How Paul preached about original sin
James Fergusson (1621-1667) ministered in Kilwinning, Ayrshire. He published a number of expositions of books of the Bible and preached faithfully against the domination of the Church by the civil government.
27 Jul, 2023

In the rush to get to God’s mercy, and perhaps out of discomfort at the unpleasantness of the subject, the topic of original sin can be overlooked in our churches, both in preaching and hearing. When James Fergusson reached Paul’s discussion of God’s saving grace in Ephesians 2, however, he identified the balance in Paul’s letter. Paul did not soft pedal our desperate sinfulness as sinners, yet his awareness of the graciousness of God’s grace did not allow him to leave his readers in despair. As the following update extract shows, Fergusson therefore picks out some aspects of Paul’s Spirit-inspired technique in how he presents both sin and grace, highlighting them especially as hints for preachers to follow as they bring these doctrines to their own congregations. It also prompts us to assess how willing we are as hearers to accept this kind of preaching and how we respond to these truths when our pastors bring them to our attention.

Preach misery as well as mercy

The apostle is intending to establish the Ephesians in the doctrine of salvation by free grace in Christ. For this end, he sets out the happiness of the state in which free grace had placed them, by showing the misery of their previous state, before conversion. That is, they were dead – not naturally, but spiritually, for there was nothing in them of the spiritual life which consists in the union of the soul with God (John 5:40), and the power of the soul, flowing from this union, to do things which are spiritually good and acceptable to God (John 15:5).

The efficient and formal cause of this spiritual death is their sins and trespasses. These two words are used equivalently in Scripture to express one and the same thing, and both of them in the plural here sets forth the multitude of sins under which they lay in this dead condition, for example, their original sin, their actual sins, sins of omission, sins of commission, and especially their manifold idolatries, which are chiefly pointed at as those sins in which the world was wallowing before Christ came in the flesh (Acts 17:29–30).

From observing Paul’s method we can see that it is not sufficient for the servants of Jesus Christ only to preach privileges, and hold forth to believers the happy state to which they are lifted up through Christ. It is necessary also that jointly with this minsters call them to think of their woeful, miserable, and lost estate by nature. Setting forth the one against the other makes both appear more clearly in their own colours. It also helps the hearers avoid the two dangerous rocks of growing vain because of what they now are (2 Cor. 12:7), and of turning discouraged and diffident because of what they once were (Psa. 25:7).

Preach personally and impartially

The apostle then applies this doctrine to the Jews, of whom he himself was one; and therefore he designates them by the pronoun “we,” and affirms them to have been before conversion equally miserable with the Gentiles.

He explains the doctrine of human misery very fully, pointing out that his own people were just as obstinately rebellious against God as the disobedient Gentiles, analysing the corruption of nature into subdivisions, and identifying the root cause of our miserable slavery to sin in our nature as “children of wrath.”

Of all pieces of a minister’s task, the one where he has most need of a spirit of wisdom and impartiality is when he is about the reproof of sin, and the exposure of people’s vileness by reason of their wickedness. If he respects persons at this point, those whom he reflects on most will be irritated, conceiving themselves to be unfairly dealt with. Others, to whom he does not apply this convicting doctrine so directly, nor with such an edge and vehemence, will be puffed up above others in their own conceit. The reality is, “among whom also we all had our conversation.”

Preach to give both light and warmth

The apostle moves on to hold forth our deliverance from that woeful state. He does so in such a lively, ravishing, and comprehensive strain of speech that he not only gives them the doctrinal information, but also works on their affections so that they will embrace and adhere to these truths.

He declares God to have been the prime author and efficient cause of their deliverance. He calls Him “rich in mercy,” to show that He was motivated to save them, not from their worth, but from His own abundant mercy, and that it was only His great and ancient love towards them which set His mercy to work for their deliverance.

He also propounds the first branch of their deliverance to be God’s “quickening of them together with Christ.” By this he means the Lord’s work of regeneration, and bestowing on them a spiritual life of grace (in opposition to the spiritual death he had previously spoken of), together with all those benefits which accompany and flow from regeneration in this life. They are made alive “with Christ,” not in their own persons (for they were quickened a long time after Christ’s resurrection), but in their head and attorney Jesus Christ, who was made alive after death as a sure pledge that they, every one in his own time, would be made alive also (1 Cor. 15:20), by the virtue purchased by His death (Rom. 8:11), and by Him who is now alive, and liveth for evermore for that end (Heb. 7:25).

And before he mentions the other pieces of their delivery, he ascribes the whole work of their salvation to God’s free grace. This is the same in effect with His mercy and love, only it further expresses the freedom of those, in opposition to any merit or worth in the persons to be saved.

Preach the riches of God’s free grace and goodwill

The ministers of Christ have more to do than simply to inculcate the doctrine of sin and misery. Once they have gone into this subject enough to bring down the high conceit which people naturally have of their own righteousness, and to convince them of their need of Jesus Christ, a Saviour, then it is timeous for them to open up the riches of God’s free grace and goodwill to save the vilest of sinners, and what He has freely done to bring salvation to their hand.

When the Lord’s ministers take up the subject of God’s delivering lost sinners from their natural state of sin and misery through Christ, they should labour to speak to it so fully, affectionately, sensibly, and with such life and power, as that they may not only inform the understandings of the Lord’s people in those truths, but also inflame their affections with love to them, and admiration at the wisdom, mercy, goodness, and other attributes of God manifested in this work; for so doth the apostle speak of this purpose, not simply by saying God hath quickened us, but “ God, who is rich in mercy, according to his great love,” and so forward in the two following verses.

But what will enable a minister to speak to the commendation of God’s free grace in the salvation of sinners with the fullness, sense, life, and affection that he ought? Nothing contributes more to this than the minister having a deep insight into his own misery, and the great need which he himself stands in of God’s mercy. It’s after Paul shows how conscious he was of the depth and breadth of his own misery that he can go on to speak so fully and movingly, “But God, who is rich in mercy,” etc.

Preach with confidence in God’s power and Christ’s merit

The quickening of sinners, and drawing them out of nature to grace, is only God’s work. Nothing less than omnipotent creating power is required to bring this about (see v. 10). Not only is there no principle left in man by which he might work with God in working towards his own quickening (Rom. 9:16), there is also much to oppose and resist it (2 Cor. 10:5). In the first instant of his conversion, and until a new heart is given him, and the seeds and habits of saving graces are infused in him, the sinner is wholly passive (Jer. 31:33). Paul, discussing the cause of their quickening, pitches, not on their own free-will, in whole or in part, but on God only. “God, who is rich in mercy, hath quickened us.”

The doctrine of our natural misery and spiritual death through sin is a lesson most necessary to be learned. Yet we have no great pleasure to learn it, and it’s something we are prone to forget, as to a deep and lively impression of it, even when it is learned. Yet the doctrine of God’s mercy is not applied in order to our deliverance from sin and misery, unless the doctrine of sin and misery has been applied and accepted first.

Though love and mercy in God are what set Him on work to quicken dead sinners, yet this work cannot be brought about or accomplished without the intervention of Christ’s merit and intercession. Christ satisfied divine justice, and thereby acquired to us the things which God’s love and mercy had prepared for us (Isa. 53:5). They were all lost in Adam (Rom. 5:15–16), but Christ, being now exalted, also applies them to us (Acts 5:31). God’s mercy and love are the inward impulsive causes moving God to quicken these sinners, yet the apostle shows that their actual quickening had a necessary dependence on Christ’s merit and mediation.

The necessity for Jesus Christ to strike in with His merit and mediation, in order to acquire and apply saving grace and salvation to us, in no way hinders the fact that our complete salvation, from the first step to the last, flows wholly from God’s free grace. It was of grace that the Father sent the Son to die for us (John 3:16). It was of grace that the Son undertook the work (John 15:12–13), and it is no less grace that what He did or suffered is accepted in our name (Rom. 3:24–25). So that it is all is of grace and free goodwill as far as we are concerned. “By grace are ye saved.”


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