A Pastoral Visit that Changed History

By: Rev. Tim Phillips, pastor of Brighton ARP Church in Brighton, TN

Around the year 1700, a young Scottish minister named Thomas Boston made a pastoral visit to an elderly member of his congregation. The exact age of the man is unknown, but he was old enough to have been a soldier in the English Civil War, which was fought more than a half-century before. While in the man’s home, Boston discovered a copy of an out-of-print book entitled The Marrow of Modern Divinity. Boston borrowed the book, read it, and the history of the Church of Scotland was changed forever.

Thomas Boston would recommend the book to other pastors, and in 1718, the book was reprinted in Scotland. It influenced a number of pastors who became known as Marrow Men. This group included men like Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine. Eventually, disagreements over The Marrow and its theology led to the formation of an “Associate Presbytery.” The Seceders, as they were called, are the historical ancestors of the Associate Reformed Presbytery Church.

Why was this issue, which became known as The Marrow Controversy, so controversial? It all related to the nature of the preaching of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. There may not have been much true gospel preaching in Scotland in those days (could that be said to be true in our day?), partly because there were those in the Church of Scotland who insisted the gospel should only be preached to those who first showed signs of God’s grace at work in their lives. That may sound strange to our modern ears, but it led to a lot of self-doubt as those within the church agonized over whether they were truly believers in Jesus Christ. The Marrow Men, on the other hand, insisted on what they called The Free Offer of the Gospel – that is, the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is to be preached to every person. God is the One who saves by His grace alone. The Holy Spirit is the One who must change hearts so that sinners will come to believe in the good news of salvation in Christ. It is not sorrow or emotionalism or feelings that save us, but only faith in Christ, trusting in His atoning work to save us. There is indeed a sorrowing over sin and repentance that are evident in the life of the Christian, but these are the fruit of salvation, not the cause of it.

When Jesus first appeared to His disciples after His resurrection, He told them, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47). The ARP Form of Government states, “All that the Church says and does is to be a witness to Jesus Christ, God’s living Word, as He is spoken of in the Holy Scriptures, God’s written Word. God has sent His Church into the world to present Jesus Christ through preaching, witnessing, teaching, sacrament, worship, and corporate living. All of the Church’s people, in every phase of their lives, are to be God’s ministers to the world by being servants of His Son, the King of the Church” (1.7). While they may be many activities that take place in a Christian church, Christ must be central to everything a church does. Pointing people to salvation in Jesus Christ, along with helping Christians live lives of devotion to Jesus Christ, must be the church’s primary mission.

The Free Offer of the Gospel changed the course of history in the Church of Scotland, and it is the reason that we have an ARP Church in North America today. Has the gospel made a difference in your life? Has it changed the course of your own personal history? Jesus Christ promises salvation and rest and eternal life for all who put their trust in Him (Matthew 11:28-29; John 3:16; John 6:37-40). What Jesus Christ did in history must be a part of our history – our church history, and our personal history.

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