Posts Tagged ‘legalism’

The Whole Christ, by Sinclair Ferguson (Review)

November 20, 2017 2 comments

My recent reading includes a book featured this year in both Kindle format (sale), and as an audio book free monthly offer (from  Sinclair Ferguson’s The Whole Christ:  Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance – Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters.  A straightforward reading, this book delves into all of the topics included in the title, to bring out many interesting points of both history and doctrine.  The main point throughout is the historical setting of the “Marrow Controversy” in early 18th century Scotland:  the controversy between the “Marrow Men” including its main player Thomas Boston, and those who had twisted the essential grace of the gospel to the preparationist error.  I’ve briefly looked at this error before, including this post about Spurgeon’s response to it and this later post in reference to Spurgeon and preparationism.  Here we see a historical situation that had developed, among those from a Reformed, Westminster Standards background who yet erred in their confused ideas regarding legalism and antinomianism.

Many important truths are brought out in the subsequent chapters:  why it is that repentance logically comes AFTER faith, as a fruit, and not before faith/regeneration; that legalism and antinomianism are not complete opposites but actually closely related, as “non-identical twins” of the same root – not antithetical to each other but both antithetical to grace; and how to compare John Calvin and the Westminster Standards on assurance, seeing them as not in conflict but as coming to the same problem from different angles and arriving at the same middle-ground.

In reference to the initial Marrow conflict and preparationism itself, William Perkins (the beginning of the Puritan era) and John Bunyan (late 17th century) manifest the doctrinal shifts during the century between them. Perkins’ “golden chain” includes a “gospel spine” that links each aspect of the application of salvation …to a central spine representing Christ in terms of the various clauses of the Apostles’ creed. … But Bunyan’s map has no Christ-spine… the various aspects of salvation applied are related to each other, not directly to Christ.  Preparationism came about as a result of separating the benefits of salvation to be found in Christ, from Christ Himself.

The book includes many helpful analogies and illustrations, references to Thomas Boston, John Calvin and other teachers, as well as helpful quotes in poetic verse that describe the intricacies and detail of legalism and antinomianism, as with this wonderful piece from Ralph Erskine about grace and law:

Thus gospel-grace and law-commands
Both bind and loose each other’s hands;
They can’t agree on any terms,
Yet hug each other in their arms.
Those that divide them cannot be
The friends of truth and verity;
Yet those that dare confound the two
Destroy them both, and gender woe.

This paradox none can decipher,
that plow not with the gospel heifer.
To run, to work, the law commands,
The gospel gives me feet and hands.
The one requires that I obey,
The other does the power convey.

The beauty of this book is how it relates these doctrines to current-day questions and objections.  The heart issues underlying the “Marrow controversy” and the Westminster Standards are still with us today.  The chapters on legalism and antinomianism go beyond the surface level, of what many people suppose, to address the underlying issue and current-day issues such as doctrinal antinomianism and anti-confessionalism.  One such example is consideration of the “proof-text” mentality — of those who suppose that the Reformed Confessions came from proof-texting – by noting that:

First, the Westminster Divines were deeply opposed to producing a confession with proof texts and did so only under duress at the command of the English Parliament.  But, in addition, biblical theology itself is much older than its history as an academic discipline.  As C.S. Lewis well notes, we moderns can all too easily be like people entering a conversation at eleven o’clock not realizing that it began at eight o’clock.  The truth is that there is an intricate weaving of exegesis and biblical and redemptive historical theology behind the wording of the Confession, and this is nowhere more certain than in its treatment of the law of God.

The Whole Christ provides many quotes and insights into the doctrines of God’s law, such as this quote from B.B. Warfield on the topic of the law and the relationship between the Old and New Testaments:

The Old Testament may be likened to a chamber richly furnished but dimly lighted; the introduction of light brings into it nothing which was not in it before; but it brings out into clearer view much of what was in it but was only dimly perceived or even not at all perceived before. … Thus the Old Testament revelation of God is not corrected by the fuller revelation which follows it, but is only perfected, extended and enlarged.

Ligonier is now offering a full teaching series on Ferguson’s book, with the first lesson available for free.  As I near the end of the audio-book edition, while referring also to the Kindle version for rereading and reference (including the footnotes, not included in the audio book edition), I appreciate and recommend this book as a very helpful addition to my theology library.



Too much Bible reading? A Poor Example of Legalism

September 10, 2010 1 comment

In a recent Sunday School class the teacher was discussing legalism, and as an example cited too much Bible reading — that a legalistic person boasts about how many Bible chapters they’ve read, and then feels the need to read even more and more chapters, to do better than others and be somehow superior to others because of how much Bible reading they do.

Given that the majority of Christians do not read their Bible enough, as evidenced by profound ignorance and lack of discernment concerning popular Christian leaders, and the local church never exhorts the congregation to read their Bibles, I hardly think this an edifying example of legalism.  No doubt someone, somewhere, has this problem — but seriously, how many people are legalistic and reading too much of their Bible, as compared to the opposite extreme?  How many professed believers today really have any problem with legalism, period, much less on the point of Bible reading?

As someone commented at another blog concerning Gospel-Centered Legalism, “It’s like people who don’t read their bibles for fear of being legalistic; I say if that’s your struggle, then, BE legalistic about reading your bible but while doing that, read passages about how our salvation is not contingent on our works. And pray that the Spirit opens your eyes.”

Over 8,000 people have joined Grant Horner’s Facebook group for the Horner Bible Reading plan, and the comments there are always positive towards the idea of learning God’s word and enjoying this type of reading plan, along with plenty of admissions that they haven’t been reading their Bible enough — and expressions of thanks to Professor Horner for this idea.  Many Christian blogs often feature comments from those who admit their lack in this area, that they neglect time in God’s word.

In my google searching on the topic of Bible reading and legalism, I found many other examples of legalism (though not of Bible reading).  I even came across a site that exposes the common problems in modern churches, including legalism.  The example given was not TOO MUCH Bible reading, but the opposite:

“The member is expected to get all of his doctrinal interpretation from the leadership of the church. This practice discourages individual Bible reading and Bible study. Researching doctrinal information on the Internet, radio, or in Bible commentaries is strongly discouraged. Members are taught to not trust their own interpretation of Scripture and avoid doing so. …  A typical example of communication control occurred during four social dinner gatherings of four couples from the church. .. In one of these groups there was no Bible discussions other than the prayer before dinner. None of the many church doctrines was discussed during any of the four dinners.

Consider also the examples set by godly, doctrinally sound preachers:  never have I come across any mention from such leaders that someone could be legalistic about their Bible reading.  Instead, they are frequently exhorting their audience to read the Bible — because that is the common problem throughout the ages.  C.H. Spurgeon and J.C. Ryle describe the very same problem as 20th century preachers S. Lewis Johnson, John MacArthur and others into the 21st century.  All Christians need to hear the importance of reading their Bible, because even redeemed, regenerated believers have the old nature and its tendency to neglect this part of the Christian walk.

So why does a Sunday School teacher instead cite Bible reading as an example of legalism?  In this case, it was from actual experience of becoming legalistic in Bible reading — reading through it every month (12 times a year): a rare case, but evidently a few Christians can go to this other extreme.  Yet in many cases when someone suggests that Bible reading is legalistic, the real reason is to cover one’s own neglect of scripture. It’s always easier, the lazy flesh-indulging approach, to play the legalism card — along with a post-modern attitude — and criticize those who do take God’s word seriously, who do greatly value and treasure it, and who enjoy their time in God’s word:  “oh, they’re just being legalistic.”  As J.C. Ryle put it,

It is neglect of the Bible which makes so many a prey to the first false teacher whom they hear. They would have us believe that ‘they are not learned, and do not pretend to have decided opinions.’  The plain truth is that they are lazy and idle about reading the Bible, and do not like the trouble of thinking for themselves.”