Monday, 28 January 2019

The Whole Christ

There are some books that you read that are helpful.  Other books are memorable.  For me, The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson (Crossway, 2017) is in a whole different category.  This book is a game changer and has had a profound and lasting effect on me.  Reading it and listening to it on Audible often moved me to tears.  The book helped me to finally understand much of what I had experienced in my own Christian life and in the church.  I am profoundly grateful to Sinclair Ferguson who has helped me see the glories of God's grace much more vividly.  So much of our theology is linked to how we see God and The Whole Christ helped me to see God so much more clearly as he is revealed in the Scriptures.  This book is a beautiful gift to the church.  You can buy it here.

Nothing New
There is nothing new under the sun and the theological clashes of the 18th century have so much to teach us today.  Ferguson uses the controversy surrounding the publication of 'The Marrow of Modern Divinity' and the ensuing 'Marrow Controversy' to diagnose and offer remedies to the cancer of legalism that is in all of our hearts and is endemic in certain churches.  Like a master surgeon, Ferguson expertly diagnoses and takes a Biblical scalpel to what lurks in all of our hearts and is often present in so many theological disputes.  I've often thought that legalism is somebody else's sin but The Whole Christ helped to see how it seeps into my own heart and it is present, to a greater or lesser degree, in every church.  

A short blog post can't do justification to The Whole Christ.  Many of the issues that Sinclair Ferguson deals with in this book are deep, complex and multi dimensional.  It is important to acknowledge when we are out of our depth and I have no problem in acknowledging that I can barely skirt around the edges of many theological issues.  I am looking forward to my good friend Donald John Maclean writing a much fuller review of The Whole Christ with his deep grasp of the theological issues involved.  His work on James Durham (1622-58) has been a huge service to the wider church and he shows that the 'free offer of the gospel' is not some innovation but is in the rich and historical flow of reformed theology.  I hope to write more about this when I review Joel R. Beeke's wonderful book 'Reformed Preaching'.

Defining Legalism
What I find so helpful about The Whole Christ is that Ferguson weaves his in-depth knowledge of church history, brings Biblical theology to life and writes as an experienced, wise pastor.  Legalism affects so many areas of the Christian life: the way the gospel is preached, the assurance of salvation, the way we view and enjoy God, the way we view other believers and the extent to which we are humbled under the grace and mercy of God in salvation.

The thing is, nobody claims to be a legalist. No reformed Christian ever claims that the observance of the law will save them.  Legalism is often not a matter of doctrine as practice. It is not so much of a 'head problem' as a 'heart problem'.  This is what makes the issue so complex.  Men can preach correct doctrine for decades but yet lack warmth in their preaching, gentleness in their pastoral care and affection for their wife and children.  As Tim Keller says in the introduction: the legal spirit is marked by jealousy, oversensitivity to slights, 'metallic' harshness towards mistakes and an ungenerous default mode in decision making. (The Whole Christ, p 13).

In my own experience, legalists are almost always (very) angry, often highly sectarian or tribal and often tend to be focused on particular doctrines at the exclusion of the gospel.  Legalists tend to be always right so if you are wondering if you are a legalist maybe ask yourself when you last said sorry.  If we genuinely believe ourselves to be sinners, sorry should be a word we use on a weekly if not daily basis.  For some reason it sticks in the throat of the legalist.

Suspicious Symptoms
Ferguson spends the first six chapters of The Whole Christ outlining the marrow controversy, defining legalism, explaining the 'order salutis' (does repentance precede or follow faith?) and then very helpfully examines 'Suspicious Symptoms' in chapter six.  These can include a 'self righteous temperament' which is often the most common trait amongst legalists.  Ferguson very helpfully uses the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18 v 9-14 to make his point.  As Luke says, this parable was to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt (Luke 18 v 9).  This contempt of other Christians is common in both traditional and modern churches and is a sure sign of the spirit of the Pharisee.  Some churches seem pathologically incapable of self analysis, humility and reflection.

The Grace Expose
Ferguson also talks about 'the grace expose'.  Parables such as the labourers in the vineyard (Matt 20 v 1-16) expose what is truly in their (and our) hearts: without the demonstration of grace, the true nature of their hearts would not have been revealed (The Whole Christ, p 127).  Often when legalists see grace it draws out their legalism.  Ferguson really helpfully quotes John Colquhoun;  When a man is driven to acts of obedience by the dread of God's wrath revealed in the law, and not drawn to them, by the belief in His love revealed in the gospel; when he fears God because of His power and justice, and not because of His goodness; when He regards God more as an avenging Judge, than as a compassionate Friend and Father; and when he contemplates God rather as terrible in majesty than as infinite in grace and mercy, he shows he is under the influence of a hateful temper.  (The Whole Christ, p 128).  This is seen so clearly in the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15.  The love for the younger brother exposes the legalism of the elder brother. He is angry, resentful and views his father us unjust in rewarding his brother who had 'squandered his living with prostitutes.'

Bondage under the Law
Perhaps the most helpful section in the chapter on Suspicious Signs in the section on a 'A Spirit of Bondage'.  Many of us will have met Christians who are paralysed by the bondage that legalism brings.  When everything is reliant on our performance and obedience to the law, our constant failures brings a spirit of bondage and fear.  The legalist, like Eve in the Garden of Eden, separates God's law from God's character.  Rather than seeing the law as loving laws from a loving God, the legalist is crushed by the law as he sees them as ways to earn merit with God.  They see God as a hard task master who only loves us when we follow his laws perfectly which we are incapable of doing.

Ferguson very helpfully uses the Pilgrims Progress in this section and shows Faithful's struggles with 'Adam the First'.  Using the imagery of Romans 7 Bunyan shows us how we keep going back to our first husband rather than loving our new husband Jesus Christ,  As Ferguson says: We cry to the law to show some mercy; but bare law contains no mercy.  It is powerless to pardon.  Moses, in this sense, can only beat us into a bondage frame of spirit (The Whole Christ, p 131).  What is the remedy?  Our only hope to escape the bondage of the law is to have a clear sight of the nail scars in the hands of Jesus Christ.  The answer to legalism is grace, but not grace as a commodity, grace in Christ. 'He is the propitiation for our sins' (1 John 2 v 2).

A Covenant of Grace or a Rule of Life?
No book on grace would be complete without a proper treatment of 'antinomianism'.  Very simply put antinomianism denies the role of the law in the Christian life.  There is so much confused thinking around this today as people take verses like Romans 6 v 14 out of context.  If you are not familiar with the Westminster Confession of Faith I would urge to to get a copy and study its teaching on the law.  You can order a copy here.

As Paul spent so much of his ministry arguing, the fruit of free grace is not sin or lawlessness, but loving obedience.  Grace does not dismantle the law but it is no longer a covenant of works for the Christian, rather the law is a rule of life.  As we see Christ in the gospel, as we are humbled by grace we delight to do the will of God, not to earn our salvation (which is by free grace) but to please our heavenly father.  This is why the confession says;

 Neither are the forementioned uses of the law contrary to the grace of the gospel, but do sweetly comply with it; the Spirit of Christ subduing and enabling the will of man to do that freely, and cheerfully, which the will of God revealed in the law requireth to be done. 
Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), Chapter XIX, VII

So many churches today see 'the law' as the problem.  They think people are put off by any reference to the commandments and any emphasis on holiness of life.  Many of these people continue to live lives of integrity and holiness and we mustn't caricature everyone who takes this view as living in unrighteousness.  They just have a wrong understanding of the law.  In Romans 7 Paul calls the law 'spiritual', 'good', 'righteous' and 'holy'.  In Romans 3 Paul says 'Do we then overthrow the law by this faith?  By no means!  On the contrary, we uphold the law.'  

The law is not the problem, it is indwelling sin.  The answer to sin is not legalism or antinomianism.  The answer is grace.  We must be united with Christ as Paul sets out in Romans 6 v 1-14 - no longer under law (for our salvation) but under grace (v 14).  This does not mean that the law does not remain a 'rule of life' and must play a critical part in the Christian life.  Ferguson helpfully says:  Commandments are the railroad tracks on which the life empowered by the love of God poured into the heart by the Holy Spirit runs.  Love empowers the engine; law guides the direction.  They are mutually interdependent.  The notion that love can operate apart from the law is a figment of the imagination.  It is not only bad theology; it is poor psychology.  It has to borrow from law to give eyes to love.' (The Whole Christ, p 169)

Blessed Assurance
The last three chapters of The Whole Christ deals with the subject of Christian assurance which is a big issue for many Christians.  The Bible teaches that it is possible to have both false assurance and lack of assurance.  As so many have experienced, it is possible to be a 'child of light walking in darkness' as it says in Isaiah 50 v 10.  We see this time and again in the experience of the Psalmist.  During many periods of church history, assurance of salvation has been viewed with  suspicion and a potential source of antinomianism.  The reformation was a rediscovery of the certainty of salvation in justification by faith.  This was reflected by the Westminster Assembly when they said; But the principle acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace (WCF, ch 14.2).  Ferguson deals brilliantly with the perceived conflict between Calvin and the Puritans on whether assurance of faith is of the essence of faith and shows that they are coming at the same subject from different perspectives but meet in the middle.  The fruit of assurance is not 'looseness' as the confession says but that 'his [the believers] heart be may enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duty of obedience' (WCF, ch 18.3)

The Whole Christ is such an important book.  Legalism has done so much damage throughout the church.  It has divided churches, split families and caused deep wounds that last for decades.  It has turned many away from the gospel and given the church a bad name.  It clouds our view of the gospel and encourages us to view the law in a way that God never intended.  So many live in bondage to legalism, never experiencing freedom in Christ.  The Whole Christ calls us back to see the gospel in all its beauty and clarity.  Ferguson says in his own conclusion to the book that through the Marrow of Modern Divinity Boston experienced a fuller realisation of God and his amazing grace.  This led to Boston's heart being bathed in a new sense of God's graciousness in Christ.  The whole tincture of his ministry changed as his preaching became an expression of Christs preaching.  

I hope that in reading this book it has proved a catalyst to me to wrestle with key theological issues of what the gospel is and how we should live it out in this world.  Grace must have an effect on everything we do: our preaching, pastoring, evangelism, parenting, our marriage and our relationships.  The book is a 'litmus test' for those of us who don't think we are legalists.  Could there be any legalism lurking in our heart?  To quote Calvin The human heart has so many crannies where vanity hides, so many holes where falsehood lurks, is so decked out with deceiving hypocrisy, that it often dupes itself (Institutes of the Christian Religion).  The Marrow Men and the Marrow of Modern Divinity exposed a latent gospel hardening that was in the church in the 18th century.  God in his providence used the controversy to expose a practical legalism that had come on the church.  I fear a similar hardness has come on many in the church today and we desperately need to be called back to see the glory and wonder of grace.  The Whole Christ can help us to do that and I can't recommend it highly enough.

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