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Posts Tagged ‘free offer of the gospel’


One of the things I appreciate about Sinclair Ferguson is how he combines astute theological thinking with pastoral wisdom. This characteristic is what makes his latest book, The Whole Christ so good, so timely and helpful.

It is also what makes reviewing this book so difficult. I started to review it, describing many of the great insights, distinctions, historical issues etc. that are in this book that the review was becoming a tome. It would be easy to have a short review that just doesn’t do the book justice, that doesn’t really give you a clear idea as to why you should read it. And you should!

The story of the book began decades ago when Ferguson delivered a number of messages on pastoral reflections of the Marrow Controversy at a conference. Over the years people have asked if he would put them in book form (I hadn’t seen him since I heard the lectures, so I just hoped and prayed). As he noted, and I have also discovered firsthand, it is much harder to adapt messages than to just write a book. The last person to ask him was Tim Keller. Ferguson’s retirement provided the opportunity. Having heard the lectures, I am thankful that it has come to pass. Having read the book, I am even gladder he did.

Ferguson brings us back to the Marrow Controversy that troubled the Church of Scotland in the 1700s. It was a controversy prompted, in part, by The Marrow of Modern Divinity by E.F. But it was really a disagreement about legalism, antinominanism and assurance in the Church of Scotland.

He necessarily interacts with the book, written years earlier but discovered by Thomas Boston, and how the controversy played out in the Church. He brings The Westminster Confession of Faith, various Puritans and John Calvin into the fray. Most importantly, Ferguson also writes about the human heart since these are not simply abstract theological ideas, but issues that plague us.

For instance, he resolves an alleged conflict between Calvin and the Westminster Divines on the subject of faith and assurance. Calvin wrote of assurance being essential to faith which is contrary to the Confession. But Ferguson shows that Calvin meant we must believe that Christ is able to save. This differs from assurance of salvation, meaning that Christ as saved a particular sinner. In other words, they were discussing two different kinds of assurance. This is a very helpful distinction, with pastoral implications. The first is an issue of one’s justification, the other is an issue of their subjective confidence before God. You have to identify the proper problem so you give them the proper instruction, otherwise you can do spiritual damage.

This book is rife with such pastoral implications whether for our preaching or our counseling. This is what makes the book so excellent, and a must-read. He gets to the heart of legalism and antinomianism, and presents us Christ and the gospel as the resolution for both (and the issue of assurance as well).

Ferguson asserts that both legalism and antinomianism severe the law from the character of the law Giver. They do it in different way, but come from the same root. He brings us to Eve and the original temptation. Satan got her to doubt God’s goodness and love. She developed a legalistic spirit, which hardened her heart towards God, which resulted in her antinomianism, or rejection of God’s law to the original couple.

He unpacks how both legalism and antinomian manifest themselves. They also appear in how we think of assurance. They also affect how we preach, and how we hear the gospel, or shall I say mishear.

Much of what Ferguson does is bring us back to the gospel and the character of God. Law then finds its appropriate place, and assurance seen aright.

What started this mess that divided the Church of Scotland, and many Christians today. The controversy started over a Presbytery creed that rejected “preparationism”, a form of hyper-Calvinism that taught that the gospel only for those who showed signs of grace, who have repented (yeah, confusing). One thing that becomes evident is that theses Scots wrote questions in a very convoluted fashion. One man had his license to preach the gospel removed by not affirming the creed. The General Assembly reversed the decision and condemned the creed. One frustrated member of the Assembly sat next to Thomas Boston who recommended The Marrow of Modern Divinity.

Some have taken issue with the book. The controversy over the book is not the issue so much as the views of the Marrow Men. The controversy spiraled out of control, and wider.

The first issue was the free offer of the gospel, contra preparationism. The Marrow Men held to limited atonement. They also believed that the gospel was to be freely offered to all sinners. There are no qualifications that must be met before the offer of Christ, and pardon in Him, is made to sinners.

“The fallacy here? The subtle movement from seeing forsaking sin as a fruit of grace that is rooted in election, to making the forsaking of sin the necessary precursor for experiencing that grace. Repentance, which is the fruit of grace, thus becomes a qualification for grace.”

The Marrow Men rejected the notion of separating Christ from His benefits. We receive all of them in Christ, not in isolation from Him. They upheld a robust theology of union with Christ. “This, to use an Augustinian term, is totus Christus, the whole Christ, the person in whom incarnation has been accomplished and in whom atonement, resurrection, ascension, and heavenly reign are now realized.”

In the midst of this, Ferguson sneaks in an application regarding the New Perspectives on Paul. Yes, he says, the Pharisees believed in grace. It was a conditional grace, however. This was the error of preparationism. It is similar to a conversation I had with some Mormons. We obey, and grace covers what lacks. Ferguson brings us back to the nature of God as good, gracious, and loving. This is what the Enemy seeks to keep from us via a legalistic spirit.

From here he discusses the various forms of legalism which essentially sees God as “He-whose-favor-has-to-be-earned.” Just as in preparationism, where repentance is separated from Christ, in legalism the law is separated from God, from “his loving and generous person”, and “not as the wisdom of a heavenly Father.” The solution is not in rejecting the Law, but embracing God as our delight (see WSC #1). He brings John Colquhoun in to remind us of “what the heart hears”. We can mis-hear solid gospel teaching because of our legalistic hearts. “But it is also all too possible to have an evangelical head and a legalistic heart.” This is important to remember in pastoral counseling. But it means that some hear the offer of free grace as antinomianism.

From there Ferguson moves into the “order of grace”. He touched briefly on the ordo saludis before, but now spends more time there. Faith is the instrument of justification. Repentance does not occur before faith (preparationism), nor after faith, but “within the context of faith’s grasp of God’s grace in Christ.” Further, “while we cannot divide faith and repentance, we do distinguish them carefully”. He also moves to the implications of free grace, a life seeking joyful obedience. Grace produces obedience, and not the other way around. The Mosaic Covenant is to be seen this way, not as a republication of the covenant of works that undoes the Abrahamic covenant. Many preachers, sadly, focus on the law’s exposure of our sin to drive us to Christ with a stark law-gospel distinction. For those justified, it shapes our salvation. It provides direction …

Do you see what I mean?

How we think about law and gospel matters. The default of our hearts matters in terms of how we hear discussions of law and gospel. Where we look for our assurance matters. Why we want to obey matters.

This is a book that can have a profound effect on how a pastor, elder or ministry leader goes about ministry. This is why I find this a book that should be in the hands of pastors, elders and ministry leaders. I want them to bring gospel wisdom to the people they serve: not legalism, not cheap grace. But to do so they have to embrace, and preach, the whole Christ.

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Lately I’ve been interacting with a number of people who call themselves “moderate Calvinists”. I’ll be honest, it has been frustrating (for both sides, I’m sure). One reason is a body of literature they have read, that I haven’t, and they point to as authoritative. They usually despise John Owen, and (from my perspective) take comments by scholars (Owen and otherwise) out of context for their arguments.

Moses Amyraut- the original 4-Pointer

They hold to a “hypothetical atonement” instead of a particular atonement. They are similar to the Amyraldian position (they resist this label) in that the atonement is universal in extent, even if only efficient for the elect. They recognize the reality of the elect. So they’ve got that going for them.

One claim I’ve heard from them is that the Canons of Dort do not support the doctrine of limited or particular atonement as espoused by 5-Point Calvinists. (If I’ve misunderstood in the flood of verbiage, I’ll recant.) They see the 5-Points as a modern formulation (yeah, so?), that has no basis in the work of Calvin and the Canons.  I thought I’d look at the Canons (it has been awhile) and see what I find. It is kind of hard to re-read all of Calvin on this topic.

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Some pastoral questions have brought the disagreement between Van Til and Gordon Clark to mind.  It isn’t so much the views of those men, but some problems I see emerging when reason is elevated above revelation.

This is one of the dangers of “Christian rationalism”.  The mind subtly usurps the authority of Scripture, or special revelation.  They wouldn’t admit to this (I think), but you see it when there is the denial of various doctrines because it does not make sense in light of other doctrines.  They have a hard time reasoning these apparently opposite doctrines that are found in Scripture.  Rather than submit their minds before Scripture, they make the Scriptures submit to their “rational” theology.

There are 2 doctrines in particular that have been problematic for many who espouse Clark’s views.  They affirm the doctrine of election or predestination.  This is the problem, so to speak.  They have a difficult time with both common grace and the free offer of the gospel.  These don’t doctrines don’t make “sense” in light of election, but our minds are not the measure of truth.  Our theology is not to settle for “reasonable” but to reflect revelation.

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A Treasure Chest of Grace

As I continue to read Letters of John Newton, I am just amazed that so few people have sought these out and fewer cherish them.  His pastoral care is a balm to my soul as he tenderly applies layer after layer of the gospel.  His letters to Rev. Barlass, in particular, focus on our on-going struggle with sin.  Rev. Barless was a minister of the Secession Church of Scotland.  Sounds to me like he was one of the Seceders or Associate Presbyterians from whom the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church has come.  As such, he had defended the free offer of the gospel and tried to free the church from patronage among other things.  But this man also knew his own sin, and sought out Rev. Newton to guide him.  Young pastors, have YOU found an older man experienced in all the ways of the gospel?

First, Newton sets his heart at ease in that he is not different from us.  We are “like coins from the same mint.”  But, due to his calling, Rev. Barless had greater experiental knowledge of his own sinfulness.

“They that go down to the sea in ships, and do their business in great waters, experience hardships, and likewise see wonders, which people who live on the shore have no idea of.  Many of the Lord’s people are comparatively landsmen; others are mariners, and are called to conflict a great part of their lives with storms and raging billows.”

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This Sunday I’m sort of preaching on the Ten Commandments since it is 10/10/10.  What I’ll be doing is grappling with Law and Gospel.  I want my people to understand the nature of their relationship to the law because of the gospel.

I’ve had a few of those conversations on the internet lately.  It is a difficult issue to grasp and we tend to head toward the extremes of legalism and antinomianism.  They are the 2 ditches on the side of the road.  And both ditches are deadly.  I don’t advise falling into either.

So, I started to listen to Sinclair Ferguson’s Pastoral Lessons from the Marrow Controversy.  Here is a short history of the Marrow Controversy.  I thought my notes might help a few people to understand what was going on, whetting the appetite about this pastorally important theological controversy.

The History of the Marrow Controversy

1717- the Presbytery of Auchterarder examined a candidate for ordination, William Craig was asked a question unique to that Presbytery.

“Do you subscribe to the following: I believe that it is not sound and orthodox to teach that we forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ.”  Craig hesitated and they refused to grant him ordination.  This brought the Auchterarder Creed before the General Assembly.

It was condemned by the Church of Scotland “as unsound and detestable doctrine.”

Thomas Boston was there, and he was quite disturbed by the proceeding.  He saw this as an attack upon the gospel of grace, falsely accusing it of antinomianism.  In 1700 Boston had discovered The Marrow of Modern Divinity which enabled him to grasp the relationship of law and gospel.  He recommended it to James Drummond who gave it to James Hog who ended up reprinting it.

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This is really part 3, but the 2nd part was limited to the idea of Gospel Pardon arising from the book.  I’ve now finished the first part of The Marrow of Modern Divinity.  The 2nd part is an exposition of the law.  The first, and original, part covered some significant territory.  In case you didn’t read the other post, I’m reading the new edition with notes by Thomas Boston.

I previously wrote about the difference between the law of works and the law of Christ.  Fisher writes in the form of a dialogue between a legalist, an antinomian, a new convert and a pastor.  The pastor helps to sort out their misunderstandings about our relationship to the law.  I won’t revisit that territory.

The dialogue touches on the free offer of the gospel.  There was a strain of legalism that was hyper-Calvinistic which rejected (and still does) the free offer of the gospel.  They restrict the offer of the gospel to those who show signs of being elect- seeking Christ, and conviction of sin are two.  Some have since accused Fisher of teaching a universal pardon, or his doctrine implying one.  Thomas Boston protects him from such erroneous charges in his notes.

“… yet so long as the Lord has concealed their names, and not set a mark of reprobation upon any man in particular, but offers the pardon generally to all, without having any respect either to election or reprobation, …”  Edward Fisher

The Scriptures often make a general pronouncement of the pardon.  In fact, all men everywhere are commanded to repent.  we are merely calling them to repentance in light of the work of Christ for sinners.  God is the one who sheds his light into their hearts and converts them (2 Corinthians 3-4).  The elect will respond with faith and repentance.  The reprobate will not.  We are not to play God and try to discern whether or not someone is elect prior to offering them the gospel.

“… for all this general pardon, the formal personal pardon remains to be obtained by the sinner, namely, by his accepting of the pardon offered.”  Thomas Boston

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The Marrow Controversy is one of those obscure questions that appears on the ARP examinations.  Many a student has little knowledge of this controversy that involved, among others, the Erskine brothers.  As a result of the Erskine brother connection, the ARP holds to the “free offer of the gospel”.  The Marrow Controversy shaped the groups that would one day shape the ARP.

I heard of the Marrow Controversy while in seminary, but it was not discussed or examined in any great detail (I can think of a few guys who were examined in Central Florida Presbytery who wish it had so they could answer R.C. Sproul’s questions about evangelism as Calvinists).

One of my favorite Puritans, Thomas Boston, was central to the Marrow Controversy.  The Controversy involved The Marrow of Modern Divinity by Edward Fisher.  Thomas Boston witnessed its censure by the Church of Scotland and saw this as an attack on the gospel itself.  He and the Erskines were among “the Marrow Men” who believed Fisher’s book defended true Christianity against both anti-nomianism and legalism.

Phil Ryken’s introduction to a recent (and needed) reprinting of this book is helpful to put some of this together.  This new edition includes Thomas Boston’s explanatory notes.  Even more helpful is Sinclair Ferguson’s lectures Pastoral Lessons from the Marrow Controversy.  It has 3 lectures that examine its history, the twin problems of license and legalism, and their resolution in the free grace of God.  In many ways, Tim Keller’s book The Prodigal God is a modern defense of free grace against license and legalism.  It is the Marrow Controversy applied to today.

“Anyone who comes to grips with the issues raised in The Marrow of Modern Divinity will almost certainly grow by leaps and bounds in understanding three things: the grace of God, the Christian life, and the very nature of the gospel itself.”– Sinclair B. Ferguson

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