Results tagged “Marrow” from Reformation21 Blog

Legalism, Lawlessness and Pastoral Ministry

In recent years, many have enthusiastically welcomed the resurgence of interest in the Marrow Controversy for the simple reason that there is no greater need that any of us have at any given time in our Christian lives than the need to learn to navigate the treacherous waters of legalism and lawlessness. The Gospel keeps us on the straight and narrow path of grace unto holiness in Christ alone. We are not received by God on the basis of anything that we do; neither are we left in a state of sin and rebellion once we have been made the recipients of God's grace in Christ crucified and risen. This is not something that we learn once in our Christian life; rather, it is something that we are always needing to be reminded of as we make our pilgrimage to glory. 

Yesterday, I took time to read through the pastoral epistles. As I made my way from 1 and 2 Timothy into Titus, I noticed something that I don't think that I've ever noticed before in these portions of God's word. In giving his final words of instruction to Timothy and Titus--for the strengthening of the hands of these young ministers and for the equipping of future generations of pastors--the Apostle everywhere presses the need that the pastor has to guard against both legalism and lawlessness in doctrine and life. 

The pastoral epistles open somewhat abruptly, with Paul charging Timothy to understand that everything he is writing is meant to encourage "love that issues in a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith." He then warned his young protégé about those who have "swerved from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions." The rejection of teachers of the law then resurfaces throughout Paul's first and second letters to Timothy, shedding light on some of the features of this particular brand of legalism. 

In 1 Timothy 4:1-5, Paul exposed legalism for what it is in fact--nothing less than the "teachings of demons" (1 Tim. 4:2). He then explained that those teaching it were "forbidding marriage and requiring abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth." Paul reminds Timothy at this junction--as he does elsewhere in the pastorals--that "everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer" (1 Tim. 4:4-5). So serious was Paul about the evils of legalism that while warning against the rich trusting in their wealth (a warning against the lawless love of money), the Apostle shifted gears to ensure that no one would then fall into the opposite ditch of legalistic aestheticism. He wrote: "As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy" (1 Tim. 6:17). 

Of course, the foundation of our freedom from legalism is the saving work of our mediator and Savior, Jesus Christ. Paul constantly returns to this throughout these letters. Paul never took one step forward in Christian and pastoral imperatives without ensuring that we are clear about the nature of God's unmerited grace in Christ. In the introductory section of 1 Timothy, he laid the groundwork for understanding the importance of the free grace of God in Christ when he gave that biographical summary of his own conversion and calling into ministry:

"Formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life" (1 Tim. 1:13-16).

Then, at the outset of 2 Timothy, Paul wrote:

"Share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, 9 who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel" (2 Tim. 1:8-10). 

Finally, in Titus, we get that great statement about salvation by grace alone in Christ alone, when the Apostle captured it in the following way:

"When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life" (Titus 3:4-7). 

An atomistic consideration of those three passages, could lead us to the faulty conclusion that because our salvation is entirely by grace alone in Christ alone, it doesn't matter how we live or what we do. However, a contextual consideration of them leads us to a very different conclusion. 

In all three pastoral letters, Paul impresses the need ministers have to pursue personal godliness and to call the people of God to pursue true, Gospel-motivated holiness and good works. Pastoral ministry demands that the minister "take heed to himself and to his teaching" (1 Tim. 4:16). Sound living and sound doctrine are mutual prerequisites for a faithful and fruitful pastoral ministry. In fact, Paul insisted that the example that the minister sets is one that will necessarily be watched and emulated by the people of God under his charge. While some despised Timothy for his youthfulness, Paul charged him with the following admonition: "Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity" (1 Tim. 4:12). Additionally, Paul told Titus, "Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us" (Titus 2:7-8). 

When he came to explain the error of apostate ministers who had made shipwreck of their faith, Paul not only highlighted their doctrine, he put a sobering spotlight on the lawlessness of their lives:

"Those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear...Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure...The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later. So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden" (1 Tim. 5:20-25). 

Four times in 1 Timothy (e.g. 1 Tim. 2:10; 5:10; 5:25: 6:18) and five times in Titus (e.g. Titus 1:16; 2:7; 2:14; 3:8; 3:14), Paul explained the important place that "good works" should have in the lives of those who have been saved by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone. While good works are not the basis of our salvation, the are the unmistakeable characteristics of those who have been redeemed freely by the grace of God in Christ. 

The Apostle gives very specific applications about how a minister is to conduct himself in the house of God, the pillar and ground of truth, and about how the members of God's house should conduct themselves within that house. Whether it is in instructions about sound doctrine, prayer, modesty, self-control, mercy ministry, work, leadership qualifications, gender roles, single-mindedness or zeal for good works, the pastoral epistles place a strong emphasis on the call to personal and pastoral godliness. 

Just as the grace of God in the Gospel safeguards against legalism and lawlessness, so God has appointed ministers to wield the Gospel of God's grace in Christ, in their lives and doctrine, in such a way as to help the people of God avoid these two perilous ditches. We must, at all costs, be vigilant to avoid embracing legalism in a cloak of godliness (2 Tim. 3:5) and lawlessness in the cloak of grace (Titus 2:11-14). God has given us the Gospel and ministers of the Gospel to help keep us on the straight and narrow. 

The Marrow: Some Questions

I believe the Marrow of Modern Divinity will receive some more attention in 2016 due to the publication of Sinclair Ferguson's new book. I have just finished it and in the book, Ferguson makes many wonderful and much-needed pastoral insights. 

His book also got me thinking some more about The Marrow. In fact, I think Ferguson's book will get us thinking about some of the more controversial issues surrounding the Marrow. In this post I'd like to highlight some of these issues. They are, in no particular order:

1. Edward Fisher, author of the Marrow, has an interesting history. John Trapp called him a sly antinomian. Now, forgetting the "antinomian" part, what about the "sly" part? 

Consider this excellent historical digging by Chad Vandixhoorn:

"It seems to me that Fisher almost certainly knew of some members of the assembly's committee for the examination of antinomians and its activities and appears to have tailored his work to avoid their censure. Quite overwhelming the customary references to Protestant Reformers and the puritan authors of the previous decades, Fisher's opening pages wedge in an unusual number of citations of authors who are members of the assembly's antinomianism committee, such as John Lightfoot and Edward Reynolds. Furthermore, he cites only one author who is a member Parliament, Francis Rous, who is also the only member of Parliament to bring accusations against antinomians. Fisher delicately laces one or two pages with references to the accused antinomians John Eaton and Tobias Crispe only at the close of the 1645 edition of the Marrow. He wisely deletes all reference to them in his 1646 edition, replacing that portion of the dialogue with a lengthy monologue and increasing the number of quotations from Westminster divines" (in 'The strange silence of prolocutor Twisse: Predestination and politics in the Westminster assembly's debate over justification', The Sixteenth Century Journal 40 (2009), pp. 395-418). HT: Patrick Ramsey.

There's a lot more work in recent years that has uncovered Fisher's background. We need to remember that for all his Bunyan-esque brilliance, he was not a trained theologian. 

2. How did Thomas Boston's lack of theological training and lack of library resources impact his ability to understand the Marrow in its seventeenth-century context? 

I am not sure Boston was able to understand the texts from the previous century very well because he simply did not have access to them like we do today. If he had read more of Preston, for example, he surely would have come to the conclusion that Preston was a hypothetical universalist. 

I find it interesting that we rarely critique the historical theology of those from earlier centuries. I think we assume they were right without doing the necessary digging to see whether they actually read carefully. Just read the Preface to John Ball's work (1645) where some Westminster divines admit they had been too busy to read his work as carefully as they ought, but they are commending it anyway! Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

3. Related to #2 above, what do we make of the changing historiography that seems to show that Fisher was a hypothetical universalist? 

I know Boston and his friends did not think the Marrow taught hypothetical universalism. And many scholars try with all their might to avoid the implications of this thought, but I simply cannot see how we can deny that the Marrow teaches HU. 

The English hypothetical universalists had pastoral concerns behind their view in relation to the Free Offer of the Gospel. Culverwell, whom Fisher quotes in the Marrow in relation to the Fee Offer, held to HU (Ussher convinced him). No particularist at that point in Reformed history (so far as I know) would be comfortable with the language used by Fisher. That later particularists in Scotland aren't uncomfortable with Fisher's language is a very interesting historical point. 

So when discussing the nature of the Free Offer in relation to the Marrow, and all of the pastoral issues surrounding this topic, our view of the Marrow controversy in Scotland will in some sense be dictated by whether we believe the Marrow teaches HU or not. 

4. Would the Marrow Men be comfortable with Witsius (and others)?

The famous Auchterarder Creed says:  "It is not sound and orthodox to teach that we must forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ." In 1716 the Presbytery of Auchterarder gave a series of propositions for candidates to give their assent if they were to be ordained to the ministry. This proposition from the Creed was designed to guard against a type of preparationism.
The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland considered this phrase as "unsound and detestable doctrine."

So the Marrow Men ended up fighting a battle in order to defend the Auchterarder Creed. But, the big question remains, have Reformed theologians in the past affirmed that one must forsake sin in order to come to Christ?

Interestingly, Herman Witsius, the so-called "middle-man" in the Antinomian-Neonomian debates that emerged in the latter part of the seventeenth century, asks whether repentance precedes the remission of sins. 

Does sorrow for sin (repentance) precede justification, "as a disposing condition, prerequisite in the subject"? 

Witsius claims that the simplicity of Scripture is to be preferred over the "subtleties of the schools."

When a principle of new life is infused into a sinner by the Holy Spirit, all sorts of spiritual actions take place in the person who has this Spirit of grace. When this happens the soul, "quickened by the Spirit," sees itself as defiled and Christ as full of grace. When this happens, the person is displeased with himself and flees to Christ. "Hence arises the receiving and accepting of Christ, that it may be delivered from the filthiness and guilt of its sins." Here is where it gets interesting:

"Hence it follows, that that act of faith, whereby we receive Christ for righteousness, cannot be exercised, without a previous, or at least a concomitant repentance, and purpose of a new life."

In other words, it is "sound and orthodox" for Witsius to say that an awakened sinner will, in his experience, have a previous (or, concomitant/accompanying) hatred for sin and purpose of a new life before receiving Christ. 

Would the Marrow Men be okay with that language? Is this all their opponents were saying? Regarding the former question, I think it would make them uncomfortable. As to the latter, this is where a lot more work needs to be done (and will be done in the near future, dv.).

Faith goes before justification, as does repentance. Repentance, according to Witsius, is a privilege of the covenant of grace; but it is a duty required by God "as an act to be performed" by the sinner "in order to obtain pardon, not that it any how merits pardon...but that at least it shows the man that is effectually called and regenerated..."

There's also the view of Vos: "Without the conviction of sin, the act -- the exercise -- of faith is unthinkable. Also, believing in Christ is something reasonable that occurs in the light of truth, not a blind, mystical urge. Thus it is not subject to any doubt that, in order, repentance and the knowledge of sin precede surrendering faith." (See also Davenant, pt. 5).

5. Is it possible to question the Marrow today without being accused of being a "sly neonomian"? 

Thankfully, with the excellent historical work that has been done in recent years by the likes of David Como, Jonathan Moore, Aaron Denlinger, Donald John Maclean, William Vandoodewaard, Richard Snoddy, and Michael Lynch, it means that these types of questions are not the mad ravings of neonomians, but of those who are concerned about what really happened, not what we would like to imagine happened. 

Boston had reservations about the conditionality of the covenant of grace, but pretty much every orthodox Reformed theologian I have read affirmed the conditionality of the covenant of grace (e.g., Bishop Davenant; see also ch. 19 of A Puritan Theology). According to Ferguson: "Later, however, [Boston] was of a very different mind: 'I had no great fondness for the doctrine of the conditionality of the covenant of grace'" (p. 67).  Boston says also, "I had no great gust for faith's being called the condition..."

The Reformed theologians that I have studied in the seventeenth century were very careful in describing how faith is an antecedent condition for receiving the benefits of the covenant. They had to in order to ward off the Antinomian view that faith was not a condition for receiving the benefits of Christ. 

There are many more issues that deserve further consideration; and indeed the questions above are just scratching the surface of the exceedingly complicated history of The Marrow of Modern Divinity