The Marrow Controversy—Lessons in Free Grace




1717 and 1722:   Controversy in the Church of Scotland (reformed & Presbyterian church)


1717 Presbytery of Auchterarder—William Craig ordination trials. 

He would not affirm this statement, known as the Auchterarder Creed: 


“It is not sound and orthodox to teach that we must forsake sin

  in order to our coming to Christ.”


The creed was later condemned by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland as “unsound and detestable doctrine.”


This exposed a division within the Church of Scotland between groups who came to be known as the “Marrow Men” and the “Neonomians.”


Marrow Men

Group of 12 objected to the condemnation of the creed by the Assembly.  Included Thomas Boston, Ralph Erskine & Ebeneezer Erskine.  Boston said the creed was a bit poorly worded, but true.  He didn’t say anything about it on the floor of Presbytery, though.



The majority of the Presbytery who held that the gospel is a "new law" (neonomos), replacing the OT law with the legal conditions of faith and repentance needing to be met before salvation can be offered. They maintained the necessity of forsaking sin before Christ can be received, whereas the Marrow Men replied that only union to Christ can give us power to forsake sin. The Neonomians considered the Marrow men’s view of the preaching of free grace to be dangerously antinomian.



In 1718 James Hog reprinted The Marrow of Modern Divinity by Edward Fisher (1645).  The short book articulated the same view of free grace that Boston and the Erskines were preaching.  In 1720 the General Assembly prohibited recommending the book or advocating it, and said ministers must warn against its use.  In 1721 Thomas Boston wrote published an annotated version of Marrow .  The Marrow men were formally rebuked by the church's General Assembly in 1722 but not removed from their ministries.




The Issues of the Controversy:

1.  Must a person forsake his sins in order to come to Christ?


Auchterarder Creed:  “It is not sound and orthodox to teach that we must forsake sin

    in order to our coming to Christ.”


Thomas Boston: 

q       That it is the duty of all those that hear the gospel to instantly believe in Him without looking for any qualification from within.

q       That it is impossible for any to forsake their sins until the Spirit had determined him to come to Christ as a Prince and Savior exalted to give repentance and remission of sins.


Are faith & repentance meritorious good works?

                        Repentance as the magic good work for the neonomians

                        Faith as the magic good work in modern Lordship controversies


Over the years in Scotland, the reformed understanding of how someone becomes a Christian (the ordo salutis) in terms of personal experience (not doctrinally) had changed.  The Marrow men said grace always preceeds faith and repentance.  


Repentance is not a condition of the gospel offer nor a condition of salvation, strictly speaking.  Repentance is never a cause of grace or a condition of grace but always a consequence of grace.


The Neonomians were insinuating that someone’s penitence would merit God’s grace and forgiveness.  The Marrow men called this bondage and legalism.  For instance, in the parable of the prodigal son, the son was returning home wondering in his heart, have I repented enough, felt sorrow enough that the father might accept me?  In the father’s embrace any talk of conditions for the unconditional love he has for his son is silenced.  But, the older brother said, “Have I not met all of the conditions?  Haven’t I  merited such a feast?”  The father says, “It is yours unconditionally, but your legal heart will never set you free to enjoy it.  On those conditions you can never have it.”  There is always the danger that the spirit of the elder brother, of the legalist, will invade the preaching and application of the gospel.  (See the Legal Spirit section under #3.)


Let all that love to wear the gospel-dress,

Know that as sin, so dastard righteousness

Has slain its thousands, who in tow'ring pride

The righteousness of Jesus Christ deride;

A robe divinely wrought, divinely won,

Yet cast by men for rags that are their own.

But some to legal works seem whole deny'd,

Yet would by gospel-works be justify'd,

By faith, repentance, love, and other such:

These dreamers being righteous overmuch,

Like Uzza give the ark a wrongful touch.

By legal deeds, however gospeliz'd,

Can e'er tremendous justice be appeas'd?

Or sinners justify'd before that God,

Whose law is perfect and exceeding broad?

Nay, faith itself, that leading gospel-grace,

Holds, as a work, no justifying place.   (Ralph & Ebeneezer Erskine)


2. Is the Gospel to be offered to all or only to those who show signs of being elect?


Question of the Free Offer of the Gospel


Thomas Boston:

q       That there is no universal atonement yet there is warrant to offer Christ to all mankind whether elect or reprobate and a warrant for all to freely receive Christ however great sinners they are or have been.


The offer bears the sufficiency of the sacrifice of Christ for all.  This does not imply a universal atonement or redemption.  The marrow men also  stood for the confessional standards.  Yet they believed that the offer of the gospel is to be published to all men everywhere.


The neonomians were orthodox Calvinists, but theirs was a reformed orthodoxy that was thoroughly lifeless and cold and dead.  Boston saw while he agreed with the neonomians in preaching a doctrine of unconditional election, they were also preaching a doctrine of conditional and conditioned grace, and there work was therefore tearing the feet from under the fullness and freeness of the Lord Jesus Christ.


Basic Neonomian teaching:

The grace of God in Christ saves the elect

The elect are known by the forsaking of sin

Grace is therefore given to those who forsake sin


The neonomians preached a conditional offer of the gospel. If you have sufficiently repented you may receive grace.  But, only the grace of Jesus enables us to forsake sin.  That repentance can’t be the condition of hearing the gospel.  When we make the offer dependent upon conditions we disgrace the gospel.


The vital distinction is between conviction as a means that God employs and conviction as a condition that we fulfill.  Conviction of sin is never a condition for the free offer of the gospel.



Hence Neonomians spring, as sundry call
The new law-makers, to redress our fall.
The law of works into repentance, faith,
Is chang'd, as their Baxterian Bible saith.
Shaping the gospel to an easy law,
They build their tott'ring house with hay and straw;
Yet hide, like Rachel's idols in the stuff,
Their legal hands within a gospel-muff.


Nor make the law a squaring rule of life,
But in the gospel-throat a bloody knife.                         (Erskines’ Sonnet)



A story about Pilgrim’s Progress.   . 


John Newton:  “If you tarry ‘til you’re better, you will never come at all.”



3. How can orthodox Christians wind up with a legal spirit?


Neonomians called the marrow men antinomian. 

Marrow men said the neonomians were legalistic.


Legal Spirit


We encounter not only doctrinal legalism but also, often along with it, an experimental legalism.  Possible to have an evangelical head and a legal heart. 


Neonomians had mastered the pattern by which grace works.  Knew the ordo salutis and Westminster Confession inside out.  Yet knowing the pattern by which grace works, they had never been mastered by the grace of God in the gospel in their hearts.  They were Calvinists with the minds and hearts of natural men as far as these truths were concerned.  They were masters of Calvinism who had never been mastered by God’s grace.


But the Auchterarder smoked out the heart of legalism in these orthodox men.  The marrow controversy was a litmus paper for legalism.


They failed to distinguish between the law as a covenant of works and the law as a rule of life.  But Boston said: “There is a wide difference between the law as a rule of life and a covenant of works. That as a rule of life God can have no vindictive or legal anger at them for their sins but a Fatherly anger and displeasure over their sins. Therefore Christians ought to mourn as those who have sinned against a reconciled Father.



Attitudes of Legal Spirit


            Attitude towards the lost:

Sinclair Ferguson:Until grace and God himself masters a man, that grace will never flow out to other people.  He will become Jonah under his tree with a heart shut up against sinners in need of grace because he thinks of God in conditional terms.  The hearts of the neonomians had been shut to the lost. 


E.g., parable of the elder brother.  Legalism shows itself in the light of the exposure of free grace.  The gospel produces in us a gracious heart pursuing the prodigal, loving the sinner. 


            Attitude towards other Christians:

E.g., parable of the laborers in vineyard 11th hour.  Murmuring against their fellows.  Sign of self-righteous temper with legality at its roots. 


o       Mentality that speaks of us and them. 

o       Zeal for church discipline, disguised as zeal for justice and truth but is an unwillingness to welcome those whom Christ welcomes, temper of a heart never delivered and mastered by God’s free grace.


Attitude towards sinners:

Alexander White:  There is such a thing as sanctification by vinegar.  It makes a man accurate and hard.  When people come being tempted by sin, broken by it, ashamed to confess the mess they made, it is not a Calvinistic pastor who has been sanctified by vinegar they need, but a pastor who has been mastered by the unconditional grace of God, and from whom iron clad orthodoxy has been torn away and the whole armor of a gracious God has been applied; the armor of him who would not break the bruised reed or quench the dimly burning wick. 



Attitudes toward God

John Owen: 

“Unacquaintedness with our mercies & our privileges is our sin as well as our trouble.  We harken not to the voice of the Spirit which is given unto us that we may know the things that are freely bestowed on us of God.   This makes us go heavily when we might rejoice.  And to be weak where we might be strong in the Lord.  How few of the saints are experimentally acquainted with this privilege of holding immediate communion with the Father in love?  With what anxious doubtful thoughts do they look upon him? What fears what questionings are there of his goodwill and kindness?  At the best many think there is no sweetness at all in God towards us, but what is purchased at the high price of the blood of Jesus.  It is true that that alone is the way of communication, but the free fountain and spring of all is in the bosom of the Father.”



Attitudes in the face of temptation & accusation:

Satan uses the law to twist our minds in rebellion against God.  He drives us back to the law as a works covenant.  He confirms our worst legal fears.  He distorts what we once knew of the free grace of God in the gospel.  All Christians know the accusers voice, “you are not good enough to be a believer, far less a pastor.” Our refuge is our confession that nothing good dwells in us and we fly to Jesus. 


John Newton:  “Bowed down beneath a load of sin, by Satan sorely pressed. By war without, and fears within, I come to thee for rest. Be thou my shield and hiding-place; That, sheltered near thy side, I may my fierce accuser face, And tell him, thou hast died!”