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Book Review: Deserted by God? by Sinclair Ferguson

Reviewed by Nathan Pitchford

Deserted by God - Sinclair FergusonWhere do you go when you’re feeling depressed, disconsolate, overwhelmed by sin, discouragement, loneliness, painful afflictions, dark valleys of despair? For the believer, there is no source of comfort that can compare to the psalter, that blessed “anatomy of the soul,” an apt description of the Book of Psalms first given by Calvin and referred to by Sinclair B. Ferguson in his book of remedies for the trials of this life, Deserted by God?. Happily, Ferguson is well aware of the rich cures of the psalter for every kind of painful affliction of the soul, and he spends the entire book walking through the darkest psalms of lament, distilling the precious cordial of hope from the bitterest agonies of the very human psalmists. For that reason, it is not just another book about depression – it is a book that cannot fail to help all who take its instructions to heart, no matter how deep their trials may be.

Ferguson is a spiritual physician that knows to prescribe only the medicines that really do cure. He speaks compassionately, with empathy – but what really matters is that he speaks the truth, truth that is living and active and able to help all who listen. If you struggle with depression, no matter the precise cause or form it may take, then read this book. It will help you, by God’s grace, even when nothing else can.

I appreciate the fact that Ferguson is not naively optimistic or nauseatingly super-spiritual in how he addresses those who are overcome by despair, and yet he still does not buy into the nonsense that it’s somehow ok to be angry with God and vent your sinful frustration in foolish words of accusation. Speaking of the idea that a good Christian will never doubt or be in despair, he states, “Nor is this biblical spirituality; it is a false ‘super-spirituality’ that ignores or denies the reality of our humanity. We live in frail flesh and blood and in a fallen world which, John says, ‘is under the control of the evil one’ (1 John 5:19). There is much to discourage. Jesus felt that. To be free from the possibility of discouragements would be more ‘spiritual’ than Jesus – and therefore not truly spiritual at all.” So yes, Ferguson would say, pour out your complaint to God and seek his mercy, as the psalmists did – but there is a humble, reverent, and appropriate way to roll even your deepest trials on the merciful and loving God who is ready to take them upon himself for your greatest good.

What makes the book applicable for any discouraged person, no matter what he might be struggling with specifically, is that it simply walks through a few well-selected psalms, giving a straightforward and accurate exposition and application. And no matter what a person is dealing with, even when it feels like no one else has ever experienced the same thing, the psalmists dealt with something similar, and found hope and relief at the end of their journey. Ferguson’s keen psychological acumen makes him able to probe what was really happening in the psalmists’ perplexed souls, and give fitting application to modern humans who have the same trials.

Whether you struggle with guilt over sins in your past, feelings of abandonment and betrayal, physical illness or affliction, bereavement, unfulfilled dreams, or any other similar problem, you will probably find a chapter that speaks directly to you. Personally, I was greatly helped by the chapter, “Can I Be Pure?”. My discouragement comes most poignantly from shame and frustration over falling into the same old sinful attitudes and actions that I thought I had left behind – and there are psalms that deal with that! Whatever causes your despair, there are psalms that you’ll find apply most aptly to you to.

The most outstanding portions of the book look ahead to Christ our great Champion and Savior, who took our weaknesses and infirmities, and who very often speaks through the psalmists who were types and foreshadows of him – my only regret about the book was that, although there was much of this, in my opinion there wasn’t always as much as there could have been. But when Ferguson does look ahead to the unspeakably wonderful Messiah, heaven comes down and fills the soul. I conclude with a quote from one of those times:

In asking for “mercy,” David, you are asking that God will show it to you, but withdraw it from Jesus.

In asking to experience God’s “unfailing love,” you are asking that Jesus will feel it has been removed.

In asking to taste God’s “great compassion,” you are asking him to refuse it to Jesus as he dies on the cross.

In asking God to “blot out” your transgressions, you are asking that they will be obliterated by the blood of Jesus.

In asking to be washed, you are asking that the filth of your sin will overwhelm Jesus like a flood.

In asking to know the joy of salvation, you are asking that Jesus will be a Man of Sorrows, familiar with grief.

In asking to be saved from bloodguilt, you are asking that in your place Jesus will be treated as though he were guilty.

In asking that your lips will be opened in praise, you are asking that Jesus will be silenced, as a sheep before her shearers is dumb.

In asking that the sacrifice of a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart be acceptable, you are asking that Jesus’ heart and spirit will be broken.

In asking that God will hide his face from your sins, you are asking that he will hide his face from Jesus.

In asking that you will not be cast out of God’s presence, you are asking that Jesus will be cast out into outer darkness instead.

Oh, the depths to which Jesus went to bear our burdens and carry our sorrows! When we see such a Savior as that, what trial could we ever suppose will finally overcome us who are recipients of so vast a love?

 

Publisher: Banner of Truth
Author: Ferguson, Sinclair B.
ISBN-10: 0851516912 | ISBN-13: 9780851516912
Available at  Westminster Bookstore

 

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In the foreword on my post last October 12, I mentioned of uploading in this weblog a series of articles from Modern Reformation’s 1996 out-of-print issue entitled ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress – The Life of a Justified Sinner’.  The Reformation that began God began through Martin Luther in the 15th century brought the centrality of the triune God (Theocentric) back into theology. Despite downgrade controversy (borrowing the term from the 18th century English prince of preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon) in the last 2 centuries as church doctrines became more and more man-center (anthropocentric), by the grace of God, today a resurgence of the biblical doctrines espoused during the Reformation period  are grounding Christians again to a wonderfully Christocentric faith.

Herebelow is a short article on the key concepts in Reformation spirituality. At the bottom of this post, I have a footnote (*) expanding item #5 a bit further in order not to confuse the  terms and their biblical significance vis-a-vis the Roman Catholic traditional understanding and practice  of infant regenerational baptism and transubstantiational eucharist.

*     *     *     *     *

 

1. Union With Christ

Every doctrine related to salvation and the Christian life must be oriented around this touchstone of faith. No theory of Christian growth or development can obscure or ignore this central fact. In Reformation spirituality, the objective and subjective, external and internal, are linked inseparably by this reality. “In Christ” we are justified and are being sanctified.

2. Justification By Faith Alone

“To declare righteous,” this courtroom term is the core of the Good News. If we seek to attain divine favor by our own willing and running, we will quickly end up in either self-righteousness or despair. Progress in obedience comes only as we acknowledge Christ to be our righteousness, holiness, and redemption.

3. Sanctification

Here is another essential biblical word. Once declared righteous by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, we now grow in personal righteousness in union with Christ and his righteousness. In our salvation we contribute absolutely nothing except sin. But once regenerated by God’s grace (apart from our cooperation), we are free to cooperate with the Holy Spirit for the first time. Sanctification, therefore, unlike regeneration, justification, etc., requires our energies and participation. We grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ, actively animated by the gospel. Both justification and sanctification are the gift of God by virtue of our union with Christ.

4. Calling/Vocation

Also related to the “priesthood of all believers,” this Reformation doctrine emphasized the fact that everything we do honors God if done in faith. A ditch-digger is no less spiritual than a missionary. God has created each of us with certain gifts and we are meant to find meaning and fulfillment not only in church-related things, but in our work and leisure as well. This doctrine, more than any other, was responsible for what has come to be identified as “the Protestant Work Ethic.”

5. Means of Grace(*) 

Baptism and Holy Communion, in Reformation spirituality, figure prominently as “means of grace.” Baptism is the beginning of our life in Christ, and in Communion we feed on Christ–the Bread of Life–throughout our wilderness journey.

  

  

(*) originally termed as ‘sacraments’; the means of grace mentioned in item #5 above pertain to the biblical significance of water baptism of persons who have repented and turned to Jesus Christ in faith, and the commemorative purpose of the Lord’s Supper, commonly referred to as the breaking of the bread – both of which were instituted by the Lord in the New Testament. In these sacraments, the Lord, through the mediation of the Holy Spirit, appropriates upon the believers the grace necessary for our sanctification and preservation until the day of His return (see Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:41-42; Romans 6:1-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-32).

 

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Finally, my brethren… – Ephesians 6:10

“Last but not the least” is what I will say as this narrative on the full armor of God section begins. The word ‘finally’ in the Greek is tou loipou which means ‘as for the rest’ but it must not diminish the importance of the narrative.  It was not an afterthought nor was it something that Paul discussed in the last chapter because it was least important, but it is as important as every block of narrative in the Ephesian letter. Imagine a stack of books that are kept standing because of  a pair of bookends, Eph. 6:10-20 is one of these ‘bookends’ that supports the entire epistle because:

  • It frames the teaching of a new life beginning in Eph. 4:17 where Paul exhorts the believers to not live like Gentiles who live in darkness. Every facet of life must display the new life in Christ. And after this Paul reminds the believers again that the forces of darkness would wage war against them (Eph. 6:12).  It is interesting to note here that Paul does not refer to them as Gentiles anymore but keeps his consistent reference to them as saints belonging to the household of God (Eph. 2:19-20).
  • It complements the prayer began by Paul in Eph. 1:15 -23.  He begins praying for them and then he enjoins them to pray in the Spirit for the saints and for him. Prayer takes a front seat in the Christian’s life, presenting himself dependent on God in every way for everything, from the understanding of the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ received by faith and the fruit-bearing life resulting from it, from orthodoxy (manner of understanding) to orthopraxy (manner of life).
  • It brings out some of the spiritual gifts that God has blessed us in His Son in the heavenly places (Eph 1:3). Blessings that are freely given to us – the power and might of the Lord, the full armor of God, and Holy Spirit-led and empowered prayer – in order to stand against the spiritual forces of darkness in the heavenly realms that will wage war against us (Eph 6:12).

Despite Paul’s calling as an apostles coming directly from the Lord, he did not elevate himself over the Ephesian believers. He called them brethren.  The ESV did not write the word ‘brethren’  but the Greek New Testament writes adelphoi which means brethren. But adelphoi presents a deeply rooted brotherhood that is born of God in His beloved Son. Reading Eph 1:1-2 may seem to place Paul and the believers in separate levels, but as soon as verse 3 comes in, both he and the believers have been blessed by God jointly. He made sure to inform them that together, they will be engaged in the same spiritual war and he entreats them to remember that they have the same source of their power – the Lord. Jesus clearly speaks when He said to the apostles, ‘Apart from Me, you can do nothing’ (John 15:5) – yes, even in spiritual warfare.  As it is true for the apostles, so it is true for all believers – apart from our Lord Jesus, we all can do nothing!

Part 3 – Our Lord of Power and Might              https://emmaustrekker.wordpress.com/2009/07/24/panoply-series-part-3-our-lord-of-power-and-might/

Previous: Part 1 – Two Kingdoms at War   https://emmaustrekker.wordpress.com/2009/07/03/panoply-series-part-1/

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