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The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters Hardcover – January 31, 2016
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“The volume in your hands is not just a helpful historical reflection but also a tract for the times. Sinclair does a good job of recounting the Marrow Controversy in an accessible and interesting way. However, his real aim is not merely to do that. Against the background and features of that older dispute, he wants to help us understand the character of this perpetual problem—one that bedevils the church today. He does so in the most illuminating and compelling way I’ve seen in recent evangelical literature.”
—Timothy J. Keller, Pastor, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York City; best-selling author, The Reason for God
“This book has three things I’m very interested in: eighteenth-century Scottish church history, doctrinal clarity on the gospel, and learning from Sinclair Ferguson. As fascinating as this work is as a piece of historical analysis, it is even more important as a careful biblical and theological guide to the always-relevant controversies surrounding legalism, antinomianism, and assurance. I’m thankful Ferguson has put his scholarly mind and pastoral heart to work on such an important topic.”
—Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor, University Reformed Church, East Lansing, Michigan
“This book could not come at a better time or from a better source. Sinclair Ferguson brings to life a very important controversy from the past to shed light on contemporary debates. But The Whole Christ is more than a deeply informed survey of the Marrow Controversy. It is the highest-quality pastoral wisdom and doctrinal reflection on the most central issue in any age.”
—Michael Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics, Westminster Seminary California; author, Core Christianity: Finding Yourself in God's Story
“I know of no one other than Sinclair Ferguson who has the capacity, patience, and skill to unearth an ancient debate, set in a Scottish village with an unpronounceable name, and show its compelling relevance to gospel preaching and Christian living. This may be Sinclair’s best and most important book. Take up and read!”
—Alistair Begg, Senior Pastor, Parkside Church, Chagrin Falls, Ohio
“Sinclair Ferguson scratches through the surface definitions of legalism and antinomianism to reveal the marrow, the whole Christ. When we are offered the whole Christ in the gospel, we do not want to settle for anything that undermines the greatness and power of God’s grace. Both pastors and lay people will benefit from reading this historical, theological, and practical book.”
—Aimee Byrd, author, Housewife Theologian and Theological Fitness
“It is no exaggeration to insist that the issue dealt with in this book is more important than any other that one might suggest. For, as Ferguson makes all too clear, the issue is the very definition of the gospel itself. The errors of antinomianism and legalism lie ready to allure unwary hucksters content with mere slogans and rhetoric. I can think of no one I trust more to explore and examine this vital subject than Sinclair Ferguson. For my part, this is one of the most important and definitive books I have read in over four decades.”
—Derek W. H. Thomas, Senior Minister, First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, South Carolina; Robert Strong Professor of Systematic and Pastoral Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary–Atlanta
“I marvel at Sinclair Ferguson’s grasp of historical detail, but I praise God more for Sinclair’s love of and zeal for gospel clarity. The grace that saves our souls and enables our obedience is defined, distinguished, and treasured in this discussion about keeping the proclamation of the gospel free from human error.”
—Bryan Chapell, President Emeritus, Covenant Theological Seminary; Senior Pastor, Grace Presbyterian Church, Peoria, Illinois
“In a day when there is so much confusion about sanctification, Sinclair Ferguson cuts through all the noise and provides us with beautiful clarity on this glorious doctrine of the Christian faith. Without hesitation, this will be the first book I recommend to those who want to understand the history and theology of this most precious doctrine.”
—Burk Parsons, Copastor, Saint Andrew’s Chapel, Sanford, Florida; Editor, Tabletalk magazine
“This great book takes up the perennial issue of how grace and works relate to each other in our salvation. Ferguson begins with an old debate that took place in Scotland. He writes with deep knowledge and acute judgment, bringing clarity and insight to this issue and showing us the way out of our contemporary muddle.”
—David F. Wells, distinguished senior research professor, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; author, The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-Lovers, Marketers and Emergents in the Postmodern World
“Writing with a pastoral heart and scholarly mind, Sinclair Ferguson provides a biblical understanding of grace that sets a solid foundation for life, ministry, and worship. Using the backdrop of the Marrow Controversy, Ferguson exposes the subtle hues of legalism and antinomianism that continue to permeate the church today. I found The Whole Christ personally convicting, theologically challenging, and Christ exalting.”
—Melissa Kruger, Women's Ministry Coordinator; Editor, The Gospel Coalition; author, The Envy of Eve and Walking with God in the Season of Motherhood
“Ours is a day when we again hear charges of ‘antinomianism’ and ‘legalism’ thrown back and forth, often between folks who share the same confessional background. During such times of tension, more light and less heat is generally needed. I believe Sinclair Ferguson’s The Whole Christ offers us timely perspective, helping us better understand grace, human agency, and gospel assurance. By taking us back to historical debates Ferguson also helps us better understand our own moment, even our own confusions.”
—Kelly M. Kapic, professor of theological studies, Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, Georgia
“It’s easy to cry 'legalist' or 'antinomian,' but the realities are far subtler than we admit. Sinclair Ferguson takes an old Scottish controversy and uses it as a spotlight to illuminate our spiritual struggles today. This outstanding book untangles many a knot about God’s law and grace and powerfully reminds us that legalism and antinomianism are not opposites, but evil allies in Satan’s bitter war to dishonor the great name of Jesus Christ.”
—Joel R. Beeke, president, Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan
“It’s hard to imagine a more important book written by a more dependable guide. From a seemingly obscure theological controversy, Sinclair Ferguson brings to light issues of fundamental and perennial significance for twenty-first century evangelicals. With deep learning, theological discernment, and pastoral wisdom, he not only exposes distortions of the gospel but also helps us savor the substance of the gospel, which is Christ himself.”
—Jeff Purswell, Dean, Sovereign Grace Ministries Pastors College
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 several books, the most recent being By Grace Alone: How the Grace of God Amazes Me. Sinclair and his wife, Dorothy, have four grown children.
TIMOTHY KELLER is founder and pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. He is the best-selling author of The Prodigal God and The Reason for God.
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Top Customer Reviews
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. The Whole Christ navigates them through “an extended reflection on theological and pastoral issues that arose in the early eighteenth century, viewed from the framework of the present day.” 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.
And this is where his book takes off. Now Ferguson is going far beyond church history and bringing clarity to the way we are to live the Christian life. He is moving beyond history to do the work of a pastor. He carefully discusses how we become Christians, how we live as Christians, and how we can have assurance that we are Christians. With great precision he describes legalism and antinomianism, bringing clarity to their definitions and showing that they are not so much opposites of one another as they are “nonidentical twins that emerge from the same womb.” Antinomianism is, in its own way, an expression of legalism. “The antinomian is by nature a person with a legalistic heart. He or she becomes an antinomian in reaction. But this implies only a different view of law, not a more biblical one.”
This is a book full of treasures. Some of the treasures are on the surface waiting to be picked up, among them Ferguson’s one-line summaries of great truths: “It is misleading to say that God accepts us the way we are. Rather he accepts us despite the way we are” and “antinomianism and legalism are not so much antithetical to each other as they are both antithetical to grace.” Many of the other treasures yield only to care and effort, and in this way the book demands a fair bit from the reader. I suspect I would need to read it through once or twice more to have an advanced grasp of its subject matter. I would like to go back and do that very thing.
Ordinarily, we might assign a book like this to the bookshelves of the scholars and enthusiasts of church history. But The Whole Christ has too much to say to us to allow that to happen. It speaks too clearly and too urgently to issues that are every bit important to us as they were in the seventeenth century. I don’t think Derek Thomas is exaggerating when he says, “For my part, this is one of the most important and definitive books I have read in over four decades.”
Tim Keller writes the Foreword for the book, and his contribution may well be worth the cost of the book. He writes that “One of the striking features of the Marrow Dispute is that supporters of the Marrow were accused of defending antinomianism, and at least some of its critics were, in turn, suspected of legalism—even though all parties had subscribed to what the Westminster Confession says about justification and works.”
The Marrow Controversy is an event that not many will be familiar with. It occurred nearly 300 years ago in a small Scottish town and centered on Edward Fisher’s book The Marrow of Modern Divinity. The core issue was whether or not a person must first repent of his sins before coming to Christ. The Marrow Men agreed with Fisher’s book, while their opponents did not.
Ferguson starts with the Marrow Controversy and then applies it to our present day. Keller writes “Against the background and features of that older dispute, he wants to help us understand the character of this perpetual problem—one that bedevils the church today.”
The books tells us that legalism and antinomianism are much more than doctrinal positions and that the root of both legalism and antinomianism is the same. It also tells us that the cure for both legalism and antinomianism is the gospel, and a “fuller, biblical, and profound understanding of grace and of the character of God.”
Ferguson tells of a speaking request that came to him in Scotland in 1980 asking him to speak about the Marrow Controversy at a pastor’s conference in the United States. He states that since that time many have told him that they have listened to those messages. That speaking engagement was the genesis of this book.
He tells us that on the surface the “Marrow Controversy was about how we preach the gospel; what role, if any, God’s law and our obedience play in the Christian life; and what it means to have assurance of salvation.”
Ferguson tells us that the book is not a study of The Marrow of Modern Divinity, although reference is made to it. It is not an historical analysis of the Marrow Controversy, although that serves as the background to it. It is also not a study of the theology of Thomas Boston, although he is mentioned and quoted often in the book. Rather, it is “an extended reflection on theological and pastoral issues that arose in the early eighteenth century, viewed from the framework of the present day.” He writes that central elements in the Marrow Controversy remain some of the most important pastoral issues of today.
The book includes themes such as gospel grace, legalism, antinomianism, assurance, and union with Christ. The book concludes with an appendix “Thomas Boston on Faith”. There is much that we can learn in these pages. I read the book rather quickly (given all of the footnotes). It is certainly worth repeated readings.