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You submitted the following rating and review. We'll publish them on our site once we've reviewed them. Reformed Church—Scotland—Doctrines—History. The volume in your hands is not just a helpful historical reflection; it is also a tract for the times.
The Marrow Controversy was a debate within the Church of Scotland in the early eighteenth century. The root of the dispute was the perennial difficulty of properly relating works and grace, law and gospel, not merely in our systematic theology but in our preaching and pastoral ministry and, ultimately, within our own hearts. Sinclair does a good job of recounting the Marrow Controversy in an accessible and interesting way.
The Truth Will Set You Free
However, his real aim is not merely to do that. Against the background and features of that older dispute, he wants to help us understand the character of this perpetual problem—one that bedevils the church today. He does so in the most illuminating and compelling way I know of in recent evangelical literature.
One of the striking features of the Marrow Dispute is that supporters of the Marrow were accused of defending antinomianism, and at least some of its critics were, in turn, suspected of legalism—even though all parties had subscribed to what the Westminster Confession says about justification and works. That is an extraordinarily nuanced exposition of the Protestant understanding of justification by faith alone through Christ alone.
All those involved in the Marrow Controversy had subscribed to this precisely worded theological statement. How then could charges and countercharges of antinomianism and legalism arise that would expose a fault line in the church and eventually lead to a split in the denomination? From the Marrow Controversy as a case in point, Sinclair draws several conclusions but expands and looks at each one so that we can apply them to our own time.
The first and inarguable conclusion is that legalism and antinomianism are much more than doctrinal positions. Neither side subscribed to overt, explicit legalistic or antinomian doctrine. Nonetheless, legalism and antinomianism can be strongly present in a ministry. Each is a web of attitudes of heart, practices, character, and ways of reading Scripture. The legal spirit is marked by jealousy, oversensitivity to slights, metallic harshness toward mistakes, and an ungenerous default mode in decision making. Both the author of The Marrow of Modern Divinity and Thomas Boston, the leading Marrow Man and supporter of the work, shared moving and convicting accounts of how they spent years in ministry, subscribing to the correct doctrine of justification, but at a practical level still functioned as if the law of God was a covenant of works rather than a rule of life.
It can take the form of a secular gospel of self-acceptance masquerading as Christianity. Any failure to present full, eager, complete obedience and submission to God as ultimately a great joy—as a way to resemble, know, and bring delight to God—is a tendency toward the antinomian spirit. The second thing I learned was that the root of both legalism and antinomianism is the same. My guess is that most readers will find this the best new insight for them, one that could even trigger a proverbial paradigm shift.
It is a fatal pastoral mistake to think of legalism and antinomianism as complete opposites. Sinclair says that, rather, they are nonidentical twins from the same womb. Because both mind-sets refuse to believe in the love and graciousness of God, they assume that any commands given to us are evidence that he is unwilling to bless us. They both fail to see obedience as the way to give the gracious God delight as well as the way to become our true selves, the people we were created to be.
They participate in the same incomprehension of the joy of obedience—they see obedience as something imposed on us by a God whose love is conditional and who is unwilling to give us blessing unless we do quite a lot of work.