Book Review: The Whole Christ, by Sinclair Ferguson
Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters. Crossway, 2016. 258 pp, $24.99.
It doesn’t take long as a Christian before questions start to simmer in your heart about grace, law, and assurance of salvation. It may take even less time as a pastor to discover how often your own sheep wonder and even worry about such complexities from week to week. “How sorry must I be for my sin in order to receive God’s mercy? How repentant is repentant enough?” These enigmas undulate all the more in the hearts of those caught in the wake of the New Perspective debate over the relationship between second temple Judaism and Pauline thought on justification. Yet the Preacher testifies that there is nothing new under the sun (Eccl 1:9), and Sinclair Ferguson affirms the Preacher’s conclusion by reminding us of the Marrow Controversy from the 1700s and why it still sets us straight today.
Do we forsake sin in order to come to Christ? Answer carefully, pastors—the tenor of your preaching hangs in the balance. This is the great question that occupied the presbytery of Auchterarder in 1717. The question itself was ignited by Edward Fisher’s controversial book The Marrow of Modern Divinity (1645, 1648; reprinted 2015, Rosshire, UK: Christian Focus), which sketches an imaginary but loaded conversation between Evangelista, Nomista, and Neophytus. As it circulated like a cyclone through the Scottish Kirk, Thomas Boston made even more waves when he weighed his anchor in the storm by affirming just what The Marrow had asserted: we do not in fact forsake sin in order to come to Christ. His stance drew criticisms of antinomianism, which were met with countercharges of legalism, and the waves of that storm have rippled down to our own day. In fact, they’re still churning.
But Boston was right. When Jesus tells us in Matt 11:28-30 “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” Ferguson notes that “to ‘labor’ and to be ‘heavy laden’ are not qualifications for coming to Christ. They are reassurances that none is disqualified from coming to him by weakness and unworthiness. . . . The gospel makes clear that it was to the disqualified that [Jesus] delighted to offer himself” (52). Anything contrary Ferguson labels “false preparationism” (57) or “conditionalism” (65), which slips under the radar in tacit assumptions like “you may know these benefits [of Christ]—if you are among the elect. You may receive forgiveness—if you have sufficiently forsaken sin. You may know the message of grace—if you have experienced a sufficient degree of conviction of sin” (57).
So, what gives a sinner warrant to believe in Jesus for forgiveness and salvation? Is it the quality or length of the sinner’s conviction, contrition, or repentance? No. The warrant for believing in Christ cannot be anything in the sinner. The warrant for faith in Christ is Christ himself—Christ alone. Paul said that while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly (Rom 5:6-8). Ferguson asks, “What conditions were met in us in order for God to send his only Son into the world to die for sinners? None” (65).
The brooding pastoral concern behind this issue is whether “the chief focus, the dominant note of the sermons I preach (or hear) is ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’? Or is the dominant emphasis . . . focused somewhere else, perhaps on how to overcome sin, or how to live the Christian life, or on the benefits to be received from the gospel?” (50). Thus Ferguson suggests we say to sinners: “I do not offer Christ to you on the grounds that you have repented. Indeed I offer him to men and women who are dead in their trespasses and sins” (65). If you’re only willing to offer the gospel to people who have made themselves eligible for it, then you’ll be left with no one to offer it to at all.
Another way to frame the issue is to ask the question: “how is evangelical repentance related to faith?” (100) While keeping them together, Thomas Boston still affirmed that “gospel repentance doth not go before, but comes after remission of sin, in the order of nature,” so that, as Ferguson puts it, “faith then directly grasps the mercy of God in [Christ], and as it does so the life of repentance is inaugurated as its fruit” (101).
We should all be this clear. We do not repent in order to be forgiven. We repent because we believe in Christ, and we’re united with Christ. If repentance can precede faith, “either logically or chronologically,” then it ceases to be evangelical repentance (101) and begins to resemble Catholic penance—a work performed to merit grace.
One of Ferguson’s best insights is that legalism and antinomianism share the same root. Eve disobeyed God because she suspected He was forbidding her too much and permitting her too little—her legalistic view of God drove her antinomian rebellion against Him (p.84).”
What about the relation of the law to the believer? In short, Ferguson casts it as a rule of life rather than another covenant of works we have to perform (114-121). Yet because we used to live under the regime of Law, we have a hard time changing our thought patterns. We commend the tax collector, but we function like the Pharisee (124-125).
So how do I know if I’m a practical legalist? One sign is if I get irked when God honors a fellow servant with prominence or notoriety, one who we deem as less worthy than self, because “deep down we still think that grace should always operate on the principle of merit” (127). That’s hard for all of us to hear. But Ferguson deepens the incision: “Every form of jealousy . . . means my sense of personal identity and worth has become entwined with my performance and its recognition rather than being rooted and grounded in Christ and his de-merited grace” (128).
But what if I’m a practical antinomian and don’t realize it? Ferguson counsels us to look for “an over-realized personal eschatology, as though the strong and subtle influence of sin had been destroyed” (142). We should be equally suspicious of the chic denial of any distinction between moral, ceremonial, and civil law, lumping them all together as equally outmoded in Christ, since that often frees the antinomian in us to live as he does. Convenient; but then which law is the one written on the Christian’s heart by the Spirit in Rom 8:1-3? It can’t be the whole thing, civil or ceremonial included. It has to be the Decalogue (142-152, 167). So “the deepest response to antinomianism is not ‘you are under the law’ but ‘you are despising the gospel and failing to understand . . . that . . . faith-union [with Christ] leads to the requirements of the law being fulfilled in you through the Spirit” (153-154, see also 168). Thus, the whole gospel cures both legalism and antinomianism with the same medicine, because in the gospel God shows how undeniably generous he really is by freely giving us what matters most to him—his only Son, Jesus Christ.
It’s this assurance—that God has given us in His Son all we need for peace of conscience and peace with God—that grows into an assurance that if we ourselves are in Christ, then it really is well with our souls. This is how Evangelista puts it to Neophytus in The Marrow, ‘It seems you do not want a ground for your believing, but for your believing that you have believed” (196). The seed of even this subjective assurance is included in true gospel faith, contrary to The Marrow’s critics and Catholic dogma. To feed that seed, Jesus sends His spirit into our hearts so that we ourselves cry out in our dire distress, “Abba, Father!” which Ferguson notes is “an instinct . . . absent from the unbeliever’s consciousness” (Rom 8:15; 209).
Yet such assurance grows slowly, because as Calvin says,
The godly heart feels in itself a division because it is partly imbued with sweetness from its recognition of divine goodness, partly grieves in bitterness from an awareness of its calamity; partly rests upon the promise of the gospel, partly trembles at the evidence of its own iniquity; partly rejoices at the expectation of life, partly shudders at death. This variation arises from imperfection of faith, since in the course of the present life it never goes so well with us that we are wholly cured of the disease of unbelief. (194)
This is why the practical syllogism—the logic of deducing assurance from evidences of grace—while still legitimate, will never feel reassuring if we seek evidences apart from faith in Christ himself (214). For even when the Christian pleads his case using his evidences, “Satan opposeth with all his might; sin and law assist him; many flaws are found in his evidences; the truth of them all is questioned; and the soul hangs in suspense as to the issue” until the Spirit comes and testifies by taking the stand himself (206, quoting John Owen). And so we are reminded once more that everything we have from God, including our assurance and even the evidences that bolster it, we have only in union with Christ—the whole Christ, Totus Christus (46, 228).
Now, if you can read all those quotes and still don’t want to read the book, I don’t know what else to do. I suspect The Whole Christ will become fodder for more than a few doctrinal expositions. It’s an instant classic—historical theology at its best. You’re going to want to quote Ferguson even more than I did here, so just make sure you don’t plagiarize him—because you’ll surely be tempted.
If it’s been a while since you’ve read historical theology, then you may find the first chapter heavy-sledding. But don’t dismount just because you can’t pronounce “Auchterarder” even in your head! The theological and pastoral focus quickly becomes sharper than the flat-screens that your wife has to pull you away from at Sam’s Club. Your heart will just want to stand and stare in wonder at some of these vivid insights, because the way Ferguson uses the Marrow controversy reminds us of how arresting, nourishing, and useful historical theology can be.
You may be shocked or at least mildly offended to find Ferguson agreeing with Thomas Boston’s criticism of Bunyan’s seemingly infallible allegory Pilgrim’s Progress. But hear him out. Boston thinks “Bunyan put the putting off of the burden too far off from the commencing of the pilgrimage. If he meant to describe what usually happens, he is right. But if he meant to show what ought to have happened, he was wrong. The cross should be right in front of the wicket gate” (59). Ferguson agrees, because “neither conviction nor the forsaking of sin constitutes the warrant for the gospel offer. Christ Himself is the warrant, since he is able to save all who come to Him. He is offered without conditions. We are to go straight to him! It is not necessary to have any money in order to be able to buy Christ” (60).
We need to get this right, because “Christians associate the character of God with the character of the preaching they hear—not only the substance and content of it but the spirit and atmosphere it conveys” (72). If the aroma (Ferguson calls it “tincture”) of your preaching is that the sinner has to find some warrant in himself in order to come to Christ in the first place, then he’ll go rummaging through all his pockets trying to find money to buy Christ for himself. But those pockets are empty. Brother, don’t make Isaiah roll over in his grave (Isa 55:1).
If I were you, I’d get this one while it’s still in hardcover, because you’ll want to read it more than once, probably with a few strugglers in your church whose names are coming your to mind even now. I gave this book to a heavy-hearted brother who struggles with assurance. I hope it helps him find rest for his soul. I know it was refreshing for mine.