Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
Although the Auchterarder Creed was the immediate occasion for the Marrow Controversy, the controversy itself involved the publication of Edward Fisher’s book, The Marrow of Modern Divinity. While the book had been published almost eighty years before the controversy, it had passed into oblivion until it was reprinted by James Hog, one of the Marrow Men.
When the book was officially treated by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, it had been condemned for various errors that were contained in it. One error, however, is of particular interest to us. It is the error of the extent of the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross. The book was condemned for teaching that Christ’s death was for all men.
The Marrow Controversy swirled around that point.
And yet, the controversy was not so much about the extent of the atonement of Christ as it was about the nature of preaching. A vast and crucial difference in the idea of preaching separated the Marrow Men from the rest of the church.
Christ’s Death and Preaching
It may not be immediately evident that the extent of Christ’s atonement and the preaching of the gospel are related to each other so closely, but a moment’s reflection will prove that this is indeed the case. The preaching of the gospel is the preaching of Christ crucified. Is Christ crucified, as an atoning sacrifice, for all men, or only for the elect? The answer to that question will determine the character of the preaching.
The Marrow Men considered the preaching that was generally practiced in the church of which they were a part to be sterile, cold, distant, and conducive to a careless and profane manner of life among those to whom the preaching was addressed. The Marrow Men wanted the preaching to be addressed to the evils of external religion, carnal security among those who were at ease in Zion, and a spirit of smug self-satisfaction among the people who were content with the observance of outward ceremonies and requirements of the church. The Marrow Men were concerned about a perceived Antinomianism in the church.
In other words, they wanted the preaching to address people on a more personal and experiential level. To accomplish that end, they wanted preaching to press upon people the urgent demands of the gospel to seek one’s salvation in Christ alone, to believe in Him as Savior, and to flee to Him for refuge from sin.
All of this sounds good, of course. And, as such, it is true that there is a need for this emphasis in the preaching of the gospel. The Marrow Men, however, firmly believed that this could not be done without making the gospel an expression of God’s love for all who hear and of God’s desire to save all. It was not called that in those days, but what the Marrow Men wanted was a general well-meant offer of the gospel.
In order to accomplish the purpose in preaching that these men strove for, they talked a lot about the “warrant” to believe. They distinguished between having Christ in possession and having Christ in warrant. This is a rather strange way of putting things, but it was language commonly in use in the first part of the eighteenth century in Scotland.
The idea was that while all those to whom the gospel came did not have Christ in actual fact, they possessed the warrant to have Christ, and therefore the warrant to believe. The best way to explain their use of the word “warrant” is to substitute the word “right”: all who heard the gospel have the right to believe. They have this right to believe because God has expressed in the gospel that nothing can possibly stand in the way of their salvation. Those who hear the gospel have no excuse for not believing what the gospel proclaims.
But this means, of course, that when the gospel proclaims that Christ died for sinners, those who hear have the right to say, Christ died for me; I have a right to believe that Christ died for me. It means, in fact, that when, more specifically, the gospel says that Christ died for His people, the individual hearer has the right to say, “I am one of God’s people, if I believe.”
Now it ought to be clear that the minister in his preaching must make this as strong as possible to his hearers. First of all, if the minister is to press home this “warrant” to believe, he must make clear that the promises of the gospel are objectively for everyone. If I may introduce an aside at this point, this is amazingly like what was preached fifty years ago from the pulpit of First Protestant Reformed Church and became the occasion for the schism in the denomination. The statement made was, “God promises to everyone [who hears the gospel] that if he believes he will be saved.” But that is an aside.
In the second place, the minister could press home the “warrant” to believe by stating emphatically that the God who promises Christ to all who hear, even objectively, can do so only because, objectively, He loves all and desires their salvation. The minister can say to everyone who hears: “God gives you the right to believe because He loves you and wants your salvation.”
Third, as far as the hearer is concerned, when persuaded that he has a right (warrant) to believe, he has also the promise of God along with the assurance of God’s love for him and God’s desire to save him.
Fourth, the only reason why a man with this warrant to believe is not saved is because he does not believe. Everything hinges on his faith. To have Christ in possession rests on faith. He has Christ in warrant, but in possession only at such a time that he “closes with Christ.”
Finally, this view of preaching opened the door to the minister’s use of earnest pleadings and passionate urging to the sinner to close with Christ, that is, accept Him by faith, because he had the warrant to believe, and all that prevented him from being saved was his own sinful and stubborn heart.
Thus faith itself is not included in this warrant proclaimed in the preaching, and it is not included in God’s promise of Christ. Hence, it is man’s work. That is Arminian and Amyraldian.
The Extent of the Atonement of Christ
It is quite obvious that the twelve Marrow Men, among whom were Thomas Boston, James Hog, and Ebenezer Erskine, who opposed the decisions of the General Assembly that condemned Edward Fisher’s book, and who did so because of their view of preaching, also had to say something about the extent of the atonement of Christ. What they really wanted was a general and well-meant gospel offer. The Assembly had condemned such an offer, and the Marrow Men insisted that by this condemnation the Assembly had made the preaching of the gospel to all men impossible. That is, more specifically, the Assembly had made it impossible to fulfill the divine commission to preach salvation in Jesus Christ to all men without distinction.
But such a view of the Marrow Men required that they say something about the extent of the atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Marrow Men denied that they taught a universal salvation, but their denials rang false. These men distinguished between a giving of Christ in possession and a gift of Christ as warranted men to receive Him. Where did this warrant come from? It had to come from the atoning sacrifice that Christ completed on Calvary.
The Marrow Men solemnly denied that they taught a universal atonement. However, they approved of Fisher’s book The Marrow of Modern Divinity, which taught that (and again we have a very strange distinction) while Christ did not die for all, He is dead for all. They solemnly assured the Assembly that they considered it heretical to teach that Christ’s atoning sacrifice was for all men; but they approved of the expression that Christ is dead for all men.
The distinction is impossible to understand, and can only be interpreted as a rather subtle way to introduce into the teachings of the church a universal atonement of our Lord. It was intended to teach, I think, that while Christ did not in fact die to save all men, nevertheless, His death has universal significance and benefit. But it made the atonement universal, and that is not surprising. If everyone who hears the preaching has a “warrant” from God to believe in Christ, that “warrant” must have a juridical basis. That is, if I promise ten men a thousand dollars each if they will come to my house, I had better have ten thousand dollars available to me, or my “warrant” is a lie. If God gives everyone who hears the gospel a “warrant” to be saved if they believe in Christ, that salvation must be available. If it is not, the promise of God is false.
Thus the atonement of Christ was for all in an important and significant way.
Wrong Interpretations of the Marrow Controversy
There have been other interpretations of the Marrow Controversy. Some have maintained that the Marrow Men were concerned with various evils that were present in the church. Among these evils was a conditional grace. This was closely tied with the charge of hyper-Calvinism. Christ, so it was said, was being separated from His benefits in the preaching. The church could not offer the benefits of Christ to all because they were only for the elect, and the church had to know who were the elect before these benefits could be offered them. But those who were elect could be known as elect only by the manifestation of election in their lives. Thus Christ’s benefits hinged on this manifestation of election in a holy and sanctified life. The conclusion is, so the argument went, that the offer of the gospel was made conditional. One receives salvation only if he is elect, i.e., if he manifests election in his life and if he is assured of his election. Hence all the salvation was made conditional on the works of sanctification that prove election.
The Marrow Men claimed to preach an unconditional salvation, according to this interpretation. They taught that God, moved by love to all, made a deed of gift and grant to all, that whoever believed might have eternal life. This, so it was said, was the offer. This was not Arminian or Amyraldian, it was claimed, but a gospel of free grace, offered freely to all, a grace that was not conditional. The defenders of the offer were, therefore, to be considered the orthodox, while the General Assembly was given over to a conditional salvation.
This interpretation, found among the defenders of the well-meant gospel offer, is an attempt to turn the tables by charging those who repudiate the offer as teaching conditions, while those who maintain the offer are the ones holding to sovereign and free grace.
This interpretation is, however, false.
The General Assembly never taught a conditional salvation. The Assembly did maintain that the promises of the gospel were only for the elect—that is true. But it did believe that the gospel had to be publicly and indiscriminately proclaimed along with the command to repent and believe in Christ. And this, as we know, is the teaching of the Canons.
The Marrow Men taught a conditional salvation, and all attempts to turn the tables is a failure. The Marrow Men taught that everyone has a warrant of God that Christ is for him. This warrant from God is based on the cross, in which Christ became dead for everyone. Why are not all then saved? All are not saved because the condition for having Christ in possession is faith in Him, and all do not fulfill the condition. That is conditional salvation, pure and simple, which makes salvation dependent on the will of men and not on the sovereign grace of God.
The issues brought up in the Marrow Controversy are still pertinent issues today, and the errors of the Marrow Men are still destroying the preaching of the gospel today.