In the Year of Our Lord by Sinclair Ferguson: Sinclair Ferguson brings out the heart as well as the life of Church History

In the Year of Our LordIn the Year of Our Lord: Reflections on Twenty Centuries of Church History

by Sinclair Ferguson

eARC, 229 pg.
Reformation Trust Publishing, 2018
Read: August 26 – September 16, 2018
The seeds of this book were first published in a book Ferguson co-authored called, Church History 101: The Highlights of Twenty Centuries — he’s now taken those chapters, done more research (being retired has freed up some time for him to do some reading), and expanded that into this great survey of Church History.

After a stirring (yes, really) introduction that lays out the purpose of this volume, why the study of Church History is important and what can be gained from even the figures from Church History that may disagree with — Ferguson dives in to his survey. I really can’t say enough good about this introduction — which feels odd, that’s not supposed to be the best part of a book (and it isn’t, actually — but it’s good enough that it really could be). The body of the book is twenty chapters — in case you couldn’t guess, that’s one chapter for each completed century Anno Domini (and Ferguson is committed to the usage of that).

Each chapter starts with an excerpt from a noted piece of writing from the century in question — like The Martyrdom of Polycarp, On the Incarnation, Gottschalk;s Shorter Confession concerning Double Predestination, and Savonarola’s The Triumph of the Cross (noted, not necessarily commonly known, obviously). Following that Ferguson summarizes the events of that century — focusing on particular figures or movements that stand out. Most of these will be at least familiar to the reader by name, if not for activities and attributes. Then he closes the chapter with some words of application to the contemporary Church and a hymn from that century — most of those hymns I was totally unfamiliar with, and am so glad I was exposed to them.

The core of the chapters, the history of that century — as summarized as it may be — is so helpful. I’ve taken classes covering a lot of those chapters — and read enough on my own that I was pretty familiar with the material covered. But I learned something about even those eras and individuals I’ve studied extensively — maybe not a lot, but enough to justify the time. And even those things that were primarily review for me were well worth reading — the story of our family is one we should hear over and over again and this book is a prime example of what we need to hear.

But what about those who haven’t taken the classes, or haven’t had that much exposure to Church History outside of the last century — or maybe the first couple of centuries? This book is even better for them. It’s primarily intended as an introduction to Church History, and it excels at being one. First of all, it gives you the good bird’s eye view from the day after the last chapter of Acts to the present. Which is a perspective that’s all too easy to lose in the details — we’ve got to see the forest. But the trees are also important — and Ferguson gives enough detail (while remembering that these are brief summary chapters) that the reader can get a handle on a particular century and learn enough that they can pursue what they’re interested in. I know from reading that Celtic monasticism is something that I want to read more about (and not just by rereading Thomas Cahill), but that there are other things from that period that don’t spark my interest in the same way. Some people will react that way to Gregory I or Thomas Chalmers or something else — and Ferguson has provided the reader with enough to start on to feel comfortable pursuing that interest.

Whether for review or as an introduction — the meat of this book is just what the doctor ordered.

Even if the history wasn’t that helpful, Ferguson’s application and the hymn made the book worthwhile. Sometimes that application is comforting, sometimes it’s challenging — it’s always helpful. And the bonus of having that hymn? That’s a wonderful, devotional way to bring history to life — that’s the same Lord, the same faith being proclaimed in these words. Loved that. Starting the chapters with a doctrinally rich (if occasionally problematic) excerpt reminds us that our faith is first and foremost about truth, about ideas — but those find expression in the heart and life of the believer — as seen in the hymns.

Yes, it’s a weakness that this book focuses on the Western Church — particularly that represented in the English, Scottish and American branches. Ferguson admits that at the beginning, but that’s his tradition, that’s his background — and that’s the background for most of his, readers, too — so it’s what’s most relevant. To go beyond that would result in a tome unwieldy and not that handy for his audience (as great as it would be to see).

The structure of head (excerpt), life (history) and heart (hymn) is a fantastic outline for this book — and everything hung on that outline is clearly-written, helpful to the Christian and relevant (if only to say “don’t be like that.”) Ferguson knocked it out of the park with this one, and I can’t recommended it highly enough. Great for personal use, family devotion, Sunday Schools, Home Schools — you name it, there’s someone who can benefit from this book.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Reformation Trust Publishing via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

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4 Stars

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In Christ Alone: Living the Gospel Centered Life by Sinclair B. Ferguson

A briefer version of this appears on Goodreads.

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In Christ Alone: Living the Gospel Centered Life
In Christ Alone: Living the Gospel Centered Life by Sinclair B. Ferguson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s not a lot of in-depth theology here, you won’t come away from this with a deep understanding of any one subject, or a few related ones. This is a compilation of fifty articles, grouped together by topic, which will enable you to gain a refresher on a spectrum of topics, or an introduction to ideas, concepts and texts that you want to come back to and study in the future. As such, it’s a really strong compilation and one that I’m glad I spent an afternoon with.

Don’t get me wrong — it’s not that I didn’t learn anything, or gain a deeper understanding of anything. But compared, say, to his The Holy Spirit or Pundits Folly, it’s (by design) not as in-depth. I thought his framing the book of Romans as a series of exchanges (e.g., man exchanging the truth of God for a lie; the gospel exchange of righteousness and justification instead of unrighteousness and condemnation) was very handy and something I’m trying to internalize. The chapters that followed it were a series of glimpses at the letter to the Hebrews, and now I want an entire book on that epistle by Ferguson.

In the section on “The Spirit of Christ,” he has a chapter called “When the Spirit Comes,” which is an examination of John 16:8-11.

And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.

His thesis is that while, yes, there is a continuing relevance of these verses,

we miss their rich significance of we interpret them in a way that bypasses their historical context. In their original setting, these words constitute a prophecy of the Spirit’s work on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1 ff).
When we recognize this, we are able to fill out the content of the promise. But when we fail to recognize it, we are in danger of interpreting (and thus remolding and distorting) Scripture in the light of our own experience.

I’ve got to say, I’ve been guilty of this remolding and distorting until today, and will have to set to work on correcting my thinking.

On the whole, the book doesn’t feel too much like a collection if unrelated articles, rather than a book he set forth to write; and as such it doesn’t really suffer from being a compilation — though Part IV, “The Privileges of Grace,” is the weakest and most scattered. That said, the chapters from Part IV, “The Life of Faith” (on “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”) and “‘The Greatest of All Protestant Heresies’?” (on the doctrine of assurance) were very helpful and thought-provoking. So even at its weakest, this book rewards the reader.

Part V, “A Life of Wisdom,” is really a section on sanctification. But instead of the approach that is usually employed here, Ferguson focuses on the more internal sanctification that needs to happen to result in the external fruit. All of which could use some extended treatment by this author. Particularly, I found the chapter on discernment rich and one that I need to return to for further meditation. His extended look at Psalm 131 to show how to cultivate contentment is, naturally, valuable — Ferguson’s always at his best when discussing the Psalter.

The final chapters center on the idea of spiritual warfare — not the flashy, type that characterize so much evangelical writing on the topic. But the quieter, more difficult, and (dare I say) more Biblical approach — focusing on our sin, our need for mortification, or own worldliness.

The closing chapter on Sabbath rest is far too brief, but excellent. He reminds us that the Sabbath in creation was a “time for Adam to listen to all the Father had to show and tell about the wonders of His creating work,” — a “Father’s Day” every week. Which, of course, was ruined by the Fall, redeemed by Christ and will be fully enjoyed every day in Glory. Practically,

this view of the Sabbath helps us regulate the whole week. Sunday is “Father’s Day,” and we have an appointment to meet Him. The child who asks, “How short can the meting be?” has a dysfunctional relationship problem — not an intellectual, theological problem. Something is amiss in his fellowship with God.

There’s a lot to be mined here for devotional use, as well as a spring-board for future study.