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Ligonier Conference - Sinclair Ferguson
March 19, 2009
After a rather tasty lunch we gathered again, this time to hear Sinclair Ferguson speak about “The Doctrines of Grace.” He began by reading Ephesians 1 and said that no man has had a greater impact on his thinking than John Calvin.
When we speak of the doctrines of grace, we tend to think about five particular distinctive and controverted doctrines that we find within the realm of Reformed theology. Calvin’s theology and the theology of Scripture has much more to say about the grace of God in salvation than just these five points.
He followed this structure:
- To say something by way of background about the teaching about grace on which Calvin was reared.
- The doctrines of grace on which Calvin expounded.
- The nature of grace which John Calvin sought to extol.
The Grace on which Calvin Was Reared
Some people mistakenly believe that until the time of the Reformation, grace was a foreign concept in Christianity. The Reformers understood, though, that the medieval theologians had misspelled, misunderstood grace. As they spelled out the doctrines of God’s grace, they saw that grace had been adulterated and was no grace at all. It would not bring the delight of joy and assurance of salvation to the soul.
The Roman Catholic Church was dead set against the doctrine of grace because they felt it would give people license to live however they wanted to live. Of course this is a problem the Apostle Paul faced as well. This is why The RCC has always regarded the doctrine of justification (according to Protestantism) as a legal fiction. They cannot see justification as something so simple as a declaration.
The Reformers came to see that it was possible to know that you were justified. The church taught that unless you had some special revelation from God, you could never know that you had done enough to be saved. All you would be left with is endless years in purgatory with maybe a little reduction based on the overflow of merit from the saints. The consequence of all of this was the absence of joy, the impossibility of assurance. The assurance of salvation was considered the greatest of Protestant heresies.
Calvin saw that the righteousness given to us is the very righteousness of Christ, counted to the believer. It is the righteousness of the final judgment, brought forward into the present. Sin, when punished, cannot be punished again. We can stand before the judgment seat of God, fully righteous and all by God’s grace.
The Doctrines of Grace on which Calvin Expounded
When Calvin speaks of the doctrines of grace (in many ways and in many places) his great desire is to point us to salvation in God by Jesus Christ. Here Ferguson spent a few moments covering each of the five points, showing how Calvin may have explained them. As you may know, the five points as we understand them today, though they are based on Calvin’s teaching, are a reaction to later theological developments which sought to deny this theology. So Ferguson reached just a little further back to explain these terms using what might have been Calvin’s words.
The best line from this section of Ferguson’s address were these: “Two words: Institutes! Read!”
The Nature of Grace which John Calvin Sought to Extol
With time running out, he had only a few moments to dedicate to this topic.
Calvin says there is no such thing as grace, only Jesus Christ. There is not something outside of Jesus Christ that the Holy Spirit dispenses to you like a lump sum. There is only Jesus Christ which is why one of the most significant and startling things Calvin says is that all that Christ has done for us is of no value to us unless we get, by faith, Jesus Christ himself. And in just a moment you can see how the whole medieval system with priests and sacraments and sacrifices and saints and Mary was immediately exploded and destroyed. What the Spirit is doing and bringing you into is the same as the Lord Jesus himself. There is nothing between—no pope, no bishops, no sacraments, no priests—only the Holy Spirit bringing you to Jesus who is all your righteousness and all the righteousness you will ever need.
From Calvin we learn this: it is all there for you in Christ, so drink from no other fountain than Christ. We are all, even in our evangelical hearts, liable to sink back into errors that make us think there is something in us that qualifies us, something that Jesus Christ could give me without giving himself and me giving myself to him. This is Calvin: it is all of God, it is all in Christ, it all comes through the Holy Spirit.
This is a very, very good introduction to Reformed theology as taught by the greatest of the Reformers. I am often asked what I would recommend to those who are just trying to learn about Calvinism (or who are trying to learn the truth behind Calvinism). This is a great place to begin.