The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance – Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters by Sinclair Ferguson. Crossway. 256 pages. 2016
Sinclair Ferguson is one of the most respected Reformed theologians of our day. In the past few months he has released three new books, with this one being the latest and arguably the most important. It is a challenging read, theologically deep and heavily footnoted. However, if you persevere, you will be highly rewarded. It is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time and although early in the year, will be a strong candidate for my book of the year. While many of Ferguson’s books are written for the church as a whole, I believe this book will most benefit pastors.
Tim Keller writes the Foreword for the book, and his contribution may well be worth the cost of the book. He writes that “One of the striking features of the Marrow Dispute is that supporters of the Marrow were accused of defending antinomianism, and at least some of its critics were, in turn, suspected of legalism—even though all parties had subscribed to what the Westminster Confession says about justification and works.”
The Marrow Controversy is an event that not many will be familiar with. It occurred nearly 300 years ago in a small Scottish town and centered on Edward Fisher’s book The Marrow of Modern Divinity. The core issue was whether or not a person must first repent of his sins before coming to Christ. The Marrow Men agreed with Fisher’s book, while their opponents did not.
Ferguson starts with the Marrow Controversy and then applies it to our present day. Keller writes “Against the background and features of that older dispute, he wants to help us understand the character of this perpetual problem—one that bedevils the church today.”
The books tells us that legalism and antinomianism are much more than doctrinal positions and that the root of both legalism and antinomianism is the same. It also tells us that the cure for both legalism and antinomianism is the gospel, and a “fuller, biblical, and profound understanding of grace and of the character of God.”
Ferguson tells of a speaking request that came to him in Scotland in 1980 asking him to speak about the Marrow Controversy at a pastors’ conference in the United States. He states that since that time many have told him that they have listened to those messages. That speaking engagement was the genesis of this book.
He tells us that on the surface the “Marrow Controversy was about how we preach the gospel; what role, if any, God’s law and our obedience play in the Christian life; and what it means to have assurance of salvation.”
Ferguson tells us that the book is not a study of The Marrow of Modern Divinity, although reference is made to it. It is not a historical analysis of the Marrow Controversy, although that serves as the background to it. It is also not a study of the theology of Thomas Boston, although he is mentioned and quoted often in the book. Rather, it is “an extended reflection on theological and pastoral issues that arose in the early eighteenth century, viewed from the framework of the present day.” He writes that central elements in the Marrow Controversy remain some of the most important pastoral issues of today.
The book includes themes such as gospel grace, legalism, antinomianism, assurance, and union with Christ. The book concludes with an appendix “Thomas Boston on Faith”. There is much that we can learn in these pages. I read the book rather quickly (given all of the footnotes). It is certainly worth repeated readings.
Sermons on Job: Chapters 1-14 by John Calvin. A New Translation by Rob Roy McGregor. Banner of Truth. 2015
In 1554-1554, John Calvin used the book of Job for his daily sermons at St. Pierre Cathedral in Geneva, Switzerland. Last May, we were able to visit that church while on vacation. In all, Calvin preached 159 sermons on the book. Each of these weekday sermons averaged just under an hour’s exposition of Scripture.
This new, and very readable translation of those sermons by Rob Roy McGregor, includes the first 59 of the 159 sermons. Having read some other translations of Calvin’s sermons, I was very pleased with the readability of this new translation and would commend this volume to you.
- Lead Like Jesus Revisited. I’m looking forward to this updated and revised edition of Ken Blanchard’s and Phil Hodges’ classic book Lead Like Jesus, which I used years ago as the basis for an adult Sunday School class. The new edition will be released April 19.
- 5 Books You Should Read This Election Year. Trevin Wax shares these book recommendations. I’ve read Onward by Russell Moore and highly recommend it.
- The Whole Christ. Read Tim Challies review of Sinclair Ferguson’s excellent new book. It’s a challenging, but fulfilling read.
- God’s Plan for Us Includes Happiness in Him. Randy Alcorn recently did an interview with Facts and Trend about his acclaimed new book Happiness.
- The Passionate Preaching of Martyn Lloyd-Jones. I’m looking forward to reading Steven Lawson’s new book on Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, to be published February 15.
- The Story Behind the Jesus Storybook Bible. Bronwyn Lea interviews Sally Lloyd-Jones, author of the Jesus Storybook Bible, which has sold in excess of 2 million copies.
- Unashamed Audiobook. I’ve pre-ordered my copy of the audiobook of Lecrae’s upcoming book Unashamed, read by Lecrae through Christianaudio.
Studies in the Sermon on the Mount BOOK CLUB – Won’t you read along with us?
Studies in the Sermon on the Mount by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones
This book made a significant impact on my wife Tammy when she read and discussed it with friends thirty years ago. When I picked up my diploma the day after graduation ceremonies from Covenant Seminary last year I was given a copy of this book. After enjoying Lloyd-Jones book Spiritual Depression (and the sermons the book was taken from), I couldn’t wait to read this book, which is the printed form of sermons preached for the most part on successive Sunday mornings at Westminster Chapel in London. This week we look at
Chapter 23: The Mortification of Sin
- Our Lord was anxious to teach at one and the same time the real and horrible nature of sin, the terrible danger in which sin involves us, and the importance of dealing with sin and getting rid of it.
- What He says in effect is this: `If the most precious thing you have, in a sense, is the cause of sin, get rid of it.’ He is saying that, however valuable a thing may be to you in and of itself, if it is going to trap you and cause you to stumble, get rid of it, throw it away. Such is His way of emphasizing the importance of holiness, and the terrible danger which confronts us as the result of sin.
- It is not merely a question of not committing certain acts; it is a question of dealing with the pollution of sin in the heart, this force that is within us, these powers which are resident in our very natures as the result of the fall. These are the problems, and merely to deal with them in a negative manner is not enough. We are concerned about the state of our hearts.
- Our Lord indicates a number of points, which we must observe and grasp. The first, obviously, is that we must realize the nature of sin, and also its consequences.
- There is no doubt whatever that an inadequate view of sin is the chief cause of a lack of holiness and sanctification, and indeed of most of the false teaching with respect to sanctification.
- We must grasp the idea of `sin’ as distinct from `sins’. We must see it as something that leads to the actions and that exists apart from them.
- The second thing we must realize is the importance of the soul and its destiny.
- If my faculties, propensities and abilities do lead me to sin, then I must forsake them and get rid of them.
- Our Lord here shows us that the importance of the soul and its destiny is such that everything must be subservient to it. Everything else must be secondary where this is concerned, and we must examine the whole of our life and see to it that this is ever in the forefront of our considerations. Nothing must be allowed to come between you and your soul’s eternal destiny.
- Do we all realize that the most important thing we have to do in this world is to prepare ourselves for eternity?
- We are all so very concerned about this life. But are we equally concerned about our soul and spirit and our eternal destiny? That is the question our Lord is asking us.
- The third principle is that we must hate sin, and do all we can to destroy it at all costs within ourselves.
- We must train ourselves to hate sin. In other words we must study it and understand its working. I think we have been very negligent in this respect.
- The next principle is that we must realize that the ideal in this matter is to have a clean and pure heart, a heart that is free from lusts. The idea is not simply that we be free from certain actions, but that our hearts should become pure.
- Our standard must always be a positive one. We must never think of holiness merely in terms of not doing certain things.
- The last principle is the importance of the mortification of sin.
- Any teaching that makes us live an unnatural life is not New Testament holiness.
- These are things which we must do. What does it mean? Again, I am merely going to give some indication of the principles. First, we must never feed the flesh’.
- We must avoid everything that tends to tarnish and hinder our holiness. Anything that I know does me harm, anything that arouses, and disturbs, and shakes my composure, no matter what it is, I must avoid it.
- Morbid scrupulosity is always concerned about itself, its state and condition, and its own achievements. True holiness, on the other hand, is always concerned about pleasing God, glorifying Him and ministering to the glory of Jesus Christ. If you and I keep that ever in the foreground of our minds we need not be very worried about becoming morbid.
- The next principle I would lay down would he this, that the must deliberately restrain the flesh and deal with every suggestion and insinuation of evil.
- That, in turn, leads me to the last great principle, which I put in this form: We must realize once more the price that had to be paid to deliver us from sin. To the true Christian there is no greater stimulus and incentive in the fight to `mortify the deeds of the body’ than this.
- If we realize the power and the true nature of sin; if we realize the awful grip it has on man, and its polluting effect; then we shall realize that we are poor in spirit and utterly feeble, and we shall plead constantly for that power which the Holy Spirit alone can give us. And with this power we shall proceed to `pluck out the eye’ and `cut off the hand’, `mortify the flesh’, and thus deal with the problem.