This month I will post a few items of interest and questions for discussion from The Holy Spirit by Sinclair Ferguson. You are welcome to interact with questions and comments below.
A Brief Review of The Holy Spirit by Sinclair Ferguson
While you can read any number of books on the topic of the work and person of the Holy Spirit, very few authors get past the surface arguments about the cessation of tongues, signs, healings and wonders. While we do want to interact with the unhelpful aspects of the charismatic movement in an articulate way, it seems that the best way to do that is to explore the doctrine of the Holy Spirit far beyond what even many charismatic authors have done. Sinclair Ferguson does precisely this in The Holy Spirit.
Ferguson does not even come near the topic of gifts and tongues until he has laid a solid Trinitarian and Christological foundation for the topic, and even then, only devotes one short chapter to this subject before moving on to other areas of study. His message is clear. Concerning the work of the Holy Spirit, there is far more to discuss and consider outside of the debate surrounding modern miracles. Ferguson reminds us of the vast breadth of the work of the Holy Spirit that the modern evangelical and reformed church has largely left untouched.
The book begins with a thorough definition, drawn from the Scriptures, of who the Holy Spirit is and how He does His work. While we may assume that the work of the Spirit is all unseen, internal and subjective, Ferguson brilliantly demonstrates how the Spirit is actively engaged in the physical realm. He writes, “The activity of the [Spirit] is precisely that of extending God’s presence into creation in such a way as to order and complete what has been planned in the mind of God.” (page 21) Thus, the work of the Spirit can be seen, touched, tasted, felt.
Ferguson takes us from there into a study of the Christological implications of the work and person of the Holy Spirit. From the time when the Holy Spirit “came upon” the virgin Mary until the time Jesus was “made alive by the Spirit” in the resurrection, the story of Jesus is the story of the Holy Spirit. Throughout the gospels, Jesus expresses His relationship with the Spirit as an essential component to the accomplishment of our redemption. We see the ministry of the Spirit tied to the work of Jesus in such a way that it is the work of the Holy Spirit which give sthe work of Jesus its power and validation. “This helps explain why, while blasphemy against the Son of Man may be forgiven, that against the Spirit will not.” (page 51)
With the Christ-centered work of the Spirit in place, Ferguson then has firm ground on which to stand when he proceeds to explain exactly why the Great Schism of 1054 between the Western and Eastern Churches was not concerning some trifling grammatical issue, but concerned important doctrines that stand and the center of our understanding of the Triune God. (I plan to discuss this further here next week.)
Only then does Ferguson give a nod to the topic of tongues and miraculous manifestations of the power of the Spirit in the early Church before transitioning to the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration. There, he addresses some differences he has with past reformed and puritan attempts to systematize the work of the Holy Spirit in salvation and suggests that we have developed “an unhealthy subjectivism in which the location of present experience on the chain of salvation replaces Jesus Christ himself as the focus of attention and faith.” (page 102) The work and focus of the Holy Spirit is indelibly Christological, and thus the work of the Holy Spirit in salvation is principally uniting us to Christ, to seal that union, and to illumine our faith to the meaning and the obligations of that union.
Ferguson’s work is the most Christ-centered work on the Holy Spirit that I have had the pleasure of reading, and I immensely appreciate the way that the cessation-of-gifts argument does not dominate the book. The charismatic and the cessationist both have a long way to grow in their understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit. Ferguson’s book is a big push in the right direction.
Why does it seem that Reformed people generally have less to say about the Holy Spirit than other branches of the Church, and how does this shape our theology and view of the world?
Next Week – Discussion of Chapters 1-3