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Message 26, Optional Session: The Whole Christ:

This session considers the relationship between law and gospel in the Christian life. It considers how our understanding of law and gospel affects our approach to evangelism, sanctification, and our understanding of God Himself.

Message Transcript

Well, I know you would rather have C.H. Spurgeon, but you’ll just have to put up with me today. Thank you very much, Lee, for those lovely words of introduction. The subject I’m to speak to you about is ‘The Whole Christ,’ and since, by my reckoning, there have been 15 plenary sessions, and this is the tenth optional session, you certainly will have every pardon you need if you fall asleep in the next 25 minutes, before we have our final session.

Most of you probably do not know that ‘The Whole Christ’ is a book, and it’s because I’m familiar with the author of this book, and indeed so familiar with him that it’s not possible for me ethically to recommend this book to you.

And I’ve been asked to say something, I think, about the theme of the book. It’s always embarrassing to talk about a book that you’ve written, certainly if you have Celtic blood in you. And I’m grateful to the Ligonier staff that they gave me the opportunity to do this, when basically the bookstore is closed.

So I don’t feel any tension of interest in what I’m about to say. But although I do know the author intimately, not as well, actually, as I should know him, I nevertheless think that there are some lessons, emphases, that constitute the theme of this book that are particularly helpful to us in the Christian life, and helpful to us perhaps especially at this particular time.

And this is a book that has a story behind it. There’s a story in it and there’s a story behind the writing of it. And so I thought it might be of some interest to you at this late stage in the conference if I talked about two things.

First of all, about the backstory to ‘The Whole Christ’; the backstory to writing the book. And then, secondly, for those of you who have never read the book, and for those of you who don’t want to read the book but would like to know what the book is about, I want to give you a little taster of the message of this book, ‘The Whole Christ.’ So first of all, the backstory and then a little ‘hors d’oeuvre,’ as they say in the best restaurants, that will maybe give you a sense of what the story is.

If you had known me in my earlier life, you would’ve known that the idea of coming to the United States, never mind living in the United States, was an exceedingly remote thought. When I was a teenager, I was 18-years-old, I was sitting in a committee meeting of our intervarsity group. We were discussing the teaching meetings that would follow in the academic year 1966-1967, and the president of our intervarsity chapter — intervarsity was very student-run/led in the United Kingdom, certainly in Scotland.

The president of our intervarsity group said, “Professor John Murray is retiring from Westminster Seminary, and we’ll be able to have Professor Murray speak at our Christian Union meetings.” That name will be familiar, I’m sure, to many of you, but I sat there as an 18-year-old boy thinking, “Who on earth is Professor John Murray, and where in all the world is Westminster Theological Seminary?” I didn’t know that if I fast-forwarded 15 years, I would know exactly where Westminster Theological Seminary was, and I would have the privilege of being an heir and successor in the ministry of Professor Murray.

But the idea of coming to the United States was exceedingly remote to me. I think probably had about the same percentage likelihood as me being the first Scotsman on the moon.

And then, in 1979, I had an invitation to come to the United States to give some lectures in early 1980, and then much to my astonishment, I’ve had another invitation to return to the United States later that year, 1980, the fall of 1980, to speak to a ministers’ conference. And the letter of invitation asked me to speak on the subject ‘Pastoral Lessons from the Marrow Controversy.’ ‘Pastoral Lessons from the Marrow Controversy.’

The ‘Marrow Controversy’ was not an argument Scots had about how to work the vegetables in their garden. It was a controversy in the early 1700s that took place in the Presbyterian Church in Scotland, over the influence of a book that had been written in 1645 entitled ‘The Marrow of Modern Divinity.’ And by ‘marrow,’ it meant “Let’s get to the very heart of the best of Christian theology.” And the book was written as a kind of Socratic dialogue.

There were four characters in the book. One, the Evangelist, ‘Evangelista,’ who was the minister, the pastor. There was another, ‘Neophytus,’ who was the neophyte, the new Christian. And then there was ‘Nomista,’ who was a legalist, and ‘Antinomista,’ who was an antinomian.

In that sense, the kind of thing you get most fully played out in ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ were the names of the characters will tell you something about their spiritual condition — was expressed in an earlier form and not nearly as imaginative a form by Edward Fisher, who wrote ‘The Marrow of Modern Divinity’ in order to discuss the different views of the gospel.

What a young Christian might be led into, antinomianism, or on the other hand, legalism. And Evangelista, the pastor, walks these people through the story of the gospel, the way in which the law of God and the grace of God relate to one another. And he did so by means of many quotations from some of the best theological writers.

And so this was the book, ‘The Marrow of Modern Divinity.’ And it raised a very heated controversy in Scotland in the early eighteenth century. It — you don’t need to know the whole story of it, but it began in a small place called ‘Auchterarder.’ I think we should pause there and learn how to pronounce ‘Auchterarder.’ ‘Auchterarder.’

Where the presbytery was in the habit of asking students for the ministry a kind of trick question. They asked them if they thought it was orthodox to teach — “Is it orthodox to teach that you forsake sin in order to come to Christ?”

And what they were trying to ferret out was this question: “Does this person think that there is some standard I need to meet, some qualification I need to have, some measure of repentance that I need to have gone through before I can come to Christ?” And they were trying to ferret out people who were essentially saying “You know, Christ has died for us, but there is something that you need to contribute to the process of coming to faith in Jesus Christ.”

And a young man called William Craig, who had said to the presbytery, “No, I don’t think it is sound and orthodox to teach that there is something that needs to be done in order to come to Christ,” had felt himself somewhat smitten in conscience, and came back to the presbytery and said “I’m not sure I was really telling you the truth,” and they suspended his license to preach the gospel.

His case was appealed eventually to the General Assembly. The General Assembly overturned the decision that the presbytery had made, and two ministers who were sitting at the end of the assembly meeting fell into conversation.

One of them, it so happens, was a great hero of mine by the name of Thomas Boston. He was 41 years old. He had been in the ministry about 20 years. He was a minister in a completely out of the way part of the southeast of Scotland. You can still visit there, but you have to go down a valley, along a river, through a wood, and eventually you come to his church.

And he happened to say to the man who was sitting next to him, who was a member of the presbytery of Auchterarder, he said “You know, on those questions, I found ‘The Marrow of Modern Divinity’ a great help when I first read it.” He had read it 15 years or so before. He had found it, actually, lying on the window ledge of one of his members. And he’d taken it home. And he was so interested in it, he had bought it, and he found it so helpful to thinking through “How do we offer Jesus Christ to people in the gospel, and how do we preach Christ in such a way that people don’t fall into either legalism or antinomianism?”

And this man wanted to get the book, he got a copy of the book, he told somebody else about the book. That other person told somebody else about the book. And within a few months, there was a new edition of The Marrow of Modern Divinity on sale. And it caused a tremendous uproar in the church, until eventually, it became a banned book. I believe it has never been unbanned in the Church of Scotland.

But since the law that was passed was “Ministers should not recommend The Marrow of Modern Divinity to people,” and that ban has never been lifted, and since I’m not a minister in the Church of Scotland, I can tell you to read The Marrow of Modern Divinity.

But it produced a very sharp conflict. And in that conflict, not all evangelical ministers shared the same position. And so it became a cause of division and difficulty and conflict.

Back to 1980, “We want you to come and speak to these ministers ‘Pastoral Lessons from the Marrow Controversy.’” I still have a memory of a couple of weeks before the conference, sitting at my desk in Glasgow, in Scotland, trying to prepare the addresses, and my wife, Dorothy, bringing me in some coffee. And I remember looking up at her and saying “I don’t know why I’m wasting my time preparing these addresses.

There cannot be anybody in the United States of America who is at all interested in The Marrow of Modern Divinity.” But I came, and I gave my little addresses, and I went to Mississippi. I ate grits for the first time in my life. I survived.

Partly because the dear friend of Derek Thomas and myself, at least he became a dear friend of both of us, then told me I could actually mix the grits in with the scrambled eggs. And if I wanted, I could put cheese on them. And so eventually I arrived home fairly safely, and life went on.

And then I kept coming back to the United States, until I could stand not being here any longer. And I discovered everywhere I went — and this was true virtually without exception for the next 20 years, extraordinarily — everywhere I went, somebody would come up to me and say “I’ve listened to those tapes of yours on the Marrow controversy.” Tapes. Some of you don’t know what a tape is.

It was that long ago. But everywhere I went, this happened. And I — the man who had asked me to give these addresses, a man called Walt Chantry — some of you will know him, know his own work — had this extraordinary, I think, ability to put his finger on the pulse of things and realize that these issues never go away.

How do we relate the grace of God and the gospel to the law of God, without either becoming legalists on the one hand, or reacting to all that and becoming antinomians on the other? And how is it that we actually present Christ in the gospel? And how does the gospel bring us the assurance of salvation? Those were the themes that The Marrow of Modern Divinity had dealt with. Those were the themes of the addresses that I’d given.

And those were the themes that seemed to touch people’s lives. Most of them, interestingly, confirming something that I had long suspected was true. That people, by nature, are actually legalists. Including antinomians. And that became a clue to something. So, that was the backstory.

What about the taster, which was the second thing I promised I would give? Well, let me do this in a way — I don’t think I’ve done it in the book. I haven’t read the book since I wrote the book, and I’m not planning to reread the book in a hurry. So let me give you a taster of this whole question, but do it simply by directing you to a passage of Scripture. One very familiar to us all, Genesis 3, and the first seven verses.

Now the serpent was more crafty or subtle than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God actually say, “You shall not eat of any tree in the garden”?’ And the woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, “You shall not eat of fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.”’

But the serpent said to the woman ‘You will not surely die, for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So, when the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that is was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. And she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.”

Now, my own sense is that if you are to ask the question about this passage, “What is it that the serpent is doing here?” in my admittedly limited experience, the standard and partially true answer largely given by Bible-believing evangelical Christians is “Satan is rejecting the Word of God. Satan is seeking to bring Adam and Eve to deny the inherency, infallibility, and authority of God’s Word.” “Did God really say that?” And that’s undoubtedly true. But it doesn’t seem to me to be the ultimate truth.

The ultimate truth in this passage is “Yes, Satan is seeking to deny the authority of God’s Word, but he’s also doing something more sinister. He’s seeking to distort the character of the God who has given the Word.” So, in a sense, he’s aiming beyond deceiving them about the authority of His Word, to deceiving them about the character of God Himself.

And it’s this that becomes the clue to what follows. And it’s very interesting. Notice how this happens. “Did God really say that?” But then, notice how the conversation develops.

Essentially, what the serpent says is this: “God has set you in this magnificent garden, and is it not true that He has said to you ‘You see this beautiful garden? You see those lovely fruit trees? You’re not to have any of them.’ And Eve, you remember, she responds, but there’s something not quite right about her response. What she says is “No, no, we are to have the fruit of the trees of the garden, but the tree that’s in the midst of the garden.”

It’s very interesting that she describes that tree simply in geographical terms. Something has happened here. She’s describing it now in geographical terms. She says “Now, God said we weren’t even to touch that tree.”

Now, what’s interesting is you go back to Genesis 2, God never said that. He told them not to eat of the fruit of the tree, He didn’t say “Don’t touch the tree.” Now, it might be wise or it might not be wise to touch the tree, but that’s exactly the kind of thing the Pharisees said, isn’t it? “God has given us these rules, and in order to make sure that you keep these rules, we’re going to add one more rule.”

And you see something is beginning to happen in the psyche of Eve that is taking the character of God and beginning to twist it. And beginning to twist it in this way, that what the serpent is saying is this: “The kind of God you have is the kind of God who will bless you on the basis of the qualifications that you can earn on your way to His blessing.” You see how that begins to turn on its head the way in which God has come to them.

A very interesting thing happens in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. In Genesis 1, six times we are told that what God has done is ‘good.’ Now, there’s something wrong there, isn’t there? The Bible never does things in sixes. So, why has God fallen short of ‘perfectly good,’ by just giving us six things that are good? Because there’s a footnote in chapter 2 that says “Oh, by the way, it’s not good that the man should be alone.”

And the implication of that is what? That the seventh good is the marriage bond. So, here in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, there is a portrayal of Yahweh, the covenant God, who reveals Himself to Moses, who Moses understands is the same covenant God — he uses the name Yahweh here in Genesis 2 — is the same covenant, gracious, generous God who has come in creation, seeking fellowship with Adam and Eve. There’s a very interesting thing in these verses at the beginning of Genesis 3 — Satan never calls God ‘Yahweh.’ So something else is taking place.

A diversion away from the real character and covenant love of God, and then this very subtle twisting in which God is being turned into a God who will love you and will be generous to you, if you meet the qualifications.

And then do you see what happens? Satan comes in and he says in verse five, “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like Him, knowing good and evil.” And you see this is further pressing on the same principle. “God may say He’s good, God may say He’s generous, but He’s not really good and generous.

He’s demeaning your life. He’s spoiling your life. He doesn’t want you to be like Him. He wants to keep you in your place, until you’ve done enough to earn His pleasure.” There are fathers like that, aren’t there? I’ve heard them in restaurants. I’ve seen them in life. “I will love you ‘if.’” And such a child never grows to love his father.

Now, why this is so important is because of what it produces in Eve. And it’s very important to notice what it produces. The first thing is it produces legalism. That God will love me and be generous to me only on the basis that I meet the qualifications. And then the second thing it produces is antinomianism.

In order to be delivered from that bondage, she breaks the law that was given for her blessing. And she becomes an antinomian. And there is then put into the spiritual DNA of the whole human race exactly the same reality of a spirit of legalism in relationship to God, and yes, in relationship to His gospel, to which people will inevitably respond in one of two ways: either by seeking to pursue the legalism and do enough to earn His pleasure, or to seek the blessing by breaking His commandments.

And the fascinating thing to me has for many decades now been, that this is exactly what the parable of the prodigal son is about, isn’t it? It’s the story of a legalistic son who does not see his father as gracious and generous to him unless he meets the standards, throwing over the traces. And even when he thinks about coming home, he says “Maybe if I go back home, he’ll allow me to become one of the servants, and I can work my way up into his good standing and good pleasure.”

So that oddly enough, the younger son, who is the quintessential antinomian, becomes an antinomian because he’s got a legalistic view of his father, which is exactly what his older brother has. Wonderfully translated, as it happens, in the New International Version, when he says to his father, “All these years I’ve been slaving for you, and you’ve never given me a party.” Remember what the father says? It was true of both sons. “Everything I have is yours. Absolutely everything I have is yours.” And, my children, that is the starting place for the relationship.

And that actually is the gospel, everything, the Father has is yours. That’s what He offers to you. All He has to offer to you is Himself, His Son, and His Holy Spirit, and He offers all of that to you before you have done one decent thing in your life.

Everything the Son has, He offers to you. Fellowship with His Father, pardon through His death on the cross, and the gift of His Holy Spirit. And everything the Holy Spirit has. The ability, as Jesus says, “to bring into our hearts the Father and the Son, so that the Father and the Son will come and make their home with us and domesticate our lives for His glory.” It is all yours.

And in a sense, that’s what the Marrow Controversy was all about. The most fundamental question that the Christian can ever ask and answer: “What is God really like?” And is it not true that the answer I give to that question is going to be reflected in my life? That’s especially true, incidentally, if you’re a minister of the gospel. That’s what’s at stake.

And that’s why The Marrow of Modern Divinity caused a controversy, and why some of the brethren in early eighteenth century Scotland thought they found some of the most profound answers to the deepest pastoral problems they faced in understanding what it means to believe in the grace of God, in Jesus Christ. Well, that’s the ‘hors d’oeuvre.’ And the bookstore’s closed. Thank you for your attention.