The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters. By Sinclair B. Ferguson. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016. 256 pp. Hardcover, $24.99.
This book is about the Marrow Controversy. It began in 1716, when William Craig, a candidate for ordination in the presbytery of Auchterarder, Scotland, could not agree with the following statement: “I believe that it is not sound and orthodox to teach that we forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ, and instating us in covenant with God” (p. 28).
In other words, Craig was asked if he agreed that forsaking sin was not a condition of receiving eternal life.
Craig could not agree. His refusal raised wider questions about the nature of salvation. “At the root of the matter lay the nature of the grace of God in the gospel and how it should be preached,” Ferguson explains (p. 35).
The Marrow Controversy eventually exposed a theological divide in the Scottish Presbyterian Church. Many of the staunch Calvinists did not believe the gospel should be offered to all (Ferguson calls it “deformed Calvinism,” p. 51). Since God only elected some to salvation, only those who show signs of regeneration, and hence of election, ought to be offered the gospel.
By contrast, the Marrow Men (as they came to be known) believed that “Christ is to be offered to all men everywhere without exception or qualification” (p. 39). In particular, according to the Marrow Men, works were not a condition of salvation: “The offer of the gospel is to be made not to the righteous or even the repentant, but to all. There are no conditions that need to be met in order for the gospel offer to be made” (p. 42). Whereas the other Calvinists made repentance “a qualification for grace,” according to the Marrow Men,
This puts the cart before the horse. It stands the gospel on its head so that the proclamation of the gospel, with the call to faith in Christ, becomes conditional on something in the hearer. The gospel thus becomes a message of grace for the credentialed, not an offer of Christ to all with the promise of justification to the ungodly who believes (p. 43).
As Ferguson goes on to explain, what the Marrow Men were reacting against was a theology of “preparationism” which had become an obstacle to the free offer of eternal life. Preparationism taught that a person needed to sufficiently forsake sin and experience a sufficient degree of conviction of sin (p. 56) before being offered the gospel. To borrow an image from John Bunyan, according to preparationism the sinner must first go through the Slough of Despond before coming to the cross. By contrast, the Marrow Men taught we should go to the cross first, so we won’t have a burden to carry when we eventually do go through the Slough of Despond (pp. 58-59).
JOTGES readers will immediately see the relevance this book has to the Free Grace movement. In many ways, the Marrow Controversy anticipated the debates between Free Grace and Lordship Salvation.
When Ferguson is explaining the position of the Marrow Men, he makes numerous excellent observations, some of which were mentioned above. However, when Ferguson offers his own reflections, their usefulness is mixed. It is as though he is very sympathetic to the Marrow Men, but cannot quite let go of his traditional Reformed theology. And I often wondered if this prevented Ferguson from presenting the strongest arguments for, and the implications of, Marrow theology.
To give just one example, Ferguson notes the Marrow Men were accused of teaching “that assurance is of the essence of faith” (p. 183), because when you believe in Jesus for eternal salvation you believe “Christ Jesus is mine, and that I shall have life and salvation by his means; that whatsoever Christ did for the redemption of mankind, he did it for me” (p. 184). If you believe Jesus is yours, and that salvation is yours, then you must be assured of your salvation. I wanted to read more about that.
But Ferguson disagrees with the Marrow Men on that position. He distinguishes between believing in Christ (the “direct act”), and believing that you have believed in Christ (the “reflex act,” pp. 186, 196). You can be certain of the former by faith apart from works, but you cannot be certain of latter without some form of the “practical syllogism” (p. 201). This is an example of where Ferguson falls into the familiar trap of Reformed spirituality where assurance of salvation is based, not on Jesus’ promise of eternal life, but on “the evidence of a life that really is being saved” (p. 204). However, basing assurance on behavior can only lead to doubt since we all sin and have no way of knowing how we’ll live in the future.
JOTGES readers should be aware that this is not strict history of the Marrow Controversy, and was not meant to be. Ferguson mixes explanations of the Marrow Men’s views with his own opinions, and it is not always clear which is which.
Still, the book is valuable because there are many places where both Ferguson and the Marrow Men either hold, or come close to holding, Free Grace positions.
As an exposition of the Marrow Controversy, I recommend this book. It is easy to read, very informative, and shows there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to debates over the conditions of salvation. I would not say this is the definitive account of the Marrow Controversy, but it will prove helpful to interested readers.
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society