There are certain realities and truths in Scripture that are often ignored in both the pulpit and private studies among Christians. These realities and truths are usually controversial and mysterious. In fact, the reason these difficult doctrines are controversial or include controversial elements is because of the mystery that so often clouds understanding. Doctrines in this category include, predestination, divine sovereignty and human responsibility, and the person of the Holy Spirit.
I have heard the Nicene Creed paraphrased in these terms: “We believe in God the Father…and we believe in Jesus Christ His Son, but we are not so sure about the Holy Spirit.” Sinclair Ferguson set out to buffer this tendency in the lives of so many Christians and churches in his theology of the Holy Spirit. While the Holy Spirit finds much attention in Pentecostal or Charismatic theologies, the person and work of the Holy Spirit is often ignored, glossed over, and neglected in Reformed theology. However, Ferguson provides a masterful work that resounds in harmonious sound in response to the deafening silence typically given to the third Person of the Trinity.
Ferguson does not just crowd our bookshelves with more white noise on a topic that even to this day continues to rise in popularity. His work provides understanding to a doctrine that is so often misunderstood. Ferguson, a noted scholar, provides a unique resource in The Holy Spirit. He provides us with a scholarly work that is both readable and full of thoughtful exegesis written from a distinctively thorough Reformed position.
Sinclair Ferguson succinctly and ambitiously states his purpose in writing a theology of the Holy Spirit. He states his purpose as follows: “the focus…is to trace the revelation of the Spirit’s identity and work in a biblio-theological and redemptive-historical manner” (12). Ferguson sets out to provide us with a theology of the Holy Spirit and to increase understanding into His person and work by working doing biblical theology from a redemptive-historical frame. Ferguson’s superb exegetical abilities are on full display as a result. Rather than tracing the theology of the Holy Spirit historically, although he references many Reformed thinkers throughout this work as he forewarns his “indebtedness to [them]” (12), Ferguson relies primarily on the inerrant canon of the Old and New Testaments, taking them at “face value” and as the “only reliable foundation on which to build a theology of the Holy Spirit” (13). From the outset of this book, it is made clear by the author that in the chapters to follow, there will be heavy reliance on the Word of God to develop a correct and edifying theology of the Holy Spirit. In a manner of confident humility, Sinclair Ferguson exposes and explains in detailed terms both the Spirit’s identity and work.
In chapters 1-4, Ferguson outlines and describes the identity of the Spirit in the Old Testament (chapter 1), the life of Christ (chapter 2), and in the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost (chapters 3 and 4). The work of the Spirit in the outworking of redemption is discussed in chapters 5-8. In this section of the book, the author unfolds themes such as the Spirit’s work in uniting believers to Christ (chapter 5), regeneration (chapter 6), sanctification (chapter 7), and communion with Christ (chapter 8). Chapters 9 and 10 describe the corporate aspect of the Spirit’s work by outlining baptism and the Lord’s Supper (chapter 9), as well as giving attention to spiritual gifts (chapter 10). Ferguson closes his theology of the Holy Spirit by defining His work in the world at large and finishing up with an appropriate eschatological focus on the Spirit’s role in final resurrection and the new creation (chapter 11).
Ferguson gives attention to points that are vital to a theology of the Holy Spirit. He argues for the deity of the Spirit by highlighting his work in creation and “re-creation” (redemption). He points out the Spirit’s role in creation and the connection found in paradigmatic events like the Exodus (19). While his argument for the “distinct divine hypostasis” of the Spirit is rooted in Genesis 1:2, he also finds the redemptive-historical significance of the Spirit’s unique and godly role in creation as being paradigmatic of further biblical actions of the Spirit (21). Therefore, faithful to his goal, Ferguson traces not only along the lines of biblical theology, but also within the framework of a redemptive-historical paradigm to argue for the deity of the Spirit in Trinitarian light.
The heart of this book, especially in its first half, is the relationship between Christ and the Spirit. Ferguson argues that the Spirit is most fully revealed in the incarnation, life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. In fact, Ferguson makes the case that the doctrine of union with Christ is a work of the Spirit accomplished through regeneration and all who have the Spirit living in them have the Spirit of Christ living in them. His section on pp. 103ff concerning an exposition of union with Christ is remarkable. He grounds the salvation of the Christian in the “salvation” of Christ. The benefits of justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification belong to the Christian as a work of the Spirit in uniting the Christian to Christ who was delivered and redeemed from death by the power of the Holy Spirit” (104).
This highly Christological fervor is present throughout the book, which greatly accompanies and accents the redemptive-historical and biblical-theological flow of the book. Instead of understanding the Spirit in charismatic actions and “outpourings”, the Spirit is being presented Christologically. In order to understand the Spirit, Christ must be understood. Thus, the application of the work of Christ is beautifully exposited in chapters 5-7, particularly in chapter 5, with a concentration on ordo salutis. Here again, Ferguson is faithful to the oneness and plurality of the Trinity.
Ferguson also spends time in chapter 10 interacting with Wayne Grudem’s position concerning prophecy. In light of a cessationist position, Ferguson respectfully and convincingly disagrees with Grudem’s position of lower and higher levels of prophecy. In chapter 10, he expresses his concern that Grudem’s position is lacking much biblical foundation hence his opposition to his position.
The heavily Reformed nature of Ferguson’s personal theology is felt throughout and if it does cloud his vision at all, it does not affect the reliability of the work as a whole. This is not a comprehensive historical theology of the Holy Spirit (as stated in the Preface, p. 12) and therefore must be treated for what it is; a tracing of biblical-theological and redemptive-historical evidence of the person and work of the Spirit from a distinctively Reformed position. With this in mind, Ferguson’s Reformed position does not hinder this particular work, but greatly enables it and in fact gives it tremendous reliability for all wanting to study Reformed thinking on the Holy Spirit.
The only downfall that I experienced in this work on the Holy Spirit was its seemingly brief handling of the gifts of the Spirit. While handling the more pressing issues of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, prophecy, and tongues, Ferguson seems to give little attention to the other corporate dimensions of the Spirit’s work, namely in other spiritual gifts. I was so engaged in his arguments on the other gifts that he left me wanting more. However, this slight “blemish” does nothing to the overall worth of the book.
In closing, The Holy Spirit, is a dramatically relevant book rich in faithful exegesis and rooted in biblical theology, which is set upon a redemptive-historical rock bed foundation. This is a God-glorifying book that gives an accurate and compelling picture of the Holy Spirit from a heavily Reformed and biblical perspective.