This is an article about a book about a controversy about a book. Worse: it is an article about a new book about an old (and largely forgotten) controversy about an even older (and largely forgotten) book. Yet both of the books, and the controversy, are highly relevant to the contemporary evangelical world, because they reflect exactly the same questions that come up in ordinary life today.
Edward Fisher’s book, The Marrow of Modern Divinity, was published in London in the 1640s. It contained a series of dialogues about the law and the gospel, with four suitably named characters: Neophytus, a young Christian; Evangelista, a gospel-preaching pastor; Nomista, a legalist; and Antinomista, an antinomian. The goal of the text was to navigate the line between legalism and antinomianism (or lawlessness), and in the eyes of many influential interpreters, it did an admirable job. Virtually nobody today would accuse it of being too licentious and fluffy; if anything, most of us would find it somewhat strict.
Seventy years later, however, The Marrow became enormously controversial in the Church of Scotland. Republished in 1718, thanks to the influence of a 41-year-old pastor named Thomas Boston, the book was seen as promoting antinomian theology, and in 1720 it was banned by the church’s General Assembly. Pastors were ordered not to recommend it, and were told to warn anyone found reading it how dangerous it was. (Amusingly, there is no record of this act ever having been rescinded, even though the book has now been in circulation for 300 years.) Boston’s friends, usually known today as the “Marrow Men,” refused to accept the decision, seeing it as evidence that the General Assembly was unduly legalistic. They insisted that Boston republish the book with his own notes. In 1726, he did.
What, then, did the Marrow Men and the General Assembly disagree about? After all, virtually everyone involved in the controversy subscribed to the same definition of the relationship between faith and works (namely, the Westminster Confession of Faith). Nobody in the discussion was saying, “A person is justified by works of the law.” Nor was anyone saying, “Christians have no moral obligations.” So what was the disagreement really about? And how should we think about it today?
Grasping the Whole Christ
Answering those two questions is the focus of Scottish theologian Sinclair Ferguson’s new book, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters. After sketching the historical context (chapter 1), Ferguson identifies four key issues at stake in the debate, and tackles them each in turn. There was, first, the question of whether the gospel can be offered to all people, and whether repentance precedes faith in Christ or the other way around (chapters 2 and 3). Second, there was the Marrow Men’s concern that their opponents were legalistic—not in a formal sense, but in the tenor, spirit, and emphasis of their approach (chapters 4, 5, and 6). Then there was the opposite concern, on the part of the Assembly, that The Marrow was promoting antinomianism (chapters 7 and 8). Lastly, there was the question of whether (and how) assurance of salvation was possible (chapters 9, 10 and 11).
All four of these issues are important in their own right, and Ferguson does a fine job of explaining them. But the real contribution of The Whole Christ is in showing how all of them, in their different ways, hinge on the issue of (unsurprisingly) the whole Christ.
We all risk separating Christ from his benefits, Ferguson argues. All of us risk believing a gospel focused on having the benefits brought by Christ, rather than having Christ himself. This is most obvious with (say) the prosperity gospel, but it can sneak in with any of the gospel’s blessings: forgiveness, freedom, eternal life, or anything else.
And it is this tendency that lies beneath the issues at stake in the Marrow controversy. If you grasp the whole Christ, then you don’t worry about whether you repent first or believe first; your repentance is trusting, and your faith is repentant. If you grasp the whole Christ, then you do not divide obedience from salvation, either in a legalistic or a lawless direction, because you see Christ’s commands as gracious gifts to be obeyed with joy. If you grasp the whole Christ, then your assurance of salvation is never divorced from your works—but nor is it dependent on them. In linking the whole of the Marrow controversy to one issue, Ferguson both clarifies the debate and sheds light on how it plays out today.
The Gospel Cure
Examples are not hard to find.
A few people in my church object to saying the Lord’s Prayer, because it involves asking for a forgiveness they already have. The Pope announces that a presidential candidate is not a Christian because of his policy proposals concerning immigrants. A reviewer accuses a New Testament scholar of having a semi-Pelagian view of grace; the scholar replies that he doesn’t. Local church pastors debate whether to baptize a woman who has professed faith in Christ, but remains in a sexual relationship with a woman. A megachurch pastor leaves a major blog platform over differing understandings of the relationship between grace, salvation, and good works. Two friends of mine leave a nearby church because it does not take Christian commands seriously enough, and then leave another one because they find it too legalistic.
Things like this happen all the time in the evangelical world. All of them, in their own way, reflect centuries-old debates about the relationship between faith and works, changed hearts and changed lives, grace and law, obedience and assurance. Some think the church is beset with legalism, and push against it so hard that they reject the law altogether. Some think the church is riddled with antinomianism, and push against it so hard they become legalists. Many of us, as Martin Luther famously said in his book of “Table Talks,” resemble a drunken peasant who falls off his horse on one side, only to get back in the saddle and fall off the other side.
As such, we demonstrate that the Marrow controversy is still being played out today, in evangelical churches across the world, on loop.
Tim Keller, in his excellent foreword to The Whole Christ, highlights four insights with particular relevance for contemporary evangelicalism. Legalism and antinomianism are much more than doctrinal positions. The root of both is the same, reflecting “the same incomprehension of the joy of obedience.” If you think that one of them is the major error, you have almost certainly fallen into the other one. And the cure for both of them is the gospel.
Couples who won’t pray the Lord’s Prayer, people who want to get baptized without repenting of sin, and presidential candidates who express hostility to immigrants all show that, in some way, they have failed to grasp the whole Christ. Most of them have probably never read The Marrow or heard of Thomas Boston. But the issues at stake, so carefully explained by Sinclair Ferguson, continue to affect them, along with the rest of us. For insight and clarity on an important topic, The Whole Christ is a thoughtful and illuminating guide.
Andrew Wilson is teaching pastor at King’s Church London. He and his wife, Rachel, are co-authors of The Life We Never Expected: Hopeful Reflections on the Challenges of Parenting Children with Special Needs (Crossway), which releases in June.