In other words, Ferguson looks at this controversy, dissects it, and then applies it to our day. And, as it happens, we, too, are struggling with issues related to legalism and antinomianism. That makes his book perfectly timed and a valuable contribution to the discussion about the role of the law, the role of obedience, in the Christian life.
If you keep up with Christian publishing for any length of time, you will eventually spot a curious phenomenon. Every now and again a scholarly book will show up and a lot of people will get really excited about it. It will be a book that, under normal circumstances, would be known among only the scholars. And yet this one will be released with accolades assuring the non-scholarly readers (like me!) that they, too, can benefit from it. This year’s first such book is Sinclair Ferguson’s The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters. It has received those accolades and, just like they say, it is definitely worth the read.
The Whole Christ begins more than 250 years ago with a theological controversy that erupted in a small Scottish town—hardly the stuff of your average Christian book. The Marrow Controversy centered on Edward Fisher’s book The Marrow of Modern Divinity and pitted two groups of theologians against one another. The core issue was whether or not a person must first forsake his sins in order to come to Christ. The Marrow Men, those who agreed with Fisher’s book, believed that this demanded works as a precursor to faith and was, in that way, opposed to the free offer of the gospel. Their opponents taught that the gospel should only be offered to those who were beginning to show evidence of being among God’s elect. This syllogism describing their view may bring clarity: “Major premise: The saving grace of God in Christ is given to the elect alone. Minor premise: The elect are known by the forsaking of sin. Conclusion: Therefore forsaking sin is a prerequisite for saving grace.”
Ferguson points to “The subtle movement from seeing forsaking sin as the fruit of grace that is rooted in election, to making the forsaking of sin the necessary precursor for experiencing that grace.” But here’s the problem: “Repentance, which is the fruit of grace, thus becomes a qualification for grace. 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 became a message of grace for the credentialed, not an offer of Christ to all with the promise of justification to the ungodly who believes.”
This was the starting place for the Marrow Controversy, but as the controversy unfolded it unearthed a whole host of related issues.