Sinclair Ferguson’s The Grace of Repentance

Sinclair Ferguson’s The Grace of Repentance is a bit of a mixed bag.  It is profoundly insightful when discussing biblical repentance.  It is, in my opinion, less so when he draws an analogy between modern Evangelicalism and medieval Roman Catholicism.  Even here, though, he makes many valid and very important points.

Ferguson rightly bemoans the lack of biblical thinking on the matter of repentance and the nearly invisible role that repentance plays in the understanding of evangelism and conversion in some quarters of Evangelicalism today.  He points to Luther’s language in the first of the ninety-five theses as an accurate description of the New Testament understanding of repentanc:

“When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent’, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

I agree.

Ferguson argues that this is nothing short of the essence of biblical teaching on the matter, and he aptly supports this contention with strong scriptural backing.  He demonstrates the seriousness of sin and the seriousness with which Scripture handles repentance.  Furthermore, Ferguson argues against shallow contemporary notions of repentance that essentially reduce this important truth to a one-time, momentary, surface, emotional regret over sin.  On the contrary, true repentance is a life-long journey and an opening of oneself to radical transformation and change through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.  In asserting this, Ferguson helpfully marshalls a number of etymological evidences from scripture that illustrate the seriousness of the biblical call to repentance.

In likening modern Evangelicalism to medieval Catholicism, Ferguson makes some valid points but also missteps as well.  He offers the customary Reformed objection to the altar call as a kind of neo-sacramentalism, but this is needlessly overplayed.  To be sure, the altar call can be, and often is, abused by well-meaning Christians.  But it’s all in the way it’s handled and presented, no?  There is nothinginherently misleading about giving people a place to respond to the working of the Holy Spirit in worship and, when handled rightly, there is much that is commendable about the practice.  I would want to take Ferguson’s cautions into account when considering how we handle the altar call, but I find what appears to be his dismissal of the invitation act (in worship) to be strained and unnecessary.  This isn’t the place for a defense of the altar call, but I believe a robust case for response-in-worship can, indeed, be made.

Furthermore, his critique of the sensuality (for lack of a better word) of much modern worship is strained as well.  Ferguson complains that:

“Worship is increasingly becoming a spectator event of visual and sensory power, rather than a verbal event in which we engage in a deep soul dialogue with the Triune God.” (45)

Yes, a lot of worship services have been reduced to spectacle, to a kind of theater for the senses.  And, yes, there can be no doubt that the proclamation of the Word has been reduced and neglected in many American Christian churches.  In this regard, he is right to voice his concern.  I am not merely saying this to try to placate.  On the contrary, the reduction of the verbal proclamation of the Word of God in many churches is a deep, church-weakening tragedy that must be addressed.

But when Ferguson calls worship “a verbal event in which we engage in a deep soul dialogue with the Triune God,” does he mean merely verbal?  How, for instance, does he explain God’s call for rich sensory experiental worship in the Old Testament?  Granted, worship in the New Testament church is substantially different as we proclaim Christ’s fulfillment of the sensory acts practiced in Old Testament worship, but the strong presence of such elements in Old Testament worship at least establishes that the senses can play a part in helping the people of God grasp divine truth.

What is more, In the New Testament, does not the Lord Jesus appeal to the senses when preaching outside and asking His audience to consider the birds?  I rather suspect He might even have pointed to the birds when preaching this.  This was no merely verbal event.  And what of Christ’s initiation of baptism and the Lord’s Supper and His prescription of these sense-stimulating physical symbols for the Church?  The ordinances appeal to the senses to further communicate gospel truth.  What of the biblically prescribed singing of hymns, a verbal and melodic sensory act?  What of the New Testament “holy kiss,” a non-verbal sensory act prescribed in the New Testament (a practice that has not – thankfully ((in my opinion)) – translated into our culture, but was, nontheless, a part of Christian life in the first century)?

The reality is that biblical worship has never been a merely “verbal event.”  In right measure and proportion, the senses can assist verbal proclamation to the glory of God.  I understand the tradition from which Ferguson comes.  I share it in part and admire it to a large extent.  But worship is more than a “verbal event” and I fear that such denunciations may poison the well for what might be valid, church-edifying, gospel-promoting practices that do not deserve censure.

Finally, Ferguson’s effort to support the modern-Evangelicalism-equals-medieval-Catholicism analogy by comparing mega-churches with the construction of St. Peter’s is the weakest of his efforts.  Yes, certain analogies might be made, I suppose:  the unnecessary fleecing of a people for the construction of an opulent cathedral, the satiation of an ecclesiastical despot’s ego with the erection of a gargantuan edifice for his own glory, etc.  Ok.  I guess.  The mega-church phenomenon certainly has its own dangers.  But there are important differences as well.  Most mega-church buildings, for instance, are built with the offerings of freely-associating members who choose to give.  They are usually built when crowd size deems it necessary.  In most cases, these structures are not built to house the cathedra of an Evangelical pope, but rather to provide space for a large congregation, etc.  Of course, tragic exceptions are not difficult to find, but I suppose the question of whether or not these exceptions are the norm is a matter of debate.  I doubt they are the norm.

Ferguson knows this, of course, and he offers a caveat in the book to that effect.  He is not trying to slam mega-churches per se.  But one does wonder if there is enough meat here to even justify the assertion?  Furthermore, what of Spurgeon’s church in its day?  It was the mega-church of the time and I daresay Ferguson would stop short of likening it to St. Peter’s basilica.

Please note that these weaknesses do not constitute the sum total of Ferguson’s argument in this book.  They are, in fact, rather peripheral to the central argument of the book.  On the main, this book is a fantastic primer on biblical repentance and the need to approach it with a robust, scripturally-informed understanding.  Even those few points I question personally are not totally without merit.  They just need to be thought through carefully.

In all, a helpful little book.  I remain deeply appreciative for the writings and ministry of Sinclair Ferguson, and what he has said here concerning repentance has challenged me in substantial ways.

I recommend it.