By Sinclair B. Ferguson
The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson, subtitled “Legalism, Antinomianism, & Gospel Assurance – Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters,” is an unusual book. On the one hand it involves a theological controversy in early 18th century Scotland, and an obscure pastor by the name of Thomas Boston. But the writer, Sinclair Ferguson, an able scholar, shows that it has implications today for the gospel, for legalism, and for antinomianism. The Marrow Controversy in 18th century Scotland is in some ways a place to begin the study.
Certainly this is a book for the serious student of theology, for the topic matters are important. What is the nature of the gospel? What is the relationship between grace and works? What is the relationship between law and grace? How can we avoid the twin errors of legalism and antinomianism?
In the enthusiastic foreword to the book, Pastor Tim Keller gives four things that he learned:
The first and inarguable conclusion is that legalism and antinomianism are much more than doctrinal positions. Neither side in the Marrow Controversy was saying, “You can save yourself through works,” or, “Once you are saved, you don’t have to obey the law of God.” Neither side subscribed to overt, explicit legalistic or antinomian doctrine. Nonetheless, legalism and antinomianism can be strongly present in a ministry. Each is a web of attitudes of heart, practices, character, and ways of reading Scripture. At one point Sinclair even says, rightly, that a legal spirit consists in part in how you feel toward God.
The second thing I learned was that the root of both legalism and antinomianism is the same. My guess is that most readers will find this the best new insight for them, one that could even trigger a proverbial paradigm shift. It is a fatal pastoral mistake to think of legalism and antinomianism as complete opposites. Sinclair says that, rather, they are “nonidentical twins from the same womb.” He traces both of them back to the “lie of Satan” in the garden of Eden, namely, that you can’t trust the goodness of God or his commitment to our happiness and well-being and that, therefore, if we obey God fully, we’ll miss out and be miserable.
Therefore, the third thing I learned was that to think the main problem out there is one particular error is to virtually put one foot into the other error. If you fail to see what Sinclair is saying – that both legalism and antinomianism stem from a failure to grasp the goodness and graciousness of God’s character – it will lead you to think that what each mind-set really needs for a remedy is a little dose of the other. In this view, it would mean that the remedy for legalism is just less emphasis on the law and obedience, and the remedy for antinomianism is more.
Finally, this book showed me that the cure for both legalism and antinomianism is the gospel. Sinclair writes:
The gospel is designed to deliver us from this lie [of the Serpent], for it reveals that behind and manifested in the coming of Christ and his death for us is the love of a Father who gives us everything he has: first his Son to die for us, and then his Spirit to live within us … There is only one genuine cure for legalism. It is the same medicine the gospel prescribes for antinomianism: understanding and tasting union with Jesus Christ himself. This leads to a new love for and obedience to the law of God.
Since the root of both errors is the same, the cure is the same – to lift up the essential goodness and love of God by recounting the gospel, thereby making obedience a joy. The remedy for both is a fuller, biblical, and profound understanding of grace and of the character of God.
Though the book can be tedious at times, overall it is a helpful, stimulating work on the gospel.