How do you know if you are truly a Christian? Can you be sure about that?
In our 21st century age, we tend to look down upon Christians of earlier eras, particularly the Puritans. Their world seems so far removed from ours. But such an opinion only reveals our chronological snobbery. A wealth of wisdom lays hidden with the Puritans, that we need to need to hear from today. The assurance of one’s salvation is one area of wisdom we need to recover from those Puritans,
If you ever read the writings of the English Puritans, they often speak of the tension between “legalism” and “antinomianism,” in the Christian life. On one side, is the tendency to reduce Christianity to a set of rules and regulations to follow, a bunch of “do’s and don’ts” (legalism). On the other, is the tendency towards lawlessness, a faith that has no real regard for the commands of God (antinomianism). What Christian does not wrestle with that tension today?
Between these two extremes, it can sometimes be like walking a tightrope, maintaining a sense of balance to keep from falling down one way or the other. We have plenty of controversies in church history that testify as to how difficult it is to maintain that sense of balance.
Martin Luther was accused of being a libertine by his Roman Catholic opponents, while his Papal accusers were accused of their own “works-righteousness.” Anne Hutchinson was exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, for her claim that the Puritan fathers were teaching a “covenant of works” as opposed to a “covenant of grace.” Late 20th century evangelicals argued over the “Lordship Salvation” versus “Free Grace” controversy. In recent years, megachurch pastor Andy Stanley told his congregation that they must “unhitch” themselves from the Old Testament, largely because of the Old Testament emphasis on law, causing quite an uproar.
In all of these controversies, the assurance of one’s salvation has hung in the balance. At the core of this, the relationship between Law and Gospel is something with which every new generation must wrestle.
Sinclair Ferguson, in his The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters, looks at one of these controversies in church history, as a lens on which to try to tease out how this balance might be properly maintained. The “Marrow Controversy” was an otherwise forgotten controversy over an otherwise forgotten book, by Edward Fisher, a Puritan author from the 1640s, entitled The Marrow of Modern Divinity.
The Whole Christ centers around the story of an early 18th century Scottish preacher, Thomas Boston. Early in his preaching career, Boston was frustrated by the lack of positive response to his preaching message, among the callous in his Scottish congregation. Yet Boston took great comfort in reading Edward Fisher’s book, when he stumbled across it one day, while visiting someone else’s home. Fisher’s book sought to find a way between legalism and antinomianism (a term which means, “against the law”). The abbreviated title, “The Marrow,” meant that Fisher was trying to get at the innermost substance of the Gospel. Boston credited The Marrow for correcting his own posture towards the Gospel, and it revolutionized his ministry.
So, when the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland banned the book in 1720, as promoting antinomianism, some 80 years after it was first published, a theological fire erupted. Thomas Boston and his like-minded preacher friends protested the ban. These pastors, known as the “Marrow Men,” did not view the book as dangerous at all, but rather saw its message as liberating with the truth of the Gospel. The censure of the church, which subsequently was never revoked (even to this day!), would not stop the “Marrow Men,” for they sought to republish The Marrow of Modern Divinity, with some notes added by Thomas Boston, in 1726.
Sinclair Ferguson’s The Whole Christ endeavors to explain the “Marrow” debate that engulfed the early 18th century Church of Scotland, as a means to help us today to properly understand the relationship between the Law and the Gospel. There are a couple of added, standout benefits gained from Sinclair Ferguson, from this book:
- What is a right understanding of penal substitutionary atonement, a pivotal teaching from Scripture, which is greatly maligned, misunderstood, and mistaught in the church today?
- Many Christians wonder about the so-called “New Perspective on Paul,” and Ferguson offers a brief, fair-minded critique.
- Does John Bunyan’s once wildly popular allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress, always, in all of the particular details, give us the right view of the Gospel? Maybe not, according to Sinclair Ferguson.
- How can we obtain the assurance of our salvation? Is the assurance of salvation the norm of Christian experience, or a rarity?
The last issue, regarding the assurance of salvation, is something that still needs sharpening in our day. For on one side, it is very easy to have a false assurance of one’s salvation, by presuming upon the grace of God, and thereby leading a life of recklessness, marked by a distinct lack of holy living. If you dwell among Christians who act one way on Sunday, but who act completely different on the other days of the week, you will know exactly what this means.
We may think we have a right standing before God, when in fact, we have merely fooled ourselves, placing our own demands and wishful thinking upon God. On the other side, we can become so restless concerning our final state before God, that we lack confidence in the power of God to save sinners. In our insecurity about “going to hell” we forget about the love of God, which brings us into the joy of God’s presence. People who fret and fret over whether their faith is fully acceptable, in the sight of God, reveals this sense of spiritual insecurity.
Sinclair Ferguson takes us on a trip through church history, that might not be familiar to readers. Ferguson draws connections between the teachings of the medieval church, similar teachings found in contemporary Roman Catholicism, and other crucial theological figures, such as the 16th century French/Swiss Reformer, John Calvin, and the 19th century Scottish “heretic” John McLeod Campbell. But this is not theological history to satisfy certain intellectual curiosities. Instead, Ferguson weaves a theological tale that will assist the reader in avoiding common pitfalls, that can easily derail the life of any Christian.
The forward of The Whole Christ, written by Tim Keller, helps to orient the reader to understand the book’s purpose, regarding how the Law and the Gospel relate to one another. Keller writes that Ferguson “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.” But the book’s audience should not be restricted to pastors, for The Whole Christ seeks to set out a reasoned, biblical approach to how a balance between legalism and license can be lived out.
How can this be done? By preaching the whole Christ. A proper understanding of the Gospel, in its fullness, is the antidote that helps believers to avoid a sense of making the Christian faith into following a list of do’s and don’ts. It also helps us to avoid a faith, where we can fool ourselves to think that we can do whatever we want, with no restraints upon our conscience. The subtle danger, as Ferguson tells us, is that often we can have a very “orthodox” sounding theology, but that on the inside, our hearts’ disposition is completely out of whack. The way the message is presented is just as important as the message itself.
By emphasizing the whole Christ, Ferguson insists that it is all too easy to separate Christ Himself from the benefits He gives to the believer. A proper grounding for the assurance of our salvation is found in loving God for who He is, and not simply for what He gives us.
The last few chapters of The Whole Christ explore the details of what it means to have the assurance of one’s salvation. These chapters make for the densest reading in the book, but it forced me to read slowly and think more carefully. Does one have an unhealthy preoccupation with anxiety about their eternal state? Or does one settle for a kind of presumptive expectation of salvation, when actually, their hearts are far, far from God? Sinclair Ferguson endeavors to find the right balance and nuance, to get at the truth.
Again I ask: What genuine Christian does not struggle with these matters? But notice how easy it is to trick ourselves. If I find myself easily condemning other Christians for their “loose-living,” that might be an indication of legalism in my own heart. On the other hand, if I am quick to dismiss the rigidity of how another Christian seeks to be obedient to God, it might be a good sign of a latent antinomian spirit residing in me.
What is the solution to avoiding these spiritual traps? Knowing the whole Gospel: The Whole Christ. How do we equip ourselves to fully understand and implement this truth?
One way would be reading The Whole Christ, by Sinclair Ferguson. I listened to the audiobook format, but if you like a video teaching format, you should consider the video teaching series, available at Ligonier Ministries. The clarity of doctrinal teaching that Ferguson offers is exceptional. I have read through the entire book once, and several other parts multiple times, and I continue to learn vital Scriptural truths to be applied to my walk with Christ, in every chapter. This is a book to savor, and re-read, so that the Scriptural truths it conveys might become imprinted upon our hearts.
UPDATE: September 26, 2019, 10am
This just came in…. a debate between William Lane Craig and Gregory Boyd on penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). Haven’t viewed it yet, but it looks to be very good, and quite relevant to the topics covered in The Whole Christ. I side with William Lane Craig here, but Gregory Boyd is probably one of the most able critics, whose perspective should be taken seriously by other Christians. I see the PSA view as complementing the Christus Victor view of the atonement, and not a contradiction.