Sinclair Ferguson has given Christians a precious gift by writing The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, & Gospel Assurance—Why The Marrow Controversy Still Matters. The book is about a controversy that arose among some Presbyterian churches in 18th-century Scotland. The controversy came to be known as the Marrow Controversy and it pertained to issues involving the nature of grace, the law, legalism and how to present the gospel appropriately to unbelievers. I am not going to summarize the book here, but I encourage you to read the whole thing. I simply want to highlight one of the treasures of the book from chapter 3.
In chapter 3, Ferguson describes a distorted way of preaching the gospel:
“God loves you because Christ died for you!” (p. 65)
Some of us may wonder why Ferguson would say this is a distortion. It seems biblical enough. So why does Ferguson take issue with it? Here is what he says,
How do those words distort the gospel? They imply that the death of Christ is the reason for the love of God for me.
By contrast the Scriptures affirm that the love of God for us is the reason of the death of Christ. That is the emphasis of John 3:16. God (i.e, the Father, since here “God” is the antecedent of “his. . . Son”) so loved the world that he gave his Son for us. The Son does not need to do anything to persuade the Father to love us; he already loves us! (p. 65–66).
Ferguson goes on to state the danger of getting this backward:
The subtle danger here should be obvious: if we speak of the cross of Christ as the cause of the love of the Father, we imply that behind the cross and apart from it he may not actually love us at all. He needs to be “paid” a ransom price in order to love us. But if it has required the death of Christ to persuade him to love us (“Father, if I die, will you begin to love them?”), how can we ever be sure the Father himself love us—“deep down” with an everlasting love? True, the Father does not love us because we are sinners; but he does love us even though we are sinners. He loved us before Christ died for us. It is because he loves us that Christ died for us! (p. 66)
I think as Christians, we often miss the point Ferguson makes here. When we do, we start to think that God the Father is reluctant in his love for us. In other words, he loves us because Christ had to persuade him to love us. But the truth is that the cross is the outworking of God’s plan to love us, not the reason for it. This truth is life-changing and liberating because it describes the reality of God’s free and unconditional grace in our lives. He loves us because he loves us and he sent Christ in love to redeem us. An awareness of this fact leads us to worship and to live a life of holiness in the grace and freedom of the Father’s love.