5 Takeaways for Preachers from Sinclair Ferguson’s The Whole Christ—Part 1


In The Whole Christ, Sinclair Ferguson uses the Marrow Controversy, an ecclesiastical squabble in the early eighteenth century, that surrounded a two-volume book, The Marrow of Divinity, published in 1645 and 1649, and republished in 1718. The controversy involved answering the question of how the gospel should be preached and what is the relationship between law and gospel in the Christian life. Ferguson explains, “It is an extended reflection on theological and pastoral issues that arose in the early 18th century, viewed from the framework of the present day” (19).

Ferguson highlights Thomas Boston (1676-1732), who was one of the principal figures in the Marrow Controversy, he had long struggled with issues of the law and the gospel, but through reading The Marrow of Modern Divinity,  his ministry was transformed in a way that gave his sermons a gospel tincture. This post is not a review of Ferguson’s book (buy it and read it!), but rather my reflection on what I consider 5 important takeaways from the book for Christian preachers. I have added headings, and provided some of my thoughts before providing a series of quotes from the book. Today we will look at the first takeaway:

Jesus Christ himself is the gospel–Preach Jesus. The benefits of the gospel must never be separated from Christ himself. The benefits of the gospel only come through union with Christ.


Those who preach are constantly in danger of presenting Jesus as merely a means to some other end.   Such an approach is fundamentally at odds with the biblical witness. In Ephesians 1:10, Paul explains, that God is at work “summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth.”  If God is at work in the world summing up all things in Christ, then we should join him in doing so and the pulpit ought to be the preeminent reflection of God in doing so. We are not to sum up all things in doctrine, the benefits of salvation, our experience, but rather everything is to be summed up in Christ. Ferguson points out that “union with Christ,” is one of the primary emphases in the New Testament. In fact, the New Testament way of describing a disciple is to say simply, they are “in Christ.”

When the doctrine of the Bible, the benefits of the gospel, and the promised blessings of God are severed from Christ, the result is a malformed understanding of what it means to be in Christ. Biblical doctrinal teaching must be understood with Christ at its center and as it’s goal, or it becomes distorted into abstract information treated as if can rightly stand alone. The result is that the doctrinal category abstracted, overwhelms and obscures the fullness and freeness of the message of Jesus Christ and his gospel. The issue then becomes who has the right doctrinal and theological categories that prove their righteousness and theological maturity.  Where the benefits of the gospel are preached as though they can be separated and enjoyed apart from the person and work of Christ, then the focus becomes appropriating the benefits in one’s life rather than Christ himself. Likewise, where the promised blessings of God are preached abstracted from Christ and his Gospel the believer begins to sum up all things in their Christian experience.

We are not called to preach doctrine, the benefits of the gospel, or the promised blessings of God;

we are called to preach Christ crucified. Jesus Christ is the gospel.   Preaching Christ involves doctrine, the benefits of the gospel, the promised blessings of God, all of which are summed up in him. The order cannot, and must not, be reversed. Anything and everything abstracted from Jesus Christ is distorted and corrupted. Thus, the apostle Paul writes, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). It is not even enough to simply talk about the gospel abstractly; we must speak and preach Jesus Christ himself. When we do not, people may retain the language of the Christian Bible, but they will invariably twist and avoid the genuine gospel message in favor of distortions such as legalism or antinomianism.

Ferguson Quotes from The Whole Christ:

“By way of contrast

[Thomas Boston] wanted to stress that the Gospel’s center is found in Jesus Christ himself, who has been crucified for sin and raised for justification, with the inbuilt implication that Christ himself thus defined and described should be proclaimed is able to save all who come to him.” (42)

“The offer of the gospel is to be made not to the righteous or even the repentant, but to all. There are no conditions that need to be met in order for the gospel offer to be made. The warrant for faith does not rest in anything in ourselves. Indeed it cannot.” (42)

“Boston felt the sheer graciousness of the Christ of the gospel was being stifled by a Calvinism that had developed a preaching logic of its own and had become insensitive to the style and atmosphere of the New Testament. In his view God’s particular election had to easily been distorted into preaching a doctrine of conditional and conditioned grace.” (43)

“Repentance, which is the fruit of grace, thus [wrongly] becomes a qualification for grace.”   (43)

“The benefits of the gospel (justification, reconciliation, redemption, adoption) were being separated from Christ, who is himself the gospel. The benefits of the gospel are in Christ. They do not exist apart from him. They are ours only in him. They cannot be abstracted from him as if we ourselves could possess them independently of him.” (44)

“If the benefits of Christ’s work (justification, reconciliation, redemption, adoption, and so on) are abstracted from Christ himself, and the proclamation of the gospel is made in terms of what it offers rather than in terms of Christ himself, the question naturally arises: to whom can I offer these benefits?

Against the background of a confessional particularism (a belief in distinguishing election and particular redemption), this separation led to the answer: since the benefits of the work of Christ belong to the elect alone, it is to the elect (alone) that they should be offered” (46)

“Thus in a subtle way we become insensitive to the difference between offering the benefits of Christ and offering Christ himself.” (46)

“The difference in orientation of thought, and subsequently in our preaching, may seem incidental–after all, do we not get the same salvation at the end of the day? But this focus on benefits has a profound impact on how we understand and preach the gospel, and, almost imperceptibly, Christ himself ceases to be central and becomes a means to an end.” (49)

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