The Whole Christ – A Review
Legalism, antinomianism, and gospel assurance why the marrow controversy still matters
A while ago Sinclair Ferguson graciously handed me a copy of his latest book, ‘The Whole Christ’. I love Sinclair’s writing, but I have to be honest and say that a book about a 300 year old theological controversy within Scottish Presbyterianism, doesn’t really sound as though it would float anyone’s boat. It took me a few days to get round to reading it. It is stunning. I mean that. If I had to name my top three theological books I would include The Whole Christ in there along with Calvin’s Institutes and Augustine’s Confession. It really is that good. It is a life changing book which I times I just had to put down, lift my hands and praise the Lord for his wonder and beauty.
The foreword is by Tim Keller who obviously shares my enthusiasm. Indeed I remember him telling me that Sinclair’s lectures on this subject, three decades ago, were life transforming. Sinclair himself acknowledges that the subject matter is difficult – “pastoral lessons from the marrow controversy sounds unnervingly like a veggie Tale for Ministers!”
For those who don’t know the details of the Marrow controversy I will not recount the whole story here. Suffice it to know that it is centred in Auchterarder, in Fife, some 300 years ago. It centred round a book, The Marrow of Modern Divinity, published in 1645 and 1648. This was published in two parts, firstly a series of dialogues on theological issues and secondly on the Ten Commandments. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland accused it of being antinomian – against the law. The ‘Marrowmen’ denied this and thus ensued the controversy.
What Sinclair’s’ book does is take us to the heart of the Gospel. Issues of how the law relates to faith and grace, how we can be assured of our faith, are as relevant today as they were then. Rather than a detailed review of the whole book I want to share with you what I call the ‘Hallelujah’ quotes, the ones that made me ponder, pray and praise. (Incidentally the footnotes in this book, almost at the bottom of every page are not academic irrelevancies, but worth the price of the book alone!).
Here are some of the lessons I learned.
The Heart of the Marrow – The Gospel is bringing people the whole Christ.
“Go and tell every man, without exception, but here is good news for him! Christ is dead for him! And if he will take him and accept of his righteousness, he shall have him”
The most common name for a Christian is not a disciple, or a born again person, or a saint, or even a Christian.
New Testament Christians did not think of themselves as Christians! They saw themselves as being in Christ. An expression that occurs over 100 times in Paul’s 13 letters
As preachers we fall into the danger of preaching the benefits of Christ and not Christ himself.
When you see that Christ and his benefits are inseparable the primary question for the preacher is how do I preach Christ himself, not how do I offer this benefits? And for the hearer it is how do I get into Christ? Not how can I get these benefits into my life?
The gospel is not believe because Christ died for you, rather it is believe because Christ is able to save. He himself is the gospel. And then this wonderful thought. God does not love us because Christ died for us. Christ died for us because God loves us.
‘We must not confuse the truth that our sins are forgiven only because of the death and resurrection of Christ with the very different notion that God loves us only because of the death and resurrection of Christ. No, ‘he loved us from the first of time’ and therefore sent his son, who came willingly, to die for us.’
Ministers and preachers need especially to preach the gospel to ourselves.
‘A misshapen understanding of the gospel impacts the spirit of a minister and affects the style and atmosphere of his preaching and of all his pastoral ministry’
‘Confessional orthodoxy coupled with a view of a heavenly father whose love is conditioned on his son suffering, and further conditioned by our repentance, leads inevitably to restriction in the preaching of the gospel. Why? Because it leads to restriction in the heart of the preacher that matches the restriction he sees in the heart of God!’
‘What is a godly pastor, after all, but one who is like God, with a heart of grace; someone who sees God bringing prodigals home and runs to embrace them, weeps for joy that they have been brought home, and kisses them – asking no questions – no qualifications or conditions required?’
Legalism does not uphold the law. In fact it destroys the law because legalism is law without God. It is a distortion of the gospel and therefore of the character of God and actually then becomes a distortion of the law.
‘Legalism is simply separating the law of God from the person of God’
‘Legalism, then, is almost as old as Eden itself. In essence it is any teaching that diminishes or distorts the generous love of God and the full freeness of his grace. It then distorts God’s graciousness revealed in his law and fails to see law set within its proper context in redemptive history as an expression of a gracious father.’
If Christians want to grow spiritually we need to preach the Gospel to ourselves, again and again.
‘Sometimes Christians are eager to go onto the deeper truths of the Christian life. There is of course, a genuine progress in understanding that marks maturity. But in reality what we need is to dig down deeper into the first principles of the gospel’
Does God accept us the way we are? Is that what grace is?
‘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. True, his love for me is not based on my qualification or my preparation. But it is misleading to say that God accepts us the way we are. Rather he accepts us despite the way we are. He receives us only in Christ and for Christ’s sake. Nor does he mean to leave us the way he found us, but to transform us into the likeness of his son. Without that transformation and new conformity of life we do not have any evidence we were ever his in the first place. At root then antinomianism separates God’s law from God’s person and grace, from the union with Christ in which the law is written in the heart. In doing so it jeopardises not only the Decalogue; it dismantles the truth of the gospel’
‘Antinomianism and legalism are not so much antithetical to each other as they are both antithetical to grace’
How can we deal with legalism?
‘There is only one genuine cure for legalism. It is the same medicine the gospel prescribes for antinomianism: understanding and tasting union with Jesus Christ himself. This leads to a new love for and obedience to the law of God, which he now mediates to us in the gospel’
This is a pastoral issue.
‘This is a fundamental pastoral lesson. It is not merely a matter of the head. It is a matter of the heart. Antinomianism may be couched in doctrinally and theological terms, but it both betrays and masks the hearts distaste for absolute divine obligation, or duty. That is why the doctrinal explanation is only part of the battle. We are grappling with something much more elusive, the spirit of an individual, an instinct, a simple temperamental bent, a subtle divorce of duty and delight. This requires diligent and loving pastoral care and especially faithful, union with Christ, full unfolding of the word of God so that the gospel dissolves the stubborn legality in our spirits,
What is the relationship of love and law?
‘Commandments 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. They are mutually interdependent. The notion that love can operate apart from law is a figment of the imagination. It is not only bad theology; it is poor psychology. It has to borrow from law to give eyes to love.’
Christ and the Law
‘It should not, therefore, surprise us or grieve us to think that the Christian sees Christ in the law. He or she also sees it as a rule of life; indeed, sees with Calvin that Christ is the life of the law because without Christ there is no life in the law. We appreciate the clarity of the law only when we gaze fully into Christ’s face. When we do get there, we see the face of one who said,’ oh how I love your law; it is my meditation all the day’ – and we want to be like him. This is not – as the antinomians normally inferior – bondage. It is freedom. The Christian rejoices therefore in the laws depth. He seeks the Spirits guidance for its application, because he can say with Paul that in Christ through the gospel, he has become an ‘in-law’.
What is real assurance?
‘Inconsistent Christian living leads to lack of assurance. At least, it leads to a lack of true assurance (although, alas, not necessarily to a lack of self-assurance). Where there is no actual obedience to Christ, there will be no evidence of present love for him as saviour. Where salvation is not actualised, and the person has no consciousness of Christ’s saving mercy, assurance will inevitably be hindered. Thus the Christian has developed a pattern of disobedience in his or her life will lose assurance”
The Theology of Satan
‘When conscience draws lines of restriction around our life, permitting a narrower radius and smaller circumference in life than God’s Word does, inevitably this distorts our view of God. The result? We view him (and, if we are preachers, we may also present him) in a restricted, less bountiful way. It isn’t then long before our disposition towards him is similar to that expressed by the elder brother in Jesus’s parable. A spirit of bondage, rather than the enjoyment of assurance, is the end result. We have fallen prey to the ‘theology of Satan’, for this is simply an echo of his insinuations to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden’
The great need of our times.
‘This conforms well to the joyful confidence of the New Testament church. Their assurance of salvation produces boldness in witness; eagerness and intimacy in prayer; poise in character in the face of trial, danger and opposition; and joy in worship. The lack of these is also evidence of a lack of the assurance that produces them. Rather than breed presumption or antinomianism, assurance produces true humility. Christian assurance is not self-assurance and self-confidence. It is the reverse: confidence in our Father, trust in Christ as our saviour, and joy in the spirit as the spirit of sonship, seal of grace, and earnest of our inheritance as sons and daughters of God. When these are the hallmarks of our lives, then the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ has come home to us in full measure. And that, surely, is one of the great needs of our times.
Augustine was converted when he heard a voice in the garden saying ‘Tolle lege’. “Take it and read’. As a result he read Romans. I would say simply to any believer and especially any preacher ‘Tolle lege’. Pick up The Whole Christ. Read The Whole Christ. Receive The Whole Christ. Know The Whole Christ and He will set you free.