I recently watched a breakout session from The Gospel Coalition 2021 National Conference (TGC21) discussing grace and works in the Christian life. Specifically, the question that was posed was “Does grace oppose hard work?”. However, the breakout session did not resolve the issue. Sinclair Ferguson’s book, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance – Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters provides helpful guidance. Because these issues are vital for evangelism and discipleship, this book is an important resource for missionaries.
The Marrow Controversy
The historical background of Ferguson’s book is a debate in the Church of Scotland in the early 18th century. Now, the term “marrow” seems a bit strange to our ears today. Yet, in the 17th and 18th centuries, it described the seat of a person’s vitality and strength, the essence of a subject matter.1Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Whole Christ, Crossway, 2016, p.22. The controversy acquired its name from Edward Fisher’s book, The Marrow of Modern Divinity, written in 1645. As Tim Keller points out in the foreword, the author “does a good job of recounting the Marrow Controversy in an accessible and interesting way”2 (p. 11).
Yet, The Whole Christ is not simply about an obscure debate in 18th century Scotland. Rather, the controversy serves as the background for current application. Ferguson explains:
On the surface the Marrow Controversy was about how we preach the gospel; what role, if any, God’s law and obedience play in the Christian life; and what it means to have assurance of salvation. But those issues are always, at bottom, about the gospel itself. While these themes have taken center stage at particular periods in church history, that is only the tip of the iceberg. They are perennially relevant because underneath them lies the most fundamental question of all: Who is the God whom we come to know in Jesus Christ (John 17:3)? What is he really like, truly like – deep down, through and through.Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Whole Christ, p. 18.
After describing the controversy, the rest of the book focuses on the three issues in the subtitle: legalism, antinomianism, and gospel assurance.
Trying to please God or earn our salvation by obedience is the common understanding of legalism. Yet, Ferguson sees it as more subtle than that. Referencing Eve’s deception, he writes:
Legalism is simply separating the law of God from the person of God. Eve sees God’s law, but she has lost sight of the true God himself. Thus abstracting his law from his loving and gracious person, she was deceived into “hearing” law only as a negative deprivation and not as the wisdom of a heavenly Father. . . . Thus the essence of legalism is rooted not merely in our view of law as such but in a distorted view of God as the giver of his law.-Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Whole Christ, p.82.
The author argues that grace is the antidote to legalism. Specifically, he insists that our growth in holiness confirms our justification by grace but does not strengthen it.3The Whole Christ, p. 94. Further, he states that we cannot separate repentance and faith. He argues that in the New Testament, when either term is used, both are implied.
Repentance is suffused with faith, otherwise it is legal. But then without repentance, faith would be imagination. . . . At the end of the day we cannot divide faith and repentance chronologically.The Whole Christ, p.103.
While the law can never be the means of our justification, the author states that “its substance is the moral shape that salvation takes.”4 p. 120 That is, the law functions as a “rule of life.”
For our purposes the simplest way to think of antinomianism is that it denies the role of the law in the Christian life.The Whole Christ, p.139.
However, the New Testament says that God writes the law on our hearts (Hebrews 8:10). Obedience to the law does not qualify us for grace. Rather it is the fruit of grace. But the antinomian will object “God accepts me as I am.” Ferguson responds:
But it is misleading to say that God accepts us the way we are. Rather he accepts us despite the way we are. He receives us only in Christ and for Christ’s sake. Nor does he mean to leave us the way he found us, but to transform us into the likeness of his son.The Whole Christ, p.153,154.
Antinomianism, as Ferguson describes it, separates God’s law from God’s person. Also, it separates grace from union with Christ. Additionally, he reminds us that in our union with Christ, the law is written in our hearts. So, the antidote to antinomianism is the same as for legalism.
There is only one genuine cure for legalism. It is the same medicine the gospel prescribes for antinomianism: understanding and tasting union with Jesus Christ himself. This leads to a new love for and obedience to the law of God, which he now mediates to us in the gospel. This alone breaks the bonds of both legalism (the law is no longer divorced from the person of Christ) and antinomianism (we are not divorced from the law, which now comes to us from the hand of Christ and empowered of the Spirit who writes it in our hearts).The Whole Christ, p.156.
The last three chapters of the book focus on assurance. Specifically, they talk about how we can know our belief in Christ is authentic. Most importantly, Ferguson states that a clear understanding of grace and our union with Christ nourishes assurance. Not that obedience is irrelevant to assurance. But we don’t gain assurance by our efforts. Rather assurance comes from grasping God’s grace in Christ and our union with him. Then our faith will produce fruit: the obedience of faith. Ferguson writes:
Where there is no actual obedience to Christ, there will be no evidence of present love for him as savior. Where salvation is not actualized, and a person has no consciousness of Christ’s saving mercies, assurance will inevitably be hindered. Thus the Christian who has developed a pattern of disobedience in his or her life will lose assurance.The Whole Christ, p.214.
Ferguson does not equate obedience with perfection but acknowledges our continued battle with sin and temptation. Yet, he insists that humble faith in Christ will produce a pattern of trust and obedience.
The Whole Christ is not a casual read. Yet it is worth the time and effort. With the Marrow Controversy as background, Sinclair Ferguson helps us understand the biblical antidote to distortions of law and grace that still haunt the church today. Those distortions stem from separating the work of Christ from the person of Christ, hence his title “The Whole Christ“. Ferguson explains the phrase in this way:
It is language that stresses that all our salvation comes to us from God the Father in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. This is salvation by grace alone, in Christ alone, through faith alone. It is Ephesians 1:3-14, Christ-centered, Trinity-honoring, eternity-rooted, redemption-providing, adoption-experiencing, holiness-producing, God-glorifying salvation.The Whole Christ, p.227.