The Marrow Controversy: The Book

The book that started the “Marrow Controversy” was Edward Fisher’s The Marrow of Modern Divinity by Edward Fisher. It was first published in 1645 and 1649. In 1726, a new addition of the Marrow was published with the accompanying notes from Thomas Boston. This is the version that is republished today.

The general focus of the book is to guard against the twin dangers of legalism and antinomianism. The book does not read like a cold treatise but is set up as if various actors are speaking on the issues. The characters are given the names based on the position they represent: Evangelista for the Minister of the Gospel, Nomista for the legalist, Antinomista for an antinomian, and Neophytus for a young Christian. While the names themselves are not very creative, structure the book in dialogue makes it more engaging for the average lay reader, particularly in Fisher’s day.

The character of Evangelista is placed between Nomista and the Antinomista. In chapter 1, Evangelista discusses with Nomista the role of the Law as a Covenant of Works. But, then in chapter two, Evangelista dialogues with Antinomista concerning the Covenant of Grace and God’s purposes in grace. What one gets is a basic introduction to redemptive history.

Fisher’s work is filled with practical advise and tidbits that are relevant your Christian living today and current debates on the nature and role of sanctification. So for example, at one point Evangelista speaks of the common human tendency towards self-righteousness:

“Alas! there are thousands in the world that make a Christ of their works; and here is their undoing, &c. They look for righteousness and acceptation more in the precept than in the promise, in the law than in the gospel, in working than in believing; and so miscarry. Many poor ignorant souls amongst us, when we bid them obey and do duties, they can think of nothing but working themselves to life; when they are troubled, they must lick themselves whole, when wounded, they must run to the salve of duties, and stream of performances, and neglect Christ” (Marrow, 106).

One of the most important issues addressed in the Marrow of Modern Divinity, and the primary one that sparked the Marrow Controversy is the issue of the free offer of the gospel. The legalist, Nomista, is portrayed as one who wishes to see sufficient preparation in the life of the person before they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Evangelista continually stress one must simply come to Christ.

Neophytus points out it would seem presumptuous and prideful to just “come to Christ.” But Evangelista responds:

“Indeed, if you should be encouraged to come unto Christ and to speak thus unto him, because of any godliness, righteousness, or worthiness, that you conceive to be in you; that, I confess, were proud presumption in you. But to come to Christ, by believing that he will accept of you, justify, and save you freely by his grace, according to his gracious promise, this is neither pride nor presumption: for Christ having tendered and offered it to you freely, believe it, it is true humility of heart to take what Christ offers you” (Marrow, 149-50).

This leads to a dialogue with Nomista who seeks to interject. Nomista even asks if a person does not repent does he have “any warrant to come unto Christ, by believing, till he has done so?” (Marrow, 151). Evangelista displays the in the Scriptures, Christ bids the sinners to come to him. They simply come and do not have to prepare themselves first to come. A sinner cannot truly humble himself and repent of sins on his own before coming to Christ. As Evangelista states, “it is impossible we should ever love God, till by faith we know ourselves loved of God” (Marrow, 162). Of course, once one comes to Christ there will be an “alteration of life and conversation” (Marrow, 162). There is a kind of repentance that happens in believing the gospel and trusting in Christ. But the kind of repentance that flows from a sense of God’s love and leads to forsaking sin and changing behavior is a fruit of conversion to something that happens prior to it.

Latter in the work, Evangelista will respond to Antinomista that there is a necessity to marks and signs of grace. So for example, the Antinomista argues that since the Law is written on our hearts as believers we have no need of the Law “written with paper and ink, to be a rule of life to him; neither hath he any need to endeavor to be obedient thereunto.” In other words, Antinomista is arguing that believer does not need to hear or use the Law. He might say “Endeavoring hard to obey it is ‘legalism’.” But Evangelista counters:

“It is necessary so to preach to them that have received the doctrine of faith, that they might be stirred up to go on in good life, which they have embraced; they suffer not themselves to be overcome by the assaults of the raging flesh…” (Marrow 202). 

There is much more that the Marrow covers. There is wonderful advice from Evangelista to Neophytus. He speaks of the marks of the grace, the necessity of sign and fruit of salvation. Evangelista directs Neophytus to find rest in God. Later he gives an exposition of the Ten Commandments and the Use of Law.

The Marrow of Modern Divinity is still worth reading today. It gives not only doctrine but great pastoral wisdom. Regardless of whether or not one reads the book, the issues remain current today. We must always guard the gospel against legalism and antinomianism. In resisting one, we must not fall into the error of the other. We must also proclaim the free offer of the gospel and yet to the saved, the gospel will bring transformation as one is united to Christ. The Marrow of Modern Divinity is a book that has charted a course through these channels while avoiding the rocky shoals that could destroy. We are wise then to head the wisdom of those who have gone before us.

(All quotations from the Marrow of Modern Divinity come from the Christian Focus Publications edition, 2009).

Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.

Tim Bertolet