Great Scott: Thomas Boston's Orthodoxy (and mine?)

If I, or an angel from heaven, should criticize the Marrow or the Marrow Men, let us be anathema. 

Imagine reading my post yesterday and coming to the following conclusions:

  1. That I was suggesting Thomas Boston was not orthodox in his covenant theology.
  2. That this is what the moralists always do: accuse the orthodox of being antinomian for not being neonomians.

To arrive at these conclusions one would either have to live in a sustained state of paranoia or have a penchant for not reading very carefully or generously. 

In my post I don't believe I accused anyone orthodox of being antinomian. To be more specific, I don't believe that Boston is an antinomian at all. I have great admiration for Boston. As far as the Marrow is concerned, my point was that I believe Fisher was a Hypothetical Universalist, which is well within the bounds of Reformed orthodoxy in my view. 

As I said, I believe the Marrow, written in a specific context (the 17thC), has statements that only Hypothetical Universalists in the seventeenth century would have been comfortable with. To me, it is an oddity that certain theologians, including Boston, in the eighteenth century, believed that many statements in the Marrow were consistent with particularism concerning the extent of Christ's death. 

Sinclair Ferguson, in his new book, refers to Boston's own uneasiness with the language of conditionality in the covenant of grace. Hence, I wrote:

"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..." 

Now, just because Boston held to this view doesn't make him unorthodox. I own his collected Works. He is a great pastor-theologian. He's Reformed. But, I believe he was guilty sometimes of poor historical theology, which wasn't totally his fault due to the lack of resources he had at his disposal. 

I'd like to personally buy a copy of Sinclair Ferguson's book and a copy of the Marrow (which I have commended for Christian Focus) for anyone who can prove that I have been unfair to Boston or that I have accused the orthodox of being antinomian. 

To tweet or write or speak those sentiments, almost immediately after my initial post, isn't a matter of pixels on a screen, but rather a deadly, careless tirade that unnecessarily threatens the peace and purity of the church.

This brings me to my final point. I have heard that one or two have argued that sanctification is by faith alone. No one disputes that it is by grace alone, but the more contentious question is whether sanctification is by faith alone. 

I do not think so, and I agree with Kevin DeYoung who also denies that sanctification is by faith alone.

Of course, whatever does not comes from faith is sin. So sanctification always involves faith (Acts 26:18). It is the radical principle of all our actions (and so only in that sense could it be "faith alone"). But the phrase itself is decidedly unhelpful.

But, in the process of becoming holier, are we sanctified by faith alone? I think what's at stake is whether there are other means that God uses in a positive way to conform his people to the image of Christ Jesus. 

We could ask whether God's gospel threats or his moral law are true and valid instruments of sanctification in the life of a Christian who is united to Christ. Let's consider the role of God's law.

For Christ, keeping God's commandments functioned as a means of sanctification (Jn. 15:10). For us, keeping the commandments likewise functions in part as the means by which we remain in Christ's love. We are asking the right questions, I think, when we consider whether the moral law can have a positive role in our sanctified life. 

The written law (i.e., God's commandments) and the "law of the Spirit" are not contrary principles for the Christian believer. 

One of the Westminster divines, Anthony Burgess, picked up on this important issue, which I think tends to get overlooked today when we discuss sanctification. Burgess affirms that the law is an instrument of sanctification:  

"If the Law, and the commands thereof be impossible, to what purpose then does he command them? Why does he bid us turn to him when we cannot? Then we answer, that these commandments are not only informing of a duty, but they are practical and operative means appointed by God, to work, at least in some degree, that which is commanded." 

Read carefully the latter part of that quote. A prominent Westminster divine, who wrote a highly valued book on the doctrine of justification by faith alone, claims that the moral law is an "operative means" that works, "in some degree, that which is commanded." Would he say sanctification is by faith alone? No. 

That is what is meant when I say above that the law can function as an "instrument of sanctification." Rutherford adds that the Reformed have never made the law the instrument of sanctification, but they do acknowledge it is a "help" when preached in the context of indicatives. It is, as Rutherford says, "a true instrument of sanctification."

Burgess is careful, however, to point out that the law will only have an effect in sanctification only if it is accompanied by the power of the Spirit. If the Spirit does not accompany the preaching of the law, it will completely fail to sanctify. But this is also true of the gospel: 

"Preach the promises of the Gospel a thousand times over, they convey no grace, if the Spirit of God be not there effectually." (Rutherford says the same thing).

God blesses, with his Spirit, the faithful and accurate preaching of his Word, both the indicatives and the imperatives (Jn. 17:17).

If one holds that the law is an instrument - not "the" instrument - of sanctification, then one may have a different approach to preaching the imperatives compared to the person who tends to think that the law only condemns and drives us to Christ for forgiveness. 

In this regard, I would also say that not only the preaching of God's word, but also the sacraments are true instruments of sanctification.