Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘The Marrow of Modern Divinity’


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.

Read Full Post »


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.

(more…)

Read Full Post »


There is a media company that sends me books to review.  I choose from titles they make available.  Recently they made Costly Grace: A Contemporary View of Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship by Jon Walker available.  I’ve read The Cost of Discipleship a few times, and I was curious to see what he had done with it.  I have not yet completed the book (I have less than 100 pages to go), but the deadline looms.  I don’t think anything in the rest of the book will fundamentally change the review.

First an observation.  With the downturn in the economy, editors must have been on the low priority list.  The text was laden with errors leading me to believe it hadn’t been proofed.  This is a trend I’ve noticed lately.  This goes beyond the misuse of apostrophes.  Wrong words are used or words are repeated.  Note to publishers- the computer won’t help you find and correct many errors.  Hire someone who can read!

Okay, back to our regularly scheduled programming.  The whiny man on the grammatical soapbox has been sacked.

Walker follows the pattern of Bohnoeffer’s classic book.  He starts off with a quote from Bonhoeffer’s chapter, the passage of Scripture used and then interacts with Bonhoeffer.  He’s not critical of Bonhoeffer, at least in any significant way.  He’s trying to make it more accessible, and in touch with contemporary concerns.

At the end of the chapter he has some helpful bullet points.  He has a summary statement followed by examples of “fallen thinking” & “kingdom thinking”.  It ends with the call to choose, a way to apply the truth covered in the chapter.

It is a readable (aside from textual errors) (the one responsible for sacking those responsible has also been sacked), updated treatment of Bonhoeffer’s book.  It doesn’t add anything significant.  It isn’t concerned with wrestling with the validity of Bonhoeffer’s conclusions or arguments.  In other words this is not a critical treatment of Bonhoeffer’s book (both positive or negative).

(more…)

Read Full Post »


As I read The Marrow of Modern Divinity a few things have become clearer to my mind.  One of those is the difference between Repentance unto Life (as the Westminster Confession of Faith calls it) at conversion and the on-going repentance of a Christian.  This distinction is what The Naked Gospel by Farley doesn’t recognize.

There is a difference between repentance during conversion in which one moves from the covenant of works into the covenant of grace and after conversion respecting the law of Christ.  Fisher touches on some of the realities at play here:

“… when believers in the Old Testament did transgress God’s commandments, God’s temporal wrath went out against them, and was manifest in temporal calamities that befell them as well as others.  Only here was the difference, the believers’ temporal calamities had no eternal calamities included in them, nor following of them; and the unbelievers’ temporal blessings had no eternal blessings included in them, and their temporal calamities had eternal calamities included in them, and following of them.”

So, for believers earthly blessings are a foretaste of eternal blessings.  Both are earned by Christ and his merits, not ours.  Because of Christ’s merit and satisfaction, we are not condemned for our sin.  But because God loves us He disciplines us when we break the law of Christ (Hebrews 12).  It is restorative and not punitive, designed to produce a harvest of righteous character in us.  We repent, not because we’ve lost our salvation but because we have disobeyed our Father.

(more…)

Read Full Post »


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

(more…)

Read Full Post »