The Free Offer, Thomas Boston, and the Marrow Controversy

The Marrow controversy in the Church of Scotland (1718-1726) was an important event in church history. In fact, its importance goes well beyond the Church of Scotland. The controversy was sparked when Edward Fisher’s 1645 work, The Marrow of Modern Divinity was republished in Scotland in 1718. The main points of contention had to do with the atonement, saving faith, and the offer of the gospel. If you haven’t read Fisher’s Marrow, you should put it on your list! A helpful secondary resource is William VanDoodewaard’s The Marrow Controversy and Seceder Tradition. (And, of course, don’t forget Sinclair Ferguson’s The Whole Christ.)

I recently read the section of VanDoodewaard’s book where he discussed Thomas Boston’s support of Fisher’s Marrow. Here are a few excellent paragraphs on Boston’s views about the free offer of the gospel.

Boston’s understanding of the gospel offer runs as a recurring theme throughout his written works. In his ‘Memoirs,’ Boston recounts during the period of his ministry at Simprin, ‘I wanted to be satisfied in…the doctrine of the grace of God in Christ…. The Lord was pleased to give my heart a set toward the preaching of Christ…. I had several convictions of legality in my own practice.’ He went on to state, ‘After I was led into the knowledge of the doctrine of grace, as to the state and case of believers in Christ, I was still confused, in distinct, and hampered in it, as to the free, open, and unhampered access of sinners unto him.’

In one of Boston’s earliest published sermons he mentioned the universal offer. He wrote that the marriage contract in the covenant of grace has been signed by Christ: “It is incumbent upon you to sign it likewise, consenting to take Christ as he is offered to you in the gospel….”

It is endorsed and directed to you, and every one of you: therefore ye have a sufficiency warrant to sign it for yourselves.

What is your name? Wilt thou answer to the name of ‘thirsty sinners?’ Then read your name, and see how it is directed to you, Isaiah 55:1 ‘Lo every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy and eat, yea come, buy wine and milk without money, without price.’

Wilt thou answer to the name of ‘willing sinner?’ Then it is directed to you, Revelation 22:17, ‘Whosoever will, let him take of the water of life freely.’

Art thou called ‘heavy-laden sinner?’ Arise then, the Master calleth thee, Matt. 11:28, ‘Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’

Is thy name ‘whorish backslider?’ ‘Thou hast played the harlot with many lovers, yet return again unto me, saith the Lord,’ Jer. 3:1.

Art thou a lost sin­ner? ‘The Son of man is come to seek, and to save that which was lost,’ Luke 19:10.

Nay, art thou the chief of sinners? Even to thee is the word of this salvation sent; ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief,’ I Tim. 1:15.

But, whatsoever artifice [clever device] ye may use to disown these, or any of these to be your name; surely ye are men, sons of men; ye cannot deny that to be your name: therefore it is directed to you, and every one of you; ‘Unto you, O men, I call, and my voice is to the sons of men,’ Prov. 8:4.

What a great way to call sinners to Christ! There’s more to the sermon, for sure, but I appreciate Boston’s use of Scripture to tell people that Christ died for sinners, and that whoever comes to him will be welcomed by him, given rest, salvation, and eternal life.

For more info on this sermon, and on the Marrow controversy, check out The Marrow Controversy and Seceder Tradition. The above slightly edited quote came from pages 76 and 80.

Shane Lems
From Oviedo, FL

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