The holiness without which no one will see the Lord
review by Michael Nelson
Sanctification can be a confusing concept to many believers. With the variety of teachings on holiness ranging from Keswick understandings of a “let go and let God” approach, to strains within evangelicalism leading to passivity or legalism, Sinclair Ferguson’s book, Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification (Banner of Truth, 2016) is more than welcomed. Though Ferguson recognizes the numerous writings already devoted to the topic of sanctification, his approach brings with it a distinctive goal: “to provide a manual of biblical teaching on holiness developed on the basis of extended expositions of foundational passages in the New Testament” (ix). With this goal in view, Devoted to God is a book written to encourage all who read to “strive…for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).
Regarding the topic of holiness, it is typically defined as the believer’s separation from sin. Though this is key for every sin-stained human being, it only describes “the Creator’s attribute of holiness from the viewpoint of the creature” (1). This is not to say that separation isn’t necessarily a component of holiness when it comes to God, it is just simply too narrow. For a quality to be considered an attribute of God, it must not only be true in how God displays himself to his creation, but also in how God relates within himself before he created. Before creation, God’s holiness did not include separation from anything. Instead, the Father, the Son and the Spirit were completely devoted to each other. Holiness is then defined within the Godhead as “absolute, permanent, exclusive, pure, irreversible and fully expressed devotion” (2). That means for believers, “to be holy, to be sanctified, therefore, to be a ‘saint’, is in simple terms to be devoted to God” (4).
Ferguson describes the process of growth in holiness through his faithful exposition of ten key passages in the New Testament. Within these expositions, there are many concepts that aid in understanding what it means to be devoted to God. One key concept that is weaved throughout the entire book is the believer’s union with Christ. Our sanctification “takes place in union with Christ and not apart from him” (56). Everything Christ accomplished in his perfect life, his sacrificial death and his resurrection is for believers when they are united to him by faith. This is fundamentally what the New Testament means when it describes believers as “in Christ.” The basis for our sanctification is what Christ has achieved for believers, and union with Christ is how these achievements lead believers to be devoted to God.
Union with Christ is foundational for the indicative approach that Ferguson takes in Devoted to God. “Knowing (i) whose you are, (ii) who you are, and (iii) what you are for, settles basic issues about how you live” (7). With this knowledge, believers can fill their minds in order to reshape their lives in putting off and mortifying sin as well as putting on the graces of Jesus Christ. As Ferguson rightly points out, “what fills our minds will shape our lives. We become what we think!” (157-158). God’s grace effects our faithfulness, which is why Ferguson has placed the divine imperatives (i.e., what God has done for us) central in his book.
Within the major themes of this book, Ferguson shows himself to be a faithful expositor of the scriptures. In a book about a theme from the New Testament, it is refreshing to see the scriptures take the central focus. It is also within his exposition that Ferguson provides necessary application. Even though Ferguson says in the opening that his book is “not dominated by techniques for growing in holiness” (x), he very clearly gives application throughout. Either way, Ferguson does a masterful job of applying the scriptures, while keeping with his main objective in providing a description of what God does and has done in our sanctification.
Devoted to God is a necessary addition to the collection of books that exist on the subject of sanctification and holiness. To understand what God has done for us and how our union with Christ affects our lives currently should provide the “impetus to live wholly for Christ” (153). Ferguson has indeed provided the basic blueprints for what sanctification is and why we as believers are called to it. It is with this understanding that we find holiness as its end product. Holiness then shows itself to be “the ultimate fruit of being devoted to God” (235).