Having benefitted from his lectures on this topic years ago, I was excited to hear that Sinclair Ferguson was finally going to publish his work on the Marrow Controversy. Weaving together the insight of a church historian and the heart of a pastor, Ferguson uses the Marrow Controversy as a map to help track our way through our own controversies today: namely, as the subtitle reads: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters.
This book is a welcome and timely contribution to these topics for a number of reasons. Specifically, accusations of antinomianism and legalism occur with too much frequency—and not enough accuracy—in the discussion of motivations for sanctification. Ferguson’s work shows us that these battles are not new and that great insight can be gained from those who have suffered through such conflicts. In so doing, he excites the reader with the passion and dedication of the “Marrow Men” to see the gospel go forth, bringing unbelievers to faith, as well as comforting and strengthening Christians in their struggle against the influences of the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Ferguson begins with a trip back in time to the small Scottish town of Auchterarder, to an unexpectedly influential Presbytery meeting of the Church of Scotland in February 1717. At this meeting, a candidate for ordination was being examined and was asked whether he agreed with the following statement (which came to be known as the Auchterarder Creed): “I believe that it is not sound and orthodox to teach that we should forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ, and instating us in covenant with God” (28).
The affirmation or denial of this statement is what led to the so-called Marrow Controversy. Those who affirmed the Auchterarder Creed accused those who denied it of being legalistic; they in turn accused those who affirmed it as being antinomian. The latter group became known as the “Marrow Men” (most notably, Thomas Boston), who were significantly influenced by the seventeenth-century book The Marrow of Modern Divinity, attributed to Edward Fisher.
Ferguson defends the position of the Marrow Men against the legalism that had crept into the Church of Scotland at that time. A form of preparationism had taken root, which demands that people evidence good works before they qualify for receiving the gospel. Ferguson uses this specific issue as his point of departure to explain that sanctification and assurance must flow from the finished work of Christ and that neither can happen apart from receiving the “whole Christ.” His point is well made: People cannot produce good works before receiving the gospel, because they have not been given the whole Christ—i.e., all of the benefits that flow from his finished work. To demand the fruits of sanctification before the gospel is received is saying that one can have some of the benefits of Christ without receiving all of Christ.
The Whole Christ thus unpacks what God has accomplished for us in Christ, and then how that work properly motivates us in sanctification and assurance of salvation. After explaining the benefits of Christ’s work, Ferguson deftly steers the discussion between the Scylla and Charybdis of antinomianism and legalism, showing that both stem from a similar low view of God’s law and his gospel. Contrary to recent opinions that the Reformed do not treat law and gospel as theological categories, Ferguson helpfully explains their distinction and then puts them in proper relationship to one another.
Ferguson’s explanation of the similar roots of antinomianism and legalism is perhaps the most valuable of his insights in this book. Both errors separate God’s loving character from his law, turning them into cold deprivations rather than beautiful representations of his character. Using the example of Eve’s disregard for God’s command in the garden, Ferguson explains:
It is this— a failure to see the generosity of God and his wise and loving plans for our lives—that lies at the root of legalism and drives it. It bears repeating: in Eve’s case antinomianism (her opposition to and rejection of God’s law) was itself an expression of her legalism! (82–83)
Continuing in this vein, Ferguson demonstrates how the only means to a high view of God, his grace, and his commands is by Spirit-wrought appreciation of the love God has shown us in Christ:
Commands are the railroad tracks on which the life empowered by the love of God poured into the heart by the Holy Spirit runs. Love empowers the engine; law guides the direction. (168–69)
Moving on from motivation in sanctification, Ferguson appropriately wraps up his discussion with three chapters on assurance of salvation. In keeping with the rest of his argument, Ferguson offers a balanced and properly ordered account of our assurance flowing from resting in Christ as belief gives rise to obedience,
not obedience giving rise to assurance irrespective of believing. Such faith cannot be forced into us by our efforts to be obedient; it arises only from larger and clearer views of Christ. Herein lies the paradox: we want to talk and think about how to get better evidences; [Thomas] Boston is concerned that we get a better grip of Christ. Then the evidences will grow like fruit. (204)
Ferguson’s excellent interactions with historical sources and sound exegesis make this a crucial read for anyone wanting to have a faithful understanding of the Reformed view of how the gospel grounds and motivates our sanctification and assurance.
Tom Wenger is pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Crofton, Maryland.