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Some Remarks

On the

Marrow of Modern Divinity

By John Howie of Lochgoin.

X

TrueCovenanter.com Editor's Note.

In light of the recent re-publication of the Marrow of Modern Divinity by Christian Focus Publications this month, it seemed a proper occasion to bring to light the following remarks by the famous John Howie. They are intended here, as they were intended by him, not as a refutation or official condemnation of Edward Fisher's Marrow, but as some seasonable cautions or caveats for those who may choose to acquire and read this book.

Although Reformed Presbyterians have historically identified with the doctrine of a Free Offer, and its general nature as addressed to all hearers, and in this identify with the Marrow and its later defenders; yet we also adhere to the doctrinal formulations of the Westminster Assembly as these were received by the Church of Scotland, and regard an adherence to these standards as an important means of preserving and restoring unity among those who profess the Reformed Faith. From these formulations however, it must be acknowledged that the Marrow departs in a few particulars: mostly in its manner of expression, but also doctrinally in respect to the distinction between Faith and Assurance.

Consequently, while it is not to be doubted that many readers may derive knowledge and edification from Mr. Fisher's book, and some may be drawn back from both Antinomian and Legalist extremes by its instruction; it may yet be more advisable for many to acquaint themselves rather with works such as William Guthrie's Christian's Great Interest, James Durham's Sermons on Isaiah 53, and Samuel Rutherford's Trial and Triumph of Faith, as writings serving much the same purpose (though perhaps in less entertaining dress,) and conforming more perfectly to the doctrinal orthodoxy of the Second Reformation, without in any way disparaging those men the Lord raised up during the First Reformation, from whose writings Mr. Fisher occasionally chose to collect expressions exemplifying their shortcomings, rather than their perfections.

2009.10.17.

Although this book, called, The Marrow, &c. be mostly collected from the writings of some eminent Reformers, and recommended by several judicious Divines, and contains a number of great Gospel-truths, which every true Christian ought to be versant in—yet, at the same time, there are several paragraphs or particulars in it, that, notwithstanding of what the Marrow-men, and Mr. Boston, in his Notes, have said upon it, are so abstruse and ambiguous, that they will admit of different senses, and such as will scarcely either reconcile with our Standards, and judgment of our Scots-Reforming Divines, or even with the scope and design of the book itself—The Author's design seems to have been, to strike out the true path betwixt Legalists and Antinomians: And it has sometimes fallen out, that great, and even good men (be he what he would, his [Edward Fisher's] character is differently represented) has, in running a center-line betwixt two extremes, declined towards the one, and sometimes towards both, in vindicating truth; sometimes truth has been injured beyond intention.

A foot-note will not permit me to notice what is taken in this book, by some, to be exceptionable.  I shall only, as a sample, notice the following few instances in page 143:—‘The law of God is represented as a thief, and a cursed murderer of the Son of God.’—Now, though this be Luther's words, yet sure it is an unguarded expression, which the word of God nowhere expresses, or bears countenance unto.  Were we allowed to look upon our Mediator, Christ, in the character of a private person, the charge might be just, as he owed nothing unto the law, or justice of God; but this we must not do; we must still look on him as the Surety and true representative of all the elect.  The law of God is every-where in {242} scripture represented as holy, just, and good, [Rom. 7.12,] like God himself; and so neither could nor would exact more of Christ than what was due from poor, lost, bankrupt, insolvent sinners, in whose room he stood Mediator, or what in their stead, he engaged to fulfil, pay, and perform; so that God was glorified, his justice vindicated, the law magnified and made honourable, and the poor law-transgressor freed from its penalty and curse, and saved, the just suffering for the unjust, &c. [1 Pet. 3.18.]——Page 130, it is said from the same Author, 'That Christ has taken upon him the sins of all men;' and afterwards—'go, and tell every man without exception, that here is good news, Christ is dead for him,' &c. which, although they be Luther's and Dr. Preston's words, in the terms they stand, they may be explained into the Arminian sense of universal redemption: neither does the explanation concerning what is called the deed of gift and grant, or that distinction of the words Christ died for him, and Christ is dead for him, altogether remove the doubt, or solve the point. 'Christ's death for you,' says Mr. Durham, 'is not the formal ground or warrant of your faith, nor yet of the offer of the gospel, but the Lord's will, warranting you to believe, and calling for it from you, &c.  We are not at first called to believe that Christ died for us; but we are called to believe in him that is offered to us in the gospel.'  So says Mr. Binning—'I know no ground of faith, but our necessity, and the Lord's promise and command to us,' &c.  To the same import the godly and orthodox Mr. Thomas Shepherd, when, in his Sound Believer, speaking on a general assent of faith, says, 'That some run on another extreme; "that they know no ground or bottom for their faith, but this proposition, that Christ died for thee;" and hence makes redemption universal,' &c.  See also Brown on the [epistle to the] Romans. 

Page 153, [Marrow, Book 1, Chapter 2, Section 3, Sect. 2,] when treating on the new covenant—'There is not any condition or law to be performed on man's part by himself; no: there is no more for him to do, but to know and believe, that Christ hath done all for him.'  Now, in point of merit, this every way holds good: but then, Antinomians hold, that Christ has done all for them, in point of duty, as well as merit; that there is nothing for them to do, but to believe, that Christ died and did all for them, and to rejoice. Now, there is no distinction made here; but what we gather from other places in the succeeding pages of the book. We know not how this will be reconciled with our Standard [Confession & Catechisms]; for although Christ, in point of merit, fulfilled all righteousness, yet Christ never undertook to repent or believe for his people; which though these be purchased and promised graces, which he, by his Spirit, works in the hearts of his people, yet these must be acted in their own persons, before they be justified, or entered into the covenant.  Sure, it were better to abide by our Standards on the point wherein we are taught, concerning the new covenant—'That as a covenant of redemption, {243} Christ, the Son of God, undertook and fulfilled the condition, or meritorious cause of man's justification; but, by entering into a covenant of free grace or reconciliation with the elect, through faith in himself, he freely pardoneth and offereth to sinners a Mediator, and life and salvation by him, requiring faith as the condition to interest them in him,' &c.  To which the writings of our Reforming Divines, and Act and Testimony, seem to agree, though we are far from putting faith, or any other grace promised or purchased in the new covenant, in place of Christ's righteousness; yet, according to the tenor of the new covenant, wherever faith is mentioned in scripture, in this sense, there seems to be a conditionality in it, positively and negatively; it runs thus, "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved; he that believeth shall be saved, and he that believeth not shall never see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him." [Acts 16.31; Mark 16.16; John 3.36.]

The last thing noticed is page 156. [Marrow, same section as above.] When describing saving faith, it is said, 'Be verily persuaded in your hearts that Jesus Christ is yours; and that you shall have life and salvation by him; and that whatsoever he did for the redemption of mankind, he did it for you, &c.'  Now,

1. This definition of faith, surely, is something different from the received doctrines on that head in our Standards.  It seems here to lie principally in a persuasion of the mind; whereas it is described there [in our Standards] as 'a receiving, resting, and relying on Christ.'  Says Dr. Owen, 'The genuine acting of saving faith consists in the choosing, embracing, and approbation of God's way of saving sinners by the mediation of Jesus Christ, relying thereon, renouncing all other ways and means for salvation.' Hence the above-mentioned Mr. Shepherd observes on this point, 'That Papists (and we may say, with them our modern Independents,) place faith in a mere assent to a Divine truth, which places it only in the understanding; whereas it is also in the will, by a trusting to, and rolling over on Christ.  Others (saith he) run to another extreme, making faith nothing else but a persuasion or assurance, that Christ died for me in particular, or that he is mine,' &c.—Sound Believer.

2. It is not denied, that there is still some kind of assurance in faith; that is, the foundation standeth sure, whether the believer knows it at first or not, 2 Tim. 2.19; but 'to be verily persuaded that whatever Christ did for the redemption of mankind, he did it for you, or that he is yours,' as here exprest, must include assurance of sense, if it includes any thing at all; and how this will reconcile with scripture, the experience of the saints, and our standards, which expressly declare, that such assurance 'is not of the essence of saving faith,' [WCF 18.3]; and more, it [the Marrow description] makes that to be the first act or step in saving faith, which our sound reforming Divines, makes the last.  'The first act of faith, as it unites to Christ (says Mr. {244} Shepherd) is not assurance, that he is mine; but a coming to him with assurance,' &c.—"Come unto the waters," &c.  Mr. Durham well observes, that every believer dare not appropriate Christ unto himself; he may grow up to assurance—'But to believe that Christ is mine, and that he died for me is not the first and direct [act] of saving faith'—Sermons on the 53d of Isaiah.  So says Mr. Binning, on Rom. 8.1, 'But that every man is bound to persuade himself at the first, that God hath loved him, and Christ redeemed him, is the hope of the hypocrite; like a spider's web, when leaned unto, shall not stand.'  Pious Mr. Gray, who spoke from experience, tells us, 'That there may be direct acts of faith without assurance—When a Christian closes with the offers of the gospel for salvation, and embraces Christ in them,' &c.  And so godly Mr. Rutherford, who spoke what he felt in his Letters, says, 'It is one thing to rely, lean, and rest upon Christ, &c. another thing to believe Christ died for me: the first is faith, the second is a fruit of faith.'  And elsewhere in his Sermons he says, 'To believe that God is my Lord, who from eternity did choose me, and of intention sent Christ to die for me, is not essential to saving faith—They believe, but in the dark; they stay on Jehovah, and yet see no light,' Isa. 50.10.  The testimonies of Messrs. Gillespie, Blair, and Guthrie, might be added; but I shall only observe, that the experiences of the saints in all ages of the world, confirm this truth; scripture examples need not be produced, they are so obvious to any who peruse their Bibles, and unto which the most part of God's own children, in their spiritual exercises, bear witness; nay, several of them positively declare, that they had been a number of years in Christ by faith, before they attained unto any comfortable assurance of their interest in him; nay, some have advanced unto heaven's threshold (so to speak) wrestling through the dark avenues of doubts and fears, and yet have anchored safe within the vail at last: which were surely impossible, were such kinds of assurance, as above expressed, the essence of every act of true and saving faith.

N.B. Let no person think, that what I have above noted, proceeds from the least design to limit the scripture-doctrines of free grace; or disparage the writings of our first Reformers.  No; these I highly esteem and revere: But from a respect to our Standard-doctrine, and the salvation of souls, wherein God's glory is so much concerned, that they may guard against false paths, and an ungrounded presumptive persuasion of their salvation by faith, while utterly destitute of true conviction, compunction, and self-abasement for sin, which, alas! is the case with many of the professors of this secure generation.


Further Considerations by the Present Editor.

The above remarks may suffice for a certain demonstration of the fact that our reformers and most orthodox divines of the Second Reformation took a definitive position against any notion of faith which involves in its first and direct act an assurance of the sinner's personal election or interest in the redemption of Jesus Christ. Likewise, the very wide separation of such things, as they are outlined in our Confession and Catechisms, makes plain that the Presbyterians of that generation were so resolved to avoid the definition of faith received among the Antinomians of that time, that they were prepared to set aside the formulations of former generations which ascribed an element of such assurance (of a personal interest in Christ's redemption) to the essence of Saving Faith. To some readers the reason why may not be as evident as the facts themselves; especially when it is said by some that the reason was because the reformers of our Second Reformation were devising a "New Divinity" not properly expressive of the Gospel message revived by our first reformers. Let it be noticed therefore, that besides the fact that a more proper and precise definition was necessary on account of various questions and heresies which arose in the Reformed Churches during more than a century of time, Mr. Binning's observation above, that a faith which immediately persuades the sinner of his personal interest in the love of God and redemption of Christ, is "the hope of the hypocrite," fully makes out the necessity of this advance. For there can be no difference between the presumptuous hypocrite's faith, and that of the sound believer, if the sound believer also must boldly persuade himself of that for which he has no evidence, before he leans his trust upon the object of his joy and brings forth the fruits thereof. The following statement, from Herman Witsius, in his Dissertations on the Apostles' Creed, may be helpful in illustrating the indistinguishability of a hypocritical faith, and the faith promoted by various Antinomian authors both at the time of the Marrow and in later generations. This indistinguishability results in a pastoral dilemma whereby the very acts of faith to which a pastor exhorts his hearers, involve some of them in both the belief of lies, and the sin of presumption. Consequently, pastoral care for the souls under their charge, compelled the ministry of our Second Reformation to oppose themselves with much earnestness to mistakes on this subject.

There is a great difference [between a temporary, presumptuous faith, and a true saving faith] in THE APPLICATION OF THE PROMISES OF THE GOSPEL. A presumptuous faith does not proceed in the right method: it rashly imagines that the salvation promised in the Gospel belongs to itself; and this hasty conclusion is built either upon no foundation at all, or upon a false one.  Sometimes the presumptuous, without any self-examination or diligent inquiry into their own character, which they avoid as too irksome and inconvenient an exercise,—foolishly flatter themselves,—arrogantly {57} lay claim to the grace of our Lord, and sleep on securely, indulging this delusive dream, neither inquiring nor disposed to inquire what ground they have for this imagination.  Sometimes they lay as a foundation for their confidence, either a preposterous notion respecting the general mercy of God, and some easy method of salvation which they discover in the Gospel-covenant; or an opinion of the sufficiency of their own holiness, because they are not so extremely vicious as the most daring profligates; or their external communion with the Church and attendance on the public worship; or the security of their sleeping conscience, and the soothing fancies of their own dreams, which they regard as the peace of God, and the consolations of the Holy Spirit.  By these and the like vanities of their own imagination, they deceive themselves; as if these were sufficient marks of grace.  But true believers, impressed with a deep sense of their own wretchedness, panting after the grace of the Lord Jesus, and laying hold upon it with a trembling humility, dare not, however, boast of it as already their own, till after diligent investigation they have discovered certain and infallible evidences of grace in themselves. With profound humility, with a kind of sacred dread, and with a sincere self-denial, they approach to lay hold on the grace of Christ: nor do they conclude that they have obtained it, till they have inquired carefully, first into the marks of grace, and, then, into their own hearts.  It is otherwise with the presumptuous in both these respects; for they rashly seize that which is not offered to them in any such order, (since God doth not offer security and joy to sinners, before their mind is affected with sorrow for the sins which they have committed, and roused to a due solicitude regarding salvation;) {58} and, then, they rashly boast of having attained grace, although they cannot make good their pretensions to a participation of the grace of God, by any one satisfactory proof.—Witsius.