February 4th, 2016
With Kevin coming this weekend to the end of the gauntlet that is ordination trials in the PCA, it was a pleasant bit of serendipity that I picked up the newest book from our far off friend, Dr. Sinclair Ferguson (to whom we’ve appealed before, and on successive occasions). After decades of being approached about a series of talks he gave in the 1980s, Dr Ferguson at last formatted them into a book entitled The Whole Christ.
What were these coveted and much discussed lectures about? They concerned the ostensibly dry-as-burnt-toast topic of a young man in 18th century Scotland, in the town of Auchterarder (ten points for correct pronunciation), whose tumultuous ordination examination eventually culminated in a nationwide debate that came to be known as The Marrow Controversy.
The reason Ferguson’s talks–to say nothing of their far more ancient subject–remain an interest among both clergy and laity is that they center on a subject that cuts to the heart of what it means to be a Christian. I’m only a few chapters in so I’ve only scratched the surface of what provoked the theological scrum. But I follow both the story and their theological underpinnings enough to explain that there were (and are) two positions to which all Christians fall prey in their understanding, and moreover living, of the gospel-centered life: what’s known as “antinomianism” and “legalism.”
As the author of the foreword clarifies, neither -ism really holds to the position of which they are accused. So they are more caricature than settled conviction. But at least in those conventional, if caricatured, terms, the view, first of all, known as antinomianism (lit. “anti-Law”) understands the immeasurable grace that comes to us in the Gospel as a pretext for giving little to any thought about the necessity of obedience; since no work we do has any effect on whether we may be reconciled to God through faith in Jesus, then undue concern for submission is just that: undue. On the other hand, the view known as legalism is associated with an excessive concern for obedience–even to the point of making it a means by which the grace offered us is authentically appropriated. Unless we follow in obedience, we are subject to loss in God is that view’s inclination.
What Dr. Ferguson is out to show, at least here in the early part of his book, is that those two views are in fact derivative of a common notion, albeit unwittingly held. Namely, that both refuse to believe in the goodness of God. Even if it wouldn’t admit to such, proverbial antinomianism deep down doesn’t believe there’s goodness to be found in obedience; commands are only burdens. Likewise, proverbial legalism doesn’t believe there’s goodness to be found in a salvation that is entirely of grace; God’s love must be conditioned upon unwavering compliance; otherwise, so its logic goes, we have adopted only a cheapened grace.
This may all seem like the sort of theological ivory-tower conversation so far removed from real life as to be entirely irrelevant. Except that we are all prone to drift into either sensibility in our innermost motivations. We can become too apathetic to the demands of discipleship, letting grace (or a distorted conception of such) excuse us from the hard work of following in His steps. Alternatively, we can adopt a view of our fidelity to His will and way as in some sense determinative both of our status and our destiny before God. Seeing this controversy in that light makes its ancient provenance not seem so remote.
Kevin’s ordination trials aren’t the only resonance with this old but contemporary issue. We’ll spend the season of Lent, which begins next Wednesday, by turning our attention to our vices (of which we spoke a little last week, and will more in earnest next week). It’s those “daily habits which are deadly to us” that makes a proper sense of obedience and grace so crucial to our confrontation with vices.
I suspect you’ll hear more from the Marrow Controversy during Lent, almost assuredly at its culmination.
We’ve spoken of Rosaria Butterfield in these pages before–and before that. Hers is a remarkable story of reversal–of leaving behind a love, a career, and an entire way of conceptualizing the world. But perhaps more compelling than how she parted ways with a community is the extent to which she sought to practice hospitality–to be faithfully present–to that same community.
We’ve shared a few stories of simple hospitality lately. Butterfield’s experiences in hospitality ended up being the catalyst for her most recent book, Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Covert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ.
As for the serendipity, it just so happens that Kevin Gladding wrote a review of her book shortly after the Supreme Court ruling last June (of which we made further comment, too). It also just so happens that she takes the title of her book from the very last verse of the book of Acts, which is our sermon passage this Sunday, the conclusion of our study of Luke’s 2nd volume. And if that weren’t enough providential convergences for you, Butterfield will be at a sister church in Forth Worth to discuss her thoughts on hospitality the weekend of April 1, 2. It’s free to the public. We hope some of you might attend!
As we said, this Sunday is our last Sunday in Acts. We’ve looked to Luke’s record of the early church as a window into, if not an enduring guide, for how God’s influence began to spread in ways unprecedented through the Spirit’s work to persuade of the truth of Jesus.
We feel a particular burden to strike just the right endnote on what has been a long journey through this long book. The book has not lost its capacity to retain the interest of scholars across the theological spectrum. I’m just glad that on a day we finish hearing from one source, and prepare ourselves for the next leg of the journey in Lent, that we should be coming to The Table. Ah, another serendipitous Providence. Prepare yourself.
But while it will seem enigmatic here, we offer this little clip as a prelude to how we’ll frame our final thoughts on Luke’s labor.