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Some Pastors and Teachers. By Sinclair Ferguson. Banner of Truth, 2017. 824 pp.

In my church study, I have beautiful floor-to-ceiling bookcases that line the walls. When I finish reading a book, it goes in its proper place on these shelves. I also have a smaller bookcase next to my desk. That bookcase contains “go to” material, books, and notebooks that I use regularly or want close at hand for regular reference. This book will go in that smaller bookcase.

Sinclair Ferguson’s Some Pastors and Teachers is a feast for the soul. The title comes from the Apostle Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:11 that God gave to His church for its ongoing growth “some, pastors and teachers” (KJV). The book contains a collection of previously written essays and lectures “that reflect particularly on being a pastor and teacher, and on doctrines and themes especially relevant to the preaching of the gospel” (xi).

The book begins with brief biographical sketches of three Johns: “John Calvin: Pastor-Teacher,” “John Owen: Pastor and Teacher,” and “John Murray: Teacher of Pastors.” It then moves on to examine key themes in the lives and writings of Calvin and the Puritans (mostly Owen) and culminates with several chapters devoted to “the pastor and teaching” and “the pastor and preaching.” The volume then concludes with an epilogue simply titled “Doxology.” The reality, however, is that this collection of essays is doxological theology at its best by one of the premier pastor-teachers of our day.

A major theme that recurs in this volume is the believer’s union with Christ. With Calvin, Owen, and Murray as the starting point, it could be no other way. Ferguson shows the centrality of union with Christ in the writings of the three Johns. More importantly, he shows its centrality in the Christian life. He writes, “The truth of the matter is that now as a Christian I must see myself from two perspectives and say two contrasting things about my life: in myself there dwells no good thing by my own creation or nature (Rom. 7:18); and in Christ I have been cleansed, justified, and sanctified so that in me glorification has begun (1 Cor. 6:11)” (543, emphasis original).

Calvin “insisted that salvation and all its benefits not only come to us through Christ but are to be found exclusively in Christ. Union with Christ brings the believer into fellowship with Christ, crucified, resurrected, ascended, reigning, and returning” (69). According to Calvin, Ferguson writes, “All Christ has done for us remains of no value to us unless we are united to Christ” (114).

Similarly, Owen sees our union with Christ as central to Christian piety. Ferguson says: “For Owen, the foundation of Christian piety is rooted in the Covenant of Grace. The heart of that covenant is that men are taken into union, and from that union flow all the blessings and obligations of the Christian life. The Covenant of Grace, effected in union with Jesus, transforms all obedience from legal to evangelical. It is the method of the gospel to graft duties on to faith” (281).

Union with Christ is the means of our sanctification. It leads to communion with Christ, leading to conformity to His image. Thus, “sanctification is . . . the outworking of this communion. We become like those with whom we have the closest communion. Therefore, in Reformed theology, sanctification means becoming like Christ” (551).

Sinclair Ferguson’s Some Pastors and Teachers is a feast for the soul.

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.