The Whole Christ Part 2

The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson (part 2—an addendum)

More Reflections on The Whole Christ

The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson is the object of an every other Saturday men’s group that meets at church. This is a good book and addresses some of the issues that churches struggle with in dealing with either legalism or antinomianism.  Even still, there are incomplete issues that Ferguson leaves standing, which unfortunately can lead to conclusions that are extra-biblical and thus unwarranted. Let’s begin…

Whole Christ vs whole counsel of God?

A favorite phrase of one of my favorite theologians, John Gerstner, is “the whole counsel of God”. What is meant by this is that every jot and tittle of Scripture must be taken into account when organizing a theological statement. Theologians of the past were particularly keen on this issue, though it makes for very laborious reading of their theological writings. Just think of John Owen, who is practically uninterpretable in today’s world. John Owen forced himself to follow a very logical sequence of thinking that left no stone unturned. I am currently reading through the works of Tertullian, a third century saint. Yet, even in the Patristic era, the church fathers like Tertullian painstakingly worked through the entirety of Scripture in arguing against heresies. When Scripture seemed to conflict, they offered explanations rather than ignoring some texts that didn’t seem to fit. The Westminster Divines also assiduously held to the principle of the whole counsel of God. 

How does this affect our theological outcomes?. A whole Christ is by necessity a testimony that all of Scripture, OT and NT, are witness to Christ, and thus the whole counsel of God would be equivalent to speaking of a totus Christus, a “whole” Christ, or a tota Scriptura. I discussed in my main review of this text the impossibility of dividing the actions of Christ from the person of Christ. In other words, you either have the “whole” Christ or no Christ at all. Thus, I’m puzzled as to why Ferguson would make this the title of his book.

Tim Keller writes the Foreword?

Tim Keller held to a number of heresies. I don’t hold him to be condemned to hell, and will certainly see him in heaven. Yet, his belief in a number of issues have done great harm to the cause of Christianity, for which he will need to be accountable. The web site Jude 3 PCA (https://jude3pca.org/) has a whole section on Keller, how he was willing to compromise on social justice, on a non-offensive “gospel”, on homosexuality, and most importantly, his highly public stance in support of the troubling heresy of theistic evolution. I won’t belabor the problems of theistic evolution, but you ultimately have a Deistic god who stands back while random Darwinian events take their course to develop mankind, and then are left with a population of about 10K-100K humans (humanoids) for which Adam served as their representative agent. Theologically, this is beyond troubling to me. I realize that Keller and Ferguson both worked at Westminster East Seminary together, and probably were close friends until Keller’s death. Ferguson’s choice of Keller to write the foreword for such a sobering topic as found in this book was a grave mistake. Oddly, on the Jude 3 website, refutations to Tim Keller’s position on many issues are given by Sinclair Ferguson!

Does this book truly answer the tension between antinomianism vs. legalism? 

Both antinomianism and legalism are misuses of the law. Ferguson is correct in identifying that the solution is not to find a middle ground, where you have some law, but not so much law that you become a legalist, or to replace law with the “guidance of the spirit”. You will NEVER find a proper balance because any balance or replacement is an abuse of the “law”. The moral law describes holiness, and holiness is exactly what God is! Thus, the moral law describes an ontological character of God; law is an aspect of His very being. The big question remains; what is the purpose of the moral law in regard to the Christian? Let me explore that question by means of a diversion.

We are accustomed to speaking of the ordo salutis. Looking at the portions of the ordo salutis that are monergistic vs synergistic, we see the following…

predestination – monergistic (God alone does it)

election – monergistic (God alone does it)

calling – monergistic (God alone does it)

regeneration – monergistic (God alone does it)

faith – monergistic (God alone does it)

repentance – synergistic (God and us are involved; the law convicts and “brings” us to Christ, though it is also a work of God)

justification – monergistic (God alone does it)

adoption – monergistic (God alone does it)

union with Christ – monergistic (God alone does it)

sanctification – synergistic (there is involvement on both ours and God’s part)

perseverance – monergistic (God alone does it), though it could be argued to be synergistic

glorification – monergistic (God alone does it)

Thus, repentance is a synergistic action, fulfilling what is called the first use of the law. In agreement with John Calvin in the Institutes, repentance is a daily, lifetime activity, and thus should have no special position in the ordo salutis. Sanctification is also synergistic. To quote Berkhof “It (sanctification) is essentially a work of God, though in so far as He employs means, man can and is expected to co-operate by the proper use of those means”. One of those means is in ordering one’s life according to holiness, and, holiness is not a vague notion, but a manner of behavior as described by the law of God. It is too easy for modern theologians to confuse one’s talk about sanctification, which is a synergistic activity, with justification, which is a monergistic activity. 

Ferguson’s thesis is that our union with Christ resolves the antinomian/legalist tension. I don’t follow his logic. Everything that is done for us in a monergistic fashion, especially that of justification, resolves the antinomian/legalistic tension. If Ferguson had chosen anything else, he would have been safer choosing adoption. Adoption is something done for us and cannot be undone. We play no part in it. Yet, as a family member, we are told of the rules of the family. The rules are just another way of speaking of God’s law. We obey God’s law because we want to please the Father, out of gratefulness to Him. We also obey God’s law because we are ordered to do so by our Father in heaven. Only muddled thinking will imply that we are using the law to save ourselves. The confused mind may conclude that because we are commanded to obey God, we are diminishing the doctrines of sola fide and sola gratia. 

Ferguson presents union with Christ as the solution for negotiating the wiles of the law or lack of it. It is almost as though “union” is a talisman or magic solution for resolving the issue of law. It reminds me of the follies of my youth when the solution for engaging in the higher and sin-free life was to be “filled” with the Spirit in a very Pentecostal sense of the word. Truth be told, there is no magic solution for spirituality, and it will always be a struggle. There is danger in omitting the use of the law in ordering our walk with God. If sanctification is deemed to not be a synergistic activity of God and man, the result is Quietism (“let go and let God”) and an antinomianism that is repulsive to God. Union with Christ stresses a mongergistic action in being a Christian, but the synergistic action as found in repentance and sanctification emphasizes the need for personal choices and struggles to be holy.

I recall being at a Ligonier Conference in Dallas, TX in the mid-1990s, and two speakers followed in succession. The first was Chuck Colson, who gave a very moving talk about doing right even when it is costly and difficult. John Piper followed, refuting everything that Colson said, and insisted that as Christian hedonists, we will always have joy and delight in serving God, and that Colson needed to essentially “chill out”. RC Sproul got the last word in, claiming that both were correct. Sproul seemed quite embarrassed by the Colson-Piper interchange and sought a political resolution rather than speaking Scripture. I’ve never had a serious regard for John Piper after that event. The story reflects that there are those theologians that try to resolve the legalism problem by forming, as John Piper has done, a modified form of antinomianism that uses the gloss of defending the doctrines of sola fide and sola gratia. I’m not fooled.

Assurance?

Assurance is a major topic in the later chapters of this book. Sadly, there is no sure-fire means of providing assurance to the godly person who is trusting in Christ, and yet doubting his salvation. There are churches where assurance is considered not possible. The Roman Catholic Church is a prime example. The Netherlands Reformed Church, from which Joel Beeke was expelled as a “heretic” is another. Our baptism is a definite assurance, even though baptism does not save us. Pastors can attest that there are godly members who struggle with accepting their own personal assurance, and words and comfort fail. Even the Westminster Confession admits that at times God may be leading a person through a dark valley where one’s salvation becomes in doubt. Perhaps assurance is also a monergistic work of God? 

Redemptive-Historical (RH) exegesis and preaching- does it help in the issue of legalism?

Redemptive-historical exegesis is a manner of interpreting Scripture, especially in the Old Testament, which seeks to see Jesus in everything. While there is value to that, it seems to me to be a return to the school of Alexandria, where allegorical interpretations were held in the highest value. This is in contrast to the other main theological academy of Christendom in Antioch in the 3rd century AD, which taught grammatical-historical (GH) exegesis. Though it may sound like redemptive-historical exegesis does the most honor to Christ, it does just the opposite, by not allowing Scripture to speak for itself. The entire process is to drain Scripture of its moral and devotional elements. This can be seen in the outcome of RH preaching, where moral elements are missing. The preaching of imperatives is rendered the equivalent of preaching legalism, and thus to be avoided. Similarly with the preaching from the Old Testament, especially from Psalm 1, 19, and 119. To denigrate the preaching of the law is a evil distortion of the meaning and significance of the law, and a misinterpretation on Paul’s invective against the law. Augustine never did it. Luther never did it. Calvin never did it. The Puritans never did it. Why is it now quasi-heretical to preach law???

Several results of this are found in the RH preaching method. First, the whole counsel of God is no longer preached. Second, it makes much of the text of the OT irrelevant. Reformers taught (appropriately) that salvation was the same in the OT as in modern times. Yet, much of the OT text is moral admonitions. If OT saints were saved similarly as NT saints, why are we claiming the message is now so much different? Why is the text of much of the Psalms, the major and minor prophets, and historical books offered in terms of obedience to the moral law of God? Third, it does violence to the words and ministry of Christ while on earth. Here is a perfect example of a Biblical narrative in which RH preachers would have to perform Marcion-style slashes to the text to make it consistent with their thinking. When the rich young man (ruler) came to ask Christ how he could be saved, Jesus should have replied, “Just have faith in me”. Instead, he gave the “legalistic” reply, “Have you kept the 10 commandments?”. The man ultimately went away sad when Jesus noted that he needed to sell all that he had. Jesus then commented to the disciples as to how anybody could be saved, and noted firstly the emphasis that it is impossible to keep the law to be saved. Jesus then did a major “blunder” by commenting that “everyone that has left houses and family… will inherit eternal life”. Heavens to Mergatroyd!!!!! Jesus never grasped the new interpretive theology of modern Presbyterianism! Someone please inform Jesus in heaven of the doctrine of sola fide!!!!!! Maybe the next time Jesus comes back to earth he’ll have it right!

But, there are Scriptures that are also in my defense.

What man is there who desires life and loves many days, that he may see good? Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it. The eyes of the LORD are toward the righteous and his ears toward their cry. The face of the LORD is against those who do evil, to cut off the memory of them from the earth.
Psalm 34:12-16 and re-quoted in 1Peter 3:10-12!!!!!! (i.e., NOT legalism to say such things!)

or

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work
IITim 3:16-17

and

But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained  by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
Heb 5:14

RH preaching also does violence against the entirety of Christian worship. RH preaching would make you think that when preaching for reproof, correction, or righteous training, it should be deemed legalistic because it denies the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. Horse feathers!!!!!  When  preaching is cheapened, everything is cheapened. “Church” becomes just another form of entertainment, and an appeasement for the guilt of not attending church. Music becomes contentless, and the praise ditties speak of nothing but repetitive garbage which I liken to Tibetan prayer wheels—repetitive vacuous statements to a god, powered by the blowing of the wind. Sadly, at the start of the contemporary Christian music (CCM) scene, back in the late 1960s at Calvary Chapel, the hippies would write Scripture to music; though typically not suitable for corporate worship, it was quality music. Today’s music scene lacks both significant content as well as creative tunes that match the lyrics, and depend entirely on an upbeat rhythm to stimulate the emotional sensitivities of the singer.  

All of this is the result of fear that any moral instruction will evoke a legalistic attempt to justify oneself. Protestants attack Roman Catholics with vim and vigor over their failure to properly distinguish justification from sanctification, yet Protestants are offering another form of confusion between the two. We have little ground for theological superiority. 

In conclusion, Sinclair Ferguson does good in this book by pointing out a great historical doctrinal issue in the church and how it was partially resolved by the Marrow Men. Better thought regarding doctrinal issues of law, grace, antinomianism, and legalism now need to follow. 

Post Script

I’m not a professional theologian, yet it doesn’t escape my notice that seminaries are generating much of the rubbish theology that we pew sitters have to endure. Perhaps my contemplations in this article are wrong in certain respects, and I am more than willing to be corrected by any theologian who can give a Biblical explanation for my errors. There is nothing above that I would take as personal, should someone rightly correct me. Neither am I addressing a particular congregation, even my own, as this seems to be a widespread problem in today’s churches. My rant is universal.

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