The Law/Gospel Distinction: A Big Help in Understanding Scripture (Boston)

The Marrow of Modern Divinty by [Fisher, Edward]

Why did Thomas Boston (d. 1732) strongly endorse “The Marrow of Modern Divinity” and write study notes for it? Because he wanted Christians to understand the biblical and practical aspects of the law/gospel distinction. Here’s Boston in his own words:

That which I aim at, and intend therein, is to show unto myself, and others that shall read it [The Marrow], the difference betwixt the Law and the Gospel, a point, as I conceive, very needful for us to be well instructed in, and that for these reasons:

First, Because, if we be ignorant thereof, we shall be very apt to mix and mingle them together, and so to confound the one with the other; which, as Luther on the Galatians, p. 31, truly says, “doth more mischief than man’s reason can conceive;” and therefore he doth advise all Christians, in the case of justification, to separate the Law and the Gospel as far asunder as heaven and earth are separated.

Secondly, Because if we know right how to distinguish betwixt them, the knowledge thereof will afford ns no small light towards the true understanding of the Scripture, and will help us to reconcile all such places, both in the Old and New Testament, as seem to be repugnant; yea, and it will help us to judge aright of cases of conscience, and quiet our own conscience in time of trouble and distress; yea, and we shall thereby be enabled to try the truth and falsehood of all doctrines….

 Thomas Boston, The Whole Works of Thomas Boston: An Explication of the Assembly’s Shorter Catechism, ed. Samuel M‘Millan, vol. 7 (Aberdeen: George and Robert King, 1850), 459.

Indeed, the law/gospel distinction is not only biblical and helpful for understanding Scripture rightly, it is also very practical for Christian living!

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

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The Marrow of Modern Divinity (E. Fisher)

 This is an amazing book, simply profound and probably even “life changing” – and I don’t use these words lightly.  Edward Fisher’s Marrow of Modern Divinity (Scotland: Christian Focus, 2009) is shocking because it speaks of free grace.  The book will cut the reader up because it shows how all of us have that little Pharisee in us who wants to mix the law and the gospel.  It is “offensive” because it talks about justifying faith as a receiving, passive instrument which does not work for reward but give up on works, faithfulness, and obedience and trusts solely in Jesus.    The book clearly trains the reader to fight the moralistic temptation to go back under the covenant of works, under the law.  Here are some of Fisher’s own words about saving faith.

“Here you are to work nothing, here you are to do nothing, here you are to render nothing unto God, but only to receive the treasure, which is Jesus Christ, and apprehend him in your heart by faith, although you be never so great a sinner, and so shall you obtain forgiveness of sins, righteousness, and eternal happiness; not as an agent but as a patient, not by doing, but by receiving.  Nothing comes betwixt but faith only, apprehending Christ in the promise.  This, then, is perfect righteousness, to hear nothing, to know nothing, to do nothing of the law of works; but only to know and believe that Jesus Christ is now gone to the Father, and sitteth at his right hand, not as a judge, but is made unto you of God, wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption” (p. 132).

I can see why this book originally (17th-18th c.) caused a bit of a storm (a.k.a. the Marrow controversy).  That’s a whole other topic about which I’m still learning.  For now, let me quickly describe this book. 

Fisher wrote this book as a dialogue between a solid Christian (Evangelista), a legalist (Nomista), an antinomian (Antinomista) and a young learning Christian (Neophytus).  Nomista advocates a strict life of moralism to stay in God’s favor while Antinomista says trust Christ and do what you want.  Neophytus is considering both options – Evangelista sets the record straight by walking the middle path between legalism and antinomianism.  The Marrow was one of Thomas Boston’s  favorite books.  His “commentary” (notes on The Marrow) is also in the above edition of this book.  In sum, the book contains the dialogue written by Fisher along with Thomas Boston’s commentary on the dialogue.  The format is very handsome, though it takes a while to get used to the system of tracing Boston’s comments on Fisher’s text  (after about 50 pages you start to “get it”).  One minor annoyance I have is that there is no topical index in the back, though there is a nice outline in the front if you want to re-visit some topics later.

The Marrow clearly talks about the covenant of works/grace distinction as well as the law/gospel distinction.  The covenants and law/gospel distinction are very clear – amazingly clear way back there in the mid-17th century.  Fisher and Boston discuss how the covenant of works that God made with Adam showed up again at Sinai (Fisher’s word is “renewed” – the renewed covenant of works at Sinai was “subservient to” the covenant of grace made immediately after the fall and with Abraham – cf. p. 85).  Fisher and Boston note well how the covenant of works is on everyone’s DNA, so to speak, as a law of nature (cf. p. 50).   They also talk about how Christ stepped under the covenant of works, keeping it for the elect, and hence how he brought them into the free covenant of grace (cf. p. 65, 67, 120, 133, etc).   

Some will hate this book.  Every stripe of the Federal Vision will loathe this book (call it “a mess” as one of them said of Turretin?) because of the robust covenant of works discussion and law/gospel distinction.  The New Perspectives type will want this book to be bird-cage lining.  Speaking of cages, this book should rattle everyone’s cage a bit – in a good way.  Along with Fisher and Boston’s words, Philip Ryken and William VanDoodewaard write in the introduction (there is also an appendix on the Marrow Controversy) .  This book is (yes!) one of those “must-haves” for the serious Reformed/Presbyterian student.  Even if you’re not 100% in agreement with it, it is certainly worth the price, effort, and time.

shane lems

sunnyside wa