Sinclair Ferguson

A Catechism on the Heart

I must guard my heart as if everything depended on it. This means that I should keep my heart like a sanctuary for the presence of the Lord Jesus and allow nothing and no one else to enter.

Sometimes people ask authors, “Which of your books is your favorite?” The first time the question is asked, the response is likely to be “I am not sure; I have never really thought about it.” But forced to think about it, my own standard response has become, “I am not sure what my favorite book is; but my favorite title is A Heart for God.” I am rarely asked, “Why?” but (in case you ask) the title simply expresses what I want to be: a Christian with a heart for God.
Perhaps that is in part a reflection of the fact that we sit on the shoulders of the giants of the past. Think of John Calvin’s seal and motto: a heart held out in the palm of a hand and the words “I offer my heart to you, Lord, readily and sincerely.” Or consider Charles Wesley’s hymn:
O for a heart to praise my God!A heart from sin set free.
Some hymnbooks don’t include Wesley’s hymn, presumably in part because it is read as an expression of his doctrine of perfect love and entire sanctification. (He thought it possible to have his longing fulfilled in this world.) But the sentiment itself is surely biblical.
But behind the giants of church history stands the testimony of Scripture. The first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our heart (Deut. 6:5). That is why, in replacing Saul as king, God “sought out a man after his own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14), for “the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). It is a truism to say that, in terms of our response to the gospel, the heart of the matter is a matter of the heart. But truism or not, it is true.
Behind the giants of church history stands the testimony of Scripture.
What this looks like, how it is developed, in what ways it can be threatened, and how it expresses itself will be explored little by little in this new column. But at this stage, perhaps it will help us if we map out some preliminary matters in the form of a catechism on the heart:
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Endless, Bottomless, Boundless Grace and Compassion

We cannot spread our sin further than He can spread His grace. To meditate on this, to taste the waters of such a pure fountain, is surely to know “joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:9).

The New Testament’s most frequent, and indeed most basic, description of the believer is that he or she is a person “in Christ.” The expression and its variants overwhelmingly dominate the teaching of the Apostles. And one of the clues Scripture gives to help us understand what this means is to express our union with Christ in terms of what Owen calls “conjugal relations,” or, as we would say, “marriage.” Through the ministry of the Spirit and by faith, we become united to Christ, “one” with Christ, in the way a man and a woman “become one flesh” in the marriage bond. This picture, already present in the Old Testament, (Isa. 54:5; 61:10; 62:5; Ezek. 16:1–22; cf. the book of Hosea) comes to fulfillment in the New in the relationship between Christ and His church. Christ rejoiced in this prospect in eternity, and He has made it a reality in time, enduring the humiliation, pain, and anguish of the cross. Christ, in all His saving grace and personal attractiveness, is offered to us in the gospel. The Father brings to His Son the bride He has prepared for Him, and asks both parties if they will have each other—the Savior if He will have sinners to be His; sinners if they will embrace the Lord Jesus as their Savior, Husband, and Friend.
Like many of his contemporaries, Owen saw this spiritual union and communion between Christ and the believer foreshadowed and described in the Old Testament book the Song of Solomon. His exposition of the attractiveness of Christ to the Christian is heavily influenced by the descriptions of the Lover and the expressions of affection of the Beloved. Though his analysis was typical for his day, few commentators today would follow him in the details of his exegesis.
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His Sermons Were Chariots of God: Remembering an Unforgettable Pastor

That Sunday evening, between the hours of 7:00 and 9:15, is permanently etched into my memory banks. I was 17 and had just arrived in Aberdeen, “The Granite City” (as it has long been known because so many of its buildings and houses are constructed of gray granite).

I was there to begin my studies at the university. I had never seen it before and knew almost nothing about it. But my first duty was already on my mind: “When Sinclair goes to Aberdeen,” an acquaintance of my father had said to him, “tell him to go to hear Willie Still of Gilcomston South Church — he gives great Bible readings.” Following up on that suggestion has left a permanent mark on my life and, I trust, on my ministry.

First Service at the ‘Gilc’

I had never heard of Willie Still and had no idea where Gilcomston South Church might be — “Gilc,” as I later discovered people referred to it. And as for “Bible readings” — I had no real concept of what they were. But having attended morning worship at the college chapel, I walked into the town center to find out where “Gilc” was, came back to my residence for a meal, and returned at the stated hour of 7:00 for the evening service.

Around 7:25, after singing and two prayers, a seemingly elderly, balding figure in the distant pulpit began to read from the Old Testament. He took around half an hour to read through two chapters, interspersing the reading with a variety of fascinating comments (he did not know then, I suspect, that the Westminster Assembly’s Directory for Public Worship frowned on such interruptions to the reading of the sacred text!).

Then we sang a hymn. I stood standing at the end of the last verse, but realized everyone else was sitting down. Assuming this was a signal that instead of a benediction there would be a closing prayer, I bowed my head and closed my eyes. It took only a second or two, however, to realize that the words I was hearing were not the opening words of a prayer but the first words of a sermon. An hour and fifteen minutes later, he pronounced a vigorous “Amen! Let us sing hymn number . . .” — and then, at last, the benediction.

A “Bible Reading,” I realized after a few weeks, was not what Mr. Still had done earlier in the service. It was evangelical speak for systematic exposition, what is traditionally referred to as the lectio continua approach to biblical exposition. That approach is now so common that many have little idea how novel it seemed in the post-war English-speaking world.

I was shy and socially a little awkward (only a little?). It was another eighteen months before I spoke to him for the first time.

Meeting Mr. Still

Born in 1911, Mr. Still became minister of Gilcomston South Church in 1945. He remained there for over fifty years. He was my minister for six years and remained a mentor and friend until his death in 1997.

It would be difficult to calculate what I owe to Mr. Still. We were very differently wired. His preaching style was not one I could have or should have imitated — perhaps mercifully. Because of illness, he had received little or no formal education between his early teens and his mid-twenties. That lacuna left its mark on the way he thought — rarely, it seemed, in a straight logical line, although on many occasions he would follow a biblical-theological line through the whole Bible in order to bring depth to the passage from which he was preaching. I often thought that listening to him was like watching a deep-sea diver disappear into the water, eventually surfacing with a precious pearl in hand.

His conduct of worship was one of his spiritual gifts — “bathed in prayer,” as he often said. The church met for prayer on Saturday evenings, summoned by the weekly Lord’s Day announcement, “The elders will meet for prayer at 7:00 and the congregation at 7:30.” The meeting usually concluded just before ten o’clock in the evening — but in those hours it was often difficult to get a word in edgeways, such was the flow of prayer.

I have sometimes likened that gathering to a helicopter ride round the globe, dropping down in places I had never heard of to intercede for the advance of the kingdom and people of God there. To be in the services the following morning and evening was evidence enough of God drawing near to those who draw near to him. We were, as young students, often bowed down in “wonder, love, and praise” at the end of the services.

“Mr. Still delighted to bring out new treasures, and he never tired of putting again on display treasures that were old.”

It is not possible in brief compass to describe Mr. Still’s ministry in detail. His approach is well summarized in his little book The Work of the Pastor. I have heard numbers of men who never met or heard him comment on this book’s impact on their own ministries. Some of the recurring themes in his preaching are expressed in his Towards Spiritual Maturity, not least what he often referred to as “the three dimensions of the Cross” — Christ’s atoning work dealing with sins (plural), sin (its reign), and Satan (our ultimate enemy). As he liked occasionally to put it, Christ dealt with “the root, the fruit, and the Brute!”

Somehow — I think under the earlier influence of authors probably more pietistic than Reformed — he had grasped the Pauline emphasis on the death and resurrection of Christ as not only the foundation for our justification, but the ground plan and pattern for the whole of the Christian life (“Many deaths and resurrections for us,” as he would have put it). Significantly, his brief autobiographical book is entitled Dying to Live.

Poring Over, Pouring Out

Here there is space to reflect on only one particular lesson that I hope I learned from him — although I should emphasize that this was not because he spoke to me about it with any frequency (he “mentored” not in the modern vogue of “discipling,” but — at least in my own view — in a more biblical pattern of friendship). He modeled for us what it means to pour the word of God into people’s lives. This was the focus of his whole ministry — feeding the flock of God whether in his preaching, pastoral visiting, pastoral counseling, or pastoral writing to and for them.

This last dimension he developed in the congregation’s Monthly Record, which included an extensive pastoral letter, news of the congregation and the much larger “congregation” beyond who were upheld in prayer, and Daily Bible Reading Notes that he wrote himself. By the end of a ministry that extended through six decades, he had probably preached and written his way through the entire Bible three times.

I use the word pour deliberately here. It actually began with his own poring over God’s word. He loved it deeply and obviously. And the poring over of his own study and meditation (never one without the other) emerged in his pouring out what he had learned for himself. In that respect, he was a “scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven,” who “is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). He delighted to bring out new treasures, and he never tired of putting again on display treasures that were old. But what struck me preeminently was the sense that the poring over and the pouring out were conveyed by what I can describe only as a pouring in of God’s word — into the minds and hearts of the congregation he served.

He certainly loved the word and studying it. I think that he did indeed love to preach. We are accustomed to seeing both of these characteristics in many preachers. But on their own, they do not constitute the same quality of pouring in. They lack a third essential ingredient for true ministry — namely, pouring into the people to whom one preaches “the affection of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:8) in the understanding that “the aim of our charge is love,” not merely knowledge (1 Timothy 1:5).

Preaching with Depth

Mr. Still had come to recognize long before I met him that what is requisite for such a ministry is sharing the Pauline experience of being among the people “in weakness and in fear and much trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:3) — a profound, sometimes almost debilitating consciousness of one’s own inadequacies. Paul later calls this experience being “weak in him” (2 Corinthians 13:4) — being weak not apart from him, but precisely because of our union with him. When up close and personal with Mr. Still, this deep costliness of the ministry of the Word was self-evident.

“Mr. Still’s preaching became the chariot on which the presence of the blessed Trinity was carried into our hearts.”

It was this element in ministry, it seems to me, that Paul was describing when he told the Thessalonians that “being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:8). And it was this element that took Mr. Still’s preaching beyond the level of surface exegesis and analysis of passages of Scripture to evoke the living realities of which they spoke. There was in his exposition of the word of God a manifestation of the truth and a manifestation to the conscience (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:2).

This gave a kind of emotional and affectional depth to his preaching. But more than that, it brought a sense of God himself, of his worshipfulness, into the preaching. The late Jim Packer used to say about Martyn Lloyd-Jones that he had never heard preaching that had “so much of God about it.” What I am describing here belonged to that same order of reality. Mr. Still certainly honored Calvin’s dictum that we give the same reverence to Scripture as we give to God because it is his word.

But (if one may put it this way without being misunderstood) while that was true, he never lost sight of the fact that God himself is not to be reduced to words to be analyzed and discussed in their interrelations, plotlines, and literary structures. He is the One whose throne is in heaven and whose footstool is the earth, the One whose greatness none can fathom, the One whom the heaven of heavens cannot contain — and yet is willing to look to him “who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (Isaiah 66:2).

Mr. Still longed for this reality himself and for the congregation to experience it in worship and under the ministry of the word. And thus his preaching became the chariot on which the presence of the blessed Trinity was carried into our hearts. Looking back now with gratitude, I nevertheless believe those days spoiled me. For when we experience this, we can never be satisfied with less.

Written on My Heart

One day when I was a graduate student, Mr. Still gave me something. In itself it was of no real consequence, but having known him for several years as pastor and friend, I said to him, lightheartedly and somewhat teasingly, “You have known me now for several years — but this is the first time you have given me something!” I passed the gift back to him, saying, “You will need to write your autograph on it.” He pointed to the object, brushed it away, and said, gently but clearly conscious I would not doubt the integrity of his words, “That is not where I want to write my autograph.” Then, pointing his finger at my heart, he said, “There is where I want to write it.”

That is what lies behind and is expressed in and through a ministry in which the word of God is poured into the hearts of his people. The ink in which Mr. Still’s ministry has been written into my heart is now dry; but please God, I hope what he wrote will remain clearly legible to the end of my life.

How to Distinguish the Holy Spirit from the Serpent

The Spirit comes to us as an earnest, a pledge, a down payment on final redemption. He is here and now the foretaste of future glory. But His presence is also an indication of the incompleteness of our present spiritual experience.

How do we distinguish the promptings of the Spirit of grace in His guiding and governing of our lives from the delusions of the spirit of the world and of our own sinful heart? This is a hugely important question if we are to be calm and confident that the spirit with whom we are communing really is the Holy Spirit.
John Owen suggests four ways in which the Spirit and the serpent are to be distinguished.
1. The leading of the Spirit is regular.
The leading of the Spirit, he says, is regular, that is, according to the regulum: the rule of Scripture. The Spirit does not work in us to give us a new rule of life, but to help us understand and apply the rule contained in Scripture. Thus, the fundamental question to ask about any guidance will be: Is this course of action consistent with the Word of God?
2. The commands of the Spirit are not grievous.
They are in harmony with the Word, and the Word is in harmony with the believer as new creation. The Christian believer consciously submitted to the Word will find pleasure in obeying that Word, even if the Lord’s way for us is marked by struggle, pain, and sorrow. Christ’s yoke fits well; His burden never crushes the spirit (Matt. 11:28-30).
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Consider the Glory of God

Newton realized that sometimes we engage in controversy professedly “for the glory of God” but are blind to the ways in which our own motives impact and play out in our speech and actions. The rubric “for the glory of God” must transform how Christians respond to controversy. “For the glory of God” does not call for a monolithic response to every controversy. Circumstances alter cases. We do not cast pearls before swine.

John Newton (1725–1807) is best known today for his great hymns (including “Amazing Grace” and “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken”). But in his own day, he was perhaps more highly prized as a letter writer—“the great director of souls through the post,” as someone described him. Such was the value of his correspondence that he published several volumes of his letters (including one of his letters to his wife, which called forth the comment by one reviewer, his friend Richard Cecil, that wives would be in raptures reading such love letters while “we [husbands] may suffer loss of esteem for not writing them such gallant letters”).
In several of his letters, he comments on the subject of controversy. He had a distaste for it. (It would be an unhappy thing to have a “taste” for it, would it not?) He also had a sense of being unfitted for it. He remarked that it was “not only unpleasing to my taste, but really above my reach.” But lack of experience is not necessarily an obstacle to one’s ability to give biblical counsel. Newton constantly sought to give such counsel. (Did he not encourage William Wilberforce in the great public controversy of slave trading?) In a day when only a paltry number of Anglican ministers were evangelical, he was particularly conscious that Calvinists, being much in the minority, might feel pressed into controversy too frequently.
It is surely for this reason that one of his chief concerns was that if we are to engage in controversy, our perspective needs to be dominated by the issue of the glory of God. “If we act in a wrong spirit,” he writes, “we shall bring little glory to God.” The first question of The Westminster Shorter Catechism is relevant here as everywhere: How do I speak, write, or act in situations of controversy so that God may be most glorified?
This is the principle. But it needs to be particularized. Newton realized that sometimes we engage in controversy professedly “for the glory of God” but are blind to the ways in which our own motives impact and play out in our speech and actions. The rubric “for the glory of God” must transform how Christians respond to controversy.
“For the glory of God” does not call for a monolithic response to every controversy. Circumstances alter cases. We do not cast pearls before swine.
Here are three illustrations of controversy. In the first, silence is the appropriate God-glorifying reaction; in the second, confrontation; and in the third, patience. Why such different responses?
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What Is the Beatific Vision?

The main way we are to think of the beatific vision is God has made Himself visible in the most perfect way that human beings are capable of apprehending, that is, in Jesus Christ. For example, the New Testament speaks about seeing the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

The beatific vision is the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise that we will see God. That is the essence of it. Then, we have to ask, “What does Jesus mean by seeing God?” We have to say that it is not a matter of physical sight for the simple reason that God is invisible. He is the invisible God. Many Christians tend to think that when we die, we will see God because He will become visible. However, He is not going to change because we die. This is the sheer mystery of His being. He is not the kind of being who is in His own nature visible. But, He makes Himself visible.
John Calvin has a beautiful way of speaking about creation as the invisible God putting on the clothes He wears to go outside so that we can see what He is like. I think that is part of what it means for us to see God. We see Him in this world, and we will see Him more fully in the world to come.
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Beloved Roads to Bethlehem: Tracing Names of Jesus to Christmas

Growing up, our high school held a morning assembly where the senior pupils read the Scriptures to the entire school. It was on such an occasion that one of my friends stood up to read and announced solemnly, “The reading this morning is from the Gospel according to Isaiah.” My heart sank: “O Hugh, you know Isaiah’s not a Gospel; it’s a prophecy!”

Of course, I was technically right; but later I couldn’t help reflecting on my friend’s unintentional insight. He had indeed read from the gospel according to Isaiah, just as again, this Christmastime, in hundreds of thousands — indeed, millions — of churches around the world, the gospel according to Isaiah will be read, and in a multitude of concert halls where Handel’s Messiah will be performed, the words of Isaiah 9:6 will be sung:

For to us a child is born;     to us a son is given;and the government shall be upon his shoulder;     and his name shall be calledWonderful Counselor, Mighty God,     Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

To Us a Child Is Born

Isaiah may not have known the place and time of arrival, far less the specific identity of the coming Messiah; but according to John he saw Christ’s glory (John 12:37–41). And certainly Isaiah 9 is a glorious description of him.

The majestic words of Isaiah 9:6 bring a royal birth notice: “To us a child is born, to us a son is given.” On this king’s shoulders, the government will rest. But the details of the proclamation are as arresting as the later angelic announcement of Jesus’s birth to the shepherds (Luke 2:10–12). Indeed, the latter seems to echo the former. This child is born not to Mary and Joseph, although indeed they are his parents and guardians. There is something unique about him. True, he was born of Mary, but as a King who comes to rule, and as a Savior who comes to deliver, he is born to us: “To us a child is born, to us a son is given.”

But that is just the beginning of the wonders in Isaiah 9:6. They run through the four titles this child will possess: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Wonderful Counselor

The child is to be a “Wonderful Counselor.” That title is often — perhaps usually — understood to mean that the prophesied Christ will be a wonderful counselor to his people. While he is that, some interpreters (like John Owen) have seen a deeper significance in the words and applied them to what theologians have variously called the “counsel of redemption,” or the pactum salutis (the “covenant of peace”), or the “covenant of redemption” between the Father and the Son — the grand plan to redeem us. Thus, the answer to Paul’s question in Romans 11:34, “Who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” is not “nobody” but “his own dearly beloved Son”!

Yes, the Father sent the Son into the world to be our Savior — but not without or apart from the willing counsel of his Son. Is it too great a stretch to think that before Isaiah answered the heavenly question — “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” — it had already been answered by the Son, saying, “My Father, here is my counsel: Here I am! Send me”?

This “counsel of redemption” refers to God’s eternity, and we are capable of thinking of it only in time-bound terms. But marvel at this: the One who comes to be the Wonderful Counselor to us is One who has participated in the counsels of eternity. He was everlastingly the Wisdom of God, but he “became to us wisdom from God” (1 Corinthians 1:30). Since this is the case, let us never doubt this: no matter how deep our perplexity or how mysterious his providence, the counsel given to us by the One who stands in the counsels of God is perfect. For our sake, he took “the likeness of sinful flesh” (Romans 8:3) and in it “increased in wisdom . . . and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52) and also “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). No wonder the voice from heaven commends him: “This is my Son . . . listen to him!” (Luke 9:35).

If the Babe born in Bethlehem is the One by whose wisdom the world was created, and through whom and to whom providence is directed, salvation planned, redemption accomplished, and the wisdom of God displayed to principalities and powers, then two implications follow: (1) Saturate your mind and heart in the counsel he gives in his word. (2) Trust this Wonderful Counselor absolutely.

Mighty God

The Messianic Counselor is also “Mighty God.” Too many interpreters have resisted the obvious here — that the child described is clearly a divine person — and have tried to argue that Isaiah’s language is better translated as “God-like Hero.” But apart from other considerations, the same title is used of Yahweh himself in the next chapter (Isaiah 10:21).

Still, the divine Messiah is also heroic, and he does act in heroic ways. This is surely a suggestive line of thought for us today. We live in a world of idols — sports idols, pop idols, and now chiefly the idol Martin Luther said he feared more than the pope and all his cardinals: “the Great Pope Self.” In a world given over to such idolatry, young people need to divert their gaze to heroes whose faith they may follow with joy. Yes, the Lord Jesus is more than any human hero, but he is also our ultimate hero — truly a hero of a God!

In what heroic activities he engages! He is the Divine Voyager who in the incarnation traverses the vast gulf between eternity and time on his mission of salvation. He is the Divine Warrior who is attacked as an infant by Herod, that vile instrument of Satan, but who then enters the lists against his enemy in the wilderness and defeats him. He is the Divine Healer who conquers blindness, lameness, deafness, and dumbness. He is the Divine Life-Giver whose voice the dead hear and live. He is the Divine Lover who shows love to the loveless, the unlovely, and the unlovable. He is the Divine Self-Sacrificer who offers himself on the cross for our sakes. He is the Divine General who leads a host of captives as he ascends in his triumph, and who in the sheer generosity of his grace now shares the spoils of his victory with his people. This is Christ, the mighty Hero-God.

Everlasting Father

Isaiah also sees that the coming Messiah is the “Everlasting Father.” Perhaps this description makes us hesitate a little and even question how this can be an authentic prophecy of the coming Messiah. How does this fit? After all, Jesus Christ is the Son of God, not the Father.

We need have no hesitation here. In fact, Isaiah has already prepared us for what at first sight may seem to be so paradoxical. He has already told us that “to us a child is born, to us a son is given.” He sees no contradiction, no tension here. And the reason is straightforward. Neither son nor father is all the Messiah is, or only what he is. I have been a son, but I am also a father. This Son is likewise the father of all whom he brings to birth in his kingdom.

If Paul could say to the Corinthians, “I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Corinthians 4:15), then surely the same may be said of the One who commissioned him. So in these titles, the Divine Messiah is viewed not only in relation to his role in the Trinity (where he is Son and not Father), but in relation to us as the Suffering Servant, of whom Isaiah later says, “He shall see his offspring” (Isaiah 53:10). We have been brought to new life through him. He is the only-begotten Son who begets us by his Spirit. We are the children who have been given to him (Hebrews 2:13).

“In Christ, we find a new father, a true father, and what is more, an everlasting father.”

At Christmastime, it may be especially important for some of us to grasp this. We traditionally think of Christmas as a family time. But by no means do all of us have good memories of Christmas at home, or of family life, or of our father. But in Christ, we find a new father, a true father, and what is more, an everlasting father. He will never cease to be that to us! If father is a term that gives us little pleasure, then let us remember Philip’s request to our Lord: “Show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Then let us embrace his words: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:8–9).

To Jesus, then, we must look to dissipate all unhappy thoughts of father; and we must keep looking, keep pressing in, until we have absorbed the constancy of the love of Jesus in whom the love of the Father for us is seen. In coming to him — as a lady once memorably told me — we discover for the first time in our lives that we are really loved.

Prince of Peace

Finally in this fourfold Name, the Messiah is called “Prince of Peace.” Here we seem to be on familiar Christmas territory. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace,” chanted the heavenly host (Luke 2:14), echoing again the words penned by Isaiah: “Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end” (Isaiah 9:7).

But Isaiah could already sense that this peace would be hard won. There would be light instead of darkness, an increase of joy, and a share in the spoils of victory only when “the yoke of . . . burden and the staff . . . and the rod of [the] oppressor” would be “broken as on the day of Midian” (Isaiah 9:4). Enough time for Isaiah to pen another forty-four chapters would pass before he would be able to peer through the mists of future history to see a clearer picture of the Messiah, and to understand that this promised child would grow to be “pierced for our transgressions . . . crushed for our iniquities,” so that “upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace” (Isaiah 53:5).

“Our shalom would be at the expense of his dispeace; our reconciliation is found only in his alienation.”

Our shalom would be at the expense of his dispeace; our reconciliation is found only in his alienation; hostilities have ceased between God and man only because he himself bore the cause of them, our sin, in his own body on the tree (1 Peter 2:24), and there became to the full “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3).

All We Will Ever Need

Let us, therefore, embrace Jesus Christ this Christmas as we find him described in these four titles. For these names represent a full salvation. In the Wonderful Counselor, there is wisdom for us in our ignorance and folly; in the Mighty God, strength for us in our sinful weakness; in the Everlasting Father, a heart standing open to welcome us home; in the Prince of Peace, a shalom that comes only through his sacrifice.

Before he came, Isaiah knew that he would be Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Now that he has come, we know where and when he came and who he really was and is. For we know that he is “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Nor is that a long-form way of saying that Jesus is eternal. Rather, it tells us that today he is exactly what he was, and everything that he was “in the days of his flesh” (Hebrews 5:7). He is still the same Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. You have no reason to mistrust him; you have every reason to believe that he is all you will ever need.

There could be no greater Christmas present than receiving him. There is no greater present you could give to him than yourself.

What is the Greatest of All Protestant “Heresies”?

If Christ has done everything, if justification is by grace, without contributory works; it is received by faith’s empty hands — then assurance, even “full assurance” is possible for every believer. No wonder Bellarmine thought full, free, unfettered grace was dangerous! No wonder the Reformers loved the letter to the Hebrews!

Let us begin with a church history exam question. Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621) was a figure not to be taken lightly. He was Pope Clement VIII’s personal theologian and one of the most able figures in the Counter-Reformation movement within sixteenth-century Roman Catholicism. On one occasion, he wrote: “The greatest of all Protestant heresies is _______ .” Complete, explain, and discuss Bellarmine’s statement.
How would you answer? What is the greatest of all Protestant heresies? Perhaps justification by faith? Perhaps Scripture alone, or one of the other Reformation watchwords?
Those answers make logical sense. But none of them completes Bellarmine’s sentence. What he wrote was: “The greatest of all Protestant heresies is assurance.”
A moment’s reflection explains why. If justification is not by faith alone, in Christ alone, by grace alone — if faith needs to be completed by works; if Christ’s work is somehow repeated; if grace is not free and sovereign, then something always needs to be done, to be “added” for final justification to be ours. That is exactly the problem. If final justification is dependent on something we have to complete it is not possible to enjoy assurance of salvation. For then, theologically, final justification is contingent and uncertain, and it is impossible for anyone (apart from special revelation, Rome conceded) to be sure of salvation. But if Christ has done everything, if justification is by grace, without contributory works; it is received by faith’s empty hands — then assurance, even “full assurance” is possible for every believer.
No wonder Bellarmine thought full, free, unfettered grace was dangerous! No wonder the Reformers loved the letter to the Hebrews!
This is why, as the author of Hebrews pauses for breath at the climax of his exposition of Christ’s work (Heb. 10:18), he continues his argument with a Paul-like “therefore” (Heb. 10:19). He then urges us to “draw near … in full assurance of faith” (Heb. 10:22). We do not need to re-read the whole letter to see the logical power of his “therefore.”
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How Long Will It Last?

The author of Hebrews realized that Christians in his day (as in ours) are capable of giving detailed attention to almost everything (a football game, new clothes, our appearance, school studies)—often, sadly, with one exception: the Lord Jesus. Hebrews teaches that we must reverse that trend. More than that, it engages in reversing the trend by showing us how captivating our Lord really is. Let’s be captivated by Him—for He lasts forever as Savior (Heb. 7:3; 8:16, 23, 25)!

“He’s going through a religious phase.” How often did you overhear that being said about you in your early days as an openly professing follower of Jesus Christ? Admittedly the sheer force of conversion on an untaught mind can lead to us drawing confused notions of exactly what has happened to us. Looking back on my own conversion I feel sure my parents must have thought I was going through a decidedly unbalanced “religious phase” as the golf clubs to which I had long been devoted (even at the tender age of fourteen!) were relegated to the cupboard for months on end. An unenthusiastically completed entry form and an ignominious second-round defeat in the national junior golf championships followed. What had happened to their relatively normal golf-adoring son? I am thankful for their love and patience with a young teenager who took a little time to realize that conversion called him to an ongoing life in and engagement with this world—not to monasticism!
Yet, when you are only three weeks old as a baby Christian, finding your feet in an intoxicatingly new world, whispers such as, “It won’t last!” can really hurt, and they can readily sow seeds of doubt that grow into the trees of mistrust and the forests of confusion.
Yet, whatever pressures we feel as contemporary Christians in the West, they pale by comparison with the obstacles that confronted the new converts to whom Hebrews was written. If indeed they were Jewish converts, each one became persona non grata in both family and community—big-time non grata—disinherited, ostracized, and alienated from the tight network that provided personal, educational, emotional, and financial support. They had joined the notorious “third race of men” that followed a claimant Messiah who had been roundly rejected, humiliated, crucified, and accursed. Now they too experienced reproach and the loss of family, property, and security (Heb. 10:32-4; 13:13). From now on they had to camp outside.
Would they last? Will I last? Where should I look (or point others to look)?
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What Does It Mean to Abide in Christ?

We are called, as part of the abiding process, to submit to the pruning knife of God in the providences by which He cuts away all disloyalty and sometimes all that is unimportant, in order that we might remain in Christ all the more wholeheartedly.

The exhortation to “abide” has been frequently misunderstood, as though it were a special, mystical, and indefinable experience. But Jesus makes clear that it actually involves a number of concrete realities.
First, union with our Lord depends on His grace. Of course we are actively and personally united to Christ by faith (John 14:12). But faith itself is rooted in the activity of God. It is the Father who, as the divine Gardener, has grafted us into Christ. It is Christ, by His Word, who has cleansed us to fit us for union with Himself (John 15:3). All is sovereign, all is of grace.
Second, union with Christ means being obedient to Him. Abiding involves our response to the teaching of Jesus, “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you” (John 15:7). Paul echoes this idea in Colossians 3:16, where he writes, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,” a statement closely related to his parallel exhortation in Ephesians 5:18, “Be filled with the Spirit.”

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