I recently finished reading Sinclair Ferguson’s new book The Whole Christ, and appreciated it much. I had previously listened to his lectures on the Marrow controversy, and this book fleshes out his thoughts on the controversy and related issues at greater length.
In the introduction, Tim Keller summarizes one of Ferguson’s key ideas:
. . . the root of both legalism and antinomianism is the same. . . . It is a fatal pastoral mistake to think of legalism and antinomianism as complete opposites. Sinclair says that, rather, they are “nonidentical twins from the same womb.” He traces both of them back to the “lie of Satan” in the garden of Eden, namely, that you can’t trust the goodness of God or his commitment to our happiness and well-being and that, therefore, if we obey God fully, we’ll miss out and be miserable.
Because both mind-sets refuse to believe in the love and graciousness of God, they assume that any commands given to us are evidence that he is unwilling to bless us. They both fail to see obedience as the way to give the gracious God delight as well as the way to become our true selves, the people we were created to be. They participate in the same incomprehension of the joy of obedience—they see obedience as something imposed on us by a God whose love is conditional and who is unwilling to give us blessing unless we do quite a lot of work. The only difference is that the legalist wearily assumes the burden, while the antinomian refuses it and casts it off by insisting that if God is really loving, he wouldn’t ask for it. In order to salvage an idea of a gracious God, antinomians find ways to argue that God doesn’t require obedience.
Neither legalism nor antinomianism can account for the sentiments of Psalm 119, which are godly, Christian sentiments. Neither the legalist nor the antinomian can agree with Calvin’s statement that the third use of the law is its “principal use, and more closely connected with its proper end.”
Ferguson captures the Christian attitude well in a footnote where he makes analogy between God’s law and the laws of golf:
. . . the Rules of Gold, authoritatively issued by the United States Golf Association and The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, are never regarded as “legalistic” by those who play golf. And to be an “antinomian” golfer and ignore the rules leads to disqualification. Fascinatingly, the governing bodies of golf publish a surprisingly large book giving guidance on the details of the application of the rules to every conceivable situation on a golf course—and to some that are virtually inconceivable! The rules, and their detailed application, are intended to enhance the enjoyment of the game. My edition (2010-2011) extends to 578 pages with a further 131 pages of index. The person who loves the game of golf finds great interest and pleasure, even delight, in browsing through these applications of the Rules of Golf. It should therefore not greatly stretch the imagination that the Old Testament believer took far greater pleasure at a higher level in meditating on and walking in the ways of God’s law. It is passing strange that there should be so often among Christians a sense of heart irritation against the idea that God’s law should remain our delight. Our forefathers from Luther onward grasped this principle, and, as a result, through the generations those who made use of the standard catechisms learned how to apply God’s Word and law to the daily details of life. It is a mysterious paradox that Christians who are so fascinated by rules and principles that are necessary or required in their professions or avocations respond to God’s ten basic principles with a testy spirit. Better, surely, to say, “Oh how I love your law!” It should be no surprise that there appears to be a correlation between the demise of the law of God in evangelicalism and the rise of a plethora of mystical ways of pursuing guidance, detaching the knowledge of God’s will from knowledge of and obedience to God’s Word.
Ferguson’s other key idea is that we must not separate the benefits of our salvation from the savior himself:
The benefits of the gospel (justification, reconciliation, redemption, adoption) were [in that day] being separated from Christ, who is himself the gospel. The benefits of the gospel are in Christ. They do not exist apart from him. They are ours only in him. They cannot be abstracted from him as if we ourselves could possess them independently of him.
. . . 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. . . . If [being in Christ] is not the overwhelmingly dominant way in which we think about ourselves . . . it is highly likely that we will have a tendency to separate Christ from his benefits and abstract those benefits from him (in whom alone they are to be found) as though we possessed them in ourselves.
While I greatly appreciated the book, there are a few very minor areas where I felt it could have been improved.
First, Ferguson makes an interesting side remark about the so-called “covenant of redemption,” suggesting that Boston was concerned the notion would lead people to the wrong conclusion that the Father was less enthusiastic than the Son in pursuing our salvation. But this remark is so brief that it feels like a play to the cheap seats in recent controversies in the reformed world. Boston’s concerns as briefly stated by Ferguson could apply equally to traditional penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) theory, and Ferguson makes no immediate effort either to recognize that there are possible ways to address Boston’s concerns among those who hold to a covenant of redemption, or to show how PSA theory can adequately guard against this accusation (which I fully believe that it can).
Similarly, Ferguson treats the new perspective on Paul (NPP) with an overly broad brush. While I haven’t read primary sources, the folks I have read who are cautiously appreciative of the NPP would agree fully with Ferguson’s positive assertions, and yet he does not leave room for a kind of cautious reading of the NPP that might learn something new and helpful. I do not get the sense, contra Ferguson, that many are trying to vindicate either the first-century Pharisees or the Tridentine Catholic church; only trying to better understand the nature of their very real and obvious falls from grace. In other words, most on all sides would agree that the Pharisees were guilty of a kind of deadly spiritual pride (c.f., Rom. 11). The question is only whether the species of that pride was merit legalism or something subtly different. But that is not at all to deny that merit legalism is a genuine species of spiritual pride, only to recognize that such pride comes in many subtle forms, including both legalism and antinomianism, but extending beyond them as well. It is even possible to take sinful pride in possessing the true doctrine of grace.
I find it interesting that Ferguson does not treat another area of recent controversy, namely the imputation of the active obedience of Christ (IAOC). This is particularly surprising given that he is treating on both the topics of union with Jesus and legalism. As I understand it, those who differ with the language of IAOC do so precisely because (1) they believe that the language of union with Jesus much more comprehensively expresses what we positively receive from Jesus in our justification and how this takes place, and (2) they believe that IAOC can tend to a subtle erosion of the positive place of the law because it views it primarily as a measure of merit rather than a rule of life. Ferguson missed a great opportunity both to express appreciation and agreement with these concerns, but also to positively defend IAOC in light of them. Certainly Ferguson does argue forcefully both that righteousness and merit are not “things” that we possess apart from Jesus, and that the law is not intended as a source or measure of merit even as we approach it in Jesus: “Neither the Old Testament believer nor the Savior severed the law of God from his gracious person. It was not legalism for Jesus to do everything his Father commanded him. Nor is it for us.”
Finally, I have a couple of reflections on practical ways this might impact the ordinary life of the church. First, it seems to me that incorporating corporate confession and absolution into the church’s liturgy would serve as a strong defense against both the errors of legalism and antinomianism: it would both affirm the ongoing validity of the law for the believer, while at the same time utterly denying its power to conduct a ministry of death to those who are alive in Jesus; it would regularly arm and re-arm the church with a kind of “gutsy guilt.” Second, it seems to me that requiring our children to produce intellectual expressions of faith before their participation in baptism or the Lord’s supper is sending a subtly legalistic message about the nature of the gospel, in just the same way that the Auchterarder creed and Marrow were trying to guard against. Jesus does not require our children to get either their moral or intellectual ducks in a row before they may appear before him.