The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance – Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters

Ferguson, Sinclair B. The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance – Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016.  256 p. $18.00, cloth.

If theological controversies were given to hiring public relations firms, then perhaps the controversy most in need of such PR would be that concerning the Marrow of Modern Divinity.  The Marrow, written by Edward Fisher in the 1640s, was a book that received scant attention even at the time of its writing.  It would not be until 1726, when Thomas Boston had the Marrow reprinted with his own notations that the book would receive more attention, much of it negative.  The Marrow became the focal point of contention in the following decade for what became the Secession church led by Boston, Ebenezer and Ralph Erskine, and others. (See the very helpful introduction by William VanDoodewaard in the recent reprint edition of The Marrow of Modern Divinity. Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publications, 2009.)

Even so, the Marrow Men and the Marrow Controversy quickly faded into the deep recesses of theological history except for some Presbyterians whose heritage lies in the Secession church.   Very little has been written about it (see short list at the end of this review).  So it is admirable and perhaps risky to see the Marrow form a central part of this title by Dr. Sinclair Ferguson.  Some might read the extended title and think the book is on such an obscure topic that it is not worth reading.  Such a “by the cover” judgment could not be more mistaken.

The book grew out of lectures given in 1980 titled, “Pastoral Lessons from the Marrow Controversy” which the author says “sounds unnervingly like a ‘Veggie Tale for Ministers’!”  In all seriousness though, what would entice someone to read a volume which at least in part deals with a theological controversy from three centuries ago?  The reason, as the foreword by Tim Keller states, is that the issues central in the Marrow controversy are still very much with us today.  It is about legalism and antinomianism (the Marrow was accused of supporting both!).  It is also about the underlying confusion among many in the church over justification and sanctification.

The Marrow, while not the primary focus of the book, serves to provide a recurring theme and foundation by which current issues can be displayed and examined. The central question posed by Ferguson is, “Who is the God whom we come to know in Jesus Christ?” (p. 19) The way in which the Marrow answered that question was transformative for the preaching of Thomas Boston, and the hope is that it will have the same impact for those now considering such themes.

Ferguson lays out the historical background and summary of the Marrow in the first chapter.  Some readers may find such details unappealing.  While one could skip chapter one and still benefit from reading the book, they may struggle some with the context and nature of the Marrow.  Two key things about the Marrow itself are useful to know.  It is essentially two books in one.  The initial work by Fisher was later annotated very extensively by Thomas Boston; thus most reprints contain both (the edition referenced above does an admirable job of placing the notes of Boston in clear juxtaposition with the original work).  Secondly, the Marrow is written in the form of a dialog between four personified allegorical characters: Evangelista, Nomista, Antinomista, and Neophytus. (It is interesting to note that the Marrow was published some thirty years before John Bunyan took allegorical storytelling to a new level in The Pilgrim’s Progress.  Whether the form of the Marrow influenced his writing is uncertain, though it is certainly possible Bunyan knew of the Marrow.) This style is in part what left the Marrow open for much misinterpretation.  It is also the key to its effectiveness in displaying the errors which it exposes.

Chapter two discusses the core of the Marrow: the free offer of the gospel, how the gospel relates to legalism and antinomianism, and what constitutes assurance of salvation (all of which are contained in the first part of the Marrow).  At the heart of these things is a separation of the benefits of the gospel from Christ.  “The benefits of the gospel are in Christ.  They do not exist apart from him.  They are ours only in him.  They cannot be abstracted from his as if we ourselves could possess them independently of him.” (44)   Ferguson argues that if union with Christ is not properly emphasized, then such separation is likely.  The Marrow men understood “the gospel offer is Christ himself in who the blessings are found.” (47)  There are extensive footnotes that are very helpful in this discussion, though the central force of the chapter can be grasped without reading all of the notes.

The concern over false preparationism is the focus of the next chapter.  William Perkins and John Bunyan are both cited as examples of distortions of the doctrine.  Ferguson identifies the theme he will extend through the book of the dangerous tendency to separate the gospel from the love of God the Father.  Such a false understanding ends up poisoning preaching, as it distorts both the nature of the Father and of our salvation.

In chapter four the author turns to legalism which he says is “a primary, if not the ultimate, pastoral problem.” (80)  The Marrow was accused of promoting both legalism and antinomianism (again, likely due to snippets taken out of context due to its dialogical presentation).  Legalism “can twist the soul in such a way that it comes near to and yet veers away from the grace of God in the gospel.” (80)  Ferguson convincingly makes the case that legalism and antinomianism share the same root, which will strike most readers as counterintuitive at first.  “Legalism is simply separating the law of God from the person of God. …It is the poison that mutates into antinomianism both in the form of rebellion against God and as a false antidote to itself.” (83)  It results not so much from a distorted view of the law as from a distorted view of God.  He briefly critiques the New Perspective on Paul toward the end of the chapter.  If you read this chapter and don’t grasp his argument the first time, go back and read it again, or the remainder of the book will not be as clear.

The next chapter deals with the ordo salutis as it relates particularly to faith and repentance. Thomas Boston asserted with the Marrow that the two cannot be separated chronologically.  The chapter also deals with misconceptions of the third use of the law.  Chapter 6 looks at symptoms of legalism, including self-righteousness and a spirit of bondage, giving examples primarily from The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Ferguson then turns to deal with antinomianism.  The Marrow brethren were more vehemently accused of this error (which is ironic since the second half of the Marrow is a discourse on the Ten Commandments).  He looks at the roots of the matter in the Lutheran Reformation as well as in later English antinomians such as John Saltmarsh, John Eaton, and Tobias Crisp.  Also noted are the links to hyper-Calvinism; “they were operating with an over-realized personal eschatology, as though the strong and subtle influence of sin had been destroyed.” (142)  Another contemporary outworking of antinomianism “is the secular gospel of self-assurance masquerading as Christianity.” (154) This chapter is a thorough reaffirmation of the Reformed understanding of the law of God.  In sum, he states, “At one level the problem is indeed rejection of God’s law.  But underneath lies a failure to understand grace and ultimately to understand God.” (154)

Chapter eight is a key chapter in the book, looking at causes and cures of antinomian error.  Ferguson says that “antinomianism and legalism are not so much antithetical to each other as they are both antithetical to grace. …grace in Christ in our union with Christ, is the antidote to both.” (156)  He rightly notes that these problems are a matter not only of the mind but of the heart.  “Antinomianism may be couched in doctrinal and theological terms, but it betrays and masks the heart’s distaste for absolute divine obligation.” (161) This chapter also merits re-reading so that the force of its argument is fully appreciated.

The final three chapters, like the last section of part one of the Marrow, deal with the doctrine of assurance of salvation. Ferguson shows how failures to grasp our true standing in Christ rob us of assurance. Examining both John Calvin and the Westminster Confession of Faith, he reaffirms a proper and full view of assurance in the gospel.  He cites an extended section in the Marrow, a dialog between Evangelista and Neophytus, which is very helpful in demonstrating the difference between false and true assurance. Given how assurance of salvation is often misunderstood, a proper grasp of it is a critical need.  Assurance must be nourished in our ongoing standing in Christ.  Obedience to the law gives evidence of this.  Finally, hindrances to assurance such as inconsistent obedience and spiritual trials are dealt with.  The final discussion provides solidly grounded and needed encouragement.

While The Whole Christ may seem initially to be a book about a long forgotten dust-up of Scottish theology, it is far more than that.  It is certainly one of the most important books that Sinclair Ferguson has produced for the church.  The issues dealt with in The Marrow of Modern Divinity are very much still alive and in need of clarification for the church today.  Ferguson is by no means the only one to write on the topics of legalism/antinomianism, but the clarity which this work brings to some often muddied doctrines is greatly needed.  Hopefully it will also lead many to read and benefit from the Marrow as well.


Some related works:

Hanko, Herman C. Contending for the Faith: The Rise of Heresy and the Development of Truth. Jenison, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2010.

Lachman, David C. The Marrow Controversy. Rutherford Studies Series One, Historical Theology. Edinburgh, Scotland: Rutherford House, 1988.

Myers, Stephen G. Scottish Federalism and Covenantalism in Transition: The Theology of Ebenezer Erskine. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2015.

VanDoodewaard, William. The Marrow Controversy and Seceder Tradition : Marrow Theology in the Associate Presbytery and Associate Synod Secession Churches of Scotland (1733-1799). Reformed Historical-Theological Studies. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011.

Kenneth J. McMullen
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte