Some Marrow to accompany your Law and Gospel, Sir?

One of the most important distinctions in theology is between law and gospel.  Getting our understanding of law and gospel right is fundamental to avoiding the two perilous extremes of neonomianism and antinomianism.  One group of theologians who achieved this were the Marrowmen (Thomas Boston, Ralph Erskine, Ebenezer Erskine, etc).  Their discriminating understanding of the difference between “law” and “gospel” was not appreciated by the neonomian leaning Church of Scotland of their day who set the Marrowmen the following question, “Whether are there any precepts in the gospel that were not actually given before the gospel was revealed?”  At first sight this might appear a strange question but the Marrowmen used it as a springboard to define the gospel.

For them, “In the gospel, taken strictly, and as contradistinct from the law, for a doctrine of grace, or good news from heaven, of help in God through Jesus Christ, to lost, self destroying creatures … or the glad tidings of a Saviour … there are no precepts; all these, the commandment to believe not excepted, belong to and flow from the law, which fastens the … duty on us, the same moment the gospel reveals the … object.” (John Brown, Gospel Accurately Stated Andrew Munro: 2837, 147).  The Marrowmen believed that “in the gospel, taken strictly, there are no precepts, to us seems evident from the holy scriptures” and cited Gen 3:15, Gal 3:8 cf Gen 12:3 & Gen 22:18, Acts 3:25, Luke 2:10-11, Rom 10:5,Acts 15:7, Acts 20:36-43, Luke 4:18 cf Is 61:1-2, Acts 20:24 and 2 Tim 1:10.  The Marrowmen cited, among others, Calvin, Witsius and Mastricht as being part of “the body of reformed divines” who held that the gospel contained no precepts or law (p147).  To summarise their position: the gospel is good news – it contains no commands.

But what then of the commands in the New Testament e.g. to repent and believe the gospel?  These “belong to, and are of the law” (p147).  The Marrowmen explain: “For the law of creation, or the Ten Commandments, which was given to Adam in paradise in the form of a covenant of works, requiring us to believe whatever God should reveal or promise, and to obey whatever he should command…” (p147).  That is, if according to the law we are to “love the Lord our God” then we are bound to believe and trust in his revelation to us.  But God has revealed himself in Christ as the Saviour of sinners, therefore the law demands we trust in Christ as our Saviour.  They further argue, that to deny it is the law which demands we “repent and believe,” is inconsistent “with the perfection of the law; for if the law be a complete rule of all moral, internal, and spiritual, as well as external and ritual obedience, it must require faith and repentance, as well as it does all other good works…” (p148).  Their final argument is from the nature of unbelief as sin.  They argue that Scripture and the Westminster Standards define sin as “any want of conformity to, or transgression of the law of God.”  But we know that unbelief is a sin and a transgression of the law, so therefore, “faith must be required in the … command” (p148).  To augment their argument they note that Christ called faith “one of the weightier matters of the law” (p148).

Why does this distinction matter – that the gospel is simply good news and it is the law which commands belief and faith?  To the Marrowmen, making the gospel into a command or law led to either, or both, of the errors of neonomianism and antinomianism:

  • They believed that “if the law does not bind sinners to believe and repent, then we see not how faith and repentance, considered as works, are excluded from our justification before God; since in that case they are not works of the law, under which character all works are in Scripture excluded from the use of justifying in the sight of God” (p149).  That is, we know that all the “works of the law” are excluded from our justification but if repentance and faith are “works of the gospel” then what Scriptural grounds do we have to exclude them from our justification?  They further note that “Socinians, Arminians, Papists, Baxterians by holding the gospel to be a new, proper, prescriptive law, with sanction, and thereby turning it into a real, though milder covenant of works, have confounded the law and the gospel, and brought works into the matter and cause of a sinner’s justification before God” (p149).
  • But there is also another danger.  If the gospel is a new commandment, i.e. requiring faith and repentance, then is not the old commandment obsolete?  They quote the following, “History tells us, that it [antinomianism?] sprung from such a mistake, that faith and repentance were taught and commanded by the gospel only, and that they contained all necessary to salvation; so the law was needless” (p149).

In defence of their overall position that the gospel contains no command and that the law commands that we repent and believe the gospel the Marrowmen stated they could “adduce a cloud of witnesses beyond exception” including Burgess, Rutherford, Owen, Witsius, Dickson, Ferguson, etc (p149).

So, readers, are you neonomian, antinomian or do you take a large helping of Marrow with your law and gospel?

PS Of course the Marrowmen also recognised that we could use the word gospel in a different sense “taken largely for the whole doctrine of Christ and the apostles, contained in the New Testament” (p150).

7 Responses to “Some Marrow to accompany your Law and Gospel, Sir?”

  1. Marty Says:

    Dear DJM,

    Interesting post brother. As I understand it from my own research on Owen and the law / gospel distinction, what the Marrowmen have put forward is actually closer to the Antinomian position of Eaton, Crisp, Towne etc. and also the Lutheran law / gospel distinction.

    All the Puritans that I’ve studied agree that there are commands in the (strict) gospel (not least to repent and believe). Moreover, Ursinus in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism explicitly argues against the Flaccians who had a position similar to the Marrowmen.

    Perhaps the Marrowmen had a degree of discontinuity with their Puritan forebears. Does Brown actually cite Brugess, Rutherford, and Owen. I can’t find Owen saying it anywhere. Moreover, Rutherford explicitly denies it in his work against the Antinomians (A Survey of Spiritual Antichrist).

    God bless,


    What does

  2. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Hi Marty

    Thanks for this comment – I’m looking forward to reading your work on John Owen on this.

    The Marrowmen certainly thought what they were saying was standard reformed theology (and of course the Marrow itself is fairly standard reformed theology). Unfortunately although their reply to the Assembly cites the men I mentioned above they do not reference any specific sections of their works. What I did think was interesting was that they viewed the law/gospel distinction as key not only to justification apart from any works but also as key to establishing the law as a perfect rule of life.

    I’ve not actually read Rutherford’s Survey of Spiritual Antichrist but I see he has a section discussing Luther’s views of the law gospel distinction – is it this you are referring to? Does he seem to accept Luther’s law/gospel distinction (1648 ed., p138)?

    I’d like to read the sections of the works you mentioned – would it be possible to provide me with the references.

    It would be good to dialogue on this further.

    Every blessing

  3. What is the Reformed view of Law/Gospel? - Page 2 - The PuritanBoard Says:

    […] Here is a link to a blog which seems to argue that the Marrowmen take up the position espoused by Dr. Clark, viz., that the command to believe and repent is not a part of the gospel strictly taken, but a part of the law. Some Marrow to accompany your Law and Gospel, Sir? […]

  4. Marty Says:

    Dear Donald John,

    Concerning Rutherford’s Spiritual Antichrist, yes, have a look at that section. It should give you a feel for his position. Rutherford rejects Luther’s (and the Lutheran tradition’s) law / gospel distinction:

    Law: commands
    Gospel: promises

    The Reformed tradition rejects the distinction, particularly once federal theology becomes entrenched. This is because the law / gospel distinction is framed by the covenants. It is:

    Law: Do and Live (Covenant of Works)
    Gospel: Live and Do (Covenant of Nature)

    As to the section in my thesis on the law / gospel distinction in the reformed tradition, I can’t send it yet as it’s currently being written?! It’s far more interesting reading the authors than having to write their opinions up! But as it takes shape I’m happy to send things through.

    I certainly look forward to meeting you at the John Owen conference.

    God bless you,


  5. Marty Says:

    Dear DJ,

    Sorry there’s an error in my above post. Concerning the Reformed law / gospel distinction it should read:

    Law: Do and Live (Covenant of Works)
    Gospel: Live and Do (Covenant of Grace) NOT covenant of nature?!



  6. David Says:

    As I remember from my reading of Boston and his opponents, it struck me that Boston and the Marrowmen would say “‘ways and means” while the opponents were using the traditional scholastic language of instrumental condition. At this level they were talking past each other. Where the divide came was when the opponents of the Marrowmen were speaking of qualifications (ie warrants and interests in Christ). They were beginning to stack up a list of warrants to believe. From my memory, it was specifically against that, that the Marrowmen rebutted.

    But I would not put the Marrowmen with the Crispians, Marty. 🙂

    Take care,

  7. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Hi Marty

    Thanks – I’ll read that section of Rutherford. I’ve got a weeks holiday and that should be a profitable use of some time. I also don’t have any difficulty with what you say above re. the covenant of works/grace distinction (nor would the Marrowmen as they were federalists – although Marrow theology rejected the covenant of redemption/grace distinction).

    I think recognising flexibility in the way “gospel” is being used is key here to understanding the Marrowmen. I.e. their distinction between “gospel” narrowly and largely defined which I mentioned at the end of the post.

    Yes, David, Boston was opposed to the idea of conditions (I would suggest in a neonomian sense).

    Every blessing
    Donald John

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