“What is a godly pastor, after all, but one who is like God, with a heart of grace?” by Sinclair Ferguson

“A misshapen understanding of the gospel impacts the spirit of a minister and affects the style and atmosphere of his preaching and of all his pastoral ministry. What the Marrow Controversy actually unveiled was the possibility of acknowledging the truth of each discrete chapter of the Confession of Faith without those truths being animated by a grasp of the grace of God in the gospel.

The metallic spirit this inevitably produced would then in turn run through one’s preaching and pastoral ministry. There is a kind of orthodoxy in which the several loci of systematic theology, or stages of redemptive history, are all in place, but that lacks the life of the whole, just as arms, legs, torso, head, feet, eyes, ears, nose, and mouth may all be present—while the body as a whole lacks energy and perhaps life itself. The form of godliness is not the same as its power.

Confessional orthodoxy coupled with a view of a heavenly Father whose love is conditioned on his Son’s suffering, and further conditioned by our repentance, leads inevitably to a restriction in the preaching of the gospel.

Why? Because it leads to a restriction in the heart of the preacher that matches the restriction he sees in the heart of God! Such a heart may have undergone the process that Alexander Whyte described as “sanctification by vinegar.” If so, it tends to be unyielding and sharp edged. A ministry rooted in conditional grace has that effect; it produces orthodoxy without love for sinners and a conditional and conditioned love for the righteous.

In the nature of the case there is a kind of psychological tendency for Christians to associate the character of God with the character of the preaching they hear—not only the substance and content of it but the spirit and atmosphere it conveys. After all, preaching is the way in which they publicly and frequently “hear the Word of God.”

But what if there is a distortion in the understanding and heart of the preacher that subtly distorts his exposition of God’s character? What if his narrow heart pollutes the atmosphere in which he explains the heart of the Father?

When people are broken by sin, full of shame, feeling weak, conscious of failure, ashamed of themselves, and in need of counsel, they do not want to listen to preaching that expounds the truth of the discrete doctrines of their church’s confession of faith but fails to connect them with the marrow of gospel grace and the Father of infinite love for sinners. It is a gracious and loving Father they need to know.

Such, alas, were precisely the kind of pastors who gathered round poor Job and assaulted him with their doctrine that God was against him. From their mouths issue some of the most sublime discrete theological statements anywhere to be found in the pages of the Bible.

But they had disconnected them from the life-giving love of God for his needy and broken child Job. And so they too “exchanged the truth about God for the lie.” (Romans 1:25)

This will not do in gospel ministry. Rather, pastors need themselves to have been mastered by the unconditional grace of God. From them the vestiges of a self-defensive pharisaism and conditionalism need to be torn. Like the Savior they need to handle bruised reeds without breaking them and dimly burning wicks without quenching them.

What is a godly pastor, after all, but one who is like God, with a heart of grace; someone who sees God bringing prodigals home and runs to embrace them, weeps for joy that they have been brought home, and kisses them—asking no questions—no qualifications or conditions required?

In these respects the Marrow Controversy has a perennial relevance to all Christians. But it has a special relevance to gospel preachers and pastors.

It raises the question: What kind of pastor am I to my people? Am I like the father?

Or am I, perhaps, like the elder brother who would not, does not, will not, and ultimately cannot join the party?

After all, how can an elder brother be comfortable at a party when he still wonders if his once-prodigal brother has been sorry enough for his sin and sufficiently ashamed of his faults?”

–Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 71-73.

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