The Whole Christ

The Whole Christ, by Sinclair Ferguson ★★★★

This book discusses a controversy that raged in the early 1700s within Scottish Presbyterianism, reflecting on a struggle to define the nature of legalism and its supposed antithesis, antinomianism within the context of whether or not we can be assured of our salvation as Christians. The Marrow controversy, as it was called, stemmed from the Auchterarder Creed, which stated that one need not forsake sin in coming to Christ. Such a creed, as noted by some contemporary Divines, was terribly worded and lent more to confusion than to offering a statement in support of either solafideism vs legalism/antinomianism.

In discussing the Marrow controversy, Ferguson offers a solution through the union that all believers have in Christ. Ferguson appropriately notes legalism and antinomianism to be bastard twins, originating in the same mistakes in thinking. With our union in Christ, we can have assurance that we are saved and will be among the elect in His kingdom.

There are a few minor problems that I find with Ferguson’s discussion. The first in the title of the book, taken from a phrase by Calvin, “totus Christus”. Yet, the phrase is itself poorly worded, in that it suggests that you can separate Christ into components. Ferguson suggests the tendency to separate the person of Christ from the actions of Christ, which is an impossibility. You either have the whole enchilada, or, you have nothing, though perhaps you have a fake, imitation resemblance of Christ. This is not just a problem with the second person in the Trinity. Even as humans, our identity is formed not only by our physical presentation but also by our actions, accomplishments, personality, and history, which lends a more relevant description of who we are than what our bodies may look like.

Secondly, there is such a tendency among Reformed thinkers to be legalistic-phobic as well as anti-antinomian so that their development of the uses of the law goes by the wayside. If one dared preach imperatives from the pulpit, the preacher would be accused of being a legalist. As a result, preaching against antinomianism will occur resulting in a phenomenon that I call creedal anti-antinomianism but functional antinomianism. To defend solafideism, many Reformed preachers (thankfully, not all!) will do one of several things.

1) The pastor will feel the need to offer great explanation whenever an imperative is preached, almost to the point of deeming the 10 commandments as either not applicable to Christians today, considering them to be only 10 suggestions, or teaching that obedience affects our situation on earth while not affecting our eternal salvation.

2)The pastor will point to two great creeds of Reformed Christendom, the Westminster Confession and the Heidelberg catechism suggesting that our obedience to the law is done solely out of gratefulness to Christ for his work for us. That certainly is true, but, is that the whole story? Is there never a sense of obligation or duty that we have to God? Is not the law also a descriptor of the ontologic character of God, a reflection of God’s actual being, with whom we should imitate (Lev 11:44, 19:2, 20:26, I Peter 1:16)?

Those of the Reformed faith will note that salvation by faith alone was how sinners achieved salvation in both the Old as well as the New Testament. Yet, to the careless reader, the OT seems to speak of nothing but law, law, law, while the NT then focuses entirely on grace (of course, leaving out the Sermon on the Mount and most of the teachings of Jesus while on earth). I simply don’t see Scripture that way; instead, I see a moral God who makes moral demands on his children. Too many so-called solafideists have a tendency to view the OT from a neo-Marcionic perspective, as though God either completely changed his personality with the resurrection of Christ, or perhaps it was different gods (father-god vs son-god????) that inspired the OT prophets.

I am not a theologian, as so will refrain from offering a full Biblical solution to this problem. Ferguson, in the same vein as Martin Luther, does not provide a complete solution for the law-gospel tension, choosing instead to weigh in with a solution that allows for a doctrine of assurance, and thus not really giving us the “whole Christ”. I believe that we can hold completely to the doctrine of sola fide and yet also insist on obedience to Christ (the law) as an imperative. These are two truths that must be held in tension, not giving more weight to either one or the other truth, consistent with what my old pastor, JI Packer, and many Puritan Divines taught.

This is a good book, giving me a much better grasp as to the Morrow Controversy and the battles that were fought by Thomas Watson, the Erskine brothers, and other saints of the Scottish Reformed persuasion. Ferguson writes with clarity and facility. I would not hesitate to recommend this book to those with an interest in the doctrines of law and grace. It is a book that a men’s group at church will be working through on alternate Saturday mornings. I don’t believe that the group discussions will change my overall comments regarding this book.

Share