If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all,
how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:31a-32)
I recently finished reading a book titled The Whole Christ, by Sinclair Ferguson. The book is about a debate known as the “Marrow Controversy” that took place in the Scottish Presbyterian church three centuries ago. At its root is the seemingly ongoing tension between legalism and antinomianism, and the subsequent impact this has on a Christian’s sense of assurance of salvation. The “Marrow men” were concerned that many in the Scottish church were, for all intents and purposes, slowly sliding into a form of works righteousness that was a reversal of the principles of Reformation. The “Marrow men” were in turn accused of minimizing the value of the Law, thus espousing a form of easy-believism.
It would be easy to see a three centuries old conflict in the church of Scotland as largely irrelevant for us today, except that, as Ferguson points out, the issues raised are perennial. They were raised in the earliest days of the church, and again during the days of the Reformation. And they are present today. At stake in the debate is the very nature of God and, in that respect, the heart of the gospel itself.
Ferguson discerns that legalism and antinomianism are really “non-identical twins from the same womb”. Both fail to recognize the subtleness of Satan’s lie in the garden, “that we cannot trust the goodness of God or his commitment to our happiness, and therefore if we obey God fully, we’ll miss out and be miserable.” (p. 13)
Tim Keller in his forward to the book spells out that legalism and antinomianism are each a web of attitudes of the heart, practices, and ways of reading Scripture…. The legal spirit is marked by jealousy, oversensitivity to slights, ‘metallic’ harshness toward mistakes, and an ungenerous default mode in decision making…. At the same time, practical antinomianism …. can take the form of a secular gospel of self-acceptance masquerading as Christianity.
The cure for both legalism and antinomianism is the gospel itself. Nowhere is this portrayed more effectively than in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. The younger son was firmly convinced that true happiness was to be found in setting his own rules, only to find that that his rules in the end had robbed him of the satisfaction he so fervently sought. By contrast, the older son saw his father as harsh and demanding, which is, in reality, the same way his younger brother saw him too. Neither failed to recognize the extent of his father’s graciousness.
Jesus’ parable was directed to the Pharisees, but it is also directed toward us today. We might be the nominal Roman Catholic, who drops the half-hearted quip about needing to invest in an asbestos suit. Or we might reflect the same attitude as Job’s so called friends who insist that Job needs to get right with the Lord in order to alleviate his suffering. Or we might be the young person who sees any form of Christian discipline as a hindrance to self-expression. None of the above appreciates the gracious character of God, nor sees a response to God’s Law as motivated solely by gratitude for his grace or by love for our Heavenly Father.
One of the things that caught my attention about Ferguson’s book when I first picked it up from the book table was the number of endorsements by names I recognize- Tim Keller, Michael Horton, Alistair Begg, David Wells, Joel Beeke, Bryan Chapell to name just a few. To a man, the testimony was the same;
Sinclair Ferguson was addressing one of the central issues of any age. That is because it is about the gospel, pure and simple.
I think I will have to read it again.
Pastor Tom Bridgman