Category Archives: 2007 BOT MC
Ferguson: Supporting the imperatives to holiness
At the 2007 Banner of Truth conference this Spring, Sinclair Ferguson made the following note after reading Titus 2:11-13 (“For the grace of God has appeared … training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions”). He says,
“The great gospel imperatives to holiness are ever rooted in indicatives of grace that are able to sustain the weight of those imperatives. The Apostles do not make the mistake that’s often made in Christian ministry. [For the Apostles] the indicatives are more powerful than the imperatives in gospel preaching. So often in our preaching our indicatives are not strong enough, great enough, holy enough, or gracious enough to sustain the power of the imperatives. And so our teaching on holiness becomes a whip or a rod to beat our people’s backs because we’ve looked at the New Testament and that’s all we ourselves have seen. We’ve seen our own failure and we’ve seen the imperatives to holiness and we’ve lost sight of the great indicatives of the gospel that sustain those imperatives. … Woven into the warp and woof of the New Testament’s exposition of what it means for us to be holy is the great groundwork that the self-existent, thrice holy, triune God has — in Himself, by Himself and for Himself — committed Himself and all three Persons of His being to bringing about the holiness of His own people. This is the Father’s purpose, the Son’s purchase and the Spirit’s ministry.”
- Sinclair Ferguson, message from the 2007 Banner of Truth Conference, Our Holiness: The Father’s Purpose and the Son’s Purchase.
Along with Titus 2:11-13, Ferguson cited 1 Peter 1:1-2, 2 Thessalonians 2:13, Romans 8:28-29 and 15:16. Ferguson preached from John 15:9 the next day where Jesus’ call for fruitful disciples is wrapped in His call for them to “Abide in my love.” Ferguson challenges preachers to root the commands to be holy in the grace of our electing Father, the work of His Son on the Cross and the ongoing work of the indwelling and filling Spirit towards our holiness. The challenge is not to avoid the commands, but make certain our indicatives are strong enough to support them. Preaching from the indicatives assumes the preacher is first living daily in the indicatives of God in his private study.
No such ‘thing’ as grace
by Sinclair Ferguson
“There is nothing between the person of the Lord Jesus and the person of the believer as that union and communion develops and grows. I think this is a very important thing for us to grasp. Let me put it the way I sometimes put it: The union with Christ we have is not that we somehow or another share His grace. Because – follow me carefully – there actually is no ‘thing’ as grace. That actually is a Medieval Roman Catholic teaching. There is a ‘thing’ called grace that can be separated from the person of Jesus Christ. It is something Jesus Christ won on the Cross and He can bestow it on you. And there are at least seven ways it can be bestowed on you and they all, as it happens, turn out to be in the hands of the church. And you can have this kind of grace, and this kind of grace, and this kind of grace … There is no such ‘thing’ as grace! Grace is not some appendage to His being. Nor is it some substance that flows from us: ‘Let me give you grace.’ All there is is the Lord Jesus Himself. And so when Jesus speaks about us abiding in Him and He abiding in us – however mysterious it may be, mystical in that sense – it is a personal union. Do not let us fail because of the abuse of expressions. Do not let us fail to understand that, at the end of the day, actually Christianity is Christ because there isn’t anything else. There is no atonement that somehow can be detached from who the Lord Jesus is. There is no grace that can be attached to you transferred from Him. All there is is Christ and your soul.”
-Sinclair Ferguson on John 15 at the Banner of Truth Ministers’ Conference in Grantham, PA this Spring.
Session 5 – (Wed. 7:00 PM)
“Mortification and Vivification: The Shape of Holiness in Calvin’s Institutes”
GRANTHAM, PA – Thomas returned to the Institutes to look at the shape of holiness according to John Calvin, but he began the session with a reference to his current study of John Bunyan (for a future biography). Referring to his own personal friendships with the men in the chapel, Thomas noted that in reading The Pilgrim’s Progress he was struck by how Bunyan weaves friendships into Christians’ sharing of the joy, temptations and losses of the Christian life.
Thomas would especially draw attention to mortification rather than vivification [mortification is dying to self and sin, vivification is coming alive to righteousness in Christ]. The focus in this session would be on the struggle against sin, bearing the Cross in affliction and self-denial.
Thomas opened by reading Colossians 3 with a special emphasis on verse 5: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”
Calvin expands on the relationship of union and communion with Christ. Justification, sanctification and glorification all flow from an existential union and this union is now being worked out in our lives by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the “comforter,” which is Latin meaning “to strengthen” or “to enable.” Calvin expounds on this in a John/Paul fashion. Our union with Christ takes the shape of death and resurrection. We are involved in a union, a template of death/resurrection, so our lives take the shape of this death/resurrection pattern. Calvin develops this like Paul in Romans 8:13 (“For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live”) and Colossians 3:3 (“For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God”). This same twin element of crucifixion/death/burial/resurrection is seen in Colossians 2:12 — “having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” There are Romans 6 parallels to Colossians as we commune and take part in the death of Christ that works itself out in mortification. Mortification identifies us with Christ. Christ calls His sheep to follow His life as a pattern.
In Matthew 16:13-20 Jesus says the Church will grow and prevail although She is being built in enemy-controlled territory. This is the program of the New Covenant age between the two comings of Christ. This is now where we live, too. In this program of church growth in enemy territory, Jesus establishes the pattern of the Christian life. And this life is one of self-denial and Cross-bearing (see vv. 24-28). We are called to deny ourselves and pick up our Cross and “own” the life of Christ. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (v. 25). Only as we identify with the life of Christ will we save our lives. Any other course of life is to lose one’s life.
In Cross-bearing and self-denial we are putting to death the remaining sinful corruptions. On mortification Calvin builds especially off Romans 8:13 and Colossians 3:5. Calvin says, prepare for the knife.
Before continuing, Thomas makes two notes. First, he feared that by talking about mortification it makes him look as an expert who has made great advancements over sin in his own life. He humbly admitted that he is not superior in holiness to those in the room. Mortification actually becomes more difficult as you mature, he said. And second, talking about mortification makes guilt easier to communicate than grace. Calvinists who believe in the third use of the Law are very capable of generating guilt. This is easy. But the more Thomas reads Calvin and volume 6 of John Owen (‘the quintessential book’ to understanding the Puritan concept of mortification) the more he sees an emphasis on grace in Calvin that excels Owen. Calvin wants to emphasize grace in mortification. We need mortification because we are sinners, but we can never forget our justification!
The Struggle of Mortification
There is a reality of indwelling sin and remaining corruption. A war rages within. Calvin does not see Romans 8 as a progression from Romans 7. There is no way out of chapter 7 and into chapter 8 in the Christian life. In other words, chapter 7 is not a sub-Christian experience. For Calvin, chapter 7 and especially verses 14-ff are not the struggle of an unconverted Jew but the paradigm of the Christian life. The “I” later in chapter is the same “I” that is in union with Christ early in the chapter.
Passive sanctification seems to abound in the Church today. As soon as the demands of the Christian life are emphasized – ‘do this’ or ‘avoid that’ – people automatically label it ‘legalism.’ The third use of the Law for Calvin is a model for the Christian life as a man in union. But this obedience is never to gain the favor of God. Neither is obedience lessened because of grace already received.
The picture of the slow growth of the Christian striving against sin is seen in the following quotes by Calvin [and one of my personal favorites from the Institutes].
“But no one in this earthly prison of the body has sufficient strength to press on with due eagerness, and weakness so weighs down the greater number that, with wavering and limping and even creeping along the ground, they move at a feeble rate. Let each one of us, then, proceed according to the measure of his puny capacity and set out upon the journey we have begun. No one shall set out so inauspiciously as not daily to make some headway, though it be slight. Therefore, let us not cease so to act that we may make some unceasing progress in the way of the Lord. And let us not despair at the slightness of our success; for even though attainment may not correspond to desire, when today outstrips yesterday the effort is not lost. Only let us look toward our mark with sincere simplicity and aspire to our goal; not fondly flattering ourselves, nor excusing our own evil deeds, but with continuous effort striving toward this end: that we may surpass ourselves in goodness until we attain to goodness itself. It is this, indeed, which through the whole course of life we seek and follow. But we shall attain it only when we have cast off the weakness of the body, and are received into full fellowship with him” (Institutes, 3.6.5 or pp. 1:689)
This is the lifelong battle until we are glorified. Athanasius and Augustine both viewed Romans 7 as an ongoing battle between the renewed self in union with Christ and remaining corruption. In Romans 8:23 Paul says “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” Creation groans and we, too, groan. Calvin calls this groaning a “warfare of patience” (Commentary on Rom. 8:24).
Being united to Christ we are a mass of contradiction. At our height, the good we want to do we don’t do. What we don’t want to do, we do (Rom. 7:15).
The Ground of Mortification
The ground of mortification is the simple fact that we can mortify the flesh! Reformation logic says, “If I ought to, I can.” Not by native ability, but because of our union to Christ, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and because the old Adam has died to sin. “Reckon yourselves” dead to sin (Rom. 6:11)! “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). Live as those who have died. We are dead men walking. Christ died to destroy sin. We take this view that sin and its demands have all been paid. Christ has purchased for us both justification and sanctification. God carries this out in His own people as they gain the upper hand over sin. Sin continues to dwell but no longer reigns over His people.
Evil desires take on a life force of their own. But Calvin wants us to see the basis of engaging in mortification is because we are dead to sin and alive to righteousness. Sin no longer reigns.
The Motive of Mortification
The motive of mortification is the fear of God. “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming” (Col. 3:5-6). Calvin, in his commentary, is especially clear that the wrath of God is coming upon those who do not engage in mortification. This becomes a motive to our mortification. The same theme is found in Romans 8:13: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” If we don’t engage sin, we will die.
To say that you are united to Christ but don’t engage sin is to have, as Calvin puts it, a “mutilated faith.” Our engagement and victories over sin give us assurance that we are truly children of God.
Engaging in Mortification
So how do we mortify? First, we need a big picture. Mortification is not only concerned with specific and individual sins but all the entrails of the old man. Mortification is an engagement at the whole of sin, not just its parts.
The key to mortification is the mind. Book three and chapters 9-10 were added to the Institutes later as the whole comes to completion. It’s what we would call “faculty psychology.” For Calvin and the Puritans, the mind is the priority over the will and affections. Holiness begins in the faculty of the mind and in our thinking. For Calvin, we act according to our thoughts. So mortification begins in the mind. Remember in book one, Calvin calls the heart the “perpetual factory of idols.” And for Paul, he does not go into the details of sexual immorality but rather focuses on the idolatry of sexual sin and the idolatry of all sin. In James, the dynamic morphology of sin begins in the mind with the thoughts. So the way to deal with sin is to deal where it’s rooted – in our minds! Don’t think about sin. Guard your thought world. Guard your mind.
If we allow our minds to think about sin, the sin will develop a life of its own. Unguarded sinful thoughts motivate the will and the affections. Once the affections are set upon a sin, the sin takes on a life force of its own that will run its course. It will not be stopped. So deal with sin when it first rises in the mind. [This is a great illustration of the “life force” of sin.]
It is here that Calvin gives us one of the most eloquent passages of the Institutes.
“We are not our own: let not our reason nor our will, therefore, sway our plans and deeds. We are not our own: let us therefore not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us according to the flesh. We are not our own: in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours. Conversely, we are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him. We are God’s: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal (Rom. 14:8; cf. 1 Cor. 6:19). O, how much has that man profited who, having been taught that he is not his own, has taken away dominion and rule from his own reason that he may yield it to God! For, as consulting our self-interest is the pestilence that most effectively leads to our destruction, so the sole haven of salvation is to be wise in nothing and to will nothing through ourselves but to follow the leading of the Lord alone” [3.7.1, p. 1:690].
This is not only mortification in particular besetting sins but part of a wider picture because we live in a sinful world. We have two zip codes: one planted in this world and one planted in the world to come. Being rooted in a world that is groaning is a call to self-denial and Cross-bearing. The highest calling of the Christian is self-denial. So bear the Cross!
Of particular usefulness, Cross-bearing teaches us to trust in the grace of God. We will suffer poverty, bereavement, and disease in this world in order for God to present us faultless (Jude 1:24). In Calvin’s teaching on the book of Job, Calvin preached through the book himself in great pain and in the midst of personal warfare. Calvin was a walking encyclopedia of pain.
For Calvin, the essential message of Job is understood through the eyes of Elihu. Elihu understands pain is educative. It’s not punishment for some particular sin, but rather the pain brings out the potential sin that was resting dormant.
The climax of Job is God shutting Job’s mouth. Paul takes this same theme in saying the purpose of the Law is to shut the mouths of sinners (Rom. 3:19). Every time we speak, we spew idolatry, self-worship and self-exaltation. The beauty of the Cross is that self-denial causes us to trust patiently in God. Unbelievers are chastened and they only grow weary. Believers are chastised and they are matured. A Cross without Christ does no good, but a Cross with Christ is God pulling out His chisel on the edges of our lives and our angular characters. He will present us as trophies of grace in Christ. Afflictions teach us about Christ. Nowhere is the chasm of the 16th century church and the church today more revealed than in our understanding of trials. Calvin says, it’s not all about me! The fact is that the closer we are to the King, the more likely we are to draw enemy fire and taste affliction. As Christ suffers so shall we.
[For more on Calvin’s understanding of Job see Dr. Thomas’ excellent book, Calvin’s Teaching on Job (Christian Focus: 2004). “Elihu sees adversity as educative rather than necessarily retributive” (p. 227).]
When Paul is converted on the Damascus road, why does Christ say, “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4)? Because Stephen was one of His (7:54-8:1). You touch one of Christ’s little ones, and you touch Christ.
The Experience of Mortification
Calvin is not calling us to Stoicism. In our grief and sorrow, Calvin points us to our great consolation in the hands of our indulgent Father! For Calvin, what gives him joy and vigor and strength in the Romans 7 struggle with sin and Cross-bearing is the fact that this world rests in the hands of our Father. And there remain no doubts of the extent of God’s love for us — He sent His only Son for us!
In the words of Thomas a Kempis: if you bear the Cross, it will bear you. No matter where you are, carrying the Cross or burdened by sin – the Cross will bear you!
Related: For more posts and pictures from the 2007 Banner of Truth Ministers’ Conference check out the complete TSS conference index.
2007 Banner of Truth Ministers’ Conference (US)
Final Conference Reflections
This year I’ve had the honor of attending two new conferences (new to me, anyway). One of these was the 2007 Banner of Truth Ministers’ Conference in Grantham, PA. The Banner of Truth conference is different than other conferences in that it’s a publisher’s conference with a smaller audience and a traditional atmosphere (like singing from the Psalter and Hymnal to a piano). But there was also a sober reverence towards God in the atmosphere. One of the delights of a conference like this one, or in attending a traditional Reformed church, is a deep sense of affection and reverence towards God. This was certainly communicated throughout the music, prayers and teaching at the conference.
Here are some other reflections from the conference in no particular order.
… There was a large contingent of younger pastors and first-time attendees. The dorm housing in Grantham was nice and the cafeteria buffet was more reminiscent of a restaurant than a college mess hall. It’s a beautiful campus to hold retreats and conferences of this size.
… With all of the great foreign accents from the speakers and attendees I felt like I was in another country. It was great, especially the first time someone commented on the uniqueness of the American accent. Americans don’t have accents, right? (ethnocentric humor)
… I’m now aware that attempting to liveblog Sinclair Ferguson and Derek Thomas (pictured) was simply a bad idea. I should have known better. The amount of content was almost impossible to keep up with and trying to get the message notes edited and posted at the conference was an overwhelming goal (I’ve never claimed to be Tim Challies). So I’ve decided to take my handwritten notes and type them and publish them on this blog next week beginning on Monday. This will give me more time to chase down some Hebrew nouns, scripture citations, and biblical allusions in the messages. In the wealth of content, we see the seriousness of preparation each speakers took in the crafting of their messages. It will be a joy to share these messages with you next week.
… The bookstore at the conference was well stocked with excellent books at excellent prices (40- to 65- percent off). The Sinclair Ferguson trip around the bookstore after the conference session Tuesday night brings fond memories (and chuckles). Sinclair began the tour of the bookstore with memories of his seminary days. He said the good Evangelical books in print that helped him would fit easily on two short bookshelves. In other words, it was not too long ago when good and helpful books were not readily accessible. Thankfulness for God’s abundant blessing upon the publishing world was the context for the rest of the evening. … He warned that a library of only Banner of Truth volumes is a bad choice. Building a library without a significant amount of Banner titles is equally bad. … I now regret not brining my audio recorder to capture the event.
… Of all the highlights and strengths of the Banner conference none compare to the encouragement I recieved. Flying from Cincinnati into Harrisburg I asked myself the question: In a conference on holiness, what expectations and anticipations do I bring? What am I looking for in the teaching? What would make for a successful conference? What came to mind was an expectation and anticipation of a preaching that exalted the Cross in the progress of sanctification. I am growing in my understanding of the depth of application to the Cross and deepening my understanding of what Christ accomplished at the Cross. But I am also sadly aware that in the pursuit of holiness, the Cross often takes second place to the practical pursuit of mortification (killing remaining sin). This is a misunderstanding of sanctification. So for me, my anticipation of the conference included this the hope – that the Cross would take center stage. And this is exactly what happened. All the messages, but especially the messages of Sinclair Ferguson and Derek Thomas, broadened my understanding of the Cross as it applies to sanctification. In the coming days I’ll be digesting electronically the extensive notes I took at the conference. I can tell you the depth of content connecting sanctification, mortification, and the pursuit of holiness to the Cross was breathtaking and you will see for yourself how Ferguson (through Scripture) and Thomas (through Owen, Calvin and Scripture) developed this panorama of Cross-centered holiness. This focus makes a growth in godliness a joy-filled pursuit.
… So what was the conference like from the eyes of a newcomer? Well, it was great. Especially through the personal efforts of Steve Burlew, I and the other newcomers were integrated into the fray and warmly welcomed. Without Steve I’m certain my experience would have been much more isolated and overall greatly different. Steve understands the growth of a conference like this one will be through personal contacts with men and he brings this strength to the conference. He initiates the contacts online and through his travels and then follows through with caring for these newcomers personally at the conference. If you are considering making your way to the Banner conference for the first time I would encourage you to take the first step and get in touch with Steve at his blog.
Overall, I come away with from the 2007 Banner of Truth Ministers Conference having been ministered to and encouraged. It was (and always will be) the Cross that truly encourages us towards holiness. The beautiful 21st century Puritanism on display — boasting only in the Cross — made for a wonderful conference!
Related: For more posts and pictures from the 2007 Banner of Truth Ministers’ Conference check out the complete TSS conference index.