The Marrow Controversy and Tolerant Calvinism Discussion Notes – Part 1

I. The Marrow of Modern Divinity

A. a book written by English theologian, Edward Fisher, in 1645-1649.

B. The book is fictional conversation between four characters – a young convert, an evangelist, a Neonomian and an Antinomian.

C. The book was first published in two parts.

1. In the first part of the book Fisher’s four characters discuss, among other things, Adam’s fall as well as the dangers of Neonomianism and Antinomianism.

2. The second part, published a few years later, is where Fisher came off the rails. In this part of his book, Fisher’s characters discuss something Fisher called the Free Offer of Grace.

D. Fisher argued in his book that Christians should not speak about election or the extent of the atonement when speaking to unbelievers, because the unbeliever may assume he or she is not elect since they do not believe.  Fisher argued Christians should instead tell unbelievers “there is good news for them; Jesus died for them, and if they will but take Christ and accept His righteousness, then they shall have Him.”

“Evan (Evangelista). I beseech you consider, that God the Father, as he is in his Son Jesus Christ, moved with nothing but with his free love to mankind lost, hath made a deed of gift and grant unto them all, that whosoever of them all shall believe in this his Son, shall not perish, but have eternal life. And hence it was, that Jesus Christ himself said unto his disciples, (Mark 16:15), ‘Go and preach the gospel to every creature under heaven’: that is, Go and tell every man without exception, that here is good news for him; Christ is dead for him; and if he will take him, and accept of his righteousness, he shall have him. — The Marrow of Modern Divinity, Edward Fisher, Chapter 2, Section 3, 3

F. Fisher came to this conclusion after proposing the utterly ridiculous notion that God has two wills:

1. a hypothetical or secret will (that is, He secretly desires to save only the elect . . . )

2. and a determinative or revealed will (. . . but He has revealed that He desires to save everyone)

G. Fisher used this schizophrenic notion of two wills in God to say we can tell everyone Jesus died for them, because God has revealed that He desires to save everyone.  And if they reject His “offer”?  Then it will prove they were not among the elect whom alone God has secretly revealed to save.

Evan. I beseech you to consider, that although some men be ordained to condemnation, yet so long as the Lord has concealed their names, and not set a mark of reprobation upon any man in particular, but offers the pardon generally to all, without having any respect either to election or reprobation, surely it is great folly in any man to say, It may be I am not elected, and therefore shall not have benefit by it; and therefore I will not accept of it, nor come in: 8 for it should rather move every man to give diligence “to make his calling and election sure,” (2 Peter 1:10), by believing it, for fear we come short of it, 9 according to that of the apostle, “let us, therefore, fear, lest a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of us should seem to come short of it,” (Heb 4:1). Wherefore, I beseech you, do not you say, It may be I am not elected, and therefore I will not believe in Christ; but rather say, I do believe in Christ, and therefore I am sure I am elected. 10 And check your own heart for meddling with God’s secrets, and prying into his hidden counsel, and go no more beyond your bounds, as you have done, in this point: for election and reprobation is a secret; and the Scripture tells us, “that secret things belong unto God, but those things that are revealed belong unto us,” (Deut 29:29). Now this is God’s revealed will, for, indeed, it is his express command, “That you should believe on the name of his Son,” (1 John 3:23); and it is his promise, “that if you believe, you shall not perish, but have everlasting life,” (John 3:16). — The Marrow of Modern Divinity, Edward Fisher, Chapter 2, Section 3, 3

II. Thomas Boston and the Church of Scotland

A. The book was published in 1649 and then went out of print. However, it was republished in Scotland in 1718 after Scottish minister, Thomas Boston found it on the book shelf of someone in his congregation and then read it.

B. Boston began recommending the book to his congregation as well as to other ministers. He was eventually joined by eleven other ministers who also began recommending the book to their congregations.

C. Eventually, the Church of Scotland discovered the book.   Immediately following examination they condemned it!   Unfortunately, this had the unwanted effect of increasing the curiosity of the general public which caused sales of the book to explode.

D. Pressured by a majority of its faithful ministers, the Church of Scotland convened a general assembly whereupon they rightly and officially condemned the book.  The Assembly also took the extra step of restricting Boston and his eleven fellow ministers from ever rising to any office in the church higher than minister.

1. Nevertheless, despite the church’s official stance which remains in effect even today, Fisher’s poisonous theory continues to plague Protestant churches around the world.

III. The Controversy

A. The controversy began when Boston and his fellow ministers submitted a petition to the Church of Scotland in which they argued the Church had inadvertently made it impossible to preach the gospel to unbelievers when they condemned the book.   Furthermore, by condemning the book, the Church had also succumbed to hyper Calvinism.

In regards to this second accusation, they accused the General Assembly of teaching the following:

1.That because the grace of God in Christ saves the elect;
2. therefore the elect are known by the forsaking of sin,
3.which means grace is given to those who forsake sin;
4. therefore the gospel should only be preached to those who show signs of forsaking their sin

B. This was a false accusation.  The Church of Scotland had never taught this.  Rather, the Church of Scotland had always faithfully insisted the gospel must be preached indiscriminately to all men, and that all men should be informed of the fact that God now commands them to believe the gospel.  Where they disagreed with Boston and the other eleven is that election and Christ’s definite atonement be preached as part of this gospel.  This is what Boston and his fellow ministers did not like.  This is what they were trying to silence.

C. After Boston accused the Church of teaching hyper Calvinism, he proposed the Church should begin teaching the following:

1. Christ died only for His elect.
2. but Christ is also dead for everyone
3. therefore, everyone can be told Christ died for them

D. This was nothing more than an attempt to sneak Arminian general atonement into the church. Thomas Boston and his fellow ministers were simply twelve functionally Arminian heretics who sought to infect the Church of Scotland with an Amyraldian/Arminian universal atonement.

Today, there are hundreds of Presbyterian and Protestant churches around the world that have surrendered to Boston’s heresy. It even has a name today – the “Free Offer of the Gospel” or the “Well Meant Offer of the Gospel.”  And the same as it was back then, anyone who rejects this so called new doctrine is immediately accused of hyper Calvinism, the same as the Church of Scotland was.

IV. Investigating the controversy in the light of Scripture

Romans 15:8-9 For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs,and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.

A. We find in Scripture God had made a number of promises to the fathers which He promised Christ would secure for His elect. By fathers, I mean the Jewish patriarchs who had a particular faith, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

B. These promises included

1. the promise of the Holy Spirit.

Acts 2:33 Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.

Galatians 3:13-14 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.
2. the promise of resurrection

Acts 26:6-8 And now I stand here on trial because of my hope in the promise made by God to our fathers, 7 to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship night and day. And for this hope I am accused by Jews, O king! 8 Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?

Acts 13:30-33 But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people. And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus

3. the promise of descendants who shared the same faith, which today we call the church

Hebrews 11:9-10 By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.

Galatians 3:29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

4. the promise of eternal redemption

Hebrews 9:11-12 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.

Hebrews 9:15 Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.

C. The procurement of these promises was contingent upon Christ securing atonement for His people. The question is, whose sins did He secure atonement for?

Hebrews 10:12-14 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.

1. If Christ secured atonement for everyone’s sins, then everyone would receive the promises.

2. However, if Christ only secured atonement for some people’s sins, then only those people whose sins He secured atonement for are redeemed. If you are someone who believes He secured atonement for everyone’s sins, but only some people will be redeemed, then how can you be certain you are one of those whom He will redeem? You have to make the answer about you, about something you did or are doing.

D. The fatal flaw in Fisher’s argument is this: Fisher did not think it important for the unbeliever to know and believe Christ secured atonement for the sins of His people alone. Instead, he thought it important for the unbeliever to believe Christ would secure redemption for him if he made a choice to accept Christ’s offer.  This is why Fisher did not want to say or do anything that might offend the unbeliever at the start.

1. If I let you think He secured atonement for everyone’s sins by not telling you He died for His elect alone, then I am leaving it up in the air as to whether He succeeded in securing atonement for anyone’s sins. Maybe He secured atonement for your sins, maybe He didn’t. How can you be certain either way? Someone who believes Christ died for everyone is stuck turning to himself for the answer; to some choice he made or to his law keeping.


About David Bishop

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14 Responses to The Marrow Controversy and Tolerant Calvinism Discussion Notes – Part 1

  1. markmcculley says:

    the Marrow Men, in their answers to the twelve queries, say that faith is required by the law, citing the Larger Catechism on the first commandment. Further:

    “we cannot see how the contrary doctrine is consistent 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 it does all other good works.”

    “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.”

    “The teaching that faith and repentance are gospel commandments may yet again open the door to antinomianism, as it sometimes did already…. History tells us that it sprung from such a mistake, that faith and repentance were taught and commanded by the gospel only, and as they contained all necessary to salvation, so the law was needless.”

  2. markmcculley says:

    Mark Jones—-I know Boston and his friends did not think the Marrow taught hypothetical universalism. And many scholars try with all their might to avoid the implications of this thought, but I simply cannot see how we can deny that the Marrow teaches hypothetical universalism….Culverwell, whom Fisher quotes in the Marrow in relation to the Fee Offer, held to Hypothetical Universalism (Ussher convinced him).

    Mark Jones—-No particularist at that point in Reformed history) would be comfortable with the language used by Fisher. That later particularists in Scotland aren’t uncomfortable with Fisher’s language is a very interesting historical point.

  3. markmcculley says:

    Waddington—“Dr. Fesko offers a fascinating discussion of hypothetical universalism . It is a fact that there were members present in the assembly who held this view, and the author notes the complexity of the matter and the various views that fall under the label of hypothetical universalism. My concern is not with the details of the discussion. Muller has brought this issue to our attention as well so we are familiar with it. My concern is theological more than historical. As I have already noted, it is a fact that members of the assembly held to a variety of views that can be classified as forms of hypothetical universalism.”

    Waddington—However, beyond doing us the favor of reminding us that at the time of the assembly hypothetical universalism was a live option, one gets the sense that there is also at work here a theological agenda. The contemporary view is too narrow perhaps. Church history hopefully involves an increasingly more precise and improved understanding of the Scriptures and theology.

    Waddington– In other words, should we try to turn back the clock and broaden our confessional views on this? Maybe so. Maybe not. That is a matter for exegetical, biblical, and systematic theology. Historical theology has done us the service of reminding us that at one point hypothetical universalism, at least in some of its variations, was acceptable. We recognize that there is development in theology and that we need to be historically sensitive to this.

    Waddington–Would it be right to judge earlier formulations by later standards? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that if a later development actually is an improvement and refinement and correction to earlier views, we would not want to revert to the earlier formulations. No, in the sense that we will recognize earlier formulations as defective but not necessarily erroneous or heretical.

  4. TETH says:

    There are many good observations in this outline. The Christian world today is largely given over to the religion of Well-Meant-Offerism and any who oppose that notion are immediately marginalized as hyper-Calvinists and their sound scriptural arguments against the WMO are summarily dismissed. Simply stated, the gospel is not a well-meant offer of salvation to all of humanity contingent upon faith; it is the proclamation of Christ’s finished work of salvation (John 19:30) on behalf of God’s covenant people (John 10:11, John 17:2) accompanied by the assurance that those who believe this testimony are among them (John 5:24, 6:47), and the admonition to follow the Lord in obedient discipleship as their reasonable service (Romans 12:1).

  5. Hugh McCann says:

    Dr Engelsma on Boston’s marrow in Rev Ferguson’s The Whole Christ

  6. Hugh McCann says:

    Thanks for your piece, David!

  7. D. Randall says:

    In the above you state that the opponents of the Marrow maintained that “the gospel should only be preached to those who show signs of forsaking their sin”, and then assert that this is a false accusation. This misreads what the controversy is about. Certainly all presumed that it should be preached that God had a plan of salvation in Christ. However the opponents of the Marrow would not allow that this good news was available to every individual. This was the same conflict that Spurgeon faced when he urged all in his hearing to accept the offer with the belief that they had good warrant to do so.

    • David Bishop says:

      No, I did not. Read it again. I said the proponents of the Marrow ACCUSED their opponents of saying the gospel should only be preached to those who show signs of being elect. I go on to explain why this was a blatantly false accusation.

    • David Bishop says:

      It is blatantly false to assert that the opponents of the Marrow would not allow that this good news was available to every individual. This is not in the least bit true. This was absolutely nothing more than slanderous propaganda perpetrated by the original Marrow men, and continually perpetrated today by slanderous men like Sinclair Ferguson. These men were and are attempting to sneak Arminian general atonement into the churches, and they are using propagandist slander to do it. Get the facts straight. Don’t just read what the Marrow guys wrote. Read also what their opponents wrote.

      • D. Randall says:

        If the Marrow men and their opponents were not in disagreement about the offer was equally applicable to all men, why did they react so violently to the claim that the offer was well meant for all? And why today is the heart of the controversy specifically about the nature of that offer? The opponents never accused the Marrow men of misrepresenting what the controversy was about. Both sides understood it clearly and described it in the same terms. Either the offer was well meant toward all or it was only for the elect.

      • David Bishop says:

        The opponents absolutely accused the proponents of misrepresenting them, just like you are doing right now. How, you ask? You falsely represent them as agreeing with the question begging premise that “Jesus is dead for all” and therefore He is someone who can be offered. No! No to both.

        Jesus is not dead for all. Rather, He died only for His elect. Nor does He offer salvation in return for “accepting” Him. Rather, He instead commands all men to believe He has redeemed His elect by dying for them. You want to change what He commands them to believe.

        In other words, you are offended by the fact that God commands all men to do what He has predetermined what only a few will do. You and the Marrow’s proponents are the Erasmus to the Church of Scotland’s Luther.

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