Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
The doctrinal issues in the Marrow Controversy are still issues in the church today. They revolved around the question of the preaching of the gospel and the extent of the atonement of Christ. The Marrow Men wanted an offer of the gospel to all upon condition of faith and based on a universal atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The Marrow Men were Arminian, and they corrupted the gospel of grace.
The concern of the Marrow Men was rooted in what they perceived as being an insufficient interest in the salvation of souls on the part of many within the church. They detected a false sense of security in church members, and a certain spiritual carelessness, which indicated that many, even though members in good standing, were unconverted.
There may have been something to this. The Presbyterian Church of Scotland was the national church, and many within it were indeed unconverted, while worldliness was rampant. This is an inevitable consequence of a national church.
It was concern for these unconverted that drove the Marrow Men. They wanted a gospel that would press home as strongly as possible the demands of the gospel and leave people without an excuse to avoid what the gospel required. Briefly, this position was that the gospel was an offer.
An Implied View of Preaching
In making the gospel a well-meant offer, the Marrow Men were basing their view on a particular view of preaching. And this view of preaching was in turn rooted in a particular view of the church.
This view of the church was, of course, that of a national church. In a national church all the citizens of the nation belonged technically to the church, and the church was responsible for the spiritual welfare of the entire populace. This is still the position of Rome, and the pope to this day claims that he is the spiritual father of everyone on earth. In a national church, the government promoted this one denomination as the one to whom all the citizens ought to belong, and everyone was as a rule baptized and married in and by the church, and was buried out of the church in a church graveyard.
But the question was more difficult. It was apparent that many, if not most, in the church were unconverted. And the Marrow Men, correctly, insisted that not mere membership in the church would guarantee salvation, but that conversion was necessary for a man to be saved. Conversion was the one point that ministers were called to press home on people. This was their concern.
However, even apart from the idea of a national church, an idea the Marrow Men were willing to give up if necessary, they did not consider the church as the gathering of God’s covenant people, but thought of it in terms of people who, for the most part, were unconverted.
This conception of matters within the church of Scotland had an effect on the preaching of the gospel. We already noticed that the Marrow Men considered the preaching as giving men a warrant to believe and to close with Christ. But there were other ideas that we need now to notice.
The Marrow Men held to a view of the law and the gospel that separated the two. The preaching of the law with its demands of obedience had as its purpose to bring people under the conviction of sin. The preaching of the gospel had as its purpose to show men the way of salvation.
This distinction led to other errors in the preaching. The Marrow Men (and their successors) held to the notion that the preaching of the law could be in the service of the gospel, because the effect of preaching the law was a conviction of sin necessary to see Christ as the way of salvation. The difficulty was that this conviction of sin could be present in the unconverted, that is, in the unregenerated. Some even spoke of a grace that came to all who heard the gospel, which grace prepared them for the gospel by convicting them of sin.
Such people could be so under the conviction of sin that they bewailed their sins, cried out in anguish over them, longed to escape from the chains of sin, and dreaded with a great dread the horrors of hell that were about to come upon them. But such conviction of sin did not guarantee that they would “close with Christ.” They might be under such conviction for a long time, only, finally, to reject Christ and turn away from the Christ presented to them in the gospel.
These people were called “seekers,” and the effect of the preaching of the law was a preparatory work to the preaching of the gospel. To these people the gospel offer had to be presented. It had to be pressed on them in the anguish of their sin by gentle entreaties, earnest pleas, and a passion for souls, which urged the sinner to “close with Christ” and find his escape in the arms of the Savior. To make these pleas and entreaties as forceful as possible, the sinner had to be told that he had a “warrant” of salvation, that God loved him, that Christ was dead for him, and that there was absolutely no obstacle to his clinging in trust to Christ.
Hence the well-meant offer of the gospel.
The Wrong of It
The wrong of such a view was, first of all, the wrong idea of the church that the Marrow Men had, and, in close connection with this, the wrong idea of the church as the covenant people of God. We cannot go into that in detail, for that would carry us far away from the purpose of these articles. But it is of sufficient importance to clarify what the Reformed view of the church as God’s covenant people is.
The church of Christ as manifested on this earth is the gathering of believers and their seed. That means that the church is the assembly of the covenant people of God. This church is not composed of some believing adults while the majority, and especially the young people and children, are unconverted. The church is the gathering of believers and their seed, who are also children of the covenant. God saves believers and their seed. He saves the seed of believers as children—indeed, as infants. The assembly of the church is the gathering of the converted people of God. The children of believers are, therefore, born into the church. They do not become members by joining the church or by baptism. They are born into the church by virtue of God’s covenant.
This does not mean that everyone in the congregation is converted. Unbelievers come into the church, though under false pretenses. Not all the children of believers are elect, and God saves only the elect. But the church, organically considered, is the gathering of elect believers, be they adults or young people or children. That is the truth of God’s covenant.
The minister must address the congregation as a gathering of elect believers. He is not to start the service with an address such as “Esteemed audience,” or “Honorable listeners.” He is to address them as “Beloved in our Lord Jesus Christ.” That address embraces adults, young people, and children. They are the beloved people of God, His covenant people.
This does not mean that the minister knows who are elect. That is known to God alone. But it does not alter the fact that the preacher addresses the congregation as God’s church, God’s beloved, Christ’s body, the number of the redeemed. He does this even as a farmer speaks of his wheat field as a field of grain—even though it may have many weeds in it. A farmer speaks of his field from the viewpoint of his purpose in doing all the work the crop requires. God speaks of His church from the viewpoint of His purpose in establishing it.
This does not mean that the minister never comes with the demands of the Scriptures that those in the audience be converted. Those who are the wicked in the congregation must be confronted with the command to repent of sin and turn to Christ. But more importantly, God’s people must hear the call to conversion all the time. Is that because they are unbelievers, unconverted? No. But God’s people must be called to be converted every day anew, for conversion means to turn from sin, flee to Christ, and walk in obedience before God. This God’s people must do in all their life.
Does this mean that the minister need never warn the congregation of the severe judgment of God upon the unrepentant? No. God uses warnings too to summon His people from their sinful ways and repent of their sins.
Nor does this mean that no admonitions of the gospel need be preached, because the congregation is composed of elect. God’s people are sinful saints and yet walk in every sin that arises in their sinful flesh. The admonitions of the gospel summon the ungodly to repentance in order that they may be without excuse, and call the people of God to become what God has made them—His own covenant people.
Does preaching in the congregation mean that the minister is cold and indifferent towards the struggling saints—with a coldness that finds no room for entreaties and earnest pleas rooted in his desire to see them walk in faithfulness? He cannot be a shepherd if this is the case. He loves his sheep and earnestly seeks their welfare in all his ministry.
Does his preaching ignore the law? No, he preaches the law. He does so knowing that by the law is the knowledge of sin. But that same law is a rule of gratitude by the keeping of which the believer shows his thankfulness to God for so great a salvation as he has received. The law is gospel. If anyone doubts it, let him read Psalm 19 and Psalm 119. Let him hear the words with which the law begins: “I am the Lord thy God, which hath brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” God comes with His law to His people whom He has saved.
The minister may not attempt to devise ways and means to make the gospel more effective. If he does he is an unfaithful shepherd. He preaches in the humble awareness that all the fruit of the gospel belongs to God, for only God can make the gospel the power unto salvation that Paul claims it is (Rom. 1:16). God will use the foolishness of preaching to save His elect. But He will also use it to harden the impenitent and leave them without excuse.
The minister must not preach in the congregation as if he is on a mission field, for he most emphatically is not. If he wants to preach to the unconverted, then let him pray God to send him to a foreign field where the gospel has never been preached. Even there, however, he preaches not an offer of the gospel rooted in a universal atonement and expressing God’s love for all, but the sovereign grace of God in salvation and the promise of eternal life to all who believe. And that preaching is accompanied with the command to turn from sin and flee to Christ in whom alone is found salvation, and the warning of judgment upon all those who continue in their sins.
The Marrow Men had a wrong conception of these things because they had no correct view of God’s covenant and of God’s church as the gathering of God’s covenant people. Those who make of the preaching a well-meant offer have followed in the erroneous paths marked out by the Marrow Men.
While the Marrow Controversy was going on in Scotland, the Nadere Reformatie (Further Reformation) was going on in the Netherlands. This movement was a protest against the evils in the State Church, also a national church, and an effort on the part of the godly to find food for their souls. Many, in addition to attending what were increasingly apostate churches, met with like-minded saints in homes where the Scriptures were read and discussed and prayers were made to God. To make such edification greater, and because there were few if any faithful shepherds, these troubled saints read from other writers who could build them up in the faith. Because the ties between Scotland and the Netherlands were so close, many of these writers were of the Marrow Men. I myself remember seeing in my father’s library Dutch translations of Thomas Boston and Ebenezer Erskine. A chronicler of the Nadere Reformatie wrote: “The Nadere Reformatie is in fact the Dutch counterpart to English Puritanism…. The link between these movements is strong, historically and especially theologically.”
It is this close association that brought the well-meant offer of the gospel into the stream of Dutch theology.