The Marrow Controversy occurred in the 18th Century within the Church of Scotland. Ferguson observes that “at the root of the matter lay the nature of the grace of God in the gospel and how it should be preached” (Pg.35). The particular event that kick-started the controversy was one of the ordinations of a young minister who had been examined by the presbytery of Auchterarder. The “Auchterarder Creed” had become a determining factor as to whether one would be ordained or not. The candidate being examined had to agree or disagree with it. The statement was
I believe that it is not sound and orthodox to teach that we forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ, and instating us in covenant with God (Pg.28).
This creed was “judged and condemned” at the general assembly, and though Craig had withdrawn his signature from it, for which his license to preach was declared null and void by the presbytery of Auchterarder, he was reinstated by the general assembly (Pg.30).
The participants of the controversy on one hand were the general assembly and on the other the Marrow Men. Ferguson highlights Thomas Boston as one of the leading Marrow men in the controversy. Not only did the assembly condemn the Creed, but they also condemned a book titled, The Marrow of Modern Divinity which Boston had found useful not only for his own soul but also for his pastoral ministry. The book dealt with “theological issues in the relationship between law and gospel” in the first part and contained “an exposition of the Ten Commandments” in the second part (Pg.33). “The General Assembly accused the Marrow (and suspected its supporters) of encouraging antinomianism and a subtle form of universal redemption” (Pg.34). Boston and his colleges saw the controversy as an “attack on the gospel itself” (Pg.37). Their main concern was how the gospel is to be preached, and as Ferguson notes, a more fundamental question for them was “What is the gospel?” (Pg.37)
For Boston and the Marrow men, the Marrow preserved a particular “Vital Emphasis” in the New Testament, that is, “the fullness of the grace of Christ,” and “the freeness of that grace in Christ” (Pg.42). He identified a “preaching logic” in his day that “distorted” this emphasis; the distortion came about as a result of a misunderstanding of the doctrine of election, which led “into preaching a doctrine of conditional and conditioned grace” (Pg.43). Ferguson forms a syllogism to capture what the Marrow men opposed,
“Major premise: The saving grace of God in Christ is given to the elect alone.
Minor premise: The elect are known by the forsaking of sin.
Conclusion: Therefore forsaking sin is a prerequisite for saving grace.”
Ferguson notes that the fallacy here was
“The subtle movement from seeing forsaking sin as the fruit of grace that is rooted in election, to making the forsaking of sin the necessary precursor for experiencing that grace. Repentance, which is the fruit of grace, thus becomes a qualification for grace” (Pg.43).
Ferguson explains that “the most significant underlying issue was that the gospel was being preached in a way that implied a separation between Christ and the benefits of the gospel.” This was a “false separation.” He goes on to says that “A major indication that such a separation has taken place is that one of the most prominent emphases in the New Testament becomes marginalized, namely, union with Christ” (Pg.45). This was not just true then as much as it is also true today even in the African church. The deficient form of Christianity can be attributed to this fact, that not many professing Christians primarily perceive themselves as those who are in Christ. “Christian” describes “what” one does more than it does “who” one is, I.e., the one in Christ. The danger of this is two-fold as Ferguson puts it, it shows that “we are not thinking with the renewed mind of the gospel” and also, “we will have a tendency to separate Christ from his benefits and abstract those benefits from him as though we possessed them in ourselves” (Pg.45). This “warping of the gospel” is “perennial and universal.” Ferguson reminds us that “the central elements in the Marrow Controversy remain some of the most important pastoral issues of today” (Pg.44).
Citations taken from Sinclair Ferguson’s book: The Whole Christ.
Article by Emmanuel Njoroge.