The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters is not just a helpful historical reflection; it’s also a tract for the times.
The Marrow Controversy was a debate within the Church of Scotland in the early 18th century. The occasion, though not the main cause, was the reprint and subsequent division over Edward Fisher’s The Marrow of Modern Divinity. The root of the dispute was the perennial difficulty of properly relating works and grace, law and gospel, not merely in our systematic theology but in our preaching and pastoral ministry and, ultimately, within our own hearts. Sinclair does a good job of recounting the Marrow Controversy in an accessible and interesting way. However, his real aim is not merely to do that. Against the background and features of that older dispute, he 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 know of in recent evangelical literature.
One of the striking features of the Marrow Dispute is that supporters of the Marrow were accused of defending antinomianism, and at least some of its critics were, in turn, suspected of legalism—even though all parties had subscribed to what the Westminster Confession says about justification and works. The Confession’s presentation of the doctrine is remarkably precise and clear. It teaches that faith in Christ leads to justification on the basis of Christ’s “obedience and satisfaction” being imputed to us, not on the basis of anything wrought in us or done by us. Nevertheless, while good works are in no way the reason for our justification, they are absolutely necessary evidences that we have justifying faith. Nevertheless (again!) such “evangelical obedience”—good works out of “thankfulness and assurance” for our gracious salvation—never in any way become part of our standing as justified before God, a standing that cannot be lost, even when we fall through sin under “God’s fatherly displeasure.”
That is an extraordinarily nuanced exposition of the Protestant understanding of justification by faith alone through Christ alone. All involved in the Marrow Controversy had subscribed to a precisely worded theological statement. How then could charges and countercharges of antinomianism and legalism arise that would expose a fault line in the church and eventually lead to a split in the denomination? While such theological precision is crucial, evidently it doesn’t finally solve this ongoing problem of the role of the law and of obedience in the Christian life.
From the Marrow Controversy as a case in point, Sinclair draws several conclusions but expands and looks at each so that we can apply them to our own time.
Here are some of his theses and arguments that I found so very helpful, convicting, and wise.