our dependence on God for our victory over these enemies. Relevant to the discussion of spiritual warfare is the importance of the warning passages of Scripture. In his chapter, “Danger: Apostasy,” Ferguson suggests that many students of theology have “never taken the ‘warning passages’ in Scripture with full theological seriousness (213).” The reason for this is generally a lack of understanding concerning the nature of these warnings, and their subsequent importance in the life of the professing Christians. Returning again to the book of Hebrews, Ferguson warns:

be on your guard against the neglect of grace (2:3); be careful that your heart is not hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (3:13); and see that you do not fall prey to disobedience (3:18; 4:6) and do not lack faith (4:3). Beware a careless attitude to the importance of fellowship (10:25); guard against sinning deliberately (10:26); do not shrink back in the face of difficulties (10:38); and do not “refuse Him who speaks” through His mighty Word (12:25).

There is a path to hell from the gates of heaven. Sadly, some have not come by the way of grace, faith, and repentance. They may have been self deceived. That is why Hebrews sounds the note of self-examination. Make sure your profession of faith involves the possession of Christ (215-16).

The conclusion of this volume is special as well. It is a memorial of Al Groves–the late professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Dr. Ferguson describes his admiration of and gratefulness to Professor Groves for his focus on union with Christ in life and death. It is a moving testimony of the reality of God’s grace in the life of His people. Our life really is “hidden with Christ in God.” All the blessings of this life, and the life to come, are found in union with Christ.

Sinclair Ferguson has the gift of communicating the deepest and most profound theological truths in the most simple and clear fashion. This volume in particular exhibits this ability. The reader will find page after page of valuable insights into and expositions of Scripture. The author is like a householder who “brings out of his treasury things new and old.” This writer is not able to express adequately how thankful he is for this volume, nor the benefit that it will be to pastor and people alike. It will be undoubtedly a great help to anyone who wishes to know more about the riches of the blessings that are ours “in Christ alone.”

5 Responses

  1. Tim H.

    Hey Nick, thanks for the review.
    My reading list is always a mile long, and the more I read the longer it gets. If you could recommend one best Ferguson volume, what might it be?

  2. Nicholas T. Batzig

    That is a hard question to answer, Tim. I think this is the one I would be apt to recommend. Ferguson’s work on the Holy Spirit is probably his most difficult work. His books, “Grow in Grace,” and “Discovering God’s Will” are both valuable books for Christian living, but this one is sa bit more comprehensive in its scope. He also has several good commentaries. If you can find a copy of his commentary on Daniel I would get it right away. As far as I know it is out of print. You might want to check on Bookfinder. His commentary on Ruth and Ecclesiastes are also worth having. “In Christ Alone” is a book I would give to anyone, no matter where they are in their Christian walk.

  3. Matt Holst


    A most excellent book, by reccomendation and experience, is Ferguson’s “John Owen on the Christian Life”. Very good indeed and a useful primer to Owen himself. Just got back from the Banner Minister’s conference in the UK where Ferguson was speaking on “Union with Christ” out of Colossians 3. Not the ususal Ferguson in terms of method, but none the less quite outstanding. Also keep and eye or ear out for the name Garry Williams. Garry is the new director of the John Owen centre in London (LTS). He is one to watch for th future. PResented some excellent material on Calvin.


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