The Marrow Controversy: Preaching

In thinking through the pastoral implications of the Marrow Controversy, you could probably not do better than reading through Sinclair Ferguson’s The Whole Christ. I can not emphasize that enough. It is an outstanding exposition of the cultural, theological, and pastoral issues that faced not only the key players of the controversy in the 18th century but really the perennial issues that face any generation called to be faithful witnesses of the Gospel.

But since you are not reading that book right now but still reading this blog post let me give you just one implication for our context today inspired out of the Marrow.

It has to do with our preaching and evangelism. Many evangelicals today have failed to see the beautiful and integral connection between the law and the gospel in evangelism. Far too often the gospel is nothing more than the bumper sticker slogan, “Jesus Saves!” And without understanding the law of God the appropriate question is “saved from what?” What reformed evangelical theology has always understood is that God uses the law to bring the conscience of a man to cry out, “what must I do to be saved?” As the Puritan William Perkins rightly stated it, “First, the law prepares us by humbling us: then comes the gospel, and it stirs up faith.”


But what can tend to happen, as was evident in the marrow controversy, is that an emphasis on the preparatory work of the Spirit through the law can push out and minimize the far more important presentation of the gospel. Indeed, at the extreme end of things the hyper-calvinist will understand Jesus’ instructions to not throw pearls before swine as a command to not give the gospel to those still wallowing in the mud of self-sufficient pride. Joel Beeke in commenting on this trend even within English puritanism says that “by using the law to hammer away at sinners over long periods of time, men like [Thomas] Hooker often neglected to mingle the sweet with the bitter. Their listeners could easily have lost sight of Christ in the midst of several dozen sermons on contrition”[1]

Ferguson notes that those ministers in Scotland opposed to the Marrow of Modern Divinity, pastors mind-you who rightly feared a gospel with no connection to the law at all, wrongly overemphasized the preparatory work of the law, he says “the result was that the benefits of Christ’s work were being offered only to those who saw signs in themselves that they belonged to the elect.”[2] And in an ever so subtle but disastrous way, these signs and convictions of conscience became now a new law under which a person must walk to apprehend grace. In fearing no law at all (antinomianism) they managed to lean too far in the other direction.[3]

Answer and implication? Preach Christ and offer Christ to everyone! One of the more notable points made by Ferguson in The Whole Christ (really, you need to get the book!) is that the opposite of antinomianism is not legalism (nor for that matter neonomianism).  No, the opposite of both antinomianism and legalism is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. More specifically, God’s grace given to us in Jesus Christ. And it was this fundamental truth that invigorated Thomas Boston and his fellow Marrow men to preach and offer Christ to all. Jesus Christ was the Gospel and unless he was communicated fully in his person and work then a pastor was failing at being a Gospel minister.

To Boston, The Marrow of Modern Divinity provided a balanced and Christocentric corrective to the conditional preaching prevalent in his day. Like the Pharisees in Jesus day the preaching of Boston’s contemporaries, though rightly upholding the law of God and the holiness of God and even highlighting the grace of God in covenantal election, still preached a conditional grace.[4] Unless you evidenced the preconditioned signs of humility, conviction, and contrition then the Gospel was not for you. And this kind of preaching inevitably communicated a God that only loved the humble and contrite.

But wait - doesn’t God tell us that he gives grace to the humble but opposes the proud (James 4:6) and that he is only pleased with those whose heart is broken and contrite (Psalm 51)? And perhaps it’s here where those of us with a few more Calvinistic chromosomes in our DNA are beginning to feel the relevant and awkward pressure of this situation. Can we really preach to everyone that Jesus died for you, especially if that person has shown no evidence of contrition or conviction? Here we see that we are not immune to the same issues and errors of 18th century Scotland.

The Marrow and its adherents like Boston would affirm that indeed Christ effectually died for the elect, that Jesus’ atoning work was effectually limited to those persons predestined and written in the Book of Life before the foundation of the world. But they did not then make the illogical misstep of saying that therefore God did not love and send and offer Christ to all the world. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17).

Listen here again to what Ferguson says. “At no point do the apostles preach the gospel in these terms: ‘Believe because Christ died for you.‘ No, the warrant for faith in Christ in neither knowledge of election nor a conviction of universal redemption. Nor is it a sense of our sinfulness. It is that Jesus Christ is able to save all those who come to God through him, since his is the only name given under heaven whereby we may be saved. Christ himself is the gospel.”[5]

Indeed, even as William VanDoodewaard rightly and poignantly expressed in this week’s Theology On The Go, “Christ, as The Marrow indicated, should be proclaimed freely to everyone, and that if you don’t feel convicted enough of your sin, [understand that] that is part of your sin and you come to Christ as you are, confessing all of your sin, all of your need, all of your insufficiency, because He is perfectly sufficient.”

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

[1] Beeke, Joel, A Puritan Theology, 456.

[2] Ferguson, Sinclair, The Whole Christ, 47.

[3] James Buchanan wisely comments that “in their opposition to the Marrow, they manifested a leaning towards some of the neonomian views, and that, in assailing its alleged antinomianism, they did not sufficiently bear in mind the important distinction between antinomianism, properly so called, and another very different system... to have been called anti-neonomianism” (The Doctrine of Justification, Banner of Truth, 170). In other words, those opposed to The Marrow of Modern Divinity mistakenly read it as having antinomian tendencies when in actual truth it was promoting an antineonomianism. It’s all very dizzying trying to figure out “who’s on first.”

[4] Ferguson, The Whole Christ, 69

[5] Ferguson, The Whole Christ, 51-52.


Stephen Unthank