Interview with Sinclair B. Ferguson, author of THE WHOLE CHRIST: LEGALISM, ANTINOMIANISM & GOSPEL ASSURANCE – WHY THE MARROW CONTROVERSY STILL MATTERS

Published on May 31, 2016 by Joshua Centanni

Crossway, 2016 | 256 pages

Sinclair Ferguson is no stranger to our readers, and his new book, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism & Gospel Assurance – Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters, reflects very well the warm-hearted gospel concerns that mark his preaching. He is a friend of Books At a Glance, and we are happy to talk to him today about his newest book.

 

Books At a Glance (Fred Zaspel):
What was “the Marrow Controversy,” and how did it come about? And who were “the Marrow Men”?

Sinclair Ferguson:
Thank you for asking about the Marrow Controversy, Fred. It was a controversy that erupted in the 1720s in the Church of Scotland, following the Kirk’s condemnation of the teaching of a book published first in 1645 entitled The Marrow of Modern Divinity. It was suspected of teaching contrary to the Westminster Confession. But for a number of evangelical ministers (the best known of whom today would be Thomas Boston and the brothers Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine) the book proved to be a catalyst in helping them think through the nature of gospel preaching. They made representation to the General Assembly and the controversy developed from there. As far as I know the Kirk’s “ban” on its ministers recommending the book has never been rescinded!

The Whole Christ is not so much a book on The Marrow or on the controversy so much as an exploration of the issues that came to the surface.

 

Zaspel:
Can you tell us a little bit about Thomas Boston?

Ferguson:
Thomas Boston (1676-1732) was a minister first in a small church in a remote part of the eastern Scottish borders and then in Ettrick which is set deep into the Ettrick Forest, also in the Borders. He recorded his life story for his family and it was later published as The Memoirs of Thomas Boston (which ranks with Memoirs and Remains of Robert Murray M ‘Cheyne as a classic Scottish biographical study of pastoral ministry. Both are still published by The Banner of Truth Trust). He was a kind of Scottish Richard Baxter but with a very different temperament. He wrestled deeply with the fundamental nature of gospel preaching and thought through the issues we all need to consider: What is the gospel? How do I preach it? How do I answer the apostolic question in Galatians 3:19: ‘Why then the law?’ An edition of The Marrow was published with Boston’s notes—which make the book itself much more valuable (a new edition was published by Christian Focus Publications in 2009). I believe Boston’s Works may still be available. They were reprinted some years ago (I think by Tentmaker Publications) and make for wonderful reading—even for non Scots!

 

Zaspel:
What is the significance of the title you gave the book, The Whole Christ? And while you’re at it, explain your emphasis on the need, in preaching the gospel, to preach Christ.

Ferguson:
Actually the title is the publisher’s! My working title was A Marrow for Modern Divines, but I know that doesn’t sell books so it was no surprise that it was changed! I suspect the expression totus Christus had a role in the decision. Among other things the book tries to emphasize a point that can be traced back in reformed preaching all the way to Calvin (and then of course back to the Scriptures) that we are called to preach Christ himself as the one who in his all-sufficiency is able to save completely all who come to God through him.

That seems obvious. After all, many a man has opened his ministry by preaching on being “determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” But then we analyze some (perhaps much) preaching, including evangelical and reformed preaching, and discover that although this may be true is not always practiced. I try to say in the book that preaching covenant theology, redemptive history, the reformed ordo salutis, rigorous application, sheer grace, and even the penal substitutionary doctrine of the atonement may still lack the heart of the matter—proclaiming Christ Jesus himself as the Redeemer in whom all of our salvation is found.

So one of my underlying concerns has been that in the ongoing debates about how we are to preach Christ in all the Scriptures it is possible to believe you have the ‘”right” position and yet still not preach Christ himself.  One way I think I can put it is to say how important it is for us to realize that none of the following died on the cross for us: Redemptive-historical method, Covenant theology, the Five Points of Calvinism, sin as idolatry, the sovereignty of God in regeneration, the doctrine of justification, the inseparability of sanctification from justification . . .. and so on. Only Jesus Christ, clothed in the gospel (to use Calvin’s wonderful expression) died on the cross for us. Our preaching is intended to lead people to encounter him “publicly portrayed as crucified” (Gal. 3:1). That must be part of what Paul meant when he wrote to the Ephesians that Christ who reconciled us at the cross then himself “came and preached peace to you who were far off” (Eph. 2:17).

At the end of the day our preaching should be such that (i) Christ himself (ii) offers himself (iii) in the preaching of himself (iv) through the lips of those set apart by himself.

 

Zaspel:
Should repentance be considered a condition in the gospel offer? What is its relation to faith? And what was the problem of “preparationism”?

Ferguson:
Have mercy on me, Fred—those three questions demand a book-length answer! But in short, the concern of Boston and his friends was that the gospel should be offered “without money and without price.” As their fellow-countryman Samuel Rutherford wrote in the previous century, the reprobate have the same warrant to believe in Christ as the elect. There are no “conditions” to be met in the individual before he is offered Christ and urged to trust him. Of course the Spirit will, to varying degrees, brings people to a consciousness of sin and a need for Christ. So we need to distinguish between the warrant for faith and the way in which people come to saving faith by being convicted of their sin and need. But what concerned the Marrow Men was that all too easily this can be turned into an almost measurable condition, with the result that people were turned inwards to see if they were “prepared” enough as a qualification, rather than pointed outwards to Christ himself.

 

Zaspel:
Explain for us the contrasting concerns of “legalism” and “antinomianism” that marked either side of this controversy.

Ferguson:
These terms have their uses but they have always been difficult ones in the story of Christian theology. We probably need to be more cautious in using them than we sometimes are simply because they create a “one size fits all” pigeon-holing of people. (Neither Jesus nor Paul employed either term!).

It often surprises people to realize that both Jesus and Paul were accused of “antinomianism.” The same accusation was made against the Marrow brethren in the Marrow Controversy—that they were downplaying the role of the law in the Christian life. But on the contrary they believed they had grasped what Paul meant by teaching that the Christian is free from the law while at the same time repeating the substance of the law in his teaching. Boston and his friends saw that God’s law from the beginning emerged within the context of his grace (Exodus 20:1) and belongs within that context in the Christian life. The more we grasp God’s grace, the stronger the commandments we are able to bear! The more we preach Christ in his grace the more rigorous the imperatives people will be able to receive.

 

Zaspel:
It seems a bit ironic, at least at first, that you would argue that legalism and antinomianism are similar – can you explain that for us?

Ferguson:
Yes, this seems to be the point in The Whole Christ that has struck a chord with people. Because we think of legalism and antinomian as “opposites,” we don’t always reflect that they have the same root cause. They therefore require the same root cure. So it is not a cure, and indeed an error, to think that the answer to one is a little dose of the other! I think this first struck me years ago when it dawned on me that so many antinomians confessed that they had been legalists first.

Both legalism and antinomianism can be traced back to the Garden of Eden and Genesis 3. The serpent deceived Eve (her word, not first Paul’s or mine!) first into a legalistic disposition towards the Creator Lord (he prohibits you from eating from all of the trees—the implication being he gives nothing and you have to earn everything—he doesn’t love you)—and then into an antinomian disposition (reject his commandment—clearly he doesn’t love you).

In both instances the root error was not about the role of God’s law but about the very character of God himself. Like many of the Puritans, Boston and others stressed that God’s creating disposition was one of wonderful graciousness. In the case of Eve (followed by ourselves) both legalism and antinomianism spring both theologically and psychologically from a failure to grasp this. So one of the burdens of the whole of Christ’s ministry (and therefore of The Whole Christ!) is to work through the restoration of a true doctrine and knowledge of God which alone sets us free from the dispositional malaise of both legalism and antinomianism.

 

Zaspel:
How did this Marrow controversy bear on the Christian’s assurance of salvation? What clarification was given?

Ferguson:
In one sense I think that medieval Roman Catholic theology was never banished from the Scottish psyche despite the Reformation. Medieval and later Tridentine Catholicism taught that we are justified essentially because of what grace works into us. When that infused grace does its work perfectly we become justifiable on the grounds of the righteousness it has produced. Thus we are “justified by grace”! But there are two problems with this “ordo salutis.” One is that this is not a biblical understanding of grace. The other is that nobody can be sure “enough” has been accomplished for them to be justifiable. So the whole system turns us inward to see if we have “enough” righteousness.

Protestants can fall into the same trap and make their assurance of salvation depend on the degree of sanctification they have reached. By contrast the sheer Christ-centered nature of the thinking of Boston and his friends, coupled with the freeness and fullness in the gospel (both are essential) helps turn our gaze away from ourselves to Christ in whom alone our assurance is to be found.

 

Zaspel:
As Thomas Boston came to reemphasize these matters, what was the new “tincture” that marked his preaching?

Ferguson:
Good question! Boston spoke about people noticing that there was a new “tincture” about his preaching. He comments on the fact that people noticed it. In the book I say that I wrote The Whole Christ in the hope that this “tincture” might be discovered again more widely. However, I don’t think I said exactly what the “tincture” was!

That was deliberate. We live in a time when it almost seems that a preacher needs to have a special “thing” or emphasis if he is to count—something that makes him distinct, different from others, even something for which he becomes known. The last thing I would want is for “Boston’s Tincture” to be thought of in those terms. So to be honest I felt that if I said “and the tincture is X” then it might confirm in some readers the idea that what they needed was to “get Boston’s X factor!” But that would obscure the fact that the “tincture” doesn’t come by trying to get the tincture! It comes only in our growing in our knowledge and love for Christ himself “clothed in the garments of the gospel,” through the word of God and by the Spirit of God within the context of the providence of God.

 

Zaspel:
Do you have any new books in the works that we can expect?

Ferguson:
Thank you for asking, Fred. The Lord willing, yes. The next one is entitled Devoted to God, and is a treatment of sanctification. I realize there are excellent books on the theme of holiness (Walter Marshall’s classic, Ryle’s great work, and more recently Kevin de Young has written on the subject)—so obviously one needs to “justify” writing another one. The subtitle is Blueprints for Sanctification and the book begins with a somewhat different “take” on what “holiness” means. If there is a distinctive feature that justifies another book on the theme (can we have too many?) it probably lies in the approach. I have tried to focus on a selection of central New Testament passages that provide the groundwork for sanctification (“blueprints”) and work through them in a progressive and cumulative way. If readers know George Smeaton’s two great classic volumes on the atonement, Devoted to God is a kind of more modest (and doubtless very inferior!) attempt to do something similar with sanctification. In harmony with the principles of our Lord’s prayer in John 17 that sanctification takes place through his word, my aim has been to draw the blueprints for sanctification from within both the context and the atmosphere of the text of Scripture itself. I think the book is due out by the Summer of this year.

Buy the books

The Whole Christ

Crossway, 2016 | 256 pages