Since the days of the early church, Christians have wrestled with the relationship between law and gospel. If, as the apostle Paul says, salvation is by grace and the law cannot save, what relevance does the law have for Christians today?
By revisiting the Marrow Controversy—a famous but largely forgotten eighteenth-century debate related to the proper relationship between God’s grace and our works—Sinclair B. Ferguson sheds light on this central issue and why it still matters today. In doing so, he explains how our understanding of the relationship between law and gospel determines our approach to evangelism, our pursuit of sanctification, and even our understanding of God himself.
Ferguson shows us that the antidote to the poison of legalism on the one hand and antinomianism on the other is one and the same: the life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ, in whom we are simultaneously justified by faith, freed for good works, and assured of salvation.
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About the Author
Sinclair B. Ferguson (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is professor of systematic theology at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, Texas, and the former senior minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina. He is the author of numerous books, including By Grace Alone and Name above All Names (with Alistair Begg).
Read an Excerpt
How a Marrow Grew
This story begins some three hundred years ago in a small Scottish town, at a meeting attended by perhaps a few dozen men. It records the progress of a theological conflict that grew out of a single question asked of a young man hoping to become a Presbyterian minister.
The question, however, had a sting in its tail.
Nobody knows who first thought up the question or who formulated its precise wording. Nobody knows who was first to ask the question or how many times it had been asked before. But it was intended to tell the questioner much more than the person who answered it might want to reveal.
Nobody at the meeting could have imagined what would happen as a result of the answer that was given. Nor could any of them have suspected that three hundred years later people would still be discussing it. If you had suggested to them that they were setting in motion the "Marrow Controversy," they would have said (as people still do!), "The what controversy?"
So, where and when and why did all this take place? And what was the question?
Some forty-five miles or so to the northwest of Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, lies Auchterarder, population less than five thousand. Until a few decades ago the main road from Stirling to Perth ran through the long main street, from which the town was popularly known as "The Lang Toun." The slow one-and-a-half-mile drive regulated by a thirty-mile-an-hour speed limit caused many a frustrated driver to be caught in a speed trap at its far end. Better by far to have taken a break in town and enjoyed a fine coffee accompanied by some excellent home baking!
To the outsider little seems to happen in Auchterarder.
Someone knowledgeable in Scottish family history might just know that much of the land in the area was once owned by John Haldane of Gleneagles, who had sat in the last Scottish Parliament and also, from 1707, in the first British Parliament.
A few Christians might recognize the Haldane name. It was from this family line that the remarkable brothers Robert Haldane (1764–1842) and James Haldane (1768–1851) were descended. Robert would become the more famous in the annals of the church because of a remarkable awakening that took place among theological students in Geneva through a Bible study that he led while visiting the city. The Enlightenment-influenced theological faculty was so hostile to the informal gatherings at which he expounded Paul's letter to the Romans that the professors took it in turns to stand sentry outside the Haldanes' rented apartment. They noted and reported the names of students who attended, later threatening them with being barred from ordination!
Haldane of Gleneagles. Gleneagles? This is the great estate that is now the famous Gleneagles Hotel and golf courses. If today the tranquility of Auchterarder is disturbed, it is likely to be because the hotel is hosting an occasion of international interest. It was here that the July 6–8, 2005, G8 Summit took place, when Auchterarder played host to world leaders and a veritable army of media and security experts. A report to the Scottish executive on the economic impact of this weekend gathering put the price tag at around one hundred million dollars.
September 2014 saw a similar invasion for the playing of the Ryder Cup, the biennial golf match between the United States and Europe, which now captures the third-largest television viewing audience for a sporting event, with spectators present from as many as seventy-five countries. Simply hosting the event had the potential to boost the value of the Scottish tourist industry by an annual figure well in excess of one hundred million dollars.
But three hundred years ago, Auchterarder and its people presented a very different picture. It was then a small mill town where most of its residents squeezed out a subsistence living as weavers, tenant farmers, and, for the women, as domestic servants. An extant set of accounts for the household of a local farm laborer indicates an annual income of $40.00 for the year, with expenditures of around $39.90. The wealth and publicity of a G8 Summit or a Ryder Cup would have been far beyond the wildest dreams of those who passed their days here.
In a rural Scottish village like Auchterarder in the early eighteenth century, nothing was expected to happen that would excite the interest of the wider world or be recorded in the annals of church history.
That is, until the regular meeting of the Auchterarder Presbytery of the Church of Scotland in February 1717.
Scottish church life has been dominated by Presbyterianism since the days of John Knox and the Reformation in the sixteenth century. In Presbyterian churches each congregation is led, or "governed," by elders, usually one teaching elder (the minister) and a number of ruling elders, at best men of spiritual integrity and some measure of discernment and pastoral ability. The teaching elder was normally a university-educated, theologically trained man. The ruling elders had no formal theological education. They learned to be elders by years of receiving biblical instruction, by themselves being led by elders, and by a kind of osmosis as in due course they took their place in the company of longer-standing elders in what was known as the "Kirk Session."
In addition to the life of the local congregation, the minister and an elder would regularly gather with representatives of other local congregations at the presbytery to hear reports and discuss matters of common interest and concern.
Beyond this simple structure lay a less frequent gathering of several presbyteries, known as the "Synod," and also the annual national gathering of congregational representatives at the General Assembly. While each congregation was basically self-sufficient, and was led by its own elders, these "courts of the church" provided a sense of unity and a kind of ascending hierarchy of authority in matters of common concern or dispute.
The selection, examination, and ordination of ministers were all the responsibility of the local presbytery. With this in view candidates for the ministry were taken under supervision. Throughout the period of their training they completed prescribed exercises. These culminated in a final oral examination administered in the presence of the whole presbytery — any member of which might ask a question, and all of whom would eventually vote on the candidate. Daunting indeed!
A Narrative of Surprising Presbytery Meetings
Imagine then, that you have traveled back in time. It is Friday, February 12, 1717. The presbytery of Auchterarder is holding its monthly gathering. The agenda has now moved to the case of a young candidate for the ministry. He has already preached, presented the requisite church exercises, and completed his dissertation on a doctrinal point put to him in Latin. The trials can be rigorous. But this particular young candidate has completed all of the stages. Indeed at the previous presbytery meeting he had been licensed as a preacher of the gospel.
But now there is a problem.
Two meetings before this, on December 11, 1716, the presbytery had given the candidate his examination in theology. It had, however, postponed further consideration of him until the next meeting. And so, on January 15, 1717, he came before the presbytery again. He was now asked to sign his name to his answers to the questions the presbytery had put to him.
In the nature of the case in most presbyteries, patterns of questioning become somewhat stereotyped. In addition there are sometimes individuals who will ask their personal "litmus test" question. These are rarely straightforward. At best they challenge the candidate to take biblical teaching with which he is familiar and apply it to a question or situation with which he is unfamiliar. At worst they set theological traps. These need to be carefully negotiated.
The candidate before the presbytery of Auchterarder is William Craig. He has been caught in such a trap.
As a candidate in the presbytery of Auchterarder, William Craig had been asked to agree to a statement that had become a unique hallmark of its examinations. Were it not for his response, it might well have remained hidden in the dust-gathering volumes of the presbytery's handwritten minutes. The question itself came to be known as the "Auchterarder Creed." He was asked to agree to 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.
Perhaps Craig was well enough known to the members of the presbytery that they already suspected he would be in some difficulty.
Turn the question over in your own mind. How would you respond? Do you agree that "it is not sound and orthodox to teach that we forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ?" Perhaps you can hear the echo of the words beloved by TV lawyers: "Mr. Craig, just answer the question yes or no."
Craig had some scruples about the precise wording of the test question. Nonetheless, at the January meeting he had been willing to subscribe his name on the presbytery copy of the [Westminster] Confession of Faith, and had been duly licensed.
In the event, however — perhaps you have some sympathy with him? — Craig's conscience was troubled, and he returned to the following presbytery meeting. He explained that he had subscribed his signature in haste and now wished for an opportunity to explain his position.
The presbytery of Auchterarder heard him out, and at its stated meeting on February 12, 1717, proceeded to declare William Craig's license to preach the gospel null and void.
Perhaps the presbytery assumed the matter would rest there. If so they were to be disappointed.
In the months that followed, through a process of appeal against the presbytery decision, the issue of the Auchterarder Creed came before the next meeting of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. The fathers and brethren of the Kirk condemned the creed and declared "their abhorrence of the foresaid proposition as unsound and most detestable doctrine, as it stands, and was offered by the said Presbytery to the said Mr. William Craig." The presbytery of Auchterarder was ordered to restore his license.
That might have been the end of the matter were it not for a private discussion that took place immediately afterward between two ministers who "happened" to fall into conversation when the session concluded.
Who Is My (Assembly) Neighbor?
Present at the 1717 Assembly was the Reverend John Drummond, a minister from the town of Crieff and a member of the presbytery of Auchterarder. Beside him at the critical session sat one of the most remarkable ministers in the entire history of the Church of Scotland.
The Assembly neighbor was at that time forty-one years old. He had written his first book some two decades earlier while still a young probationer minister. Its quaintly worded title, Soliloquie on the Art of Man Fishing, expressed his evangelistic zeal as well as his pastoral heart. He soon hoped to publish what would become his best-known book, Human Nature in Its Fourfold State.
His own congregation lay deep in the border country between Scotland and England in the valley of the River Ettrick, set within what has been described as a "sea of hills." He had been called to this widespread parish in 1711. It had had no minister for four years.
When he had arrived in his new parish, he found the people were far more concerned about this world than the world to come. They were conceited and censorious. A shy man by natural disposition, although a preacher of unusual ability, he suffered the indignity of members of the congregation making noises while he was preaching, walking out, and even wandering around the churchyard outside talking deliberately loudly. Fathers who conducted family prayers when at home could be heard cursing in the streets. While a minister in the congregation he had previously served in Simprin, Sundays had been the best day of the week. But now he wrote: "The approaching Sabbath, that sometimes was my delight, is now a terror to me."7 In addition, another, more exclusive, church fellowship had gathered in the same area, and its members were not slow to criticize the parish minister of such a spiritually indifferent congregation.
By God's grace, now in 1717, things had begun to change wonderfully under his rich ministry of the gospel.
The name of John Drummond's Assembly neighbor was Thomas Boston. But we can let him tell the story of their conversation in his own words:
The "Auchterarder Creed," was all at once at that diet [i.e., of the General Assembly] judged and condemned; though some small struggle was made in defence thereof. And poor I was not able to open a mouth before them in that cause; although I believed the proposition to be truth, howbeit not well worded. ...
And here, namely, in the condemnation of that proposition, was the beginning of the torrent, that for several years after ran, in the public actings of this church, against the doctrine of grace, under the name of Antinomianism. ... Meanwhile, at the same time sitting in the assembly house, and conversing with Mr. John Drummond, minister of Crief, one of the brethren of that presbytery above mentioned, I happened to give him my sense of the gospel offer; Isa. lv. 1, Matt. xi: 28, with the reason thereof; and withal to tell him of The Marrow of Modern Divinity.
Treasure Hidden on a Window Head
In his earlier ministry in Simprin, at that time one of the smallest parish churches in Scotland, Boston had long struggled with issues of the law and the gospel. But around the year 1700, while on a pastoral visit, he spotted on a window head a book entitled The Marrow of Modern Divinity. He took it down, read it, and discovered that it spoke to both his heart and his mind and to a wide variety of pastoral issues in his ministry. He imbibed the insights it stimulated into biblical and pastoral theology. His own preaching and teaching began to reflect what he saw as a new, Christ-centered, gospel-rooted emphasis.
Boston had in fact noticed two books lying on the window head of his parishioner's house. His reaction to the second book, Christ's Blood Flowing Freely to Sinners, was very different. His comments are significant in light of the controversy that would later arise, and particularly the accusation of antinomianism that was leveled against the teaching he espoused:
These [the two books] I reckon, had been brought home from England by the master of the house, a soldier in the time of the civil wars. Finding them to point to the subject I was in particular concern about, I brought them both away. The latter, a book of Saltmarsh's, I relished not; and I think I returned it without reading it quite through. The other, being the first part only of the Marrow, I relished greatly; and purchased it, at length from the owner ... and it is still to be found among my books. I found it to come close to the points that I was in quest of and to shew the consistency of these, which I could not reconcile before; so that I rejoiced in it, as a light which the Lord had seasonably struck up to me in my darkness.
Saltmarsh — that is, John Saltmarsh — was one of the most notable antinomians of the seventeenth century. Boston had so little taste for his teaching that he returned the book — unfinished.
John Drummond immediately acted on this "chance" conversation:
Hereupon he [Drummond], having inquired in the shops for the said book, at length got it; and from him Mr. James Webster getting it, was taken therewith; and afterward, Mr. Drummond himself being hardly allowed time to read it through it came into the hands of Mr. James Hog, minister of Carnock; and in end was reprinted in the year 1718, with a preface by the said Mr. Hog, dated at Carnock, Dec. 3, 1717.
So deeply opposed was the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to the teaching and influence of the Marrow that it passed an act in 1720 prohibiting ministers from recommending the book either in preaching or writing and from saying anything in its favor. In addition, if they discovered any of their members reading it, they were to warn them of its dangers and urge them neither to use it nor to read it.
In reaction, in 1721 Boston's friends, impressed by the sense of the grace of Christ in his ministry, urged him to write his own explanatory notes on the Marrow. These he duly published in a new edition of the book in 1726. Given the ban that had been placed on the book, he did so under the name of Philalethes Irenaeus.
A book placed on an Index Librorum Prohibitorum of a Presbyterian and Reformed Church? We may well ask, What was so extraordinary about this book?
The Marrow of Modern Divinity
The Marrow had been published in two parts under the initials "E. F.": part 1 in 1645, part 2 in 1648. The author's identity has been disputed, but the consensus view is that he was Edward Fisher, a barber surgeon in London and the author of several other minor works in the Puritan period.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Whole Christ"
Copyright © 2016 Sinclair B. Ferguson.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Tim Keller,
1 How a Marrow Grew,
2 Grace in the Gospel,
3 Preparation, Distortion, Poison,
4 Danger! Legalism,
5 The Order of Grace,
6 Suspicious Symptoms,
7 Faces of Antinomianism,
8 Causes and Cures,
9 The Marrow of Assurance,
10 How Assurance of Christ Becomes Assurance of Salvation,
11 "Hindrances Strew All the Way",
Appendix: Thomas Boston on Faith,