Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” may well be a cliché, but it’s certainly true when it comes to theology. The spiritual struggles and questions of contemporary Christians are almost always the same as those in earlier generations.
One such ever – present issue that causes spiritual problems is that of the relationship of the Christian to the law of God. Sinclair Ferguson analyses this issue of the law of God’s relationship to the Christian through the lens of the so – called “Marrow Controversy” of the early 18th century in the Church of Scotland. Whilst the book is not primarily about the Marrow Controversy, Ferguson uses the issues at stake as a background to tackling the Christians relationship with the law.
The key catalyst of the Marrow Controversy was the so – called “Auchterarder Creed” that was asked to perspective ministers of the gospel before they were licensed by the Church: “Is it sound and orthodox to teach the we forsake sin in order to come to Christ?”
In other words, is repentance (our forsaking sin) a condition we must meet before we may come to Christ? One’s answer to such a question brings out our understanding of the relationship of the law of God and the grace of the gospel. Perhaps another way the Auchterarder Creed could be stated is: “Is obedience to the law a pre-requisite for receiving the grace of God?”
Not only is this is issue of the law of God still very much relevant to contemporary Christians, but the implications of affirming the Creed bring about uncertainty about assurance of salvation. For example, if repentance truly is a necessary condition we must meet before we come to Christ, one may ask of oneself “Have I repented enough?” and have serious doubts about the validity of their own salvation.
Ferguson skilfully helps the reader find the biblical understanding of the Christian’s relationship to the law. He does this by looking at the two main errors. On the one hand, there is the legalistic view of the law and, on the other hand, there is the antinomian view of the law. As Ferguson adamantly stresses, these errors are not, at their root, opposite errors. In fact, Ferguson convincingly shows (perhaps counter – intuitively) that, in fact, legalism and antinomianism stem from the same theological error that manifests in different ways.
To understand this, consider the parable of the prodigal son. In this parable, we see the prodigal son prematurely take his father’s inheritance and live a life of lawlessness. Here is the archetypal antinomian (anti – “against”, nomos – “law”) who seeks to free himself from the stifling laws of his father’s house. But what was the motivation of his antinomianism? He viewed the rules of his fathers house as oppressive. Even when his money runs out and he returns to his father’s house, he seeks to petition his father become a servant and thereby earn forgiveness and favour. In both cases, this antinomian is actually a legalist at heart. Ferguson insightfully explains that antinomians reject God’s law because they are actually legalists and have separated the law of God from the character of God. To see the law in isolation from God’s character is to miss the truth that the law is given to use a good, loving, and generous Father.
Indeed, on the other side of the coin, the elder brother in the story is himself a legalist also. He is despondent that his antinomian brother, on his repentant return home, is celebrated with a feast. But again, the elder brother has viewed working and “slaving” at home in isolation from the character of his father, which is loving and generous. He also seeks to earn his father’s favour through obedience.
To reject legalism, then, is not simply to add in a bit of antinomianism (and vice versa). It is best to view both God’s free grace and our necessary obedience to his law in the following way:
“At one level the problem is indeed rejection of God’s law. But underneath lies a failure to understand grace and ultimately to understand God. True, his love for me is no based on my qualification or my preparation. But it is misleading to say that God accepts us the way we are. Rather he accepts us despite the way we are. He receives us only in Christ and for Christ’s sake. Nor does he mean to leave us the way he found us, but to transform us into the likeness of his Son. Without that transformation and new conformity of life we do not have any evidence that we were ever his in the first place.” (p. 154, emphasis original)
With this key distinction, we understand that the law is good precisely because it reflects the Father who gave it to us and we obey its content because of, and out of, our love for him. Armed with this understanding, we can see that in fact there is no pre-requisite condition what we must fulfil in order to come to Christ. Our coming to Christ and the grace of the gospel gives rise to repentance. And whilst we ought not put the theological cart before the horse, repentance and faith are not be separated. As Ferguson himself says:
“The true Christian believes penitently, and he repents believingly” (p. 88)
Such a clear distinction is needed for our time, and will continue to be necessary. Both legalism and antinomianism are ever – present millstones around the neck of the Church that erode the assurance of believers and the joy of the grace of God. Helpful and engaging works such as The Whole Christ equips us to rightly see God’s law as a gracious provision from our gracious and loving Father.