Book Review of Sinclair Ferguson's The Whole Christ
The difficulty of explaining the role of the law in the life of a believer has occupied the attention of pastors, theologians, and church laymen since the time of the New Testament. Sadly, when given the opportunity to explain the duty of a Christian before a gracious Master, droves of people have fallen off one of two cliffs—legalism or antinomianism. The confusion about the role of obedience in the Christian life has only intensified in recent years. An increasing aversion to authority in this age of high-octane individuality, coupled with decreasing levels of theological nuance in this age of high-speed information, makes the issue seem like an unsolvable conundrum. However, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters by Sinclair Ferguson reminds us that there is nothing new under the sun, especially when it comes to these matters.
The Whole Christ (TWC) addresses the issues of legalism and antinomianism through the lens of the Marrow Controversy, an eighteenth-century debate on the role of the law and the gospel within the Scottish Presbyterian Church. As a Scotsman and a systematician, Sinclair B. Ferguson (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is poised to bring out the salient theological implications from this episode in church history. Ferguson is one of the few theologians who needs little introduction. His pulpit ministry, teaching posts, and numerous books make him a familiar voice for many Christians.
The content of TWC began to take shape in 1980, when Ferguson received an invitation to speak at conference on the “Pastoral Lessons from the Marrow Controversy” (17). The audio from those lectures can still be found online [LINK], and now, after three decades, an expanded version of that material is available in TWC. In Ferguson’s words, TWC “is an extended reflection on the theological and pastoral issues that arose in the early eighteenth century viewed from the present day” (19). Thomas Boston, who stood at the center of the Marrow controversy, finds a significant voice in this book. In fact, one of the aims of TWC is to infuse a “tincture” (20) of Thomas Boston’s emphasis on grace into the thinking of readers. As Ferguson puts it, “It seems to me that anyone who wrestles theologically and personally with the great themes of gospel grace, legalism, antinomianism, and assurance, and is redirected to the Scriptures, should emerge with something of this ‘tincture’” (20).
The book begins with an enthusiastic forward from Tim Keller, who considers this volume “a tract for the times” (11). Keller describes the main inference he drew from reading TWC:
But if it is true that our main problem is a disbelief in the love and goodness of God, then to say, “All you need for sanctification is to believe your justification,” is too simplistic. That may lead you to cure a legalistic spirit with just less emphasis on law. You need more than just an abstract belief in your legal exemption from punishment; you need a renovation of your view of God (15–16).
In the body of the book, Ferguson spends the first several chapters introducing the details of the Marrow Controversy and drawing parallels between it and the issues that face the church today. The controversy began as a result of a poorly worded ordination question, which required ministerial candidates to reject preparationism. The question, “which became known as the Auchterarder Creed” (27), was eventually rejected by the 1717 General Assembly of the church. The church’s rejection of the question raised the ire of a group of ministers led by Thomas Boston. Armed with the controversial book, The Marrow of Modern Divinity, the “Marrow Men” argued that the gospel should be freely offered to all men on the basis of Christ finished work rather than on the basis of man’s preparatory work of rebuking sin. As a result of the subsequent debates about sin, grace, and law, the “Marrow Men” were suspected of antinomianism. In this section it will interest and surprise many readers to consider Ferguson’s critique of Pilgrim’s Progress for leaving the door open to preparationist interpretation.
After introducing the issues surrounding the Marrow controversy, Ferguson spends several chapters addressing the subsequent issue of legalism. Ferguson provides this explanation of the underlying error of legalism:
The essence of legalism … is a heart distortion of the graciousness of God and of the God of grace. For that reason … legalism is, necessarily, not only a distortion of the gospel, but in its fundamental character it is also a distortion of the law…. The gospel never overthrows God’s law for the simple reasons that both the law and the gospel are expressions of God’s grace. Therefore the reverse is true: grace confirms the law and its true character (88; emphasis original).
In these chapters, readers will be interested to consider Ferguson’s emphasis on the character of God as the basis of grace and the nature of law as a means of grace.
In addition to dealing with legalism, TWC spend several chapters addressing the opposite error of antinomianism. Ferguson alerts his readers that “for our purposes the simplest way to think of antinomianism is that it denies the role of the law in the Christian life” (140). As with legalism, Ferguson identifies a number of iterations and applications of antinomianism, but also diagnosis the underlying error that characterizes all strands:
At one level the problem is indeed rejection of God’s law. But underneath lies a failure to understand grace and ultimately to understand God. True, his love for me is not based on my qualification or my preparation. 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. Without that transformation and new conformity of life we do not have any evidence that we were ever his in the first place (154; emphasis original).
In these chapters, readers will be challenged to keep up with detailed conversations about the law and will be refreshed by Ferguson’s explanation of the power of grace to produce law-keeping fruit in the life of a believer.
In the final chapters of TWC Ferguson addresses assurance of salvation and concludes:
Christian assurance is not self-assurance and self-confidence. It is the reverse: confidence in our Father, trust in Christ as our Savior, and joy in the Spirit as the Spirit of sonship, seal of grace, and earnest of our inheritance as sons and daughters of God. When these are the hallmarks of our lives, then the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ has come home to us in full measure (226).
In these final chapters, readers will appreciate Ferguson’s pastoral tone and practical theology.
Ferguson never specifically defines the “tincture” he hopes to infuse in the thinking of his readers. Whatever the “tincture” is (or whatever the word even means), Ferguson’s aim is to exalt the grace of God available through union with Christ. In fact, a thoughtful reading of the book makes it clear that a full-orbed understanding of grace is the solution to problems relating to legalism and antinomianism. “Antinomianism and legalism are not so much antithetical to each other as they are both antithetical to grace” (156). Furthermore, grace is found only in the person of Christ and thus, “God’s grace in our union with Christ, is the antidote to both” (156). Biblically rich principles await readers willing to follow Ferguson as he travels back and forth through the centuries and doctrine of church history.
Critiques of TWC won’t arise from the overall message of the book, but rather from the limitations of the book. Ferguson attempts a rare feat when he blends historical theology, systematic theology, and practical theology. While the compilation of theological disciplines is admirable, at times it makes it difficult to “keep up” with Ferguson’s line of argumentations and virtually impossible for Ferguson to “cover” everything. Frankly, several trains of thought leave the station but never seem to arrive at their final destination. For instance, readers will be left with a number of unresolved questions about the Marrow Controversy, and how their own lives might parallel it. As a result, it will be possible for readers on all sides of the issue to find ammunition and affirmation for their view as they fill in the blanks. TWC will not resolve the ever-present debates about the law and gospel. It does, however, remind us that the intense debate over the role of obedience in the Christian life is not new and if we are going to cut through the confusion we must look to “the Whole Christ” who graciously forgives and changes sinners as Savior and Lord.
Paul Shirley is a graduate of The Expositors Seminary and has served as the pastor of Grace Community Church in Wilmington, Delaware since 2011.