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Posts Tagged ‘Hyper-Calvinism’


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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The Book at the Center of it All

Here are my notes from the 3rd lecture by Sinclair Ferguson on The Marrow Controversy.

Antinomianism

This controversy enables us to see marks in our hearts and ministry of where we are with relationship to the grace of God.  We must exegete those great passages dealing with law & gospel.  It is one of the hardest notes in all divinity for us to untie.

The Marrow Men were accused of Amyraldianism, Arminianism, antinomianism.  But they held to a particular, not universal, atonement; free grace, not free will; and the law as a rule of life.

The 2nd part of the Marrow of Modern Divinity is an exposition of the place of the law of God in the life of the believer.  Wherever natural hearts, or gracious hearts bound by a legal spirit, hear of the grace of God they hear “shall we sin that grace may abound?”  We are in danger of legalism in response to this.

Wherever free grace is fully preached, the accusation of antinomianism has ever arisen.  Israel called John the Baptist a legalist and Jesus an antinomian.  The gospel is ever under attack.

Often it is a false conclusion from a true premise.  Grace does abound all the more where sin abounds.  But we do not sin that grace may abound.  We must affirm the true premise that grace is greater than sin.

The Nature(s) of Antinomianism– it wears many faces

The historical use of the term arose in the days of Martin Luther.  He emphasized free grace.  About 1537, one of his friends drove this to unbiblical, but logical, conclusions.  This friend taught we were free from the law as a rule of life.  Luther began to correct his friend.

Antinomianism existed long before the name was given to it.  The WCF teaches that while the law is not a covenant of works to the believer, it remains a rule of life to the believer.  We are bound to the law as a rule of life.  Antinominism denies this in a variety of ways.

We must not dispute about mere words, but instruct with gentleness.  We should not use it as a cuss word, condemning others needlessly.  We often attribute the worst possible theological conclusions to adherents of a particular view point, conclusions they do not hold.  We need the wisdom of Solomon and the meekness of the Son of Man.

It is a pastoral and theological duty for us to distinguish from the forms of antinomianism.

Doctrinal Form- the absolution of the law as a rule of life is the result of a theological premise.  Some Puritans emphasized the free grace of God that any question of law was opposite to the grace of God.  Justification was eternal, and emphasized immediate assurance apart from the Word of God.  Since we are justified, we have no need to know our sin.  It was associated with hyper-Calvinism at times.

They ignore the indicative-imperative pattern of Scripture from beginning to end.  They focus only on the indicative, rending asunder what God had joined.

The Brethren and their concern for the purity of the church, similar to hyper-Calvinism, drew similar concerns.  Darby called the covenant of works as a mischievous fable.  He could see no place for the 10 Commandments in the life of the believer.  In his full-blown dispensationalism, it was confined to the OT.  This has lead many Brethren to fill the void with tradition, looking for decisions instead of obedience as a fruit of grace.  This is like Ryrie’s “unbelieving believer.”  Easy believism rejects the place of the Law in our life as a rule.  When Christianity is more a matter of decision than living, grace becomes an excuse of licentiousness.

Exegetical Form- it is commonplace now for theologians to take a view of the law is like the position adopted by hyper-Calvinists and dispensationalists.  They think Jesus did away with the law.  They think Paul makes no distinction between the end of the ceremonial law and the continuation of the moral law.  This does not mean these men are immoral.  They often affirm all but the Sabbath since they are repeated in Paul.

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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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One of the controversies that has sadly plagued those who embrace Calvin as one of the more astute and faithful theologians concerns the “free offer of the gospel.”  Some followers of Calvin, a minority of them, reject the free offer of the gospel.  They believe, erroneously, that the gospel is only to be offered to the elect.  While listening to a former PCA worship leader lament Calvinism at the recent John 3:16 Conference, he described this strain of Calvinism called hyper-Calvinism.

While preparing for last week’s sermon on Psalm 16, I didn’t find Calvin to be particularly helpful.  This is a rarity.  But he did say something that should set the record straight on what John himself believed Scripture to teach.

“It would be of no advantage to us for God to offer himself freely and graciously to us, if we did not receive him by faith, seeing he invites to himself both the reprobate and the elect in common; but the former, by their ingratitude, defraud themselves of this inestimatable blessing.  Let us, therefore, know that both these things proceed from the free liberality of God; first, his being our inheritance, and next, our coming to the possession of him by faith.  The counsel of which David makes mention is the inward illumination of the Holy Spirit, by which we are prevented from rejecting the salvation to which he calls us, which we would otherwise certainly do, considering the blindness of our flesh.  Whence we gather, that those who attribute to the free will of man the choice of accepting or rejecting the grace of God basely mangle that grace, and show as much ignorance as impiety.”

Calvin himself holds to the “free offer of the gospel” to all.  God truly offers Himself to the elect.  Notice how he phrases that- God offers Himself, not just salvation.  As John Piper noted in his book, God is the gospel.

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With my Presbytery exam tomorrow- here is some more stuff to chew on.

 

Chapter XIII: Of Sanctification

132. Define sanctification? It is a free grace of God whereby we are made to die more and more to sin and live more and more to righteousness.

133. What means does God use in sanctification?  God uses the means of Scripture, sacraments, prayer, providence and the other members of the Body in sanctification.

134. In what sense is the believer sanctified in this life?  We are sanctified progressively but imperfectly.  We will make real progress as our struggle with sins shifts from surface sins to heart sins.  We are often more aware of our sin as a result, and more aware of our need for Christ.

135. Why is sanctification a work and not an act?  It is not accomplished through an instantaneous blessing, but is a process with many ups and downs.  This keeps us humble and dependent upon Christ.

136. Distinguish sanctification from justification?  Justification is an act & perfect involving our position before God- we are declared righteous; sanctification is a process and imperfect until glorification involving our persons before God- we become like Christ.  Justification is the basis for our sanctification.

137. How does the law of God relate to our sanctification? The law of God continues to reveal our sin that we might repent, and reveals what pleases God.  It has no power to change our behavior- that power comes from the Spirit who leads us into greater obedience.

138. Who is the sole author or sanctification?  God who works in us through the Holy Spirit

139. What is perfectionism? What are its expressions today? Perfectionism is the erroneous teaching that we can achieve a state, in this life, in which we know longer sin (often deemed consciously).  It is often seen as a second blessing.  It is expressed today in theologies that minimize the sinfulness of sin by focusing on outward manifestations of sin- the holiness movements, Pentecostalism.

140. Distinguish a Reformed view of sin from other views.  In the Reformed view sin is an inward orientation to worship idols rather than the one, True God.  Sins proceed from our corrupt nature (sin because we’re sinners).  In other views, sins are seen as corrupting us (sinners because we sin).  It is largely externalized and manageable as a result.

141. Distinguish progressive and definitive sanctification.  Definitive sanctification occurs as an aspect of our conversion where we are positionally sanctified as belonging to God.  Progressive sanctification is the process in which we become more like Christ experientially.

142. In what way, if at all, is sanctification by grace?  It is all of grace (Galatians 3)- Christ works in us by the Spirit to apply the work of redemption to us.

143. What is the believer’s role in sanctification?  Our role is to make use of the means of grace by faith- trusting God to work in us to accomplish His sanctifying work.

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I spent the last few days reading Spurgeon v. Hyper-Calvinism: The Battle for Gospel Preaching by Iain Murray.  It was well worth the $4.72 I paid for this book at WTS Books.  It was yet another solid read by Iain Murray.  He’s done us a great service again, though this book is quite short (under 160 pages).

Why might someone want to read this book?  Well, for a few reasons.  One the one hand it can be used to refute Arminians who think that Calvinism itself hinders evangelism.  It shows this by putting forth Spurgeon as a very evangelistic, historical Calvinist.  It shows that Hyper-Calvinism (which does hinder evangelism) is a deviation which should not be confused with the real thing (all those people in the SBC who are afraid of Calvinism should read this).

With the resurgence of Calvinism among young church leaders, we may see a resurgence of Hyper-Calvinism as well.  It was this that led Murray to write the book in the 1990s.  I have only met a few Hyper-Calvinists by doctrine.  However, sometimes we can inadvertantly be Hyper-Calvinists in practice.  I felt that conviction as I read the book.  I have not been as zealous in pleading with people as perhaps I should have been.

Murray begins with a very brief historical sketch of Charles Haddon Spurgeon to set the stage.  He began his ministry at a time when Arminianism was beginning to spread among English Baptists, and part of the reason was that Hyper-Calvinism had infected many of the English Baptist congregations.  The two controversies of Spurgeon’s early ministry were against these to sub-biblical theologies.  By and large they attacked him, though he recognized some indiscretion on his part as he looked back in latter years.

Murray turns to the Combatants and the Cause of the Controversy.  It began in earnest when a well-meaning publisher wanted to show other Hyper-Calvinists that Spurgeon was a man whose ministry they could welcome, even if he wasn’t “fully onboard”.  This draw the ire of the leading Hyper-Calvinists who began exchanging letters to the editors and articles on the matter with some who defended Spurgeon.  Spurgeon himself never entered the fray via the periodicals.  Most of his responses were in the form of instructing his people from the pulpit.

Murray then moves into The Case Against Spurgeon.  They claimed he was touched by an Arminian spirit (attitude, not a ghost or something).  But many of their arguments had a problem- they were refuted by numerous honored Puritan pastor-theologians like Richard Sibbes, John Owen, Thomas Boston and the other Marrow Men.  They argued that non-elect people could not be told to repent and believe since they were unable to do so.  They called the practice of so doing “duty-faith”, quite derisively to make it sound like a work.  The Hyper-Calvinists fell into the same trap as the Arminians, though it took them in a different direction.  For God to command something of people implied they had the ability to fulfill the command.  Arminians accepted this, and believed all people had the ability, not just the duty, to repent and believe.  Hyper-Calvinists, believing non-elect people lacked the ability, also lacked the duty.  In this they were trying to be logically consistent.

The problem is that duty is not connected to ability.  God’s commands are reflective of His nature, not our ability.  As such they reflect our responsibility, what we are to do.  All people are commanded to obey God in all things, though only regenerate people have the ability to actually do that.

Murray turns to Spurgeon’s Fourfold Appeal to Scripture.  As noted above, most of this is culled from his sermons.

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