The Whole Christ: Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters—Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance, by Sinclair Ferguson. Wheaton: Crossway, 2016, 256 pages, $24.99.
While it may sound cliché, this book is one that every Reformed and confessional pastor and elder should read, and then re-read at least biannually!
Why? Simply because Sinclair Ferguson has masterfully put his finger on an area where we, as confessional Calvinists, can slip imperceptibly into a grievous deformation of God’s infinitely gracious character, and his equally gracious gospel. It is possible, too, that Ferguson’s thesis helps diagnose the often lackluster growth of our churches, which, of all expressions of the body of Christ, should have the most glorious, attractive, and winsome “camera angle” on the grace of God in the gospel!
The Whole Christ employs the historical backdrop of the Marrow Controversy in eighteenth century Scotland to challenge twenty-first century Reformed Christians to consider, “Who is the God whom we come to know in Jesus Christ (John 17:3)? What is he really like, truly like—deep down, through and through?” (19). As Ferguson emphasizes, one’s often unstated thoughts and emotions about these matters can distort how a Reformed pastor conveys both the content and the tone of the gospel in his preaching.
The book, published in 2016, was born of a series of conference addresses in 1980 where Ferguson—then based in Scotland—was requested to draw “Pastoral Lessons from the Marrow Controversy.” While initially bemused that anyone in the United States would be the slightest bit interested in the controversy, he prepared the series to consider how legalism, antinomianism and gospel assurance interact with gospel ministry. In the transcript of the original addresses Ferguson exhorted:
My brethren it is vital—as many of us may have discovered in our ministries—that we turn over these matters in our minds because this is not a curiosity from some recondite source of Scottish Presbyterianism. It is as you may well know a perennial danger in the reformed churches. It is a danger that arises nowhere more than where there is a discovery over a period of years of what we call the doctrine of grace. And at the end of the day we may well find that these very issues of the Marrow Controversy are among the most vital pastoral issues at the deepest possible level that we will ever face.
And, in a manner that still reverberates powerfully in 2018, Ferguson went on to say:
You see, what had happened among these men in the early decades of the 18th century was this. They had mastered the pattern by which the grace works. There wasn't a comma in the ordo salutis (the ‘order of salvation’) with which they were not familiar. They knew their Confession of Faith forwards and backwards and upside down. And yet while they were familiar with the pattern by which grace works and had mastered it, they had never really been mastered by the grace of God in the gospel in their hearts. . . . They were masters of Calvinism who had never been mastered. They were Calvinists with the minds and hearts of natural men, at least as far as these truths were concerned.
In the Foreword, Tim Keller helpfully observes that the “Marrow Men” were combatting an extraordinarily nuanced—but profound—deviation in Reformed preaching and ministry. All those involved had subscribed to the precisely worded statement of justification by faith alone through Christ alone contained in the Westminster standards. “How then,” he asks,
could charges and counter-charges of antinomianism and legalism arise that would expose a fault line in the church and eventually lead to a split in the denomination? While such theological precision is crucial, evidently it does not finally solve this ongoing problem of the role of the law and of obedience in the Christian life. (12)
None of the parties in the Marrow Controversy were saying, “You can save yourself through works,” or, “Once you are saved, you don’t have to obey the law of God” (12). However, with great contemporary application, Ferguson shows that both legalism and antinomianism are much more than just doctrinal positions or even simple opposites. Rather, he shows that they are perennial distortions of the truth about God and more “non-identical twins” than polar opposites. He notes that both legalism and antinomianism are born of the same womb of disbelief in the love and goodness of God.
For us as Reformed Christians, who are often assured in our orthodoxy, Keller frighteningly observes:
Neither side subscribed to overt, explicit legalistic or antinomian doctrine. Nonetheless, legalism and antinomianism can be strongly present in a ministry. Each is a web of attitudes of heart, practices, character, and ways of reading Scripture. (12)
So, why specifically do the lessons of the Marrow Controversy have application for the twenty-first century Reformed and confessional preachers and churches? Many reflections are possible but two will suffice. First, we in the West live in an unusually lawless culture—one that has no respect for history, order, authority or even for God and his Law; even the most basic human courtesies are considered a joke. This can be a grievous trial for those who care deeply about such things. Second, we all have “a Pope” of self-righteousness in our own hearts (to mangle Luther’s quip). Even the most sanctified heart harbors both unbelief in the love and goodness of God and a powerful tendency to trust self far too much.
This pride and unbelief has its roots back in a broken Eden and, despite the most robust commitments to the doctrines of grace, can metastasize undetected into a distortion of God and the gospel that accommodates increasing degrees of conditionality. Think for a moment: for us who hold the “Solas” dear (and we do!), is it not possible to subtly begin expecting the unchurched to at least start learning our cultural forms or conceptual frames or basic vocabulary to demonstrate they are serious about finding Christ? While we may be too theologically astute to place full blown repentance before finding Christ, may we not be guilty of requiring degrees of outward sanctification from our culture’s lawlessness before we freely and fully offer Christ the Saviour to needy sinners?
Where this is true, it is a diabolical and grotesque deformation of the character of God and the nature of the gospel itself. When gripped by such a spirit, the content and tone of our preaching can quickly become more like that of a graceless Jonah than a winsome Isaiah offering fellow sinners to “buy wine and milk without money and without price” (55:1)! As Ferguson noted in his address: we can find ourselves sitting under our “tree with a heart that is shut up against sinners in need of grace.” With a thousand regrets, does this not describe at least some—if not many—of our Reformed and confessional churches in the West?
According to Calvin, not only are our hearts idol factories but they have “so many crannies where vanity hides, so many holes where falsehood lurks, is so decked out with deceiving hypocrisy, that it often dupes itself” (227). This is as true of the Reformed as it is of any other breed of Christians, or indeed any fallen son of Adam.
Ferguson’s The Whole Christ is a salient warning of perhaps a most natural form of subtle but destructive idolatry for those who follow Calvin and the Puritans, as worthy of emulation as they were. Speaking of Thomas Boston, one of the Marrow Men, let Ferguson have the final word:
At the end of the day, what was at stake for him in the Marrow Controversy was nothing less than the very character of God the Father. . . . A misshapen understanding of the gospel impacts the spirit of a minister and affects the style and atmosphere of his preaching and of all his pastoral ministry. What the Marrow Controversy actually unveiled was the possibility of acknowledging the truth of each discrete chapter of the Confession of Faith without those truths being animated by a grasp of the grace of God in the gospel. The metallic spirit this inevitably produced would then in turn run through one’s preaching and pastoral ministry. (71)
Sinclair B. Ferguson, “The Marrow Controversy #01: Historical Details,” sermon preached at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, February 4, 2004, https://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=220484920.
Mark Paterson is a member of Christ Community Church in Brisbane, Australia. Ordained Servant Online, July–August 2018.