When and how did God show his grace to us? Were there conditions to be met in us prior to Christ's grace? Clearly not, since it was:
While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.
While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.
What conditions were met in us in order for God to send his only Son into the world to die for sinners? None. Indeed there can be none. This is what Boston found valuable in the expression “Christ is dead for you.” For Boston this meant: “I do not offer Christ to you on the grounds that you have repented. Indeed I offer him to men and women who are dead in their trespasses and sins. This gospel offer of Jesus Christ himself is for you, whoever and whatever you are.”
One of the dangers Boston recognized was that conditionalism feeds back into how we view God himself. It introduces a layer of distortion into his character. For it is possible to see that no conditions for grace can be met by us yet still to hold to a subtle conditionality in God’s grace in itself.
This comes to expression when the gospel is preached in these terms: God loves you because Christ died for you!
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 for 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!
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 loves 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!
We must not confuse the truth that our sins are forgiven only because of the death and resurrection of Christ with the very different notion that God loves us only because of the death and resurrection of Christ. No, “he loved us from the first of time” and therefore sent his Son, who came willingly, to die for us. In this way a right understanding of the work of Christ leads to a true understanding of the matchless love the Father has for us. There is no dysfunction in the fellowship of the Trinity.
Boston’s reflections in this connection are illuminating. In his Memoirs he comments on the fact that in earlier life his preaching had been marred by legalism in his own spirit: “I had several convictions of legality in my own practice,” he wrote in 1704 looking back on his earlier ministry. Later, however, he was of a very different mind: “I had no great fondness for the doctrine of the conditionality of the covenant of grace.”
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Interestingly, Boston also had reservations about what is known as the “covenant of redemption” or the “covenant of peace [pactum salutis].” The idea of a supra-temporal covenant made between the Father and the Son with a view to our redemption. It was in connection with this that Jonathan Edwards commented that he did not “understand the scheme of thought” of Boston’s work The Covenant of Grace, although of his Human Nature in Its Fourfold State he wrote, “I . . . liked it exceeding well. I think, in that, he shows himself to be a truly great divine.”
Boston’s view was that the covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second man and last Adam, and in him for his people. The likely impetus for his rejecting the idea of the covenant of redemption was that this might suggest that the loving commitment of the Father toward sinners was conditional upon the obedience of the Son, instead of the context for that obedience. This in turn suggests a “love-gap” between the Father and the Son in their disposition toward sinners. Not only would such a doctrine imply a dysfunction within the life of the Trinity, but it especially distorts the character of the Father in the mind of the Christian believer. We can be sure that Jesus’s disposition toward us is through and through love; but we fear that the Father’s disposition is the result of persuasion, not personal devotion. Indeed it may be he is reluctantly gracious, since it took the death of Christ to make him so.
If this is the atmosphere in which we preach the gospel and people respond to it, a suspicion of the Father may linger long and prove to be a serious hindrance in the course of the Christian life. While often dormant in our souls, from time to time the thought will erupt that perhaps the Father himself, in himself, does not love us as the Son does. Such a disposition leads to a Spirit of suspicion, and even of bondage, not one of freedom and joy. Then, when we ask the question, “Who is this Father God with whom we have to do and what manner of Father is he?” we may never fully escape the suspicion that he is not a Father of infinite love after all.
Taken from The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters by Sinclair B. Ferguson, © 2016, pp. 65-68. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.