14 May, 2016

The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters, by Sinclair B. Ferguson. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2016. Pp. 256. $24.99 (hardcover). [Reviewed by David J. Engelsma.] 

(Printable version here)

Much of this book is sound Reformed doctrine concerning Jesus Christ as the complete (“whole”) Savior; justification; sanctification; and assurance of salvation. There are provocative insights, particularly, that legalism and antinomianism are not, in fact, heretical opposites, but closely related errors—“non-identical twins,” as Ferguson describes them. Also, there is helpful pastoral wisdom concerning the struggles of some believers to possess and enjoy assurance of salvation.

Lending worth to the work for Presbyterians and Reformed is the author’s relating all these fundamental doctrinal and practical matters to a significant controversy in Scottish Presbyterianism in the early 18th century. The controversy is known as the “Marrow Controversy.” Ferguson’s book is his defense of the theology set forth in the book, The Marrow of Modern Divinity, from which book the controversy took its name.

It is Sinclair Ferguson’s contention that the heresies of legalism and antinomianism are closely related in that both deny that Jesus Christ is the “whole Savior” from sin by His grace. Legalism obviously posits the sinner’s own obedience to the law as necessary for salvation. Thus, legalism adds the sinner’s own obedience to the saving work of Jesus Christ.


Antinomianism denies that Christ’s saving work includes making the sinner holy, or, in other words, writing the law upon the sinner’s heart. Correct as this analysis of antinomianism may be, it does not, however, do justice to the characteristic opposition of antinomianism to the truth that in His sanctifying work Christ uses the law as the objective standard of the holy life. In advancing his thesis that legalism and antinomianism are twin forms of the same basic error, Ferguson runs the risk of ignoring, or underestimating, the unique and fundamental error of antinomianism: rejection of the law of the Ten Commandments as the authoritative guide of the Christian life.

The pastor who is required to do battle with antinomianism in the Reformed sphere must be prepared to confront antinomianism’s repudiation of the “must” of the law as though this “must” contradicts the gospel of salvation by grace. Antinomianism rejects the “thou shalt” and the “thou shalt not” of the commandments. At its cleverest, antinomianism explains the “shalt” and “shalt not” as meaning simply, “will,” or “will not,” as certainties, rather than as imperatives or prohibitions.

Unconditional Covenant

In his defense of the gracious salvation that is the “whole Christ,” Ferguson contends forcefully for an unconditional covenant. Rightly, he condemns the doctrine of a conditional covenant as a form of legalism. Expressly, he rejects the theology that views the covenant of grace as a “contract.”

God’s covenant is his sovereign, freely bestowed, unconditional promise: “I will be your God,” which carries with it a multidimensional implication: therefore “you will be my people.” By contrast, a contract would be in the form: “I will be your God if you will live as becomes my people” (115).

In support of the doctrine of an unconditional covenant, Ferguson appeals to the Greek word used for the covenant in the New Testament, “diatheekee,” rather than “suntheekee.” The former describes a “unilateral disposition one person makes to the other, whereas the latter is “an agreement two individuals make with…one another” (116).

Ferguson also calls attention to the biblical metaphor for the covenant, namely, marriage. “There is no conditional (‘if’) clause in a marriage covenant. On the contrary the couple commit themselves to each other unconditionally—‘for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part’” (116).


Likewise, Ferguson says many sound and pastorally helpful things about assurance of salvation. “The New Testament regards the enjoyment of assurance of salvation as normal…Christian experience” (213; emphasis added). This seeming assertion that assurance is of the essence of faith is weakened, however, if not negated, by Ferguson’s defense of the dubious distinction regarding assurance between “the direct and the reflex acts of faith” and by his contention that assurance is “the fruit of faith” (196, 197; emphasis added). Ferguson seems to be content with faith’s essentially being only the assurance that Christ is the Savior of sinners. That He is my savior does not belong to the essence of faith. That He is my Savior is a certainty that comes, or may not come, later, as faith develops.

However, when Reformed orthodoxy holds, with John Calvin, that faith essentially is personal assurance of salvation, the meaning is not that a believer is certain that Jesus is the Savior of sinners. The meaning is, rather, that the believer is certain that Jesus is his or her Savior. This is the perfectly clear explanation of the Heidelberg Catechism, in Question 21:

What is true faith?
True faith is not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word, but also an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel in my heart, that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness, and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits (emphasis added).

“An assured confidence… that…to me also”!


Two related weaknesses seriously trouble Ferguson’s book. The first is that, as the book’s subtitle indicates, Ferguson explains the gospel of grace against legalism and antinomianism and examines assurance in light of a doctrinal controversy in Scotland that is known as the “Marrow Controversy” and in harmony with a book of theology titled The Marrow of Modern Divinity. The controversy erupted over the theology advanced in the book. Ferguson himself analyzes his own book as “an extended reflection on theological and pastoral issues that arose in the early eighteenth century [in the “Marrow Controversy,” occasioned by the book, The Marrow], viewed from the framework of the present day” (19).

Ferguson is concerned to defend and promote the doctrinal views and statements of the “Marrow men” in the 18th century, who were defending and promoting the doctrinal views set forth in the book, The Marrow. These views and statements had to do with legalism, antinomianism, and assurance of salvation. Ferguson, therefore, makes the weaknesses and errors of the Marrow theology his own.

The second serious weakness troubling Ferguson’s book is that the book does not say what ought to be said, both about the Marrow theology and the controversy it caused and about the fundamental doctrines involved in that controversy. The weakness is not so much what Ferguson says as what he fails to say.

Two peculiar doctrinal statements were especially at the heart of the Marrow controversy. The first concerns the preaching of the gospel to all men indiscriminately—what the Marrow men and Ferguson significantly insist on describing as the “offer” (rather than the “call”). According to the Marrow theology, in the preaching of the gospel God in Jesus Christ, “moved with nothing but his free love to mankind lost, hath made a deed of gift and grant unto them all, that whosoever shall believe in this his Son, shall not perish, but have eternal life” (38).

Strange, and even confusing, as the language is, specifically, the phrase, “deed of gift and grant,” it is evident that the statement intends to teach that the preaching of the gospel is God’s official act (“deed”) graciously bestowing Christ and His salvation (“gift and grant”) upon all humans who hear the preaching (“unto them all”), on the condition that they believe. This “deed of gift and grant” has its source in a love of God for all humans without exception (“his free love to mankind lost”), which love is the (would-be) saving love of God in Jesus Christ (“in the preaching of the gospel God in Jesus Christ”).

Implied in this statement is the doctrine that Christ died for all humans without exception. If in the gospel God makes a “deed of gift and grant” of Jesus Christ the Savior and of eternal life in Him to all who hear and if God does this “moved…with his free love to mankind lost,” the obvious, and intended, implication is that Christ died for all of mankind lost, that is, universal, ineffectual atonement.

“Christ is Dead” for Every Human?

This implication concerning the extent of the atonement was made clearer by the other doctrinal statement that was at the heart of the Marrow controversy. In preaching the gospel, according to the Marrow theology, the church must “go and tell every man, without exception, that here is good news for him! Christ is dead for him! and if he will take him, and accept of his righteousness, he shall have him” (40; emphasis added).

Again, the language is odd and confusing. “Christ is dead”? And Christ is dead for every human who hears the gospel? Not: “Christ died for every human.” But: “Christ is dead for every human.” Apart from any other criticism of the statement, the statement is condemnable, if not sinfully wrong, simply by virtue of its deliberately confusing nature. Theological language must be clear, guarding against confusion and misunderstanding. Especially is this demanded with regard to such fundamental truths as the extent of the atonement. No one, and certainly not a theologian, in the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition is unaware of this demand and its urgency.

Contrast with this confusing statement concerning the extent of the atoning death of Christ the clear language of the Canons of Dordt:

For this was the sovereign counsel and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father, that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation; that is, it was the will of God that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby He confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to Him by the Father, etc. (Canons of Dordt, II.8).

What the statement in The Marrow purposes to convey is that there is a sense—an important sense—in which it is true that Christ died to atone for the sins of all humans without exception. Universal atonement in some form, and announced in some admittedly obscure manner in the preaching, is required, according to the thinking of the Marrow theology, for the promiscuous preaching of the gospel and its call to all and sundry to believe—what the Marrow theology calls the “offer of the gospel.” If what orthodox Reformed theology regards as the external call of the gospel is, in fact, a gracious deed of gift and grant of Jesus Christ to every human who hears the gospel, in the saving love of God for all mankind lost, Christ must have died for all mankind lost. Hence, the message, “Christ is dead” for all mankind lost, that is, for every human without exception.

In fact, this fundamental statement of the Marrow theology is simply false on its very face. Christ is not dead! He is not dead in relation to anyone, including the elect. He died, in the past. But He is not dead. He is alive, having risen from the dead.

The Geneva Bible was mistaken in its translations, “Christ which is dead,” in Romans 8:34, and, “Jesus is dead,” in I Thessalonians 4:14. Besides, the Geneva Bible does not state that Jesus is dead for every human (on the phrase, “Christ [or Jesus] is dead,” and on the intended meaning of the phrase in John Preston, and the Marrow men, see Jonathan D. Moore, English Hypothetical Universalism, Eerdmans, 2007, 120ff.).

In order to introduce into the Presbyterian churches the doctrine of universal atonement (in support of their heretical teaching of the “offer”), without exposing themselves to the charge of teaching universal atonement, as would have been the case had they explicitly stated that the church may say to every human, “Christ died for you,” the Marrow men resorted to linguistic subterfuge: “Christ is dead for you.” This is despicable theology, altogether apart from the heresy itself.

Sinclair Ferguson defends these statements of the Marrow theology and the theology the statements teach. In doing so, he himself proposes an orthodox interpretation of the statements. They do not, in fact, necessarily teach universal atonement and an ineffectual, saving love of God for all humans. What the statements only amount to, according to Ferguson, is a defense of the free offer of the gospel. They are intended to guard against such an understanding of limited atonement and election as restricts the call of the gospel to those who show themselves to be elect.

The “Offer”

It is not exaggeration to summarize The Whole Christ as a 240-odd page defense of the “offer” of the gospel. What is striking about the defense is that Ferguson himself never explains what he understands by the offer. An uncritical reader might suppose that Ferguson means by the offer nothing more than what the Canons has in mind when the creed affirms that Christ is “offered” in the gospel (Canons, III/IV.9). What the Canons means is that Christ is presented in the gospel to all hearers as God’s Savior of guilty, depraved humans from sin and death unto eternal life and glory; that in the gospel God Himself (externally) seriously calls all hearers to repent and believe; and that God promises that everyone who believes, regardless how vile a sinner he may be, will be forgiven and saved.

The Canons itself makes plain that by the “offer” it does not mean a gracious effort on God’s part to save all who hear, in view of a love of God for all hearers and with the desire to save them all. Head one of the Canons confesses the eternal reprobation of some humans in a hatred of God for them. Head two confesses that Christ died for the elect alone, according to the eternal love of God for them, and for them among men only. Heads three and four confess that the saving call of the gospel, that which has its source in God’s election, is for some hearers of the gospel, not for all without exception. And, importantly with regard to the Marrow’s
assertion that the gospel is a deed of gift and grant to all who hear, head two of the Canons teaches that Christ “purchased” for the elect, not only forgiveness and eternal life, but also faith itself (Canons, II.8).

The reprobate unbeliever does not have a warrant to believe in Jesus Christ. He does not have the ability. But neither does he have the right. Faith in Jesus Christ is a privilege, a right earned for the elect by the death of Jesus. “Warrant” implies right. The reprobate hearer of the gospel has the duty to believe in Jesus, but he lacks both the ability and the right. This truth demolishes the theology of the Marrow, and of Sinclair Ferguson.

This truth of particular, sovereign grace—the truth of Christ as the whole Savior of the elect, and of the elect only—does not restrict the preaching of the gospel to those whom the preacher identifies as the elect. Neither does the gospel of sovereign, particular grace hinder the promiscuous, fervent call to all and sundry to repent  believe. That the gospel of particular grace hampers, if it does not prohibit, the promiscuous preaching of the gospel and especially the call to all to believe on Christ offered in the gospel was the charge against the Reformed faith by the Arminians. It is today the fear of Ferguson and his circle. He allows his fear to compromise the particularity of the love of God in Jesus Christ and, thus, to corrupt the very truth that his book is intended to defend: Jesus as the whole Savior. If God in the gospel lovingly offers salvation to all humans without exception, on the ground of Christ’s death for everyone, Christ is not the whole Savior. But the sinner himself, by his acceptance of the offered Christ, is instrumental in his own salvation. Indeed, the whole Christ is dependent upon the sinner’s acceptance. The Arminians call his acceptance “free will.”

What is Not Said

I charged at the beginning of this review that the weakness of the book is what Ferguson does not say. He never tells the reader exactly what he means by the “offer” that is central to his book and to his theology. Although as a knowledgeable theologian he is surely aware of what their all-important offer is in Arminian theology, he never thoroughly describes and sharply rejects the Arminian offer: a gracious, well-meant effort by God in the preaching to save all hearers. Ferguson never takes pains, particularly when defending the statement, “Christ is dead for you,” to expose and condemn the heresy of universal atonement. Never does he vigorously defend the doctrine of limited atonement. Never does he carefully explain that the truth of limited atonement in no way hampers and hinders the free preaching of the gospel, including issuing its call.

Similarly, his treatment of assurance leaves something to be desired. There is no bold, unqualified insistence that assurance of one’s own personal salvation is of the essence of true faith. There is no uncompromising condemnation of the view that assurance is merely a fruit of faith—in some. And among the errors concerning assurance, against which Ferguson guards, is not to be found the deadly, and contemporary, Puritan error of basing assurance on a dramatic, mystical “experience.” This gross error of Puritanism, which Ferguson does not so much as recognize, is the reason why today both in North America and in Europe only a handful of old people in congregations numbering hundreds and even thousands partake of the Lord’s Supper. All the rest, although confessing faith in Christ, abstain, doubting their salvation, because they have not yet had the “experience.” Any Reformed treatment of assurance must expose this grievous error. Ferguson is silent.

This failure to say what needs to be said, indeed cries out to be said, extends to yet another important aspect of the Marrow controversy. The controversy in Scotland was occasioned by a confusing question put to a young man aspiring to the ministry. Would the candidate for the ministry in the Presbyterian church affirm this proposition: “I believe that it is not sound and orthodox to teach that we forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ, and instating us in covenant with God” (28)?

This statement explains the presence of the issue of antinomianism in the Marrow controversy. One who would affirm the theological proposition could be suspected of believing that one might come to Christ in true faith without forsaking sin, that is, while continuing to live in flagrant disobedience to the law of God. The Marrow men and Ferguson defended and defend the proposition. Their argument was, and is, that the call to Christ by true faith in Him is unconditional. The believing sinner simply comes to Christ without first fulfilling the condition of forsaking sin.

Compelling as Ferguson’s argument in defense of what has come to be known as the “Auchterarder Creed” (the church meeting was held in Auchterarder, Scotland) is, what Ferguson, and the Marrow men before him, neglected to say is that the way, the only way, the necessary way, of coming to Christ by true faith is the way of forsaking sin. True faith, inasmuch as it involves repenting of sin, necessarily consists of forsaking sin. So much is this true that often in the New Testament the call to true faith in Christ is expressed by the imperative, “Repent!” Repenting is forsaking sin. One who claims to come to Christ but does not forsake sin lies. He has not come to Christ at all.

Fundamentally, the “Offer”

Fundamental in the book is the “offer.” For this reason alone, the book can be beneficial to the Reformed and Presbyterian community of churches. It might occasion a careful study of the concept. It might result in self-examination on the part of Reformed and Presbyterian churches and theologians whether, under the influence of the Marrow theology and of other agents, they have not uncritically accepted the Arminian view of the offer of the gospel, abandoning the Reformed doctrine of the Canons of Dordt.

Despite his own hesitation to set forth, clearly and fully, what he himself understands by the “offer,” Ferguson leaves no doubt as to what his doctrine of the offer is. He makes his view plain by his favorable quotations of Thomas Boston concerning the offer. The offer is God’s gracious gift of Jesus Christ to all who hear the gospel, those who are not saved by the gospel as well as those who are saved. It is not a gift in such a way as effectually to save all, but in such a way as to make Jesus available to all, if they will accept and receive Him. Boston uses the example of the gift of money to a poor man: “Even as when one presents a piece of gold to a poor man saying, ‘Take it, it is yours’; the offer makes the piece really his in the sense and to the effect before declared; nevertheless, while the poor man does not accept or receive it…it is not his in possession, nor hath he the benefit of it; but, on the contrary, must starve for it all, and that so much the more miserably, that he hath slighted the offer and refused the gift” (232).

By the offer, according to Boston, in defense of the theology of the Marrow, God gives to all who hear the gospel “eternal life…(which) life is in his Son.” Boston is quoting I John 5:11. This giving, which especially in light of I John 5:11 is certainly gracious on God’s part, does not, however, put anyone in possession of eternal life. It merely makes it possible for humans to “take possession” of eternal life. This giving of eternal life by God in the offer is not to and for the elect, but to and for all who hear the gospel, including those who may be reprobate, and perish. “The party to whom [eternal life is given by the offer], is not the election only, but mankind lost.” To reprobate, “lost mankind… God hath given eternal life in the way of grant, so as they, as well as others, are warranted and welcome to take possession of it” (233).

In the offer, there is a giving of Christ and salvation to many, “where there is no receiving, for a gift may be refused” (234).

This is Ferguson’s doctrine of the offer. This doctrine is plainly the teaching of resistible grace, that is, on Ferguson’s own reckoning, a resistible Jesus Christ. Necessarily, it is a doctrine of the “whole Christ” available to all, but dependent upon the acceptance (will) of the sinner.

The Christ of this theology may be a “whole Christ,” but He is an impotent Christ. In light of the biblical and Reformed truths of the total depravity of the sinner, including the bondage of his will (“acceptance”), the “whole Christ” of the Marrow’s and Ferguson’s theology is wholly unavailing to any. Or, if He does come to profit some, He does so only because they have made His willingness to save reality by their “acceptance” of His well-meant offer to all. In this case, the “whole Christ” is Savior wholly because of the sinner’s acceptance of the offer. And this is as much a denial of Christ as the one, only, sovereign Savior as any of the errors Ferguson combats in his book.


  1. Incisive exposure of what is held as orthodox Presbyterian theology today.

  2. Despite the fact that the creed of Presbyterianism (Westminster) makes it clear Christ only died for the elect. WCF Chapter 8 section 5. http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/

  3. I am puzzled by the statements that Ferguson never explains what the offer is, but at the same time leaves no doubt about it. If someone leaves no doubt about what he means, I'm not sure what more he should say to help you understand. I am also puzzled by what seems to be a an exaggerated distinction between the offer and the call. The offer is an offer, the call is an invitation to accept the offer. While there is a technical distinction, the two are so inseparably linked that one cannot talk about one without implying the other.