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A Righteousness Apart from the Law That Is Not against the Law: The Story and Message of The Marrow of Modern Divinity

Andy Wilson

The Story of The Marrow of Modern Divinity

The Marrow of Modern Divinity is a book with an interesting history and an important message. The title is indicative of the book’s content: it is filled with choice quotations from key Reformers, including Luther, Calvin, Bullinger, Ursinus, and Ames. First published in 1645 by an English bookseller/barber/surgeon named Edward Fisher, it was also at the heart of a controversy in the eighteenth-century Scottish church. In the midst of that controversy, a minister named Thomas Boston published an edition of The Marrow that contained extensive explanatory notes on Fisher’s text. A 2009 edition published by Christian Focus presents Boston’s helpful, but sometimes cumbersome, notes in a reader-friendly format.[1]

The Marrow is written as a dialogue among four characters: Evangelista (a minister of the gospel); Nomista (a legalist); Antinomista (an antinomian); and Neophytus (a young Christian). Fisher uses the dialogue among these characters to distinguish the biblical gospel from the errors of antinomianism and legalism. Antinomianism says that God’s moral law has no abiding validity for the Christian. Legalism says that a person’s obedience is a contributing factor in his justification. But the gospel says that God counts his people as righteous on the basis of the righteousness of Christ alone, which is imputed to them by faith alone, and good works flow forth as the fruit of saving faith.

The Marrow is organized in three sections, the names of which are derived from phrases found in the Pauline epistles: the Law of Works, the Law of Faith, and the Law of Christ (see Rom. 3:27–28; 1 Cor. 9:21).[2] Boston explains these names as follows:

All men by nature are under the law of works; but taking the benefit of the law of faith, by believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, they are set free from the law of works, and brought under the law of Christ. “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden—take my yoke upon you” (Matt. 11:28–29). (Boston, 50)

To use the terminology of the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Law of Works is the covenant of works (WCF 7.2), the Law of Faith is the covenant of grace (WCF 7.3), and the Law of Christ is the moral law as a rule of life for believers (WCF 19.6). The distinction among these three “laws” is so central to the Christian faith that Fisher argues that “so far as any man comes short of the true knowledge of this threefold law, so far he comes short both of the true knowledge of God and of himself” (47).

The Marrow Controversy has been described as “one of the most significant controversies the Church of Scotland has ever known.”[3] It began when the Presbytery of Auchterarder required ministerial candidates to affirm that “it is not sound and orthodox to teach that we forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ.” While poorly worded, this statement was formulated in response to a hyper-Calvinist idea that said a person needed to demonstrate their election by showing sufficient evidence of repentance before they could know that they were eligible to receive the salvation offered in the gospel. The Presbytery of Auchterarder confronted this distortion of Calvinism by insisting that repentance does not qualify a person for God’s grace but is the fruit of God’s gracious work in a person’s life. In other words, while repentance is necessary for salvation in an evidentiary sense, it is not necessary for salvation in an instrumental sense.

In 1717 the general assembly condemned the so-called Auchterarder Creed as “unsound and detestable doctrine.” Thomas Boston, who was present at that meeting, agreed with the Presbytery of Auchterarder and responded to the church’s ruling by recommending The Marrow to some of the other ministers who were present. This resulted in The Marrow being reprinted in Scotland the following year, which then led to the general assembly’s 1720 condemnation of The Marrow itself as antinomian, prohibiting ministers from commending the book and instructing them to warn their people not to read it. Boston and eleven other ministers, who came to be known as the “Marrow Men,” lodged a protest against this ruling but were rebuked by the assembly in 1722. While they also protested against that action, their final protest was never dealt with by the assembly.

The Auchterarder Creed and The Marrow exposed the legalistic mindset that had come to dominate the Church of Scotland in the early eighteenth century. The ensuing controversy served as a prime example of what John Newton meant when he would later write that “ignorance of the nature and design of the law is at the bottom of most religious mistakes.”[4] As the Marrow Men explained, by condemning the Auchterarder Creed and The Marrow, the Church of Scotland was saying that “men ought only to come to Christ, the alone Saviour from sins, after they have got rid of them by repentance” (345). The Marrow Men were not denying the necessity of repentance but were insisting that repentance cannot be set forth as a condition that needs to be met before a person is entitled to lay hold of the gospel promises. Because repentance is an “evangelical grace” (WCF 15.1), a gift that is given by God (see Acts 11:18; 2 Tim. 2:25), it is wrong to say that God forgives our sins on the basis of our repentance. A man will never find peace if he seeks it by reforming his life, for the simple reason that his conscience will always be accusing him of his failures. Repentance is necessary, but it cannot be the qualification for receiving God’s grace because it is a fruit of that grace.

The Marrow Men understood that while the law shows us what righteousness looks like, it cannot empower us to live righteous lives. The law can only command and evaluate. The law is good, but it is weakened by the flesh (see Rom. 8:3). It is grace, not law, that produces the fruit of righteous living in a believer’s life (see Titus 2:11–12). In Fisher’s words, “There is nothing that doth truly and unfeignedly root wickedness out of the heart of man, but only the true tranquility of the mind, or the rest of the soul in God” (262). The Marrow Controversy helped clarify that a Christian’s good works (including his initial and ongoing repentance) do not qualify him to receive God’s grace but serve as evidence of that grace at work in his life.

The Message of The Marrow of Modern Divinity

The Law of Works

The message of The Marrow consists in its differentiation among the Law of Works, the Law of Faith, and the Law of Christ. The distinguishing feature of the Law of Works is that it sets forth God’s moral law as the way to life. The basic principle of the Law of Works is “Do this, and you shall live.” Apart from Christ, all men are under the Law of Works, which explains why we are all naturally “wired for law” when it comes to how to find favor with God. In Boston’s words, “In all views which fallen man has towards the means of his own recovery, the natural bent is to the way of the covenant of works” (Boston, 35). Even Christians have a natural bent towards the Law of Works. As Evangelista explains:

Nay, where is the man or woman, that is truly in Christ, that findeth not in themselves an aptness to withdraw their hearts from Christ, and to put some confidence in their own works and doings? ... I was a professor of religion at least a dozen of years before I knew any other way to eternal life, than to be sorry for my sins, and ask forgiveness, and strive and endeavor to fulfil the law, and keep the commandments.” (41)

This legal tendency remains within us for as long as we live in this world. This is why we must always go to Christ, the fountain that can never be drained dry, instead of the hole-ridden cisterns of our own works (see Jer. 2:13).

Christians have been set free from the Law of Works by virtue of Christ’s finished work on our behalf (see Rom. 6:14; 7:4–6). By putting himself under the law as a Law of Works and perfectly doing all that the law requires, Christ satisfied the demands of the law in its commanding power. By offering himself as the perfect sacrifice for sinners, Christ satisfied the demands of the law in its condemning power. Fisher explains:

God did, as it were, say to Christ, what they owe me I require all at thy hands. Then said Christ, “Lo, I come to do thy will! in the volume of the book it is written of me, I delight to do thy will, O my God! yea, thy law is in my heart” (Ps. 40:7–8) ... And thus did our Lord Jesus Christ enter into the same covenant of works that Adam did to deliver believers from it. (964–65)

This is why Paul declares that “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4). The believer is no longer under the law as a Law of Works (though he remains under it as the Law of Christ). He has been set free from both the commanding and condemning power of the law insofar as it stands as a works covenant.

The Law of Faith

The difference between the Law of Works and the Law of Faith is that in the latter the believer obtains life “not as an agent but as a patient, not by doing but by receiving” (132). Fisher sets a clear distinction between the law and the gospel in this section of The Marrow, explaining that the moral law was delivered at Sinai to drive the Israelites outside of themselves and away from all confidence in the Law of Works so that they would see their need for Christ. At Sinai “there is no confounding of the two covenants of grace and works; but the latter was added to the former as subservient unto it, to turn their eyes towards the promise, or covenant of grace” (Boston, 77). For Fisher and Boston, there was a sense in which the covenant of works was republished in the Sinai covenant, even though they ultimately see Sinai as an administration of the covenant of grace.

The Law of Faith allows for no blending of Christ’s works with our works when it comes to the basis of our acceptance by God. Most legalists admit that they fall short of perfection, but they assume that God will reckon them righteous if they try their best and trust in Jesus to make up the difference. In Nomista’s words, “God will accept the will for the deed; and wherein you come short, Christ will help you out” (110). But if Christ’s obedience and our obedience have to be put together in order for us to obtain salvation, this would mean that both are imperfect. As Evangelista explains to Nomista:

If you desire to be justified before God, you must either bring to him a perfect obedience of your own, and wholly renounce Christ; or else you must bring the perfect righteousness of Christ, and wholly renounce your own ... Christ Jesus will either be a whole Saviour, or no Saviour; he will either save you alone, or not save you at all. (111–12)

If our obedience were to be taken into account with regard to our justification, we would have no hope of being justified. While it is true that God is pleased to accept the good works of believers for Christ’s sake (see WCF 16.6), our obedience is never good enough to merit God’s approval.

This section of The Marrow explains that repentance cannot precede our coming to Christ because we have to go to Christ to receive the gift of repentance. In Boston’s words, “Sinners not only may, but ought to go to [Christ] for true repentance; and not stand far off from him until they get it to bring along with them; especially since repentance, as well as remission of sin, is a part of that salvation” (Boston, 159). While it is true that both John the Baptist and Jesus summoned people to “repent and believe,” they did not say this because repentance precedes faith but only because repentance is seen and evidenced before faith. Christ came to save sinners, not those who have already gotten rid of their sins through repentance. This is why Evangelista says, “Your sins should rather drive you to Christ than keep you from him” (151).

This relates to another aspect of the Marrow Controversy. Fisher and Boston insisted that in the gospel God has made a “deed of gift and grant” (144) to all of lost mankind, which means that the gospel is to be offered to all people as something that they have a right to embrace by faith. As Evangelista puts it, “Wherefore, I beseech you, do not you say, It may be I am not elected, and therefore I will not believe in Christ; but rather say, I do believe in Christ, and therefore I am sure I am elected” (145). We are called to preach the gospel indiscriminately to all people, assuring them that the salvation that it offers belongs to everyone who will lay hold of Christ by faith.

The Law of Christ

In the section on the Law of Christ, Fisher explains that believers remain under the law as a rule of life. The Law of Christ agrees with the Law of Works in its substance, which is the moral law as summarized in the Ten Commandments. But while the Law of Works says, “Do this, and you shall live,” the Law of Christ says, “Live, and you shall do this.” At conversion, the Christian receives the moral law from the hand of Christ the Mediator to be his rule of life, but this moral law does not have the power to justify or condemn. In Boston’s words:

How can it do either the one or the other as such, since to be under it, as it is the law of Christ, is the peculiar privilege of believers, already justified by grace, and set beyond the reach of condemnation; according to that of the apostle ... “There is, therefore, now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). (Boston, 192)

The Law of Christ instructs believers to do good works, but in doing those good works they do not act for life, but from life.

Under the Law of Christ, believers have been set free from a legal spirit. That is, they are no longer constrained to obey God out of fear of punishment and hope of reward but out of faith, gratitude, love, and filial fear (see Ps. 130:3–4; 2 Cor. 5:14; Eph. 5:4, 20; 1 John 4:19). As Fisher points out, “it is impossible for any man to love God, till by faith he know himself beloved of God” (205). By way of contrast, a legal disposition reigns among both antinomians and legalists. While the antinomian rejects the law because he sees no point in keeping it when there is no fear of punishment or hope of reward, the legalist treats the law as a covenant of works because of his fear of punishment and hope of reward.

Fisher also deals with the connection between a Christian’s good works and his assurance of salvation. While good works are necessary for salvation in an evidentiary sense, they are not necessary in an instrumental sense. Fisher develops this by noting the distinction between the direct act of faith and the reflex act of faith. The direct act of faith is the outward and objective component of assurance. It involves looking to Christ as the source of our justification and therefore belongs to the essence of faith. In Fisher’s words, “There is an assurance which rises from the exercise of faith by a direct act, and that is, when a man, by faith, directly lays hold upon Christ, and concludes assurance from thence” (243). The reflex act of faith is the inward and subjective component of assurance. It involves examining our hearts, with the help of the Spirit, to discern the fruits of faith that serve as the evidence of our justification. The reflex act of faith is not of the essence of faith, because it has to do with discerning the evidences of faith, and faith has to exist before its evidences can be seen. This approach to the topic of assurance is helpful because it is consistent with the fact that the believer’s acceptance by God is not in any sense dependent upon his works. As Fisher puts it, “For this is certain truth, that as no good either in you, or done by you, did move [God] to justify you, and give you eternal life, so no evil in you, or done by you, can move him to take it away from you, being once given” (237).

Conclusion

The law-gospel distinction that is set forth in The Marrow is by no means antinomian. Every true Christian is being conformed to the likeness of Jesus Christ, and every true Christian desires to be holy. In Boston’s words, “There can be no walking in Christ, without a true receiving of him; and there cannot be a true receiving of him without walking in him” (Boston, 43). That being said, the process of sanctification is not the process that we intuitively think that it would be. There is a significant degree of mystery here. Consider these thoughts from two other writers who emphasized the law-gospel distinction:

I think we may certainly conclude, that [God] would not suffer sin to remain in [his people], if he did not purpose to over-rule it, for the fuller manifestation of the glory of his grace and wisdom, and the making his salvation more precious to their souls.... there are times when he is pleased to withdraw, and to permit Satan’s approach, that we may feel how vile we are in ourselves. We are prone to spiritual pride, to self-dependence, to vain confidence, to creature attachments, and a train of evils. The Lord often discovers to us one sinful disposition by exposing us to another.[5]

There is a mystery in God’s method, in that he often increases grace by our sense and sight of our infirmities; God’s children never hate their corruption more than when they have been overcome by it. Then they know that there is some hidden corruption that they did not discern before and that they had better take notice of ... We must be justified and stand righteous before God by Christ’s absolute righteousness, having experience of our imperfect righteousness.[6]

The Marrow helps us to see that while the Christian is obligated to obey the Law of Christ, he is never any less dependent upon Christ for righteousness than he was when he first believed. In John Newton’s words, the mature Christian is one who, “having found again and again the vanity of all other helps, he is now taught to go to the Lord at once for ‘grace to help in every time of need.’ Thus he is strong, not in himself, but in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”[7]

Endnotes

[1] Edward Fisher, The Marrow of Modern Divinity, (Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2009). Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this article are taken from this edition. When the quote is from Boston’s notes on Fisher’s text, Boston’s name is cited before the page number(s).

[2] In a 1649 edition Fisher added a second part to The Marrow, in which he expounded and applied the Ten Commandments and set forth the difference between the law and the gospel.

[3] J. D. Douglas, “The Marrow Controversy,” The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), 635.

[4] John Newton, Letters of John Newton (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1960), 40.

[5] Newton, 19–20, 22.

[6] Richard Sibbes, Glorious Freedom: The Excellency of the Gospel above the Law (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2000), 159, 160.

[7] Newton, 24.

Andy Wilson is the pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Laconia, NH. Ordained Servant Online, October 2015.

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