Book Review: The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson

wholechristIt’s not often that you come across a book like The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson, it is well-written, of moderate length, winsome, pastoral, and academic all at once. It’s full title is The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance– Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters, quite a mouthful, and quite telling as to what a reader can expect to find inside. It’s a work that promises to be convicting, encouraging, and informative, and anyone familiar with Ferguson’s other titles will know this to be par for course. A title so long may be intimidating to some, and those unfamiliar with the Marrow Controversy may be put-off by this work, but let me assure you of the importance of this book: It’s not often I read a modern work that I know I will read again and again, but The Whole Christ is one of those books. It’s an instant classic and a work I expect to influence pastors and laymen for many years to come.

You may think, “what does an 18th century Presbyterian theological controversy have to do with me?” Well, Ferguson masterfully reveals its relevance in an academic and pastoral manner. In The Whole Christ he shows exactly why the Controversy is an important debate even for our time in such a way that is accessible and enjoyable, and informative to both the mind and heart. The Whole Christ shows us that the Marrow Controversy was not just a struggle between supposed legalists and antinomians, but it was a controversy over the free offer of the Gospel that had lasting effects in the church. The Marrow Men believed and preached “that to make the offer of grace dependent upon anything… was to distort the true nature of grace,” and those who opposed the Marrow Men (at the time, many members of the clergy in the Church of Scotland) were uncomfortable with this type of preaching, as they believed it lead to antinomian preaching and living. Of course, the Marrow Men rejected such a charge, and thus was born the Marrow Controversy. Ferguson demonstrates that studying this three hundred-year-old dispute gives us tremendous insight into the theological questions and problems we face today, and it gives us timeless truths that will support and bolster our faith here and now.

The first few chapters of this work are spent explaining the history of the debate so that the stage is set for the discussions on legalism and antinomianism, the place of the Law in the life of the believer, obedience, and assurance. Ferguson challenges the belief that legalism and antinomianism are opposites and posits instead that they stem from a misunderstanding of grace, and in fact, are antithetical to grace. He then explains that no matter what our tendency may be, whether we lean towards legalism or antinomianism, the remedy is the same and “God’s grace in Christ in our union with Christ is the antidote to both” sickness. This discussion is much needed in our time and I think it will challenge you to consider what you believe about the Gospel. The Whole Christ challenges us to think about the way we preach the Gospel to others and, maybe even more importantly, how we preach it to ourselves.

Throughout the book Ferguson quotes such writers as John Calvin, John Colquhoun, and Thomas Boston, as well as quoting The Westminster Confession of Faith extensively, all to present a cohesive understanding of the Reformed faith and the Reformed position on Law and Gospel, obedience, and assurance. These topics are intertwined, and Ferguson does a fantastic job of expounding on their theological significance as well as their practical implications. For the Christian struggling to understand how faith and works relate to one another, or how the Christian is to view the Law of God, or grappling with a lack of assurance, or doubting their salvation, Ferguson offers the hope of the Gospel in encouraging, practical, and life-giving terms.

In total, Ferguson handles these sensitive and important topics with exegetical proficiency and pastoral awareness. The topics of legalism, antinomianism, and assurance will be of constant relevance in the Christian life, they bring up questions that plague our hearts and can waylay our faith, which is why the Marrow Controversy was so crucial in its time, and why it still matters today. This book reminds us that we should pursue theological accuracy, not for accuracy’s sake, but for the sake of presenting the Gospel in all its power and authority. And Ferguson leads by example; he does not squabble over precise wording, Greek terms, or confessional statements for the sake of scoring points, but he pursues truth and precision so that we, his readers, may be encouraged in Christ and propelled forward in our faith for the glory of God alone.

So, I heartily recommend this book to you. If you haven’t read any of Ferguson’s previous publications, get to know him by reading The Whole Christ. Read it slowly, and read it with a pen in hand (you’ll thank me later); take the time to discuss the material with other believers, digest it, and dwell on the beauty of the message of the Gospel.