Our union with Christ is tied to another recurring theme in these essays, namely, the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Ferguson shows the legitimacy of B.B. Warfield’s depiction of Calvin as “the theologian of the Holy Spirit,” a title that may baffle many modern readers who have a dark and ominous view of “Calvinism.” The “Spirit of Christ” unites us to Christ (Rom. 8:9–11). The Spirit Himself was active in Jesus’ conception; descended on Him at His baptism, anointing Him for ministry; led Him into the desert to confront and overcome Satan; and ultimately was instrumental in His resurrection. In the Gospels, Christ promised His disciples that He would send the Holy Spirit, and it is by the Spirit that believers are changed into the image of Christ. As Ferguson points out, Christ received the Spirit for us, to bestow the Spirit to us (114).
As the reader can detect, this is theology that can preach. In fact, that is the heartbeat of this entire volume. In his essay “The Preacher as Theologian,” Ferguson writes, “All biblical theology is ultimately pastoral, and all pastoral ministry is ultimately theological” (685). He recalls, from his student days, reading a quote about Calvin: “He became a theologian in order to be a better pastor” (685). Or as John “Rabbi” Duncan said of Jonathan Edwards’ ministry, “His doctrine is all application and his application is all doctrine” (667). The same is true of the essays in this volume.
Ferguson also regularly shows the relevance of the issues Calvin and Owen were addressing in their age to our own era. For instance, in their writings on the Holy Spirit, both Calvin and Owen were combating Roman Catholic teaching on the efficacy of the sacraments that had usurped the role of the Holy Spirit, as well as sectarian groups within Protestantism whose emphasis on the Holy Spirit ignored or neglected the Word (cf. 110ff, 242f). These problems are still with us.
Another parallel Ferguson draws is in worship. Ferguson writes, “For years [the evangelical church] has been on the slippery slope to neo-medievalism” (613). In Calvin’s day, Roman Catholic worship was a spectator event with its dramatic display of the Mass spoken in Latin, by a priest with his back turned to the congregation and singing done by monastic choirs. Similarly, Ferguson writes, today “more is seen, less and less is heard. There is a sensory feast, but a hearing famine. Professionalism in worship leadership has become a cheap substitute for genuine access to heaven” (612). The Word-centered simplicity of Reformation worship has been replaced in the modern church by aesthetics, technology, and emotionalism. According to Ferguson, “The tragedy here is that in our worship we are in grave danger of producing a generation of professing Christians who are spiritual infants—feeding them emotionally with what temporarily produces stimulation but never builds them up” (613). I’m not sure when Ferguson wrote this particular essay, but Thomas Bergler’s The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Eerdmans, 2012) confirms this assessment.
There is much more to say, but so little space and time. Ferguson deftly handles the “Christus Victor” motif in the New Testament, often avoided by pastors and theologians because of its mishandling by previous generations of scholars, including some early church fathers. He is careful to say, however, “Christ is not victor unless he is first substitute” (239). The chapters on sola fide, assurance, sanctification, and sonship all contain rich, practical insights for living the Christian life and are helpful for pastors in their preaching and counseling ministry. Ferguson says, “In some senses, the Reformation was the great rediscovery of assurance,” and he contrasts this idea with Roman Catholic teaching that the great heresy of Protestantism was its doctrine of assurance (515–16; cf. 8–9). Assurance is vital for healthy, fruitful Christian living.
For preachers, the chapters on exegetical preaching, preaching the atonement, preaching to the heart, and “a preacher’s Decalogue” are a gold mine. Though he does not prescribe any one particular method or approach to exegetical preaching, Ferguson does make the practical observations that congregations generally read the Bible through the model presented to them from the pulpit, and that “under all ordinary circumstances an expository series should not be unduly prolonged” (656).
Book reviews typically include some critique, so I will offer some—though they are minor. I will say that my few critiques are due largely to the nature of this book as a collection of essays, written over the course of many years, for a variety of reasons and with a variety of constraints. But I will briefly mention three. First, the reader will find a lot of repetition in this book. Several quotes, stories, etc., are told many times throughout the essays. Personally, I liked the repetition because what was repeated was worth repeating. But some readers may find it cumbersome. Second, I would have been helped at several places by critical analysis. For instance, given current ongoing debates, I would have liked to have seen some analysis from Ferguson of Owen’s view of the Mosaic covenant as a “republication” of the covenant of works. Third, there were many chapters when I longed for more. The chapters were rich and satisfying, but I wanted them to continue.
In this vein, let me end with an illustration. Thanksgiving dinner is my favorite meal of the year. It is a rich feast. My wife’s stuffing is my favorite part of the meal. Turkeys, however, can only hold so much stuffing, and so the stuffing is usually the first thing to go. I always want more. But that does not mean I don’t end the meal full and satisfied—as well as personally stuffed. Similarly, even though at times I wanted more, when I finished this book I was full and satisfied with rich, well-balanced food for the mind and spirit. Even more, I ended encouraged to read more of Calvin, Owen, and Murray (as well as Ferguson), to return to what I’ve already read and to move on to what I have not. As the author indicates along the way, that is one of his goals—and for me it has achieved that purpose.
The great and central goal of this work, however, is that preachers preach Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Christ Himself is the goal, the telos, the center of all preaching. The benefits of Christ should not be the primary focus of our preaching. Rather, what people need is “Christ, clothed in the gospel,” as Calvin put it. If I were to offer a summary of what this volume of collected essays says to us, that would be it.