An extract from Chapter 7 of From the Mouth of God: Trusting, Reading, and Applying the Bible, by Sinclair B. Ferguson.1
About one third of the New Testament is made up of Letters, thirteen of them written by Paul, three by John, two by Peter, one each by James and Jude, and one other anonymously (Hebrews and 1 John are distinctive among the Epistles since they do not have the format of a letter as such).
What should we look out for when we read these Letters?
(1) New Testament Letters, simply because they are letters, represent one side of a two-way conversation between the apostles who wrote them and the first readers. Again we must resist the temptation to ask — as our first question — ‘What is this passage saying to me?’ It was written for me, but not to me. Rather, as we explore the question ‘What did this passage say to its first recipient(s)?’ we will come to understand better what its message is for us.
The Epistles are long by the standard of our letters, but short by comparison with the length of other books in the Bible. It is both helpful and possible to read each of them at one sitting — as they were originally intended to be read. If you do, make a simple outline of the book as you read. Further study will fill out the outline. Soon you will experience the pleasure — not to say the helpfulness — of having a working knowledge of the contents of the whole book. This in turn helps us to reflect on the letter’s teaching even when it is not sitting open in front of us.
(2) The Letters are often described as ‘occasional’ writings — written in response to particular situations that arose in the young churches of the first century. So we will always come to a letter asking: ‘What is the reason for writing this letter?’ Often it is to rectify a problem in the life of the church, or to address areas where the author feels the gospel needs to make further progress. Making the connection between the issue addressed and the teaching that responds to it is a major clue to the way in which we apply the message to contemporary life.
(3) As we read and re-read the Letters we begin to notice that there are themes that keep reappearing. There is a pattern of response to dysfunction in the life of the church or individual. Although the problems discussed may differ from each other, there are basic starting points to the response. Paul in particular always seems to take us back to these first principles and work out his solution from them.
A first principle in Paul’s Letters is the believer’s union with Christ. His characteristic way of describing a ‘Christian’ — a rare word appearing only three times in the New Testament2 — is to say that he or she is ‘in Christ’.3 He uses this phrase, or a variant of it, well over one hundred times. In fact his most common response to spiritual problems and malfunctions is to say — in one form or another —
You do not seem to have grasped what it means to be a Christian. It means to be ‘in Christ’ — and that reality has the following implications for your life . . .
What does Paul mean? In summary his thinking is as follows: By nature we are all ‘in Adam’. He was not only the first man, he was also the head of the whole human race. His actions carried implications for everyone.
In that sense, all of us are, by nature, ‘in Adam’. And since he was the first man, the distortion of his nature in the fall has twisted human nature as a whole, bending it out of shape, releasing into it tendencies to sin.
Our situation is hopeless, and we are helpless. But God has intervened. He sent his Son to rescue us from the effects of our union with the first man, the first Adam. He became the ‘Second Man’, the ‘Last Adam’. By his obedience he has done what the first Adam failed to do. In his death he has taken the punishment the first Adam brought upon us. So by his resurrection he has reversed the flow of death that was brought into the world by Adam’s sin.4
The Holy Spirit works in our hearts to bring us to faith and to unite us to Christ. For Paul this is such a unique reality that it reshapes the way he uses language. On occasion he uses the preposition ‘into’ when he speaks about faith: we believe ‘into Christ’. The result is that we come to share in Christ’s death, his resurrection, his ascension, and indeed his return in glory. This determines our identity now. We are no longer ‘in Adam’ living lives determined by sin and death; we are now ‘in Christ’ and our identity is shaped by all that he has done for us, and by the death and resurrection in which we have come to share.
Now, says Paul, we are those who, in union with Christ, have died to the reign of sin and been raised into a new realm in which Christ reigns in grace.5 We must think about ourselves in this way.6 As we do so we will have all the motivation we need to resist sin and to live for Christ.7
(4) Related to this is the way Paul expounds his message using what we might call ‘Gospel Grammar’.
We have already seen how this functions. The commands and exhortations of the gospel (imperatives: ‘You need to do that’) always arise from the exposition of God’s grace in the gospel (indicatives: ‘God has done this’). Imperatives flow from indicatives, indicatives give rise to imperatives.
Both Romans and Ephesians are built in their entirety on this gospel grammar structure. They can readily be divided into two sections: (i) Indicatives: This is what God has done in Christ for you; (ii) Imperatives: Since God has done all this in Christ for you, here is how you should respond with the help and in the power of the Holy Spirit.
In Romans chapters 1-11 Paul writes almost exclusively in the indicative mood:8 Here is what God has done. Chapter 12 begins with a significant hinge word: ‘therefore’ — i.e. since all this is true, here are the implications. Chapters 12-16 then show how the gospel thus expounded works out in ‘the obedience of faith’.9 A torrent of imperatives cascades down upon the reader! But the indicatives of the gospel expounded in chapters 1-11 are able to sustain them all.
Ephesians has a similar structure. In chapters 1-3 Paul expounds the riches of God’s grace towards us in Christ. At Ephesians 3:1 he is on the point of turning to application. But just as he describes himself as ‘Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles—’ the astonishing nature of this self-description causes him to reflect on the gospel’s wonder. He is:
A free Roman citizen willing to be bound;
A prejudiced Jew now devoted to the Gentiles;
A persecutor now turned follower of Jesus Christ.
Only then in Ephesians 4:1 does the dominant grammar of the letter change, and the indicative-imperative dynamic of gospel logic and grammar kicks into action: ‘I therefore . . . urge you’.10
If we turn this on its head — as though our obedience were the reason for God’s grace — we would mispronounce the gospel. Always it is God’s grace that grounds our obedience. The greater and richer the grace expounded the more rigorous and demanding the imperatives it is able to sustain in our lives. That is how the gospel works.
. . . this is as true in the Old Testament as it is in the New: it is because God is the Lord who redeemed his people from Egypt that they receive the imperative: ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’11
Trusting, Reading, and Applying the Bible
An extract from Chapter 7 of From the Mouth of God: Trusting, Reading, and Applying the Bible, by Sinclair B. Ferguson.1 About one third of the New Testament is made up of Letters, thirteen of them written by Paul, three by John, two by Peter, one each by James and Jude, and one other anonymously […]
- Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Pet. 4:16.
- The expression is dominantly Pauline. It occurs elsewhere in the Letters only in 1 Pet. 3:16; 5:10, 14. But the idea is more pervasive.
- Paul expounds this particularly in the key passages Rom. 5:12-21 and 1 Cor. 15:20-28.
- Rom. 6:1-10. Cf. Col. 3:1-4.
- Rom. 6:11.
- Rom. 6:12-14. Cf. Col. 3:5-17.
- While imperatives may be implied in places, apart from a cluster of them in Rom. 6:12-14, they are virtually absent in Rom. 1-11.
- Rom. 1:5; 16:26.
- This is not to say that indicative statements always precede imperatives in the text. It may read either ‘Since A is true you need to be/do B’, or ‘Be/do B since A is true.’ In each case, however, the logic of the gospel remains the same.
- Exod. 20:1-3.
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