The following 20 quotes caught my attention as I read Sinclair Ferguson’s new book, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters (Crossway, 2016). (Read Tim Keller’s foreword.) 

This book nourished my faith even while exposing subtle ways I’m tempted to both legalism and antinomianism, and how the gospel is the answer to both. Yes, a book on an 18th-century Scottish theological controversy over law and grace did all that. Thanks to Tony Reinke for inspiring the 20 quotes idea.


“The benefits of the gospel [justification, reconciliation, redemption, adoption] are in ChristThey do not exist apart from him. They are ours only in him.” (44)

On Pastors and Preaching

“Knowing how to ‘preach Christ from the Old Testament,’ or understanding biblical theology, or seeing the flow of redemptive history, or knowing how to get to Christ from any part of the Scriptures does not necessarily result in actually preaching the person of Jesus Christ himself. Seeing Christ as the solution to a series of clues embedded in the Old Testament is not actually the same as proclaiming Jesus himself, in our flesh, bearing our sins, dying our death, and rising for our justification. A formula for preaching Christ is not identical to the persona of Christ, and we must never confuse hermeneutical principles with Christ himself. The former did not die for us on the cross; the latter did.” (49 n. 23)

“Pastors need themselves to have been mastered by the unconditional grace of God. From them the vestiges of a self-defensive pharisaism and conditionalism need to be torn. Like the Savior they need to handle bruised reeds without breaking them and dimly burning wicks without quenching them. What is a godly pastor, after all, but one who is like God, with a heart of grace; someone who sees God bringing prodigals home and runs to embrace them, weeps for joy that they have been brought home, and kisses them—asking no questions—no qualifications or conditions required?” (73)

On Legalism

“Legalism is simply separating the law of God from the person of God.” (83)

“The essence of legalism is a heart distortion of the graciousness of God and of the God of grace.” (88)

“It’s commonplace to say that one can have a legalistic head and a legalistic heart. But it’s also all too possible to have an evangelical head and a legalistic heart.” (94)

“Legalism is almost as old as Eden itself. In essence it’s any teaching that diminishes or distorts the generous love of God and the full freeness of his grace. It then distorts God’s graciousness revealed in his law and fails to see law set within its proper context in redemptive history as an expression of a gracious Father. This is the nature of legalism. Indeed we might say these are the natures of legalism.” (95)

“Christ should be presented in all the fullness of his person and work; faith then directly grasps the mercy of God in him, and as it does so the life of repentance is inaugurated as its fruit.” (101)

“At the end of the day we cannot divide faith and repentance chronologically. The true Christian believes penitently, and he repents believingly. For this reason, in the New Testament either term may be used when both dimensions are implied; and the order in which they are used may vary. But in the order of nature, in terms of the inner logic of the gospel and the way its ‘grammar’ functions, repentance can never be said to precede faith. It cannot take place outside of the context of faith.” (104)

“Faith will always be penitent; repentance will always be believing if genuine.” (104 n. 17)

“Grace rules out all qualifications by definition. Grace therefore eliminates boasting; it suffocates boasting; it silences any and all negotiations about our contribution before they can even begin. By definition we cannot ‘qualify’ for grace in any way, by any means, or through any action. Thus it’s understanding God’s grace—that is to say, understanding God himself—that demolishes legalism. Grace highlights legalism’s bankruptcy and shows that it’s not only useless; it’s pointless; its life breath is smothered out of it.” (110)

On Antinomianism

“Although in one sense antinomianism is the ‘opposite’ error from legalism, in another sense it’s the ‘equal’ error, for it similarly abstracts God’s law from God’s person and character (which undergoes no change from old to new covenant). It fails to appreciate that the law that condemns us for our sins was given to teach us how not to sin.” (141)

“The deepest response to antinomianism is not ‘You are under the law’ but rather ‘You are despising the gospel and failing to understand how the grace of God in the gospel works!’ There is no condemnation for you under the law because of your faith-union with Christ. But that same faith-union leads to the requirements of the law being fulfilled in you through the Spirit. Your real problem is not that you do not understand the law. It’s that you do not understand the gospel. For Paul says that we are ‘in-lawed to Christ.’ Our relationship to the law is not a bare legal one, coldly impersonal. No, our conformity to it is the fruit of our marriage to our new husband Jesus Christ.” (153–154)

“Antinomianism and legalism are not so much antithetical to each other as they are both antithetical to grace. This is why Scripture never prescribes one as the antidote for the other. Rather grace, God’s grace in Christ in our union with Christ, is the antidote to both.” (156)

“There is only one genuine cure for legalism. It’s the same medicine the gospel prescribes for antinomianism: understanding and tasting union with Jesus Christ himself.” (157)

“Antinomianism may be couched in doctrinal and theological terms, but it both betrays and masks the heart’s distaste for absolute divine obligation, or duty. That is why the doctrinal explanation is only part of the battle. We are grappling with something much more elusive, the spirit of an individual, an instinct, a sinful temperamental bent, a subtle divorce of duty and delight. This requires diligent and loving pastoral care and especially faithful, union-with-Christ, full unfolding of the Word of God so that the gospel dissolves the stubborn legality in our spirits.” (161)

“Divine indicatives give rise to divine imperatives. This is the Bible’s underlying grammar. Grace, in this sense, always gives rise to obligation, duty, and law.” (168)

“Commandments are the railroad tracks on which the life empowered by the love of God poured into the heart by the Holy Spirit runs. Love empowers the engine; law guides the direction. They are mutually interdependent. The notion that love can operate apart from law is a figment of the imagination. It’s not only bad theology; it’s poor psychology. It has to borrow from law to give eyes to love. . . . Neither the Old Testament believer nor the Savior severed the law of God from his gracious person. It was not legalism for Jesus to do everything his Father commanded him. Nor is it for us.” (168–169, 173)

On Assurance

“Assurance of salvation is the fruit of faith in Christ. Christ is able to and does, in fact, save all those who come to him through faith. Since faith is trust in Christ as the one who is able to save, there is a certain confidence and assurance seminally inherent in faith. The act of faith, therefore, contains within it the seed of assurance. Indeed, faith in its first exercise is an assurance about Christ.” (197)

“When faith thus grasps the reality of [our final and complete justification], then Christ himself looms large. This is the key to the enjoyment of assurance precisely because assurance is our assurance that he is a great Savior and that he is ours. Thus in gospel assurance Christ is central; indeed Christ is everything.” (200)


Previously in the “20 Quotes” series: