Category Archives: Fisher – Marrow of Divinity

Edward Fisher’s The Marrow of Modern Divinity

Week 24 (final) in Fisher: Judging the book . . .

The reference to Fisher’s tripartite view of the law by the “Marrow Brethren” in their response to query 11 in the appendix caught my attention such that I had to go back to the outline and table of contents to note what they were, as found in the Marrow, namely: 1) the law of works; 2) the law of faith, or the covenant of grace; and 3) the law of Christ.

Way back at the beginning of chapter three of part one of the Marrow is where we find Fisher’s definition of the law of Christ:

“The law of Christ, in regard of substance and matter, is all one with the law of works, or covenant of works. Which matter is scattered through the whole Bible, and summed up in the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, commonly called the moral law, containing such things as are agreeably to the mind and will of God, that is piety towards God, charity towards our neighbour, and sobriety towards ourselves. And therefore was it given of God to be a true and eternal rule of righteousness, for all men, of all nations, and at all times.”

Fisher’s definition and application of the law of Christ, at its core, simply showed the role of the Ten Commandments in the covenant of works and in the covenant of grace. I think this is why the Marrow Brethren said that this formulation by Fisher was orthodox, but not essential to their purposes since they only sought to maintain the distinction between the law of works and the covenant of grace. Fisher argued that a believer may not receive the Ten Commandments from the hand of Moses as a rule of life (seeking to be justified thereby as pertaining to the covenant of works) but only from the hand of Christ (thus saying “do this from life” as opposed to “do this and live”).

By asserting the “eternal rule of righteousness” of the just the moral law as found in the Old Testament, Fisher kept to the Reformed position which holds that the civil laws of the Mosaic economy are no longer in force, as seen in the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 19, sections 2 and 3, and rightly avoided theonomy:

  1. This law, after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon mount Sinai in ten commandments, and written in two tables; the first four commandments containing our duty towards God, and the other six our duty to man.
  2. Besides this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age, ceremonial laws containing several typical ordinances; partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated under the New Testament.

In retrospect, we should note that Fisher devoted over half (56%) of part one of the Marrow to chapter two on the covenant of grace alone, and second to that was chapter three on the law of Christ which made up another 31%. So chapters two and three taken together comprised 87% of part one! Hence it is no small amount of labor Fisher undertook to show the continuity and discontinuity between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace and how Christ fulfilled the covenant of works on behalf of his people, in chapter two. And then he came right back in chapter three and did a masterful job of showing how the moral law is still binding on believers today along with its role in sanctification and assurance, all the while avoiding salvation by works throughout. I suspect that the contents of chapters two and three of part one loomed large in Sinclair Ferguson’s appreciation for the Marrow. Those two chapters earned my esteem and appreciation for this fictional but wonderfully instructive and theologically rich dialogue contrived by a seventeenth century English barber, which goes to show that you can’t judge a book . . . by its cutter!


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Week 23 in Fisher: Reasons for Holiness

If you found the body main text of Edward Fisher’s The Marrow of Modern Divinity to be a difficult read, brace yourself as you approach the appendix, which contains the twelve queries “agreed unto by the commission of the General Assembly, and put to those ministers who gave in a representation and petition against the 5th and 8th Acts of Assembly 1720, with the answers given by these ministers to the said queries.” The style is much more protracted and demands more concentration from the reader. At least it did of this reader.

I found all of the first seven queries interesting, but the seventh one captured most of my attention, because of the fourteen reasons provided therein, as the writers detailed the need for a holy life. I wonder how many people today could give three reasons for holiness in the lives of believers today, much less fourteen!

Here they are, courtesy of the “marrow controversy” (available online at:

To the query, we answer, that we cordially and sincerely own a holy life, or good works,

  1. necessary, as an acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty, and in obedience to his command: for this is the will of God, even our sanctification; and, by a special ordination, he has appointed believers to walk in them:
  2. necessary, for glorifying God before the world, and showing the virtues of him who hath called us out of darkness into his marvellous light:
  3. necessary, as being the end of our election, our redemption, effectual calling, and regeneration; for “the Father chose us in Christ, before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy; the Son gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify to himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works”; and by the Holy Spirit are we created in Christ Jesus unto them:
  4. necessary, as expressions of our gratitude to our great Benefactor; for being bought with a price, we are no more our own, but henceforth, in a most peculiar manner bound, in our bodies and in our spirits, which are his, to glorify, and by all possible ways, to testify our thanksgiving to our Lord Redeemer and Ransomer; to him “who spared not his own Son, but gave him up to the death for us all”; to him “who humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross, for us”:
  5. necessary, as being the design, not only of the world, but of all ordinances and providences; even that as he who has called us is holy, so we should be holy in all manner of conversation:
  6. necessary, again, for evidencing and confirming our faith, good works being the breath, the native offspring and issue of it:
  7. necessary, for making our calling and election sure; for they are, though no plea, yet a good evidence for heaven, or an argument confirming our assurance and hope of salvation:
  8. necessary, to the maintaining of inward peace and comfort, though not as the ground and foundation, yet as effects, fruits, and concomitants of faith:
  9. necessary, in order to our entertaining communion with God even in this life; for, “if we say we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth”:
  10. necessary, to the escaping of judgments, and to the enjoyment of many promised blessings; particularly there is a necessity of order and method, that one be holy before he can be admitted to see and enjoy God in heaven; that being a disposing mean, preparing for the salvation of it, and the king’s highway chalked out for the redeemed to walk into the city:
  11. necessary, to adorn the gospel and grace our holy calling and profession:
  12. necessary, further, for the edification, good, and comfort, of fellow-believers:
  13. necessary, to prevent offence, and to stop the mouths of the wicked; to win likewise the unbelieving, and to commend Christ and his ways to the consciences:
  14. necessary, finally, for the establishment, security, and glory of churches and nations.

Having belabored the necessity of holiness in this way, however, these ministers subsequently denied that holiness procured salvation, and thus denied salvation by works.  And it was this issue which kept popping up over and over again in the queries, as it has throughout the history of the church, because the flesh loves to smuggle in self-righteousness.

Take up and read!

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Week 22 in Fisher: Communing With Your Own Heart

A few weeks ago I heard about a recent study which surprisingly concluded that men would prefer an electric shock to spending time alone with their thoughts (full article is available at: I suspect that such aversions to introspection arise from the absence of a vital spiritual life, and yet, a majority of Christians will confess to having a prayer life that is lackluster, and less than they would like it to be. However, it is only a true knowledge of God that enables us to look within honestly, deeply, and relentlessly without despairing.

Two prerequisites to meaningful communion with God involve a knowledge of God, and a knowledge of ourselves. Calvin revised his Institutes several times, but one thing he never revised was the opening section wherein he identified the need for these two types of knowledge, thus demonstrating his ability to get to the kernel of true wisdom early on:

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other. For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone. In the second place, those blessings which unceasingly distil to us from heaven, are like streams conducting us to the fountain. Here, again, the infinitude of good which resides in God becomes more apparent from our poverty. In particular, the miserable ruin into which the revolt of the first man has plunged us, compels us to turn our eyes upwards; not only that while hungry and famishing we may thence ask what we want, but being aroused by fear may learn humility. For as there exists in man something like a world of misery, and ever since we were stript of the divine attire our naked shame discloses an immense series of disgraceful properties every man, being stung by the consciousness of his own unhappiness, in this way necessarily obtains at least some knowledge of God. Thus, our feeling of ignorance, vanity, want, weakness, in short, depravity and corruption, reminds us, that in the Lord, and none but He, dwell the true light of wisdom, solid virtue, exuberant goodness. We are accordingly urged by our own evil things to consider the good things of God; and, indeed, we cannot aspire to Him in earnest until we have begun to be displeased with ourselves. For what man is not disposed to rest in himself? Who, in fact, does not thus rest, so long as he is unknown to himself; that is, so long as he is contented with his own endowments, and unconscious or unmindful of his misery? Every person, therefore, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led as by the hand to find him. (Institutes, 1.1, available online at

At the end of end of the section dealing with the uses of the law in The Marrow of Modern Divinity, Edward Fisher exhorts his reader to commune with his own heart especially before receiving the Lord’s Supper for the following reason:

Because the more sinful you see yourself to be, the more need you will see yourself to have of Christ; and the more need you see yourself to have of Christ, the more will you prize him; and the more you prize Christ, the more you will desire him; and the more you do desire Christ, the more fit and worthy receiver you will be.”

Being honest with ourselves as we relate to God is at the heart of communion with him. I’m indebted to John Owen for depicting this honesty in what he described as the daily commutation that occurs between every believer and his Savior:

“They [believers] hearken to the voice of Christ calling them to him with their burden, ‘Come unto me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden;’ – ‘Come with your burdens; come, thou poor soul, with thy guilt of sin.’ Why? what to do? ‘Why, this is mine,’ saith Christ; ‘this agreement I made with my Father, that I should come, and take thy sins, and bear them away: they were my lot. Give me thy burden, give me all thy sins. Thou knowest not what to do with them; I know how to dispose of them well enough, so that God shall be glorified, and thy soul delivered.’ Hereupon, —

“They lay down their sins at the cross of Christ, upon his shoulders. This is faith’s great and bold venture upon the grace, faithfulness, and truth of God, to stand by the cross and say, ‘Ah! He is bruised for my sins, and wounded for my transgressions, and the chastisement of my peace is upon him. He is thus made sin for me. Here I give up my sins to him that is able to bear them, to undergo them. He requires it of my hands, that I should be content that he should undertake for them; and I heartily consent unto.’ This is every day’s work; I know not how any peace can be maintained with God without it.” (Volume 2 of The Works of John Owen, On Communion With God, Chapter 8, p. 194; bold emphases mine, available online at

Yes, sadly, as long as we are in this body, this commutation is every day’s work. But, blessed be the Lord, he commands us to come to him as we are, with all our sins, asking him as our King to overcome all his and all our enemies. I prefer this communion with Him to an electric shock any day!

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Week 21 in Fisher: Uses of the Law – Deep Water

Weeks 21 in Fisher: Commandment 10 & Uses of the Law

It’s getting deep here at the end, men, so if you fall overboard, remember to relax, keep your head back, and float on the surface in between the deep dives.

Jeremiah 17:9 comes to mind as I reflect on this week’s reading in Fisher’s The Marrow of Modern Divinity: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (KJV) In his handling of the uses of the law, Fisher displays a master’s touch as he exposes the subterfuges the heart employs to smuggle in self-righteousness.

One such subterfuge is the idea that all that is necessary is for a person to do their best, and God, through Christ, will do the rest. I recently heard a sermon by Joel Beeke in which he shared an illustration of Thomas Aquinas along these lines (and I hope my memory serves me here; I welcome any needed correction to those in the know). According to Aquinas, salvation may be compared to a two story house. The first story is a person’s good deeds, and the second story is grace. A person has to climb the stairs from the first story to the second, going as far as possible, and Christ meets him and takes him up to the second story, on the step where his good deeds end. Fisher exposed this synergistic understanding in the dialog by putting the following on the lips of Nomologista (p. 319 of our text): “therefore have I endeavored to do the best I could to keep the law perfectly, and wherein I have failed and come short, I have believed that Christ has done it for me.” (You may find an article on monergism vs synergism at the following:

We find much deeper waters where Fisher, through Evangelista, sought to drive the sinner out of his own righteousness to find salvation in Christ alone, the only Surety for fallen man. I’m indebted to Fisher for the way he explained the significance of Christ’s passive obedience. By way of definitions up front, Christ’s active obedience refers to all he did to keep the law in behalf of sinners. His passive obedience refers to all that he suffered in paying the penalty for sin and discharging its debt, including death. Christ’s active and passive obedience cannot be separated, because they accompanied every aspect of our Savior’s life, from the incarnation up to his death. The intertwining of Christ’s active and passive obedience is acutely seen in his physical death, because, on the one hand, he actively and willingly laid down his life in perfect obedience to his Father, and, on the other hand, he functioned as God’s Servant, totally in subjection to the law and its requirements, which meant his death.

The part I’m indebted to Fisher for is his succinct connection of the passive obedience of Christ with a use of the law for driving sinners to Christ, when he pointed out that: “the law and justice of God does not only require the payment of the debt, but also of the forfeiture; there is not only required of him perfect doing, but also perfect suffering.” He went on to say that, “an infinite and eternal punishment is required at man’s hands, or else such a temporal punishment, as is equal and answerable to eternal.” Fisher hit upon the great problem that Adam’s fall brought about, and why it took the incarnation to redeem fallen sinners. Adam sinned against an infinitely holy God, committing cosmic treason. The penalty for that crime is death in all its fullness (physical death, spiritual death, and eternal death). Since fallen man, now devoid of innocence, is unable to reverse the current state of spiritual death in which he finds himself, it is impossible for him to perform any righteous act on his own merit, and hence it is impossible for him ever to work his way back to God. And the only way for fallen man to begin to restore his state of innocence would be to pay an infinite debt of eternal punishment, and hence, there is no way back. The only way back is miraculous, because it will require a man who is completely righteous, the God-Man, untainted by sin, to come and stand as Surety in fallen man’s place to pay the penalty which is otherwise unpayable, and thus redeem fallen sinners from the penalty of sin.

In the past I’ve tried to make the point that self-righteousness is such an affront to God, because such efforts essentially declare that God didn’t know what he was doing when he sent Jesus to die for sinners, because they can get along fine without him. Fisher put it much more succinctly and powerfully, by taking us to the foot of the Cross, to behold his perfect, infinite suffering. We, or at least I, need visits like this more often.

I warned you that the water was deep here at the end. But it is also glorious!


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Weeks 19 & 20 of 25 in Fisher: Commandments 2-10 and Psa. 119:96

Two Old Testament passages come to mind as I reflect on Fisher’s wonderful exposition of the Ten Commandments. One is Psalm 119:96: “I have seen a limit to [mg: an end of] all perfection; Thy commandment is exceedingly broad.” (NASB) Fisher’s fictional dialogue had its characters expressing this sentiment more than once, and I shared it repeatedly. At the same time, Fisher’s exposition evokes admiration and appreciation for the beauty of holiness, which we find on the lips of Moses in Deut. 4:8: “And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?”  (ESV)  To live in a society where there is such perfection . . . will be heaven, and heaven only! Those happy few who were able to gather for today’s monthly Dead Theologians Society meeting took time to gaze into infinite depths of righteousness that the moral law requires, as Fisher has endeavored to plumb them for us, and we rejoiced in the One who has perfectly fulfilled it on our behalf. And herein lies a wonderful paradox of faith. The believer looks into the perfect law of liberty, beholds his shortcomings, and, wonder of wonder, loves that law, because it reflects the holy character of the God he loves. As long as we are in this flesh, there will always be an acute awareness of sin and failure, but wonder of wonder, the believer also knows that with Him there is forgiveness, that He may be feared (Psa. 130:4).  Knowing ourselves and our God on this matter is the sole basis for true communion with Him. The other passage that comes to mind so strikingly as I reflect on Fisher’s exposition here is Psalm 37:23-24.  I began this pilgrimage 34 years ago, and I can testify to the following: “The steps of a man are established by the Lord, when he delights in his way; though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong, for THE LORD UPHOLDS HIS HAND.” (ESV) The Lord alone knows how many times he has kept me from falling headlong, because he holds my hand! Those who have had children can appreciate this image especially, I think. A parent knows a toddler needs that hand, and will not let the child go, no matter what, when the child’s safety is concerned. How much more is this true of our heavenly Father, not just when we start out on the journey to the Celestial City, but all the way home! How can it be otherwise, for: “Thy commandment is exceedingly broad.”

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Week 19 of 25 in Fisher (Belated): Commandments 2-5

Better late than never, and since all I did last week was update the outline without any comments, I need to take this time to reflect on Fisher’s handling of the 2nd through the 5th of the ten commandments (or at least one through four, with particular attention to the fourth).

It was in one of Jonathan Edwards’ sermons which I read years ago that first pointed out to me so succinctly the primacy of worship as found in the first four commandments. Fisher’s Marrow of Modern Divinity is only the second source I can recall finding it again, though many Puritans surely observed the same. We can’t afford to miss it. In the first commandment, God appoints the OBJECT of our worship; in the second he appoints the MEANS, in the third he appoints the MANNER, and in the fourth he appoints the TIME. Fisher’s characterization of the first four commandments along these lines spans several pages, but they are there to the observant reader. If I hadn’t read Edwards’ sermon first, I might have missed them, and it makes me wonder if Edwards could have picked this up from reading Fisher himself.

In any case, despite the risk of sounding censorious or contentious (both of which I will strive to avoid), I want to share my thoughts on the plight of the fourth commandment in our day, and in view of Fisher’s handling of it. Fisher is fully in line with the Westminster Confession of Faith in regard to the fourth commandment, as found in chapter 21, sections 7 and 8:

7. As it is of the law of nature, that, in general, a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God; so, in his word, by a positive, moral, and perpetual commandment, binding all men in all ages, he hath particularly appointed one day in seven for a Sabbath, to be kept holy unto him: which, from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, was the last day of the week; and, from the resurrection of Christ, was changed into the first day of the week, which in Scripture is called the Lord’s Day, and is to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian Sabbath.

8. This Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs before-hand, do not only observe an holy rest all the day from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations; but also are taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in duties of necessity and mercy.

Reading the Puritans on the fourth commandment is one area where the sea breezes of the past (to borrow C. S. Lewis’ phrase) tend to pelt our faces with dashes of salt, as they reveal the saltiness our culture has lost in comparison. The gap shows up in responses such as, “Spend a whole day in worship? Are you kidding?”. Or how about, “That’s not what they meant.”

As a member of a church belonging to the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), I have heard similar objections, and sadly, this is one area wherein, at least in our presbytery, allowance is made for scruple. For instance, if a ministerial candidate wants to go outside and throw the ball around with his son, that is considered an acceptable scruple to the WCF. In addition, it would seem that going shopping, watching sports, going to movies, dining out, and travelling on vacation are all acceptable scruples, judging by common practice among members (and for lack of any admonition from the pulpit to refrain from such activities). So it would seem that the fourth commandment as explained in the WCF, at least in some quarters of the PCA, is an option. You may take it or leave it.

Now about this time I imagine some might be saying, “But we are saved by grace, not by works. That Sabbath keeping sort of thing sounds legalistic.” The proper response here is the same one that Fisher provided earlier in our text when he responded to antinomian objections by pointing out that the Christian is not free to do those things that are ungodly and wicked (pp. 199-200). If God has appointed the TIME as well as the OBJECT, MEANS, and MANNER of our worship, who is man to refuse him?

Here especially God’s moral law should be viewed as a great blessing. As I heard in a sermon many years ago, the Lord’s Day is a gift, wherein God says, “I have cleared your calendar. You get to spend the whole day with me.” How else would a child of God prefer to spend the day?

For the past seventeen years it has been my practice to observe the Lord’s Day from sundown Saturday to sundown Sunday. During that time, as a family we engage in public and private worship, and in deeds of necessity and mercy. I have found Sunday to be my favorite day of the week, and I think that is how it is to be intended, because, as J. C. Ryle observed in his book, Holiness, heaven will be a never ending Sabbath:

“Now perhaps you think praying, and Scripture-reading, and hymn-singing, dull and melancholy, and stupid work — a thing to be tolerated now and then, but not enjoyed. You reckon the Sabbath a burden and a weariness; you could not possibly spend more than a small part of it worshipping God. But remember, heaven is a never-ending Sabbath. The inhabitants thereof rest not day or night, saying, ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty,’ and singing the praise of the Lamb. How could an unholy man find pleasure in occupation such as this?”

After returning from the General Assembly of the PCA this year, our pastor lamented the lack of impact our denomination now seems to have. If we have lost any saltiness, drawing aside one day in seven as the Lord graciously commands us and as espoused by the WCF, could go a long way toward restoring it. Granted, I am nowhere near as mortified to sin and vivified in the Spirit as I should be, or long to be. But I shudder to think where I would be were it not for drawing aside one day in seven for the Lord’s Day, and seeking to enjoy the WHOLE day with Him.


Please follow the links below from the Reformation21 website, for related articles.

Through the Westminster Confession, Chapter 21.7, Derek Thomas


Through the Westminster Confession, Chapter 21.8 Derek Thomas

“Make no mistake about it, a world without a Sabbath is tyrannical and unforgiving. It has no gospel.”

Advice for Sabbath Keeping, Rick Phillips


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Reading Schedule – Marrow of Modern Divinity

DTS Reading Schedule – Marrow of Modern Divinity 2014-02-23

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July 4, 2014 · 8:44 pm