People often ask who believed in Free Grace before us?
There are hints here and there through history.
One source of Free Grace type beliefs came from the Marrow Controversy in Scotland in the 18th century.
William VanDoodewaard wrote his doctoral dissertation about the Marrow Controversy and published it as The Marrow Controversy and Seceder Tradition: Marrow Theology in the Associate Presbytery and Associate Synod Secession Churches of Scotland (1733-1799) (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011).
The Marrow controversy is named for a book, The Marrow of Modern Divinity. It was initially published anonymously, then republished with notes by Thomas Boston (1676-1732). It represented a distinct vision of faith and salvation that was at odds with the Scottish Calvinistic theology of the day. It came to be called Marrow Theology, and the ministers who believed it were called Marrow Men. The debates that were raised through The Marrow mirror many of the debates between Free Grace and Lordship Salvation, and, indeed, within the Free Grace movement itself.
To give you just one example, there was a debate over the relationship between faith and assurance. The Marrow Men said that assurance was the essence of saving faith. Here is how the Church of Scotland put the Marrow position on assurance:
The Assembly of 1720 selected quotes from The Marrow that were argued in its 5th Act to state “that saving faith commanded in the Gospel a man’s persuasion that Christ is his, and died for him; and that whoever hath not this persuasion or assurance hath not answered the Gospel call nor is a true believer” (p. 33).
For the Marrow men (as understood by this assembly), saving faith is persuasion. That, in itself, is excellent. They understood that faith is not a commitment, an act of obedience, or a type of emotion. It is persuasion that something is true.
But persuasion of what?
That “Christ is his, and died for him.” In other words, saving faith is persuasion that Christ has saved you. Free Grace people would say, based on John 3:16 and elsewhere, that it is persuasion that you have eternal life as a present possession.
So what if you do not have this assurance? According to the Marrow Men, “whoever hath not this persuasion or assurance hath not answered the Gospel call nor is a true believer.” We would say it a bit differently since salvation only requires a single act of faith. We would say if you’ve never had the assurance that Jesus saves you, then you have never “answered the Gospel call,” that is, you have never believed the saving message.
It’s not clear to me from this passage if the Marrow Men required continuous assurance to be saved or not. In any case, we would deny that continuous assurance is required, since you are born again in a moment. But you must have believed the gospel at least once. I’ve written two simple articles about assurance here and here.
So, GES would agree with the Marrow theology that assurance is of the essence of being persuaded that the saving message is true, while Lordship Salvation, and some in the Free Grace movement, would not. So what did the critics believe? VanDoodewaard goes on to explain the theology of the Marrow critics:
Against this perceived error of the Marrow theology, the Assembly stated that both the Westminster Confession and Catechisms “show that assurance is not of the essence of faith.” The Church of Scotland Assembly’s emphasis at this point was to maintain the separation of faith and assurance in both definition and practice. The implication appeared to be that there was little, if any, fiducial element in faith itself (p. 33).
So, the Marrow critics, like some in the Free Grace movement, separated faith and assurance. Why would they do that? Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that they denied that everlasting life is a present possession. Instead, they believed it was something future that you received at the end of your life. Hence, for them, a believer “may wait long to obtain this assurance” (p. 33).
I find it very interesting that VanDoodewaard says this: “The implication appeared to be that there was little, if any, fiducial element in faith itself.”
The Reformation-era defined faith as notitia (understanding), plus assensus (assent), plus fiducia (trust).You must understand the saving message and then believe or assent to its being true. But what role does trust play?
If you read the literature, “trust” is often defined to mean some type of behavior change. The example often given is of a tightrope walker crossing Niagara Falls. The crowd believes the tightrope walker could take someone across in a wheelbarrow, but no one trusts the acrobat enough to get into the wheelbarrow. By application, you don’t really believe in Christ savingly until you show it in your behavior.
But VanDoodewaard is linking fiducia (trust) with assurance, not behavior. It is the personal appropriation of the saving promise. It is being assured that Jesus not only promises everlasting life to the believer, but that I have that life as a present possession.
You will probably not be surprised at how the Marrow critics linked faith and works together. VanDoodewaard explains:
[T]he quotations selected and the Assembly’s response to them indicate a theological perspective that tended toward equalizing obedience and repentance with faith as instrumental or conditional to salvation despite, at the same time, making a strong separation between faith and assurance… “though good works be excluded from the ground of justification, yet they are necessary in the justified in order to their obtaining the enjoyment of eternal salvation” (p. 34).
For the Marrow critics, obedience, repentance, and faith were “equalized.” Does he mean they were seen as co-conditions, equal parts of genuine faith? Clearly, they thought works were necessary to obtain “the enjoyment of eternal salvation.”
The Free Grace position would be that works are not at all necessary at the point of faith to be born again. But if you take a full-orbed view of the salvation God will give to the believer—from justification, to sanctification, to glorification, to reigning with Christ in the kingdom—then works are part of enjoying that full-orbed salvation.
In sum, I find this a very interesting area of study. If you’ve been thinking about doing a graduate theology degree related to Free Grace Theology, I’d recommend looking into the Marrow Men. You could pick one of the Marrow Men and write a historical dissertation about him.