Sinclair Ferguson’s essay on Calvin’s doctrine of Christ’s incarnation was the first essay in The Practical Calvinist that I read, and it’s a good thing too. The title of this book immediately provoked the question, “Can a professing and convinced Calvinist be practical in the sense that evangelicalism is ‘practical’ and ‘relevant’ today?” Indeed, should it try to be? Ferguson’s reading of Calvin paved the way for me to believe that modern day Calvinists like myself can trust the theology and heart of the man John Calvin. Specifically, Calvin’s doctrine of assurance is challenging because Ferguson shows how it is rooted in faith in Christ. How practical! Furthermore, Calvin teaches that our assurance of personal salvation must be viewed through the historical reality of Christ taking upon himself a true body (the nature of the incarnation was one of God becoming a real human being) for the purpose of mediating between God and man (the necessity of the incarnation). This is not only an adequate answer to the question of assurance, but it provides the only really helpful (biblical) antidote to the rampant easy-believism in the American Christianity. I know of many who claim to have strong assurance that they are indeed saved, but many times that strong assurance turns out to be faith in their own faith. But this is not Calvin’s understanding of the nature of faith and assurance at all. For Calvin, our faith is not in our strong faith commitment or unwavering resolve to believe and stay faithful. No, our faith (which is really not very strong at all, at least in and of itself) is in the promises of God and our trust is in the faithfulness of Christ and his accomplishment of salvation. Even a weak faith, if it is rooted in (and trusting in) Christ, is more mighty that the strength of ten thousand men who have faith in their faith. I have seen in my own family the weakness of the flesh and the deceitfulness of sin shatter the confidence that one has in one’s own “strong faith.” Calvin shows us why the incarnation of Christ turns us away from inward trust in personal faith and outwardly towards the Christ of faith—the Christ who was born in a manger with all our infirmities and miseries, and who took our sin upon himself to be the faithful man we could never be.
Ferguson provides for his topic the most detailed structural analysis compared to any other author in this book. Regarding the incarnation and atonement, Calvin’s writing is rhythmically and chiastically organized, demonstrating not only the complex structure of his prose, but also how much he meditated upon the nature and meaning of Christ’s atonement (pp. 117, 125-126). Reading this challenges me in my own reading, writing, preaching, and teaching ministries. Calvin obviously lived and breathed the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. His example of a faithful Christian assured of his own salvation by his constant looking to Christ and his righteousness is certainly a practical model to imitate.