Tag Archives: penal substitution

The Whole Christ, by Sinclair Ferguson, A Review

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:

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.


Does N. T. Wright Deny Penal Substitutionary Atonement??

Aside from the question, “Who is N.T. Wright?”, the rest of the title of the post might scare you, with the phrase: “penal substitutionary atonement?” What is that all about? A brief illustration might help.

Nicholas Thomas Wright. British New Testament scholar, retired Anglican bishop, … and agitator among more than a few conservative, evangelical Protestants.

A rather popular Christian worship song, “In Christ Alone,” is sung in many churches today. One of the verses goes like this, and chimes in well with the Advent season:

In Christ alone, Who took on flesh,
Fullness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save.
‘Til on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied
For ev’ry sin on Him was laid
Here in the death of Christ I live.

A few years ago, a worship committee in a mainline denomination decided to try to change the lyrics of that highlighted line, from “the wrath of God was satisfied,” to “the love of God was magnified.” There is nothing theologically wrong with the phrase, “the love of God was magnified,” with respect to Christ’s death on the cross. The idea of Jesus dying for others, out of God’s great love for humankind, is a well established idea in biblical thought.

The problem comes with removing the language of “the wrath of the God was satisfied.” Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, the writers of the song, refused to give the denomination permission to change the lyrics. As a result, “In Christ Alone” was dropped from that church body’s hymnal.

So, what was wrong with removing the wording, “the wrath of the God was satisfied?” Well, the concept of the wrath of God being satisfied by Christ’s death on the cross is tied to the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. I can try to define this in one sentence, put backwardly: Jesus died to deal with the problem of human sin (the “atonement” part), by standing in our place (the “substitutionary” part), to take the penalty of human sin (the “penal” part), upon himself, so that His death would bear the just penalty of our sin, allowing us to be healed and to become reconciled with God. Reconciliation with God is the goal of the Gospel. Therefore, to deny penal substitutionary atonement is essentially to deny the Gospel.

For many evangelicals, them be fightin’ words: You do not mess with the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement! The problem is that my long sentence in the previous paragraph requires a whole lot of unpacking, and unfortunately, sometimes the unpacking of that sentence gives a misleading caricature of what the death of Christ is all about. Critics of the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement say that this gives us a rather paganized view of God: an angry, barbaric, capricious, and blood-thirsty God. But does this criticism apply merely to the caricature of penal substitutionary atonement, or to the very doctrine itself? Are “Bible-believing” Christians Scripturally aware enough to be able to tell the difference?

Along comes N.T. Wright, a British evangelical theologian, influential among many young pastors today, well known for his work to defend the essential historicity of the Gospels, against the infamous “Jesus Seminar,” and his work to defend the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, against detractors. Wright argues that a misuse of the doctrine of the atonement, leads to a sad caricature of what Christ really accomplished by his death on the cross. This caricature paints a picture that Wright describes in the following sermon, of:

….an angry God and a loving Jesus, with a God who demands blood and doesn’t much mind whose it is as long as it’s innocent. You’d have thought people would notice that this flies in the face of John’s and Paul’s deep-rooted theology of the love of the triune God: not ‘God was so angry with the world that he gave us his son’ but ‘God so loved the world that he gave us his son’. That’s why, when I sing that interesting recent song and we come to the line, ‘And on the cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied’, I believe it’s more deeply true to sing ‘the love of God was satisfied’, and I commend that alteration to those of you who sing that song…

N.T. Wright, therefore, would have us substitute the “wrath” of God with the “love” of God, in Townsend and Getty’s now-classic worship song, as a way of moving us along in the debate over penal substitutionary atonement.

But is N.T. Wright himself rejecting merely the caricature of penal substitutionary atonement, or the full content of the doctrine itself? Some evangelicals, such as The Gospel Coalition blogger, Trevin Wax, believe that N.T. Wright is only rejecting the caricature, and not the very doctrine itself, thus affirming Wright’s orthodoxy.

Some other critics however, within evangelicalism, are convinced of the latter. For example, Southern California pastor, John MacArthur openly says that while he is not sure as to what N.T. Wright exactly affirms, he is completely sure as to what Wright denies; namely, that Wright denies penal substitutionary atonement, and therefore, Wright denies the Gospel (link to YouTube video). Whew!!

I do find it rather startling that a pastor of MacArthur’s prominence, would be so bold to denounce another bible teacher, while at the same time admitting that he does not understand what that other bible teacher is actually teaching! Nevertheless, it does raise the question: Trevin Wax wrote his defense of N.T. Wright, linked above, in 2007. Has N.T. Wright shifted his position since then? In criticizing the caricature of penal substitution, is N.T. Wright now chipping away too much at the very doctrine itself?

Perhaps the best way to resolve this dispute is to allow N.T. Wright to answer the question directly, as he did in a recent interview with Justin Brierley, the host of the Unbelievable podcast. Ultimately, it matters not what N.T. Wright thinks, nor what Trevin Wax thinks about N.T. Wright, nor what John MacArthur thinks about N.T. Wright. What matters most is what the Holy Scriptures teach. N.T. Wright gives his view in 10 minutes below, to the question: “Do you believe in penal substitution?” How would you respond to that question?

For more on why N. T. Wright both fascinates and frustrates other evangelical Christians, read this Veracity post from several years ago. As I argued in that blog post, the problem with Wright is not so much in what he affirms, but in what he denies. Perhaps in arguing for what he affirms, which we should make a concerted effort to properly understand, before jumping in too quickly to criticize, Wright makes too much out of what he denies (or he is not as clear as he could be). To get a more critical engagement with Wright, particularly on one of his most recent books, The Day the Revolution Began, consider the following two reviews: by Dane Ortlund and by Michael Horton. For the record, I have no problem singing “the wrath of God is satisfied,” as I view there to be a clear distinction between the classic doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement and its caricature, as John R.W. Stott carefully explains in his masterpiece, The Cross of Christ


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