A Watershed: Six Gospel-Emphases of Marrow Theology

One has much to be thankful for in regards to the Marrow Men for their recovery, defense and proclamation of the truths of the Gospel. Moreover, the evangelical emphasis of their ministries serves as a gauge and catalyst for Evangelicals today.

The Marrow Men understood and emphasized the power of grace in the life of the believer over against the threatenings of the law.

Because of such emphases, strong contention arose within the Church of Scotland against the Marrow Men. This aversion to the Marrow Men is clearly illustrated by the actions of the Synod of Fife.

Regrettably, Neonomian doctrine (one who holds or believes that the gospel is a new law) had leavened the minds of several ministers in the Synod. As a result, the Marrow Men became the target of much reproach and calumny from among their own peers.

For example, the Synod of Fife required all its members to re-sign the Westminster Confession of Faith with the addition of a new clause which read, “in view of the recent decisions of the Assembly.” Efforts were made to keep the Marrow Men from important ecclesiastical appointments, licenses were refused to younger men who were sympathetic to the Marrow doctrines.

The Marrow Men were accused of giving people license to sin by reason of their antinomian teaching. They were publicly maligned and misrepresented.

Principal Hadow of St. Andrews, a chief opponent of the Marrow Men, claimed the controversy tended, “to harden the profane, and foment divisions among weak Christians, and raise in them a dislike at pure Gospel Ordinances,” (David C. Lachman, The Marrow Controversy, pp. 407-408). Hadow accused the Marrow Men of drawing honest people into “dangerous opinions,” and lessening “their esteem of, and regard for the authority of the Church,” (Lachman, p. 408).

“The Marrow Men understood and emphasized the power of grace in the life of the believer over against the threatenings of the law.”

Yet, where the Marrow Men suffered persecution from their peers in ministry, the common masses responded with great receptivity and welcomed their life-giving message. John Brown writes,

    When the Lord’s Supper was dispensed at Portmoak, great numbers of eminent Christians attended at sixty or seventy miles distance; so great was the concourse of people, that there were frequently two places of worship in the open air, besides the church; and so remarkably did the Lord on these occasions give testimony to the word of his grace, that not a few of them, on their death-beds, spake of the hills of Portmoak as Bethels, where God Almighty appeared to them, and blessed them,” (John Brown of Whitburn, Gospel Truth Accurately Stated and Illustrated, p. 51).

Not to be deterred by the persecution, Ebenezer Erskine, one of the twelve Marrow Men, wrote,

    I know it is the ordinary lot of those who espouse the cause of truth, when lying under a cloud, to be represented as erroneous men, bablers, turbulent, turning the world upside down; but none of these things, move me, for these clouds shall blow over. However truth may be borne down for a time, yet at length it shall be brought forth unto victory, and those who espouse its cause shall share in its triumphs, Rev. iii. 10. (Brown, p. 44)

Ebenezer Erskine was held in high estimation among the Marrow Men. In response to the condemnatory acts of the Synod of Fife, Erskine wrote,

    Some representing brethren in the bounds of the Synod, whereof I was one, did take occasion, in our public appearances, to assert some of those points of truth, in the Westminster, which we conceived to be publicly leased by the act of Assembly 1720, condemning the Marrow; as,

    That believers are delivered from the law as a covenant of works: That there is a difference to be put between the law of works considered as a covenant, and the law considered as the law of Christ, or a rule of obedience in the hand of Christ: That when the law as a covenant comes upon the believer, demanding the debt of perfect obedience as a condition of life, his only relief in that case is to plead the perfect obedience and complete righteousness of the ever-blessed Surety; and that the plea is so far from weakening him in the way of duty, that is one of the principal springs thereof;

    That there is a fiducial (i.e., confident, undoubting, firm- J.F.) assurance, or a persuasion of the record of God concerning Christ, with particular application to the soul itself, in the very nature of faith; which record is, that God hath given to us eternal life, and that this life is in his Son; which assurance of faith we take to be the very same upon the matter (though differing in words) with what the Westminster divines call a receiving, applying, and resting upon Christ as he is offered to us in the gospel:

    That there is such a gift and grant of Christ in the word to mankind lost, as gives them a better title to him than the angels that fell, yea, as lays a foundation and warrant for every one to receive him, that reads or hears it,” (Brown, pp. 44-45).

Such theology, as espoused by Mr. Erskine, came to be known as “Marrow theology.” Marrow Theology emphasized the following six Gospel truths:

    1. A free offer of the gospel;

    2. An assurance focused on Christ and not in the believer himself;

    3. The believer’s holiness is in no way the price or condition of salvation;

    4. That believers in yielding obedience to the law as a rule of life ought not to be influenced either by mercenary hopes of heaven (i.e., selfishly motivated by hope of reward-J.F.) or by slavish fears of hell;

    5. That the believer is not in any way under the law as a covenant of works;

    6. That it is a just and Scriptural distinction which is made between the law as a covenant of works and the law as a rule of life in the hands of Christ.

These six evangelical truths were condemned as unsound by the Synod of Fife. Yet, these Gospel truths served as a watershed over the relationship between law and Gospel in salvation among Scottish Evangelicals in the 18th Century, so much so that by the 19th Century, two distinct parties of evangelicals emerged (Lachman, p. 405).

“…let us preach up the everlasting righteousness of the Son of God, the only ground of a sinner’s justification, and beware of every thing that has the least tendency to foster a sinner in his hope of salvation by the works of the law,” Ebenezer Erskine.”

For the sake of the future of American Evangelicalism, these “watershed truths” need to be rediscovered, defended and proclaimed once again.

These six evangelical truths represent the kind of Gospel clarity that is needed to define and measure true evangelical teaching, preaching and piety.

Furthermore, they serve as a call to the Evangelical church to recover, confess and proclaim the truths of the Gospel as did the Marrow Men, and like them, to embrace these truths in doctrine, worship, and life.

To borrow the words of Ebenzer Erskine,

    “Let us beware of nauseating the sublime mysteries of our holy religion, preferring thereunto the harangues of moralists (sounds familiar!- J.F.); let us preach up the everlasting righteousness of the Son of God, the only ground of a sinner’s justification, and beware of every thing that has the least tendency to foster a sinner in his hope of salvation by the works of the law. Let us beware of blocking up the door of access to Christ by legal qualifications, which are no where to be had but in Christ himself.” (Brown, p. 44, A sermon delivered before the Synod of Fife, of which Mr. Erskine was a member)

3 Responses to A Watershed: Six Gospel-Emphases of Marrow Theology

  1. […] Six Emphases of Marrow Theology […]

  2. Martin Thorley says:

    Excellent post. Agree with your conclusions but would encourage you to think more globally in this global age in which we live. I can assure you as an Englishman living in the UK that we need the same things – if not more so. Much of modern Christianity here is little more than shallow emotionalism and/or legalism (especially with respect to sanctification). Where reformation doctrines do appear (and they are much rarer in the UK than the States) they are usually quite high in their Calvinism (in some cases even hyper) and conservative in their outlook (which so easily falls into legalistic thinking as far as sanctificiation is concerned). We desparately need gospel-centred teaching and piety to flourish here – thankfully there are signs, though they be, as yet, as a small cloud gathering in the distance.

  3. Josh Gelatt says:

    Praise to God! It is so wonderful to find someone else online who is actually interested in the Marrow document and surrounding controversy. I have just finished my first reading of the 1645 edition of Fisher’s Marrow, and will soon begin reading through the 1789 edition (which contains Thomas Boston’s copious notes).

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