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Podcast: What an Old Controversy Teaches Us about Grace and Legalism (Sinclair Ferguson)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

The Marrow Controversy

In this episode, Sinclair Ferguson discusses the relevance of church history and divisive theological positions as we dig into a largely forgotten 18th-century Scottish debate about God’s grace and our works, explaining the roots of legalism and antinomianism, and why all of this matters for modern-day believers.

The Whole Christ

Sinclair B. Ferguson

Helping Christians walk the line between legalism on the one hand and antinomianism on the other, this book looks to a 300-year-old controversy to shed valuable light on the law, the gospel, sanctification, and more.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview:

01:02 - The Impact of the Marrow Controversy

Matt Tully
Sinclair, thank you so much for joining me today on The Crossway Podcast.

Sinclair Ferguson
Thank you very much for having me.

Matt Tully
Your book, The Whole Christ, is really interesting. I think a lot of people have had this reaction to it because on one level it’s a recounting—or retelling—the story of what is, largely, a forgotten eighteenth century debate within Scotland called the Marrow Controversy. It’s related to the relationship between God’s grace and our good works. Yet, on the other hand, the book has had this resonance that goes beyond what you might think it would have, given that that’s the topic. Tim Keller has actually called the book “a tract for our times.” I wonder if you can help us think of the big picture: Why is it that this book has resonated with so many people even though it is, on one level, about this very specific historical situation?

Sinclair Ferguson
In some ways, there’s a story that lies behind the book. I was asked over forty years ago now to give three addresses on an ancient controversy that took place in the church in Scotland. I remember saying to my wife when I was preparing the addresses—I lived in Scotland and the addresses were given in the United States—I don’t know why I’m wasting my time preparing these addresses because there’s nobody in the world who is interested in this controversy. But I prepared them in a certain way so that I would touch on things I thought were really very important in understanding the Bible, the gospel, the Christian life, pastoral ministry—the addresses were given to ministers. For about thirty years thereafter, basically wherever I went in the United States somebody would come up to me and tell me they had been helped by these addresses. It was a very serendipitous experience. But I realized then that because I had focused on what I thought were really important theological, pastoral issues, the historical setting was just one of many settings in which the issue of how do we understand the gospel, especially when people begin to develop a Reformed view of theology, there are big questions related to the nature of God’s covenant. I guess people might say in modern terms the relationship between the indicatives of the gospel and the imperatives of the gospel. Probably also because the chief figure in my own mind, one of my own favorite Scottish theologians, was a very profoundly theological pastor who ministered absolutely in the boonies. You have to go off a main road, drive down a valley, go through trees for miles, turn right, and you come to the church in which he ministered. I think in some ways it may have resonated unexpectedly with people because this was a ministry in a very ordinary setting. This wasn’t a university town, this wasn’t a man with a mega congregation. But this was the ministry that really touched his congregation. The thing that very much has moved me about him, because I’ve read about him since I was a young man, was that when he got this sorted out, he said that people began to notice a tincture in his ministry. It’s very interesting to me—a number of ministers have written to me in response to the book saying either I hope I’m getting the tincture, or I think people are beginning to see the tincture.

Matt Tully
For an American context, help us understand that word. I think we might have a little bit of a sense, but what does that mean?

Sinclair Ferguson
If you can maybe just picture this: here’s a glass of water and I drip into it a tincture of lemon—a few drops of it—and it flavors the whole. This very much was my hope with the book, as it was my hope with the original lectures, that it wouldn’t be just a matter of, as it were, getting your theology right, but it would be a matter of the gospel actually impacting the way you thought about the gospel, and especially the way you thought about Christ and your relationship with him. Maybe the way I would put it now (and I’m sure I didn’t put it this way in the book) is that I think there can be a lot of preaching on Christ that is ideological rather than personal. But at the end of the day, it’s not the idea of Christ that saves us; it’s Christ himself and our union with him. That was the big thing I wanted to convey because I thought, actually, this notion of union with Chris—which has lingered with me probably since I was sixteen or seventeen—was actually the key to the different problems that were engaging men during what was called the Marrow Controversy.

Matt Tully
I want to get into that a little bit and have you tell us what that controversy was actually about and who the key players were, but before we even do that, had you heard of the Marrow Controversy before, I believe, it was a pastor from Indianapolis who reached out to you and asked you to come speak?

Sinclair Ferguson
Actually, the conference was in Indianapolis. The minister was in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. I think he was a very farsighted individual, but I don’t think he could have been as farsighted in my life as he actually was. The controversy began in a very small Scottish town, essentially during a presbytery meeting where some of the men in the presbytery were trying to weed out legalism. In the examination process, they asked what was, in essence, a trick question, which was (if I could put it in the vernacular), Do you have to leave sin in order to come to Christ? It’s very interesting to listen to people’s reactions to that question: yes or no, or don’t know, or there’s something maybe not quite right about the way you’re asking that question. That very fact opens up a lot of theological issues.

Matt Tully
Did they intend it to be a trick question?

Sinclair Ferguson
They intended it to be a trap question, because if you said yes, the first thing you’ve got to do is to leave your sin and then come to Christ. They suspected that there was some level of high preparationism and what I would call qualificationism, in that there is something you have got to do to be allowed in. They thought that minimized Christ. They were also concerned with a form of hyper calvinism. There was legalism, there was hyper calvinism, and at the end of the day, the men who led the charge all got accused of Antinomianism.

Matt Tully
Define that for us. I think we all have a better sense for legalism and this specter in the church that we don’t want to fall into, but what’s Antinomianism?

Sinclair Ferguson
Antinomianism is, either in theological terms or practical terms, the rejection of the law. There’s a whole spectrum of different kinds of rejection. I suppose the most popular kind is you’re driving along the road and the guy who’s driving you is going 95 mph and the speed limit is 70 mph. You say to him, Excuse me, you’re breaking the law, and he says, We’re not under law. We’re under grace. So the notion is that because we’re under grace we have nothing to do with the law. At a practical level, that could lead to various forms of immorality. Or at a theological level, it would mean the gospel would then become constructed in a particular way that when you were talking about how the gospel worked out in people’s lives for all practical purposes you would never refer back to Exodus 20. So that would be another form of Antinomianism. I think the truth of the matter is, too, that the legalism could vary. It could vary from a theological legalism—that essentially you had to qualify for grace (I think this may be what has resonated more with people in the twenty-first century)—to a much more subtle form of legalism in which you begin to qualify grace either with respect to other people or with respect to yourself. Since one of my pretty deep theological convictions is it’s all in Genesis 3—and I honestly can’t remember if I bring this out in the book. I think I probably did, because I’m as much in ruts in my thinking as anybody else. I think you can trace in Genesis 3 this conflict between legalism and Antinomianism in the way in which the serpent essentially traps Eve and then Adam. When I thought about that, quite separate from the Marrow Controversy, and put the two things together in a way that I don’t think the leading figures in the Marrow Controversy did, it really did strike me that this is something that goes right down to the very roots of our existence. Essentially, it’s rooted in something common.

12:37 - The Seeds of Legalism and Antinomianism

Matt Tully
I was going to ask about that. It seems like this struggle that Christians have with walking the line between—or maybe that’s the wrong metaphor—but avoiding legalism on one hand and Antinomianism on the other hand, it feels like something that continues to come back up in the life of the church. I was going to ask where you think that comes from. Unpack that connection to Genesis. You say you see the seeds of that even back in the garden. Where do you see that?

Sinclair Ferguson
One element of it you see in the phrase What God tells you to do isn’t actually good for you. It introduces both the notions of legalism and Antinomianism. It’s an incentive to throw out God’s specific commandments and it’s also a suggestion that God really wants something more from you in order that you may have a relationship with him that is pleasing and acceptable to him. I think it’s quite subtle, but I think both elements are there. I remember coming across a very striking comment in the Dutch-American theologian Geerhardus Vos where he says the essence of legalism is that you sever the law of God from the person of God. About two-thirds of my life as a minister has been taken up as a seminary teacher, and a third of it as a minister. Sometimes it’s a bit of both, and sometimes all of both. My area of teaching has been systematic theology, which I love, but it’s also become very obvious to me that the big danger in any system-type theology is that it becomes depersonalized and ideological. At the end of the day, we confuse an ideological construction of God, Christ, the Father, and the Spirit with the actual person of God himself. That can influence us just in terms of how we view the law of God. It’s there in Exodus 20, and once you get past the first verse, it’s really just ideas that you’ve got to match up in your own lifestyle. You’ve lost that sense that the law of God is actually coming out of the covenant bond and personal fellowship that God has created with these people in the Exodus.

Matt Tully
Do you feel like you’ve seen that tendency, or that temptation, in your own life and in your own doing of theology over the years?

Sinclair Ferguson
I honestly think that at the end of the day, you’re either a legalist or an Antinomian. You’re sick because you’re a sinner. Your sin goes back into this fractured relationship based on a fractured understanding of who God really is, so even the most sanctified of us—which I increasingly know I am not—is going to struggle with this until we see the beatific vision and all of these things disappear out of our lives. I think you see this in the New Testament, that these rhythms flow through the problems to which the gospel provides the resolution and the solution in the New Testament letters. Everyone Jesus meets turns out to either be a legalist or an Antinomian.

Matt Tully
One of the most striking insights that I feel like you draw out is the fact that both legalism and Antinomianism actually, even though they might seem like they’re at the opposite ends of the spectrum, they nevertheless have the same root. You actually call them, at one point, non-identical twins from the same womb. Unpack that for us, because I think that gets back to what you’re saying here.

Sinclair Ferguson
I came to that kind of formulation when I just happened to be studying the history of Antinomianism many years ago. I was reading a number of the figures who were known as Antinomians in history. I’m not big on categorizing people in that way, but the shorthand can be useful. One of the things that really struck me was that, essentially, they said they had become Antinomians because they were actually legalists. That seemed to me as much as to say that underneath every Antinomian is not an Antinomian but a legalist, and that that is the default position of the whole of humanity. This is why you see it in the non-Christian religions. There’s been this huge debate in the academy about Judaism, but you see it running right through Judaism—that there is a reason why God has been gracious to us, and that gracious (somehow or another) lies in us. It may be because we have been so badly treated that God has had mercy on us. It sounds as though we’re talking about mercy and grace, but that mercy has been diluted by our contribution to the situation that has made God gracious. You can think about this in all kinds of ways. For example, here’s a man who goes for a crusade in 1961 and there’s no evidence whatsoever in his life that he is really a Christian—this is a real story. But when he dies, his brother shows the minister who takes the funeral service his decision card and says, He’s alright, isn’t he? So why is he alright? He’s alright because of what he contributed. Way back there, he put his decision into the treasury of merits, and he did enough. When I was a youngster growing up in Protestant Scotland, if you asked the average Protestant—Presbyterian—Do you think you’re going to heaven?, the answers would be something like, I hope I’ve done enough. This seems to me to be the Christianized version of what you find in the world religions where there is a ladder you’ve got to climb to God.

21:05 - Am I Preaching the Whole Christ?

Matt Tully
Can you think of any examples from our modern lives today where you have seen legalism or Antinomianism infect the purity of our understanding of the gospel, perhaps in subtle ways that we would never say it like that, but it’s still maybe there?

Sinclair Ferguson
Here is what I have begun to feel is one of the most subtle ways, insofar as I think of both legalism and Antinomianism distorting the person of God. So it’s the person of God and my personal covenant communion with God through my union with Christ is the essence. I can fall into all kinds of legalisms and Antinomianisms. Here is one. I’m not sure everyone would agree with me, but I would say in the last twenty years there’s been a huge emphasis in our kind of evangelicalism and in the seminaries and in all kinds of spheres the importance of preaching Christ from the Old Testament. We don’t want morality from the Old Testament. We don’t want sermons on David and Goliath that tell us we need to be brave and stand up. We need to see that this is part of the story of redemptive history. I hear a fair amount of preaching from the Old Testament where you know that the preacher has been schooled to get you to Christ, and he does. And then he stops. What he has done is—by one of ten different ways that he knows you can get there—by one of these ten different ways, he has solved the crossword puzzle of the Old Testament, and then he puts his pencil down because he’s preached Christ from the Old Testament. But all he has done is solve the crossword puzzle. I, hungry and thirsty for the Savior, I don’t want my crossword puzzle solved; I want Jesus.

Matt Tully
Speak to the pastor listening right now who says, Yeah, that’s exactly what I do. That’s what I’m supposed to do; that’s what I want to be doing. What’s wrong with that?

Sinclair Ferguson
You’ve not preached Christ yet. All you’ve done is—and I think to people that can seem very clever that you’ve done this—but all you’ve done is trace the dots to the answer. If you think of the language Paul uses, how much of the New Testament did Paul have? Maybe he had bits of Luke’s Gospel and some of his own letters. Early in his ministry he says to the Galatians, We preached Christ and him crucified. Him we proclaim. It’s not a focus on the person—not the solution to the Old Testament crossword puzzle—but Christ himself offered to the people. I think if people say to me how do I learn to preach Christ from the Old Testament, I think my response now is, The first thing you need to do is preach Christ from the Gospels. It’s kind of fascinating to me that, over the years, numbers of preachers have said to me, I find preaching Paul easy, but I find preaching from the Gospels difficult. And I say, I know. They ask, How did you know? I say, Because you preach from the Gospels as though Paul had written them. In that sense, there’s a disconnect between the fabric of Christ presented to us in the gospel.

Matt Tully
Is that mostly due to just the didactic nature of Paul’s teaching where he’s giving us propositions vs. the story form of the Gospels and the Old Testament, or is it more than that?

Sinclair Ferguson
I think it can be more than that because with all the didactic material in Paul’s letters, still at the absolute core of it for him is always about the person he met on the Damascus road; or rather, who met him on the Damascus road. What his passion is is to know Christ and the fellowship of his sufferings and being made like him in his death and at the end, ultimately, to be conformed to him. So when we read Paul, I think we need to keep, as it were, getting under the surface of what he said to the person, with whom he lives in union and communion, about whom he has said this. In a way, I think for most of us who plod along in our churches, that’s where the Gospels come in. I can’t remember whether or not I said this in the book, but I remember sitting under a series of expositions from the Gospels in which the thrust was, Where are you in this story? Are you like Nicodemus or Zacchaeus, etc.? There was never really an emphasis of Do you see Christ in this story? He is the same today as he was then too, so that, in a sense, I think we need to understand that sometimes we are turning the New Testament’s testimony and looking at it from the outside in instead of listening to it from the inside out. We can think that we are preaching Christ, but in a way we are just preaching the theological outline. I think the way I would put it is that people can be well instructed theologically in terms of categories, but not necessarily really well nourished and nurtured by the person of Christ himself—in their growth and personal knowledge of Christ and communion with Christ.

Matt Tully
I think this whole Marrow Controversy is so fascinating because it’s a good example of how church history—even history that is hundreds of years in the past—remains relevant for us today. So many of the issues that we wrestle with as Christians in the twenty-first century are the same, or at least very similar to, the issues of Christians in previous generations. Have you found that to be the case in your own life and study and ministry? If so, are there other examples that immediately come to mind?

Sinclair Ferguson
This issue of legalism and Antinomianism, for example, kind of blew up in the Lutheran Reformation. There you have an illustration of that same issue. I think if you work your way through Calvin’s Institutes, for example, it’s kind of punctuated by people in controversies so that if you’re a new reader to the Reformation you think, Who are these guys? What did they do? I can’t even pronounce their names. But you realize that so much of his own growth theologically was related to those different theological issues and debates. I think if you go back to the New Testament you can see the same pattern. If you think, Let me cut out everything in Paul’s letters that’s not related to something going wrong in the history of the church, you don’t have all that much left in Paul’s letters. And even bits of them that you don’t think are related to that, the longer you keep your nose in the text the more you realize that this is actually how growth takes place. When we think about the legitimate theological disagreements that we engage in, and then the disagreements over real orthodoxy, I think we must always bear in mind for ourselves that this is a context in which I myself am being challenged by God to grow in my understanding of the gospel. For example, when I’ve been preaching on a book of the Bible, I’ve always tried to use at least three commentaries of different kinds: one that will be the latest evangelical commentary (if you buy that, you’ve probably bought the previous two because the guys had to discuss them), along with that, a great classical commentary; and then along with that, a commentary written by somebody I know I’m going to disagree with on almost every big point. He is likely to be a person who will make me think through right down to the roots of the gospel. I’ve always found that a helpful thing to do. So, I think this is just part—in answer to your question—I think it’s just part of the existence of the church in the world as a sinful community living in a sinful world, surrounded by malformed thinking about the world, God, and the gospel.

32:35 - Are Theological Disagreements a Waste of Time?

Matt Tully
Another issue that I found interesting in the book was as I was reading through the details of this Marrow Controversy itself, as we’ve already talked about, there are lots of terms being used—similar and same terms. There was even agreement from both sides on what the Westminster Confession said about the problems of legalism and Antinomianism and how we’re justified by faith alone. And yet, nevertheless, there were big differences and there was disagreement. I think someone could read some of that and think, Were they just talking past each other? Were they just emphasizing different things and that was leading to disagreement? I think that connects even to critiques that we hear today—from outside the church, but especially from within the church—where people will look at different issues that we might be discussing and say, This is just a great example of what Paul warns about in 1 and 2 Timothy: quarreling over words, arguing, creating division over these unimportant things that maybe you’re going too deep in. Would you agree with that? Could this be an example of that, or do you think that’s not what’s going on with this particular issue?

Sinclair Ferguson
With the Marrow Controversy, underneath it was the tension between, essentially, evangelicals and what in Scotland we call moderates—people who signed up to the Confession, but their real interest was in the decent lifestyle. So they signed the Confession, but it was pretty much held at arm's length. This whole controversy began with a book, and there were people who didn’t have the book—and this is really relevant—and they had just read tweets, you know?

Matt Tully
And then they wrote their review of the book based on those tweets?

Sinclair Ferguson
They had seen something on the website, and so they had formed their opinion without carefully reading and reflecting. Since we live in an environment now of immediacy, we get caught up in that without realizing that that is what is happening. What we think we are doing is cutting edge and speaking to the times without really realizing we can become—intellectually and emotionally—fodder for the spirit of this age, while what we think we are doing is advancing the gospel. I think one of the things that has just fascinated me about the Marrow Controversy (and lots of controversies) is that in so many—I have a mantra in which I say, “There is no theology without psychology.” There’s not abstract theology; there’s only the theology that we, as individuals, work out. It’s always going to be affected by our idiosyncrasies, by our strengths, by our weaknesses. We’re subject to that, and that’s why we so much need one another. That’s why we need to be built together into the temple, and that means some hammering and chiseling. One of the things that’s happened with social media now—essentially, for the first time in history—is that you can get directly to me (your public) without what you are getting to me passing through anybody else’s ears or eyes. You know very well what happens to any manuscript that comes to Crossway. You don’t just throw it to the printer and say, Print that! By the time it’s in a reader’s hands, presumably the author has read it at least twice, the editor has worked through it, somebody else has worked through it, sometimes a whole committee of people have worked through it. So, as an individual, however irritating editors may be to authors, the individual author has the strength of the community around him. In that sense, the strength of the fellowship of the church. It’s kind of paradoxical. I could bang on from the pulpit to the congregation how much we need one another, but when I get down to my keyboard and my blog (or whatever), I really act as though I don’t need anybody else. I can act as though the world is just waiting for me to hear about every single issue. I think I can see that in the New Testament too. That’s the kind of thing that promotes the tensions, arguments, building of kingdoms, the creation of tribes. Now our kingdoms and our tribes have become so financially dependent—in one way or another—numbers dependent, followers dependent. I am a non-tweeter and a non-blogger. Usually, I’m not on podcasts as well! These tools are wonderful tools. They really are. Think about this last year when we’ve had all these tools. By the mercy of God, in his creation he built in the stuff out of which this kind of thing could be done. But we also need to be very observant of our own psychology as well. That goes back to the Marrow Controversy and what we are in our hearts and how we’re related to Christ and how we think of brothers and sisters.

39:30 - Practical Advice

Matt Tully
That’s such a helpful and humbling reminder that our psychology inevitably—always, and without intentionally doing it—is going to impact how we do theology and how we think about those things. That should keep us humble. I wonder if you could speak to those who are listening who are on social media, do have blogs, do have podcasts—maybe some of them shouldn’t, but many do—and are wanting to engage on this stuff. It sounds like I’m hearing you say there’s actually value in theological disagreement and discussion. We want to sharpen each other. We want to help each other think a little bit better. But the way that we actually carry out that disagreement today is, in some ways, similar to how it was back even with the Marrow Controversy three hundred years ago. We don’t always understand the issue fully, we don’t always read each other or listen to each other fully; and yet, we jump in. What advice would you give to a modern Christian—maybe even a modern pastor—on how to deal with theological disagreement in our world today?

Sinclair Ferguson
I think the first thing to do is not to jump to conclusions. I think this is probably true in Scotland now in a way it was never true when I was in school. At that time, nobody was interested in any opinions I had. I was not educated to have opinions of my own until I had been educated. I actually find oral communication much more difficult than writing because I basically hardly ever spoke throughout my whole education, but I wrote a lot, because that’s how we communicated. My sense of living in the United States is the extent to which having opinions and being able to express them is very highly regarded. I think by contrast with that, the greatest living theologian who influenced me was Professor John Murray. If Professor Murray was asked a question, he might answer in three days' time. It wasn’t because he was brought up in the north of Scotland and it was cold and his brain worked slowly. It was that he wanted to consider it from all the angles. Another thing that I think is really important in any discussion of disputed matters is this—and if I can make a historical illustration of this principle that John Owen, the great Puritan, had. I know he’s of interest to Crossway these days.

Matt Tully
That’s right.

Sinclair Ferguson
If he felt he was in disagreement with another position, what he did was he looked for the best and the strongest possible exposition of that position in order to consider it. It’s a natural danger—especially in a society where we’re encouraged to have our own opinions and there’s the possibility of spreading them very quickly—that’s usually not done. It seems to me there’s a lot of triumphalism because I’ve cut somebody’s head off, when actually they’ve been the poorest and weakest expression of the position.

Matt Tully
How much of that is due to the fact that we often, especially in online discourse, are not trying to persuade anybody. We’re just sort of playing to the echo chamber that we’re a part of already. We’re looking to score points with our own team, as opposed to actually convincing anyone else.

Sinclair Ferguson
If you think about it, all exposition of the Word is, as they used to say in my tradition, ministerial. It might not appear so in my life and ministry, but I’ve been tremendously impacted by Paul saying in 2 Corinthians 4: We don’t preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves your servants for Jesus’s sake. I don’t remember when this struck me, but one day it struck me that these two statements don’t really belong together in the same sentence. We don’t preach ourselves. We preach him. Oh, and by the way, there’s ourselves—your servants. It’s formulated in this way in my mind: all ministry—which is every expression of the gospel—all ministry needs to be exercised on our knees. Again, I’m back to dispositions that the gospel creates so that the gospel formulates the style in which I do everything—theology, ministry, controversy, polemics. At the end of the day, it needs to be done as someone who is a servant of Christ, and also a servant of the person. Here’s a picture of that that, again, has impacted me greatly. If you read John 13, it’s fairly obvious that Jesus knelt down before Judas Iscariot and washed his feet. Now, don’t ask me to unpack that, but it’s such a picture. Here is somebody who is in my crosshairs and I am after him, but I am on my knees seeking to wash his feet, or wash his brain, with the Word and with the Spirit. I think it’s that dispositional thing that we’re either in danger of never having or losing it because it’s not easily won in our lives. You get to my age and you look back and you think, God, be merciful to me, a sinner. Occasionally, I’m asked to speak at seminary graduations and I think, I wish I was sitting where they’re sitting!. But then I think, What you’re really saying is you wish you were sitting there, knowing what you know now. It can’t be any other way. My mom used to say to me when I was seven, “Sinclair, there’s no substitute for experience.” That used to infuriate me! This is an unjust universe because she’s telling me there’s no substitute for experience, and I don’t have any. But that’s the way God has made us—to grow, just as he made the Lord Jesus to grow. At the end of Luke 2 it says Jesus was growing in stature, but also in wisdom and favor with God. So whatever the matter was about, it’s a lifelong business letting the gospel, being porous to the gospel, so that it then comes out of your pores, and there’s the tincture in your ministry.


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