The Marrow of Modern Divinity was originally published in 1645 by E.F. which is believed to be Edward Fisher. However, the book did not gain much popularity at the time and fell out of print. It was only later discovered by Thomas Boston who found it on the shelf of one of his church members. He fell in love with the book and began to have it reprinted in 1718. This was an integral moment in what has been termed the “Marrow Controversy”.
The Marrow Controversy was a conflict in the church of Scotland in the early 18th century. It began in 1717 when a man by the name of William Craig’s ordination was denied. In order to be ordained in the Auchterander Presbytery all ministers had to affirm the Auchterander Creed which states, “I believe that it is not sound and orthodox to teach that we must forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ”. This creed was later condemned by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland for requiring more than the Westminster Standards for ordination. It was at this time that Boston (who supported the creed) began having the Marrow of Modern Divinity reprinted. However, many in the Scottish General Assembly viewed the book as antinomian (meaning against the law, it is a fancy term for those who don’t think they need to obey God’s moral law as a Christian). They banned the publishing of the book and rebuked the “Marrow Men” (which they had begun to be called). The “Marrow Men” accused them of being neonomian (meaning “new law” and is a fancy term for a legalist).
The controversy dealt with the issue of whether repentance was required before coming to Christ and issues with the free offer of the gospel. The Neonomians believed that repentance and faith were required before the Gospel offer. They believed that the Gospel offer should only be made to those that already showed signs of repentance and faith. The Marrow Men adamantly disagreed and believed that repentance and faith were the result of the grace of God in the life of the new believer. As well, since repentance and faith were the consequence of grace, the Gospel should be preached to everyone, not just those that are repentant. Fisher’s book struck like a lightning bolt right in the middle of this controversy.
The Marrow describes a debate between 4 people. An antinomian (meaning against the law and is a fancy term for one that believes Christians do not have to follow the law), a legalist, a new Christian, and a Gospel preacher. The preacher corrects the errors of the legalist and the antinomian and sets the new Christian on the right path. The controversy stemmed from Fisher’s argument about how Christians relate to the law of God. He explained that (in somewhat agreement with the antinomian and against the legalist) that Christians are freed from the law of God. However, they are freed from only the law as a covenant of works. This law of works is summarized in the 10 Commandments and what that means is that Christians are freed from the law’s curses (ie death for disobedience and not following the 10 Commandments). A Christian no longer fears eternal judgment and in one sense God no longer sees their sins (the ones against the law of works).
However, (in somewhat agreement with the legalist and against the antinomians) Christians are subject to the law of Christ, which is also summarized in the 10 Commandments. What that means is that Christians still have to follow God’s moral law as a rule of life, but not out of fear of eternal punishment. We are under grace because of the work of Christ, but we still must strive to live moral lives. We do this out of an appreciation for what God has done for us and our love for God. We no longer look at God as a judge who will send us to hell for any disobedience, but as a loving Father who cares for us. Now that doesn’t mean Christians are off the hook when they disobey. As human fathers discipline their children, so does God discipline his children (as Heb 12 says). That discipline may be harsh and yes even up to death, but it is not punishment (per se). It has the intention of correcting wrong behavior, not as a means of “paying” for a crime.
This is a very important distinction that all Christians need to understand. If you believe in Christ you are saved, but that doesn’t mean that what we do doesn’t matter. While we don’t fear God’s eternal wrath, we still must follow his law. God’s law is good and good for us. However, we must understand that our following the law, even as a Christian, means nothing in regards to our salvation. We are saved by the death and righteousness of Christ alone. Only his death could take away sin and only his righteousness credited to us can make us right in God’s eyes. We don’t do our best and then Jesus tops us off to make us perfect. Even as a Christian our righteous deeds are filthy rags. We don’t earn God’s favor by doing good works as a Christian. However, as Christians, God is still pleased with us when we obey and displeased when we disobey. But that is in regards to our sanctification, not our justification. God wants us to be conformed to the image of his son and will bring correction to get us closer to that goal. Granted we will never reach perfection this side of glory, but the process is still going on. However, even then, the righteousness we are capable of in this world can do nothing to save us.
Fisher used the example of citizenship to explain some of the misunderstandings. We are not subject to the laws of Spain, even though they may be same the laws (like murder, theft, etc.). We are subject to the laws of the nation we are citizens of. So even though the law of works and Christ are the same (the 10 Commandments). If we are a Christian, we are not subject to the condemnation of the law of works, because we are under the law of Christ. We are saved by grace alone and freed from the curse of the law, but freed in order to obey the law of Christ.
The irony of the Marrow Controversy is that by condemning the book, the General Assembly advertised a book that no one had ever heard of before. People went out and read the book and it became very popular and influential. It was widely read by many in Scotland, England, America, and all over the world. This is by far one of the best books I have read in a while and I highly recommend it, especially with Thomas Bostons notes. It can be a chore to read, especially having to stop and read Boston’s comments all the time and being originally written in the 1640s. However, it thoroughly refutes both antinomianism and legalism in one fell swoop. Every pastor and every Christian should read this book, it is that important.