Marrow Controversy 2.0?

A Reply to Daniel Wells

However, I wonder whether (Tchividjian) can affirm (WCF) 13.1 insofar as it speaks of our lusts growing weaker, the believer being strengthened in saving grace, and this to the practice of holiness. The Confession appears to speak of the Christian growing stronger and more competent, while this competence is never divorced from the power of the Holy Spirit. Again, it seems that the difference between Tchividjian’s position and that of the standards moves beyond tone into the realm of substance.


Daniel Wells has earned a reputation for himself as thoughtful commentator in the world of online Reformed discussions. His latest article, “The Contemporary Sanctification Debate: The New Marrow Controversy?” is no exception. Daniel raised some fascinating questions regarding current debates on the nature of sanctification by applying Tim Keller’s category of “theological vision” to the discussion. I don’t find this to be a helpful move (as I will explain shortly), but I think this is a conversation worth having. How can men who appear to subscribe to the same system of doctrine differ so intensely on sanctification?

It is my goal, in the spirit of friendly dialogue, to offer some critiques of Daniel’s analysis of the situation, particularly focusing on the helpfulness of Tim Keller’s category of “theological vision” in his interpretation of the marrow controversy and the current debates over the nature of sanctification.

Before offering critiques, I should say that I agree with much of Daniel’s presentation. I too identify with the “Union with Christ” camp that Daniel mentions. It is also important to note that Daniel and I are friends, and it is in the spirit of friendship and a desire for further dialogue that I offer these critiques.

Tim Keller, Theological Vision, and the Marrow Controversy

As Daniel develops his argument, he appeals to an observation made by Tim Keller in his latest book Center Church: “Keller appeals to the Marrow Controversy as to why pastors and churches in the same denomination subscribe to the same confession but have different philosophies of ministry (what Keller calls ‘Theological Vision’).” On this subject, Keller writes,

“Parties who agree on all doctrinal basics can still differ sharply on emphasis, tone, and spirit, as can be seen in the ‘Marrow Controversy’ in the Church of Scotland in the early eighteenth century when all parties agreed wholeheartedly with the Westminster Confession of Faith, yet a significant portion of the church was sliding toward legalism.”[i]

I have not found this interpretation of the Marrow Controversy anywhere else; it seems to be original to Keller. Keller’s argument appears to have some merit in light of one of Sinclair Ferguson’s comments on the matter:

“[The Church of Scotland’s] confession taught that salvation was by free grace and free grace alone, and to that confession to a man, the general assembly gave verbal assent and consent. And all the while the members’ hearts, many of them, were the stoney [sic] hearts of men hurtling towards a most subtle and dangerous form of Legalism.”[ii]

However, the interpretations of the situation by the Marrow Men and and by Sinclair Ferguson do not fit into Keller’s taxonomy of “Theological Vision.” Boston’s own words drawn from his memoirs read,

“As matters now stand in this controversy it is the gospel doctrine that has got a root stroke by the condemning of that book.”[iii]

As the Marrow Men responded to the questions of the General Assembly, they argued that this was a Gospel matter:

“They turn the matter off its proper hinge by giving a wrong color to our presentation, as if the chief design of it was to plead, not for the precious truths of the gospel which we conceive were wounded by the condemnatory act, but for the Marrow of Modern Divinity…”[iv]

For the Marrow Men, the General Assembly was guilty of legalism when they condemned the teaching of the Marrow and the Auchterarder Creed.[v]

On the other hand, the General Assembly accused the Marrow of teaching a form of antinomianism.[vi] The charges of legalism and antinomianism in this debate are not

matters of emphasis, tone, and spirit. No, these are straightforward theological and doctrinal categories.

Ferguson’s comments on the controversy bear out that he too thinks the Marrow Controversy was a doctrinal, gospel matter. He opens his lectures by arguing that the Marrow controversy is “the most pastorally significant of all the theological controversies that have taken place in the area of reformed theology” [emphasis added].[vii]

Ferguson goes on to say that there are four pastoral lessons that come from the Marrow debates: the nature of the grace of God and the offer of the gospel, the relationship between saving faith and the assurance of salvation, the answer of the gospel to legalism, and the answer of the gospel to antinomianism.[viii]

Ferguson summarizes the errors of those who opposed the Marrow Men with four sections: Christ being separated from His benefits in the preaching of the gospel, an offer of the gospel that was conditional, a distortion of the character of God, and a distortion of the pastoral ministry.[ix]

Ferguson’s lectures indicate that the heart of the issue in the Marrow Controversy was the heart of the Gospel itself. I fear that Keller’s interpretation of the Marrow controversy takes away from the real sense of urgency in the issues at stake in the Marrow controversy.

The Contemporary Debate Over Sanctification

Even if the Marrow Controversy itself is an issue of doctrine and Gospel, what about the current debates over sanctification? Are these intra-confessional debates, or is one side advocating the reformed view over and against an aberrant, non-reformed doctrine of sanctification?

For my money, this is clearly not an issue of emphasis, tone, or spirit. What we have here is a theological debate over the nature of sanctification, and at least one side appears to be advocating a non-reformed and non-confessional view of the Christian life. As David Murray has pointed out (here), Tchividjian appears to be severing any “moral or ethical link” between our obedience and God’s blessings or our disobedience and our suffering. Aside from the fact that both James and Paul would have problems with such a construction (see James 5:13-16 and I Corinthians 11:27-32), Tchividjian’s position on this score seems out of step with the Westminster Confession, which states that those who are justified

“may, by their sins, fall under God’s fatherly displeasure, and not have the light of His countenance restored unto them, until they humble themselves, confess their sins, beg pardon, and renew their faith and repentance.”

I have not seen anything in Tchividjian’s writing to indicate that  he holds to God’s “fatherly displeasure” resting on justified believers until they “renew their faith and repentance” in any way. If this is the case, then we are dealing not with a mere difference of emphasis but with an issue of antithesis between Tchividjian and the Reformed faith, not to mention Scripture itself.

There is also the matter of effort and what sort of effort the Christian is to put forth in the attainment of Christ-likeness. Jared Oliphint’s review of Jesus + Nothing = Everything bears out the concerns of many that Tchividjian’s view of effort in the Christian life is “a passive reflection, remembrance, recognition, understanding, etc., yet this passivity is somehow simultaneously hard work.”  As Oliphint points out, this raises all kinds of pastoral problems someone is sitting in your office asking for help in dealing with sin in his life. The Reformed answer to these sorts of questions traditionally has taken the form of John Owen’s Mortification of Sin or Jay Adams’ teaching on the put on/put off dynamic of Scripture. When comparing Tchividjian to Owen or Adams, the difference is one of substance, not emphasis.

Finally, there’s the interchange between Richard Phillips and Tchividjian on the Christian’s relationship to total depravity. At the outset, there was an element of this interchange that appeared to be a disagreement over emphasis. However, as the debate progressed, the differences between Phillips and Tchividjian became more evident. Tchividjian’s initial comments about a Christian’s “independent fitness” are where we the see the debate becoming more about substance and less about emphasis:

“Many Christians think that becoming sanctified means that we become stronger and stronger, more and more competent. And although we would never say it this way, we Christians sometimes give the impression that sanctification is growth beyond our need for Jesus and his finished work for us: we needed Jesus a lot for justification; we need him less for sanctification.

The truth is, however, that Christian growth and progress involves coming to the realization of just how weak and incompetent we continue to be and how strong and competent Jesus continues to be for us. Spiritual maturity is not marked by our growing, independent fitness. Rather, it’s marked by our growing dependence on Christ’s fitness for us.”

The heart of the debate became more clear when Tchividjian accused Phillips of “an over-realized eschatology when it comes to the doctrine of sanctification,” and Phillips countered by accusing Tchividjian of an “under-realized eschatology.” On this matter, the Confession teaches that in sanctification, “the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified; and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.”(13.1)

Tchividjian can affirm the Westminster’s assertion (in 13.2) that sanctification is imperfect in this life, and that corruption remains in every part of man. However, I wonder whether he can affirm 13.1 insofar as it speaks of our lusts growing weaker, the believer being strengthened in saving grace, and this to the practice of holiness. The Confession appears to speak of the Christian growing stronger and more competent, while this competence is never divorced from the power of the Holy Spirit. Again, it seems that the difference between Tchividjian’s position and that of the standards moves beyond tone into the realm of substance.

At the end of the day, Keller’s interpretation of the Marrow Controversy does not do justice to the fact that the Gospel was at stake in the Marrow Controversy. The Marrow Men contended for more than a theological vision. Their fight to defend the free offer of the Gospel was one of the more important theological disputes in Presbyterian history, and missing this robs a modern audience of important insights. Moreover, it is a mistake to interpret the current theological disputes over sanctification as an issue of emphasis. Some of the disputes may be a result of emphasis, but the language and substance of the debates indicate that there are substantive, theological, and confessional issues at stake. I hope/pray that by God’s grace these disputes will bring more light than heat, cause the church to have a greater appreciation of the two-fold blessing of union with Christ, and cause our theology to reflect the truths of Scripture more thoroughly.


Scott Cook is a 2010 graduate of Erskine College alum. He is a candidate for the ministry under care of the ARP Second Presbytery and is a student at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. 


[i] Center Church, 21-22.

[ii] Sinclair Ferguson, Marrow Controversy #2: Danger of Legalism, 2.

[iii] Sinclair Ferguson, Marrow Controversy#1: Historical Details, 5.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid, 5.

[vi] Ibid,4-5.

[vii] Ibid, 1.

[viii] Ibid, 5.

[ix] Ibid, 8-17.


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