Saturday, April 16, 2016

Book Review: The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson

Have you ever heard of the Marrow Controversy? If so, have you studied it, worked out its implications? I had heard of it, wondered about it, but never took the time to dig into it. Now, with the publication of The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson we all have the means to comprehend and take hold of its significance. More importantly, to grasp its ramifications for the modern church. Sinclair Ferguson is well suited with the knowledge and expertise to write such a work.

To put it briefly, the issue at the heart of the controversy was how was the gospel to be offered and Thomas Boston was the key figure in this debate in the early 18th century.

To reduce the issue to simple terms: what do you say when you call people to come to Christ? On what grounds are they entitled to come? Several statements in The Marrow of Modern Divinity gave rise to this question.

And further

...Boston was in agreement with the intention of the Auchterarder Creed, that it is not sound to say that a man must first quit sin in order to be qualified for the offer of Christ. The offer of the gospel is to be made not to the righteous or even the repentant, but to all. There are no conditions that need to be met in order for the gospel offer to be made.


Boston felt the sheer graciousness of the Christ of the gospel was being stifled by a Calvinism that had developed a preaching logic of its own and had become insensitive to the style and atmosphere of the New Testament. In his view God’s particular election had too easily been distorted into preaching a doctrine of conditional and conditioned grace. That often goes hand in glove with a form of gospel preaching that is in danger of severing the elements in the ordo salutis from “Jesus Christ and him crucified” — that is, from Christ himself. 

The fallacy here? 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. Repentance, which is the fruit of grace, thus becomes a qualification for grace. Sinclair B. Ferguson. The Whole Christ (Kindle Locations 591-653). Crossway.

And so began a lengthy debate involving Boston and his "Marrow Men" with their presbytery. But make no mistake, this is far more than a dusty run through of some old theological fine point. The same issues Boston was dealing with then are the same issues of grace the church today faces. They must be dealt with head on and Ferguson gives us the theological ammo. This is quite a fascinating and enlightening journey through the dispute which clarifies the position we should hold today.

Chapter titles reveal much about the level of detail.

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”

Two points of special interest to me

Of particular importance and interest to me was Ferguson's clear explication of antinomianism and legalism and their relation to the proper offer of the gospel. Both would seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum and in one sense they are. Yet rather like brothers, they are similar, both errors in theology with more likenesses than one would think.

The errors in gospel presentation continue today and these are brought to the forefront.  Much of these past conflicts have direct bearing on our views and understanding of assurance today. Ferguson's writing on this subject exposes why so many believers don't have assurance, what it means to acquire it and indeed, enjoy it.

I enjoyed this book. It instructed me in both head and heart. It will be one I refer back to. It reminded me that "there is nothing new under the sun." We will always have theological error with us on this side of heaven. What may seem like simple semantics can and will have a great impact on Biblical theology and the gospel in particular. We need godly men like Boston and Ferguson to delve into these matters, expose them, and guide us to Biblical truth. Sinclair Ferguson has accomplished this in The Whole Christ.

Crossway has provided a complimentary copy of this book through Beyond the Page.

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