As a general rule, if Sinclair Ferguson has written a book, you should probably look into it. Even more so if it touches on hot button issues like legalism and antinomianism. While it might surprise some readers, there is much to be learned from a theological controversy from the 1700’s.
His most recent book, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, & Gospel Assurance – Why The Marrow Controversy Still Matters, as the subtitle suggests, introduces readers to the “marrow” controversy. If you’re not familiar, this controversy relates to the book The Marrow of Modern Divinity by Edward Fisher. As Ferguson clarifies in the introduction,
[This] is not a study of The Marrow of Modern Divinity as such, although reference will be made to it. It is not an historical analysis of the often heated Marrow Controversy, although that serves as the background to it. Nor is it a study of the theology of Thomas Boston, although his name regularly appears in it.
Perhaps the best way to describe it is by borrowing from the world of classical music: The Whole Christ might well be subtitled, “Variations on themes from The Marrow Controversy.” It is an extended reflection on theological and pastoral issues that arose in the early eighteenth century, view from the framework of the present day. (19)
The first chapter proper is mostly historical background for the study. Starting in chapter 2, Ferguson tackles several theological topics. He begins with grace, which in a sense, is the topic of the whole study. He explains that the chapters that follow will focus on four topics (37):
- The gospel of the grace of God and its offer to all (chapters 2-3)
- The gospel and legalism (chapter 4-6)
- The gospel and antinomianism (chapter 7-8)
- The gospel and assurance of salvation (chapter 9-11)
Through it all, Ferguson does a much need job of distinguishing real legalism from the call to obedience, real antinomianism from the free offer of grace and Christ, and how the assurance of salvation truly works (sorry). With a general culture that is prone to extremes and a Christian culture that is often not much different, it is helpful to have a nuanced book on the topic of sanctification like this. For anyone working in pastoral ministry, this book is worth grabbing. Even if you’re not a pastor, your church background may have left you with some legalistic baggage. Ferguson’s book can offer a much needed remedy.
The one difficulty readers might have is the jumps back to the 18th century. There are a fair amount of lengthy block quotes, meaning the book requires a bit of patience. But then again, what book doesn’t? I suppose some of this could have been smoothed out, but on the other hand, you could be trying to read John Owen.
At the end of the day, this book is something I’ll probably give a second read. It covers issues pertinent to discipleship and Christian growth. It unmasks legalism and antinomianism alike, and clarifies the gospel. What more could you want?
Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, & Gospel Assurance – Why The Marrow Controversy Still Matters. Wheaton: Crossway, Januaray 2016. 256 pp. Hardcover, $24.99.
Read an excerpt
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Thanks to Crossway for the review copy!