Overcoming the Knights Who Say, “Ni!”

I’m forever indebted to Dr. S. Donald Fortson, Professor of Church History and Practical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS). I’ve never met him, but a few weeks ago I was listening to one of his lectures available on iTunes U. It was from Dr. Fortson’s History of Christianity I course, the lecture titled “Christian Historiography.”

Toward the end of that lecture, he noted that a recognition of a canon is a call to study church history, and that the identification of the books of the canon belong to Christian history.  He said one way to understand church history is that it’s a history of the exegesis of the New Testament.  He also credited Philip Schaff with saying:  “Church history is the connecting link between exegetical and systematic theology.”

Dr. Fortson then went on to illustrate Schaff’s comment as follows. Picture that connection between exegetical and systematic theology via the image of a tree, a grand oak tree.  The roots are biblical exegesis.  The foundation must be deep roots that sink deep down into the Scriptures.  The great branches of the tree would be systematic theology.  The great trunk of the tree would be church history.

His key observation was what should happen between exegetical study and systematic theology. One shouldn’t jump immediately from the roots to the branches, so to speak. Rather, the humble interpreter of Scripture will pause to ask, “How have God’s people understood the Bible and where have they come to in understanding the different doctrines of the faith?”

I love that picture of the interconnectedness of the tasks of biblical studies, systematic theology, and church history.  All three of them are vitally important which is why a large portion of the curriculum at RTS is devoted to all three areas.

And here is where I am indebted to Dr. Fortson. After reflecting a few moments on his illustration I came to the conclusion that when I graduated from seminary, I was a shrubbery, because my theological education made that jump from exegetical study to systematic theology far too often. I even remember one professor saying that as long as we did our exegesis, our systematic theology would take care of itself. That’s certainly true, if the goal is to produce a bunch of shrubbery!!!

To be fair, the seminary I attended did require courses in church history. However, those courses were selective in what was studied. For example, although the library may have had a copy of Calvin’s Institutes, we never considered anything Calvin had to say at all!  Now I’m sorry, but no one should be able to receive a Master of Divinity without having some significant exposure and interaction with John Calvin’s writings, whether one agrees with him or not, because Calvin is one of the greatest theologians in Christian history (here are 9 other reasons Ligon Duncan gave to to read the Institutes as well). The only reason to avoid such significant individuals in the hall of faith is if there is a fear that someone may grow a trunk, that is, become convinced of what many in the church have believed for some time, and agree with those who have gone before us!

When I left seminary, I thought I had my theology pretty well developed. So I was surprised not too many years after graduation when I found myself in a PCA church where the elders and laymen knew many theological terms and concepts I had never heard of, such as the regulative principle of worship. I was amazed by the grasp they had on many things just from their familiarity with church history, as they stood on the shoulders of those who had gone before us. Being a shrubbery, I had a lot of catching up to do. And I still do.


Unfortunately, there are many  today who, like the Knights Who Say “Ni!”, still demand a shrubbery!  But rather than always appeasing such relentless demands, we must eventually  come to terms with the interpretations of our church fathers. After all, we aren’t the first generation ever to have the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures. And this is an area where too many in the church today are conformed to the culture, rather than being transformed by the renewing of their minds.

Anthony Selvaggio’s little book, 7 Toxic Ideas Polluting Your Mind, includes a chapter on neophilia, the love of the new. As Selvaggio points out, in the biblical worldview, preservation trumps progress. Using Proverbs 22:28, Salvaggio shows that there are two types of people in the world: “stone movers” and “stone preservers.” Christians are called to be “stone preservers”, that is, stewards of a sacred trust to preserve the truth delivered once for all. He quoted G. K. Chesterton with regard to the idea of the “democracy of the dead”:

“Tradition means given voices to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.” (Chesterton, Collected Works, 1:251, cited by Selvaggio, p. 50)

For those interested in giving heed to the voices of those who have gone before us, the Reformed Forum has prepared a Reformed reading list, covering seven areas, each having three levels: biblical studies and hermeneutics; biblical theology; systematic theology; apologetics and philosophy; church history and historical theology; practical theology; and classics. This list is not for the faint of heart, but who ever said growing a trunk would be easy?

As always, take up and read!


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The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification – Direction 14: Epilogue and Closing Exhortations

[This is the 14th of a 14 part highlight of Walter Marshall’s book, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.]

“Direction 14: That you may seek holiness and righteousness, only by believing in Christ, and walking in him by faith, according to the former directions, take encouragement from the great advantages of this way, and the excellent properties of it.”

This final direction serves as an epilogue or conclusion to the preceding thirteen directives, with five closing motives for employing everything taught therein. Before sharing those weighty motives, Marshall exhorted his readers to remember the way of sanctification laid out in directives 1-13, namely via:

“union and fellowship with Christ, and by faith in Christ, as discovered in the gospel; not by the law, or in a natural condition, or by thinking to get it before we come to Christ, to procure Christ by it, which is striving against the stream: but that we must first apply Christ and his salvation to ourselves, for our comfort, and that by confident faith; and then walk by that faith, according to the new man, in Christ, and not as in a natural condition; and use all means of holiness rightly for this end.”

The five desirable properties or motives for following the preceding 13 directives which Marshall provided were:

  • This way tends to the abasement of the flesh, and exaltation of God only, in his grace and power through Christ.
  • This way consists well with other doctrines of the gospel, which contrary errors do not (doctrines such as original sin, predestination, justification and reconciliation by faith, union with Christ, and perseverance of the saints).
  • This way is the never-failing, effectually powerful, alone sufficient, and sure way to attain to true holiness.
  • This way is a most pleasant way to those who are in it (Prov. 3:17) in several respects.
  • This is a high exalted way, above all others, for these are the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that God has set us in (Eph. 2:5-6).

When developing the fourth property, above, Marshall made five points, the third being it is a way of peace, wherein he cited Prov. 3:17: “Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.” (ESV) And then he made this observation:

“The doubts of salvation that people meet with arise from putting some condition of works between Christ and themselves; as hath appeared in this discourse. But our walking in this way, is by faith, which rejects such fears and doubtings (John 14:1; Mark 5:36; Heb. 10:19, 22). It is free from fears of Satan, or any evil (Rom. 8:31, 32); and free from slavish fears of perishing by our sins (1 John 2:1, 2; Phil. 4:6, 7); faith laying hold on infinite grace, mercy, and power to secure us; the Lord is the keeper and shade on the right hand (Ps. 121:5). Free and powerful grace answers all objections.”

May the Lord grant grace for us to take these truths to heart and walk by faith accordingly!

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The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification – Direction 13: The Importance and Scope of the Means of Holiness

[This is the 13th of a 14 part highlight of Walter Marshall’s book, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.]

“Direction 13: Endeavor diligently to make the right use of all means appointed in the word of God, for the obtaining and practicing holiness online in this way of believing in Christ, and walking in him, according to your new state by faith.”

When introducing this thirteenth directive, Marshall conceded that it could have been included as another point under the previous one, but for two considerations: the weight and comprehensiveness he wished to emphasize here. As for “weight”, he wants the reader to note that “the use of any means appointed in the word for attaining and promoting holiness, is not hereby made void, but rather established.” While faith in Christ alone is sufficient to receive Christ and all that is involved in salvation (justification, sanctification, and eternal salvation), he also asserted that several means appointed by God for the increase of faith are to be used diligently. True believers find that they need such helps, and those who refuse them reject God’s counsel against themselves.

As for “comprehensiveness”, in this directive Marshall identified ten particular means of holiness, appointed in the word of God to be used as described in this directive:

  1. Endeavoring diligently to know the word of God
  2. Examining one’s state and ways according to the word
  3. Meditation on the word of God
  4. The sacrament of baptism, made use of according to its nature and institution
  5. The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as a spiritual feast to nourish faith
  6. Prayer
  7. Singing of psalms, i.e., songs of any sacred subject
  8. Fasting
  9. Vows (not keen on them, admonishing that no one should think to bring himself to any good through them)
  10. Fellowship and communion with the saints

The word of God is preeminent in this list (first three). When introducing the first means, Marshall had this to say about the importance of the word of God:

“Other means of salvation are necessary to the more abundant well-being of our faith, and of our new state in Christ; but this is absolutely necessary to the very being thereof: because faith cometh by hearing the word of God, and receiveth Christ as manifested by the word; as I have before proved.”

In light of Marshall’s biblically-grounded counsel here for growth in holiness, we can begin to discover a root cause for the hole in our holiness (to borrow a phrase from Kevin DeYoung). A 2012 Lifeway Survey of 2,900 Protestant church-goers found that only 19% read the Bible daily. With that being the case, of those who read the Bible daily, how many may safely assume were employing the second and third means which Marshall identified, namely self-examination and meditation upon the Bible’s  teachings?

We only get to know someone by spending time with them, and it is through the Scriptures that we behold the face of God (1 Cor. 13: 12).  To the extent we neglect the word of God, we forfeit the appropriation of the most needful knowledge that exists.  Marshall’s identification of the two kinds of “most effectual” knowledge in this regard seems to echo  the opening of Calvin’s Institutes:

“The most effectual knowledge for your salvation, is, to understand these two points; the desperate sinfulness and misery of your own natural condition, and the alone sufficiency of the grace of God in Christ for your salvation; that you may be abased as to the flesh, and exalted in Christ alone.”

These two lessons come from the word of God exclusively, hence the necessity to take up and read!   Make a renewed commitment to read through the Bible this year, and take others along with you.

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The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification – Direction 12: Making Use of Faith for the Immediate Performance of the Duties of the Law

[This is the 12th of a 14 part highlight of Walter Marshall’s book, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.]

“Direction 12: Make diligent use of your most holy faith, for the immediate performance of the duties of the law, by walking no longer according to your old natural state, or any principles or means of practice that belong unto it; but only according to that new state, which you receive by faith, and the principles and means of practice that properly belong thereunto; and strive to continue and increase in such manner of practice. This is the only way to attain to an acceptable performance of those holy and righteous duties, as far as it is possible in this present life.”

I’m going to try to connect some dots as I consider this twelfth direction. I’m forever indebted to Marshall for his emphasis on the doctrine of union with Christ as he has unpacked the gospel mystery of sanctification. I read somewhere that books are like friends which introduce you to other friends. Sometimes they open new vistas to a particular topic, and this was the case with Marshall. While being familiar with the concept of union with Christ, Marshall made me aware of how deficient my understanding of it was in terms of sanctification and living out of the fullness of Christ, particularly from the Reformed perspective. Having discovered this gap, I sought out additional works on this doctrine and recently acquired J. Todd Billings’ book, Union with Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011) and I have finished all but the last chapter.

As I have reflected on Marshall’s twelfth direction and tried to crystalize it in my thinking, the second chapter from Billings’ book has loomed large, so much so that I think his chapter title serves as a good re-statement of Marshall’s twelfth direction: “Total Depravity in Sin, Total Communion in Christ: How the Bondage of the Will Mirrors a Theology of Salvation as Communion.”

So let me see if I can connect the dots clearly to make the case for this assertion. In direction twelve, Marshall teaches us that a person can perform the duties of the law only according to that new state, which he defined as “that which we receive from the second Adam, Jesus Christ, by being new-born in union and fellowship with him through faith; and it is called in scripture, the new man; and, when we are in it, we are said to be in the Spirit” (bold emphasis mine). We need to note that this new state consists essentially of being in union with Christ, that is, made alive, regenerated by the indwelling Holy Spirit. Marshall went on to describe the “practice” he had in mind in this direction:

“So the manner of practice here directed to, consists in moving and guiding ourselves, in the performance of the works of the law, by gospel principles and means. This is the rare and excellent art of godliness in which every Christian should strive to be skillful and expert.”

Then applying all due diligence, as the Puritans are always inclined to do, Marshall proceeded to describe the manner of this practice (in six points no less!), followed by some necessary instructions for this practice (in eight points!). In the sixth point characterizing the manner of this practice, Marshall emphasized the primacy of union with Christ:

“6. This is the manner of walking which the apostle Paul directeth us unto, when he teacheth us, by his own example, that the continual work of our lives should be, ‘to know Christ’, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his death; if by any means we may attain unto the resurrection of the dead, and to increase and press forward in this kind of knowledge (Phil. 3:10-12, 14). . . . And he would hereby guide us, to make use of Christ, and his death and resurrection, by faith, as the powerful means of holiness in heart and life; and to increase in this manner of walking, until we attain unto perfection in Christ.”

As an aside, when referring to “perfection in Christ”, he was referring to the eternal state, not sinless perfection in this life. In his first of eight necessary instructions he slew that idea outright:

“1. Let us observe, and consider diligently, in our whole conversation, that though we are partakers of a new holy state by faith in Christ, yet our natural state doth remain, in a measure, with all its corrupt principles and properties.”

In other words, the Christian has a renewed nature, albeit an imperfectly renewed nature, as long as he remains in this body. Marshall described the remnants of indwelling sin as penal evils stemming from the first sin of Adam:

“Now, though some penal evils may be said to remain in us, yet we cannot suppose, that his original pollution is continued in us as considered in Christ; but as considered in our old state, derived from the first Adam.”

“Therefore, the first sin of Adam is imputed, in some respect, even to those that are justified by faith; and they remain, in some measure, as aforesaid, under the punishment and curse denounced (Gen. 2:17).”

Marshall noted that this awareness of the believer’s condition was very useful in preparing for the practice of holiness because of its alignment with gospel principles and means that belong to those who are in union with Christ by virtue of the indwelling Holy Spirit. As he posited, which view promotes holiness more: the idea that perfect holiness may be attained in this life, or the view that it is impossible for us to keep the law perfectly and to purge ourselves from sin as long as we live in this world? Marshall contended that this latter view promotes holiness more, and I agree. His wisdom and insight here may be proven from a simple illustration: No one calls for an exterminator unless he thinks he has a pest problem. Similarly, the only person who yearns and strives most earnestly for holiness is the one who perceives his need for it. And this is where a right use of the law comes in (connecting the dots, if you’re still with me).

Now here comes what may be a paradigm shift for some in regards to the law. Billings provides an interesting and somewhat unfamiliar quote from Calvin’s sermons and his commentary on Isaiah (pp. 109-110 of Union With Christ);

“As Calvin states, the law contains commands ‘whose purpose is to unite us to our God. And that [union with God] constitutes our happiness and glory’. Indeed, ‘the principle end and use of the Law’ is ‘to invite men to God; and indeed, their true happiness lies in being united to God.’”

While it would be interesting to have more of the context of those citations from Calvin, one doesn’t have to think very hard for Scriptural support for those statements. If we go back to the Garden, as long as Adam as Eve obeyed the command to abstain from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they enjoyed unbroken fellowship and communion with God. As soon as they disobeyed, that fellowship was broken and every unhappiness descended upon them. After the Lord delivered the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, he prefaced his pronouncement of the Ten Commandments by declaring the people’s relationship to him: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the house of slavery” (Ex. 20:2, ESV). As long as they kept the Lord’s commandments, they would experience his blessing: everything would be well. Of course it was impossible to them to do so, and the Lord provided for forgiveness (Ex. 24). Consequently everything in the Old Testament foreshadowed the need for the Messiah, the Anointed One, who would come to save God’s people from their sins. And when Messiah came, he came to do the will of God, so much so that the Psalmist (Psa. 40:6; cited in Hebrews 10:5-7) uses “ears you have dug for me” as a metonym for the incarnation, thus showing that the very thing mankind needed most was a hearing and obedient ear! The Messiah, the God-Man, kept the law perfectly, and had perfect, unbroken communion with the Father (John 17:22-23) until the point when he took the sins of his people upon himself to make atonement through his sacrificial death. In light of this and so many other passages we can appreciate the sentiment of the Psalmist when he associates blessedness and happiness with obedience to the law: “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord” (Psa. 119:1, ESV).

And this brings us to the next dot to connect between Marshall and Billings. Marshall’s and Billings both underscored total depravity, the idea that everything about us is corrupted by sin. Total depravity doesn’t mean that everyone is as bad as they can possible be, nor that “we see no good in human beings unless they are Christian,” as Billings put it (p. 38). Rather, total depravity means that “humans cannot perform any good for the sake of salvation apart from the Spirit” (Billings, p. 38). But too much of the time, sadly, enough, people tend to think that TULIP (Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints) is an exhaustive summary of Reformed theology, and it is not. And this is where we are indebted to Billings for recovering the other side of the coin, so to speak, of the doctrine of total depravity, and that is total communion!

As those who are joined to Christ by the indwelling Holy Spirit, believers are the temple of God, collectively as the church (Eph. 2:19-22) and individually (1 Cor. 6:19). Christ is the vine, and believers are the branches in union with the vine. All spiritual sustenance comes from the vine, and apart from the vine, the branches can do nothing. It is only as we take to heart the truths illustrated by this metaphor that we can begin to carry out the duties of the law and live the Christian life as the Lord instructed. And this is only possible when we have a clear understanding of our own condition before God (the two types of knowledge Calvin identified as essential in the opening section of the Institutes: knowledge of God and knowledge of self).

The gospel frees us to face the reality about ourselves, namely, that there is nothing good that dwells in us, that is, in our flesh (Rom. 7:18). And this is because we find everything good and needful for salvation in our Savior, Jesus Christ, who also dwells within (Christ is our wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 1 Cor. 1:30). Despairing of all efforts of “self-salvation” in this way, as Billings put it, is essential to saving faith, as he quoted Luther here:

 “Now you ask, ‘What then shall we do? Shall we go our way with indifference because we can do nothing but sin?’ I would reply, By no means. But, having heard this, fall down and pray for grace and place your hope in Christ in whom is our salvation, life, and resurrection.” (Billings, p. 54, citing Luther’s Works, 31:50).

Over the years Billings has found many people to be surprised by the notion of total communion, and he offered a snapshot worth sharing here (p. 50):

“A student said that she had heard about total depravity in TULIP for many years, but she had no idea that this doctrine actually affirms a rich notion of salvation as communion with God. Her response? ‘Why didn’t anyone ever tell me this? This actually sounds like good news!” She wondered where the Reformed tradition had gone wrong in losing this key part of its teaching.”

Despite the length of this entry, I need to add here that Billings does his homework in pointing out tracing out the prominence of total communion (union with Christ) throughout his book, Union With Christ. He points out that the Canons of Dort, on which TULIP is based, were never meant to be a complete confession of faith. Rather, the Canons were provided as a supplement to the Belgic Confession, and the Belgic Confession contains a rich theology of communion with God, before the fall (article 14) and after (articles 22-24, 28-29, 33-35).

So if we have strayed from the mark by missing the emphasis on communion with God through union with Christ, we have only confirmed what Marshall observed. Apparently there were few in his day who were masters of this spiritual art of godliness, just as there are today:

“Some worldly arts are called mysteries; but above all, this spiritual art of godliness is, without controversy, a great Mystery (1 Tim. 3:16); because the means that are to be made use of in it are deeply mysterious, as hath been showed; and you are not a skillful artist, till you know them, and can reduce them to practice. It is a manner of practice far above the sphere of natural ability, such as would never have entered into the hearts of the wisest in the world, if it had not been revealed to us in the scriptures; and, when it is there most plainly revealed, continueth a dark riddle to those that are not inwardly enlightened and taught by the Holy Spirit; such as many godly persons guided by the Spirit, do in some manner walk in it, yet do but obscurely discern: they can hardly perceive their own knowledge of it, and can hardly give any account to others of the way wherein they walk; as the disciples that walked in Christ, the way to the Father, and yet perceived not that knowledge in themselves: ‘Lord, we know not whither thou goest, and how can we know the way? (John 14:5). This is the reason why many poor believers are so weak in Christ, and attain so small a degree of holiness and righteousness.”

May the Lord grant grace that we may grow in this area, and learn, as Billings put it, that “only by communion with God can we move toward communion with God.” (p. 49)

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The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification – Direction 11: Believing on Christ in a Right Manner

[This is the 11th of a 14 part highlight of Walter Marshall’s book, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.]

“Direction 11: Endeavour diligently to perform the great work of believing on Christ, in a right manner, without any delay; and then also continue and increase in your most holy faith; that so your enjoyment of Christ, union and fellowship with him, and all holiness by him, may be begun, continued, and increased in you.”

It is as this point in his book that Marshall made a shift from doctrine to practice. Prior to this point he focused on “the powerful and effectual means of a holy practice.” With this eleventh direction he aimed to lead his reader to “the actual exercise and improvement” of such holy practice, the sum of which is “that faith in Christ is the duty with which a holy life is to begin, and by which the foundation of all other holy duties is laid in the soul.”

Marshall has much to say to this present generation about the nature of the gospel itself, particularly as it pertains to what it means to come to faith in Christ. When answering the question posed in John 6:28-29 (“What must we do that we work the works of God?”), the good news of the old gospel which Marshall fleshes out contrasts sharply with the good news of the new gospel presented by many today. The new gospel says, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life”. Such “good news” presumes to know the hidden counsel of God, the things which are not revealed. The good news of the old gospel tells us the truth about ourselves and God, and promises salvation to all who come to Christ as beggars who are bereft of any sense of self-righteousness. And it is critical that sinners come to the end of their self-righteousness, or else they will never perceive a need for faith in Christ at all.

To this end, Marshall identified several defects in the first act of faith, that is, in “the right belief in the truth of the gospel of Christ.” Here they are in brief:

  • You must believe, with a full persuasion, that you are a child of wrath by nature, as well as others; fallen from God by the sin of the first Adam; dead in trespasses and sins; subject to the curse of the law of God, and to the power of Satan, and to insupportable misery to all ternity; and that you cannot possibly procure your reconciliation with God, or any spiritual life and strength to do any good work, by any endeavouring to get salvation according to the terms of the legal covenant; and that you cannot find any way to escape out of this sinful and miserable condition, by your own reasoning and understanding, without supernatural revelation, nor be freed from it, except by that infinite power that raiseth the dead.
  • You are to believe assuredly, that there is no way to be saved, without receiving all the saving benefits of Christ; his Spirit as well as his merits, sanctification as well as remission of sins by faith.
  • You are to be fully persuaded of the all-sufficiency of Christ for the salvation of yourself, and of all that believe on him; that his blood cleanseth from all sin (1 John 1:7).
  • You are to be fully persuaded of the truth of the general free promise, in your own particular case, that if you believe on Christ sincerely, you shall have everlasting life, as well as any other in the world, without performing any condition of works to procure and interest in Christ; for the promise is universal, ‘Whosoever believeth on him, shall not be ashamed’ (Rom. 9:33), without exception.
  • You are to believe assuredly, that it is the will of God you should believe in Christ, and have eternal life by him, as well as any other; and that your believing is a duty very acceptable to God; and that he will help you, as well as any other, in this work, because he calleth and commandeth you, by the gospel, to believe in Christ.
  • Add to all these, a full persuasion of the incomparable glorious excellency of Christ, and of the way of salvation by him.

When dealing with the third potential defect (above), Marshall held out sweet cordials for souls struggling to accept Christ’s all-sufficiency:

“Many, that have fallen into great sins, are ruined for ever, because they do not account the grace of Christ sufficient for their pardon and sanctification; when they think they are gone, and past all hope of recovery; that ‘their sins are upon them, and they pine away in them, how shall they live?’ (Ezek. 33:10). This despair works secretly in many souls, without much trouble and horror, and maketh them careless of their souls and true religion. The devil fills some with horrid, filthy, blasphemous thoughts, on purpose, that they may think their sins too great to be forgiven; though commonly such thoughts, are the least of the sins of those that are pestered with them, and rather the devil’s sin than theirs, because they are hurried into them sore against their wills: . . . ”

            “There are others that despair of ever getting any victory over their lusts, because they have formerly made many vows and resolutions, and have used many vigorous endeavours against them in vain, — Such are to persuade themselves, that the grace of Christ is sufficient for them, when all other means have failed; . . . Those that despair, by reason of the greatness of their guilt and corruption, do greatly dishonor and undervalue the grace of God, his infinite mercy, and the infinite merits of Christ’s blood, and power of his Spirit, and deserve to perish with Cain and Judas. Abundance of people, that give themselves to all licentiousness, in this wicked generation, lie under secret despair; which maketh them so desperate in swearing, blaspheming, whoring, drunkenness, and all manner of wickedness. – How horrid and heinous soever our sins and corruptions have been, we should learn to account them a small matter in comparison to the grace of Christ, who is God as well as man, and offered up himself, by the eternal Spirit, as a sacrifice of infinite value, for our salvation; and can create us anew as easily as he created the world by a word speaking.”

Rather than any should hurl insults upon the character of God via thoughts of being beyond His ability to save, let us become well acquainted with the all-sufficiency of our great High Priest:

“The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues for ever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” (Hebrews 7:23-25, ESV)

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The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification – Direction 10: Having True Assurance of Salvation

[This is the 10th of a 14 part highlight of Walter Marshall’s book, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.]

“Direction 10: That we may be prepared by the comforts of the gospel to perform sincerely the duties of the law, we must get some assurance of our salvation, in that every faith whereby Christ himself is received into our hearts: therefore we must endeavor to believe on Christ confidently, persuading and assuring ourselves, in the act of believing, that God freely giveth to us interest in Christ and his salvation, according to his gracious promise.”

This tenth direction is something of an elaboration of the ninth, wherein Marshall contends that one of the comforts of the gospel requisite to performing the duties of the law is an assurance of salvation. Marshall began with four clarifications at the outset, to establish a right understanding of this doctrine.

First, in regard to the nature of assurance intended by this direction: The assurance directed unto here is not a persuasion that we have already received Christ and his salvation, but only that “God is pleased graciously to give Christ and his salvation unto us.” Hereby he distinguished between the direct vs the reflex act of faith, the latter being what we typically think of when we mention assurance (the direct act being the belief that God is ready to receive us for salvation which is inherent to saving faith, and the reflex act being a well-grounded assurance that one is in a state of grace, a thing which many precious saints are without).

Second, the assurance directed to is not what is nowadays commonly referred to as “once-saved-always-saved” wherein a person can live any way they please because they have prayed the prayer, walked the aisle, or what have you. Rather, the assurance Marshall has in mind is a persuasion “in a limited way, through mere free grace in Christ, by partaking of holiness as well as forgiveness, and by walking in the way so holiness to the enjoyment of the glory of God.”

Third, Marshall warns against “thinking so highly of this assurance, as if it were inconsistent with any doubting in the same soul.” As long as saints remain here with indwelling sin, there will inevitably be doubts that linger about one’s state. As Marshall put it: “Can any on earth say, they have received any grace in the highest degree, and that they are wholly free from the contrary corruption? Why then should we think, that assurance cannot be true, except it be perfect, and free the soul from all doubtings?”

Fourth, Marshall notes the priority of faith in obtaining assurance: “In the last place, let it be well observed, that the reason why we are to assure ourselves in our faith, that ‘God freely giveth Christ and salvation to us particularly,’ is not because it is a truth before we believe it, but because it will never be true, except we do, in some measure, persuade and assurance ourselves that it is so.” He went on to say that “our assurance is not impressed on our thoughts by any evidence of the thing; but we must work it out in ourselves by the assistance of the Spirit of God, and thereby we bring our own thoughts into captivity to the obedience of Christ.” Practically this comes down to taking God at his word and trusting on Christ alone for salvation, for there is no under name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved. To seek any other method of salvation is vain idolatry, and to doubt God’s willingness or ability to save impugns His character. Hence we are bound to come to Him as helpless beggars, seeking our all in Him. When we take Him at his word, he proves to be faithful.

Marshall then provides seven arguments to prove that “there is, and must necessarily be such an assurance or persuasion of our salvation in saving faith itself.” I will deal only with the first and the fifth one here.

In the first argument, Marshall contends that this “assurance of salvation is implied in the description before given of that faith whereby we receive Christ and his salvation, into our hearts.” His main point here is that coming to faith in Christ involves a full reliance upon Him alone for salvation, trusting in Him completely and utterly, and that such trust will not be in vain:

“If you will rest in the Lord, you must believe that he dealeth bountifully with you (Ps. 116:7); or else, for ought you know, you may make your bed in hell. And you will show little regard of Christ, and of your soul, if you dare to rest under the wrath of God, without any persuasion of a sure interest in Christ. . . . The soul that liveth in such wavering and doubting concerning salvation, doth not stay itself, nor rest at all; but is like a wave of the sea, driven with the wind, and tossed; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways (James 1:6, 8). – If you continue on the mere suspense and doubtfulness of salvation by Christ, your desire to trust, us but a lazy woulding, without any fixed resolution, and you dare not yet venture to trust on him steadfastly.”

In the fifth argument, Marshall underscores the importance of the assuring one’s self in the enjoyment of Christ:

“The chief office of this faith in its direct saving act, is to receive Christ and his salvation actually into our hearts, as hath been proved; which office cannot be rationally performed, except we do, in some measure, persuade our hearts, and assure ourselves in the enjoyment of him.”

There can be no fence-sitting here where the direct act of faith is concerned, in terms of whether or not Christ is willing and able to save those who come to him. In the direct act of faith, there is no doubt about where salvation is to be found, offered, and freely given:

“If we do not make choice of Christ as our only salvation and happiness, or if we be altogether in a state of suspense, doubting whether God will be pleased to give Christ to us or no, it is evident, that our souls are quite loose from Christ, and have no holdfast or enjoyment of him. They do not so much as pretend to any actual receiving, or laying hold, or choosing of him, neither are they fully satisfied that it is lawful for them so to do: but rather they are yet to seek, whether they have any good ground and right to lay hold on him or no. Let any rational man judge, whether the soul doth, or can put forth any sufficient act for the reception and enjoyment of Christ, as its Saviour, Head, or Husband, while it is yet in doubt, whether it be the will of Christ to be joined with it in such a near relation? Can a woman honestly receive any one as her husband, without being assured the he is fully willing to be her husband? The same may be said concerning the several parts of Christ’s salvation, which are to be received by faith. It is evident, that we do not aright receipt the benefit of remission of sins, for the purging of our consciences from that guilt that lieth upon them, unless we have an assured persuasion of God’s forgiving them. We do not actually receive into our hearts, our reconciliation with God, and adoption of children, and the title to an everlasting inheritance, until we can assure ourselves, that God is graciously pleased to be our God and Father, and take us to be his children and heirs.”

This reminds me of something that John Bunyan mentioned in his autobiography, Grace Abounding. Bunyan described himself as a great sinner before his conversion, and went to some length to describe the struggles he went through at the outset of his conversion. Satan confronted him with his sin, suggesting that his transgressions were such that there could be no grace sufficient enough for his salvation. Bunyan discovered that when he shared his struggles with mature saints who had been in the Lord many years, they were encouraged. Bunyan concluded that this was because Satan uses the same tactics with “lesser sinners” later on in their Christian walk that he does with “great sinners” early on, just with a different focus. Rather than holding up all those sins committed before conversion, with “lesser sinners” Satan accuses them for all their sins since conversion, seeking to call into question the genuineness their salvation, suggesting something to the effect that “there is no more grace for you.” In this way Satan seeks to separate the saint from the object of his direct act of faith (the assurance Marshall has been describing).  But the answer to this attack is the same on the first day on the narrow road of faith as it is on last, as expressed in the words of John Newton’s hymn, Approach, My Soul, the Mercy Seat:

“Be thou my shield and hiding place, that, sheltered near thy side, I may my fierce accuser face, and tell him thou hast died.”

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The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification – Direction 9: Holy Comfort Before Holy Practice

[This is the 9th of a 14 part highlight of Walter Marshall’s book, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.]

“Direction 9: We must first receive the comforts of the gospel, that we may be able to perform sincerely the duties of the law.”

Marshall devoted this ninth directive to underscore a rather brief but hard-to-learn concept that runs seemingly counter to the way everything else in the entire universe operates, namely, cause and effect, which we understanding innately. One doesn’t stand by a fireplace, for instance, expecting heat without wood and fire.  We don’t expect pay without work (at least most of us still don’t). Farmers don’t expect to reap a harvest without planting the seed and cultivating the plants.

Similarly, when man approaches religious duties, he naturally expects to perform those duties before feeling the effects of them. This tendency flows from our being “strongly addicted to this legal method of salvation,” as Marshall put it. But this is not the gospel way, as should be evident in view of the preceding directives.

If we understand the gospel correctly, cause and effect are not actually inverted here. We just need to identify both carefully. As we saw in direction 8, holiness of life comes after union with Christ, justification, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Union with Christ is the greatest of all comforts anyone may possess. So the effect of holiness is caused by union with Christ, that is, by being in Christ (the Apostle Paul’s favorite phrase to describe believers in the New Testament).

Marshall pointed out that rather than being the exception, comfort before performance of duties is the norm in Scripture. For instance:

“we are exhorted to practice holy duties because we are dead to sin and alive to God through Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom. 6:11); and because sin shall not have dominion over us; for we are not under law, but under grace (Rom. 6:14); because are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit; and God will quicken our mortal bodies, by his Spirit dwelling in us (Rom. 8:9, 11); because our bodies are members of Christ, and the temples of the Holy Ghost (1 Cor. 5:21); and hath promised, that he will dwell in us, and walk in us, and be to us a father, and we shall be to him as sons and daughters (2 Cor. 5. 21); and hath promised, that he will dwell in us, and walk in us, and be to us a father, as we shall be to him sons and daughters (2 Cor. 4:18 with chap. 7:1).”

When one considers the nature of the commands themselves, there must be comfort beforehand, otherwise who could bear them? Again as Marshall observed in his seventh argument:

“What comfortless religion do those make that allow people no comfort beforehand, to strengthen them for holy performances, which are very cross, displeasing, and grievous to their natural inclinations, as the plucking out a right eye, cutting off a right hand; but would have them first to do such things with love and delight, under all their present fears, despondencies, and corruption inclinations, and to hope, that, by doing the work thoroughly and sincerely, they shall at last attain to a more comfortable state? All true spiritual comfort, as well as salvation, is indeed quite banished out of the world, if it be suspended upon the condition of our good works: which hath already appeared to be the condition of the law, that worketh no comfort, but wrath (Rom. 4:14, 15). This makes the way of godliness odious to many. They think they shall never enjoy a pleasant hour in this world, if they walk in them; and they had rather comfort themselves with sinful pleasure than have no comfort at all.”

But rather than give oneself up to sinful pleasure, the gospel brings comfort that enables regenerate souls to find delight in holiness, as the Psalmist said (Psa. 119:97, ESV): “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.” This is because wherever Christ dwells, there also dwells a delight in Him and His ways, however feeble.

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The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification – Direction 8: Seeking Holiness Here and Hereafter

[This is the 8th of a 14 part highlight of Walter Marshall’s book, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.]

“Direction 8: Be sure to seek for holiness of heart and life only in its due order, where God hath placed it, after union with Christ, justification, and the gift of the Holy Spirit; and, in that order, seek it earnestly by faith, as a very necessary part of your salvation.”

How timely this direction comes, on the eve of Reformation Day when many Reformed churches will be taking note of the anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of his Nine-Five Theses on the door of the Wittenberg castle. We rightly emphasis justification by faith alone, for there is no other means to obtain a right standing before God. As Luther and the Reformers noted: we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

But saving faith is never alone. Saving faith is accompanied by good works which flow out of union with Christ, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. It is exactly this sequence of events that Marshall points out in this direction: holiness follows union with Christ and justification.

This eighth direction is as relevant today as it was in Marshall’s day, for many today, as back then, seem only to want to escape eternal punishment, having little interest in being conformed to the image of Christ otherwise::

“What a strange kind of salvation do they desire, that care not for holiness? They would be saved, and yet be altogether dead in sin, aliens from the life of God, bereft of the image of God, deformed by the image of Satan, his slaves and vassals to their own filthy lusts, utterly unmeet for the enjoyment of God in glory. Such a salvation as that was never purchased by the blood of Christ; and those that seek it abuse the grace of God in Christ, and turn it into lusciousness. They would be saved by Christ, and yet out of Christ, in a fleshly state; whereas God doth free none from condemnation, but those that are in Christ, that walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit: or else they would divide Christ, and take a part of his salvation, and leave out the rest; but, Christ is not divided (1 Cor. 1:13). They would have their sins forgiven, not that they may walk with God in love in time to come, but that they may practice their enmity against him, without any fear of punishment. But, let them not be deceived, God is not mocked. They understand not what true salvation is, neither were they ever yet thoroughly sensible of their lost estate, and of the great evil of sin; and that which they trust on Christ is, but an imaging of their own brains: and therefore their trusting is gross presumption. True gospel faith maketh us come to Christ with a thirsty appetite, that we may drink of living water, even of his sanctifying Spirit (John 7:37-38); and cry out earnestly to save us, not only from hell, but from sin; saying ‘Teach me to do thy will; thy Spirit is good’ (Ps. 143:10); ‘Turn thou me, and I shall be turned’ (Jer. 31:18); ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right Spirit within me’ (Psa. 51:10). This is the way whereby the doctrine of salvation by grace doth necessitate us to holiness of life, by constraining us to seek for it by faith in Christ, as a substantial part of that salvation which is freely given us through Christ.”

Any who do not desire to be like Christ in holiness (i.e., set apart, devoted to God) here and now should not flatter themselves with the thought of having heaven as their eternal destiny. For as J. C. Ryle put it in his book, Holiness:

“How shall we ever be at home and happy in heaven, if we die unholy? Death works no change. The grave makes no alteration. Each will rise again with the same character in which he breathed his last. Where will our place be if we are strangers to holiness now?”

It is in this sense that we should understand Hebrews 12:14 (“Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” ESV). It isn’t talking about a certain amount of holiness that a person much achieve, but rather the bent or course of one’s life. Has there been a trajectory of being transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ, or not? If not, anyone professing faith in Christ in such manner has presumed upon some notion of their own rather than having trusted Christ, for wherever the Spirit dwells, holiness will surely follow. So let everyone seek Him now, in this the acceptable day, for He is near to all who call upon Him in truth (Psa. 145:18).

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The Promotion of Hughes Oliphant Old

I only heard the name “Hughes Oliphant Old” four months ago, when my pastor recommended his book, Holy Communion In the Piety of the Reformed Church. I’m only a third of the way through it, but already it has become a favorite. So I was saddened to learn that Dr. Old passed away on May 24, 2016, a week or so before I had ever heard of him. Terry Johnson wrote a personal remembrance of him on the Reformation 21 website, as he did for Alec Motyer.

Thankfully his writings endure, and Holy Communion is not likely to be the only book of his in my library for long.

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The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification – Direction 7: Just As I Am

[This is the 7th of a 14 part highlight of Walter Marshall’s book, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.]

“Direction 7: We are not to imagine that our hearts and lives must be changed from sin to holiness in any measure, before we may safely venture to trust on Christ for the sure enjoyment of himself, and his salvation.”

Direction 7 brings to mind the words Charlotte Elliott penned for a well-known hymn:

“Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me, and that Thou bidd’st me come to thee O Lamb of God I come, I come.”

This is exactly how everyone must come to Christ for salvation: warts and all. But due to a fervent love for self-righteousness, fallen man prefers to make himself presentable first, which is impossible since nothing clean can come from that this is unclean. What’s more, as Marshall noted:

“Christ would have the vilest sinners come to him for salvation immediately, without delaying the time to prepare themselves for him. When the wicked jailer enquired, ‘What he must do to be saved?’ Paul directed him forthwith to believe on Christ, with a promise, that in so doing he should be saved; and straightway, he and all his were baptized (Acts 16:30, 33).”

Marshall listed several things some expect to find within themselves before coming to faith in Christ (putting the cart before the horse):

  1. “They think it necessary to repent before they believe on Christ for their salvation, because repentance is absolutely necessary to salvation.”
  2. “Regeneration also is necessary to salvation (John 3:3); and therefore, many would find it wrought in themselves, before they trust on Christ for salvation.”
  3. “They account it necessary to receive Christ as their Lord and Lawgiver, by a sincere resignation of themselves to his government and a resolution to obey his law, before they receive him as their Saviour.”
  4. “It seems to them evident, that some good works are necessary, before we can trust on Christ safely for the forgiveness of sins.”

Ironically, all such attempts at self-improvement before coming to Christ are an affront to Him, whereas coming as we are is not so, because it involves a correct assessment of our helpless condition:

 “He loved us in our most loathsome sinful pollution, so as to die for us; and much more will he love us in it, so as to receive us when we come to him for the purchased salvation. He hath given full satisfaction to the justice of God for sinners, that they might have all righteousness and holiness, and all salvation only by fellowship with him through faith. Therefore, it is no affront to Christ, or slighting and condemning the justice and holiness of God, to come to Christ, while we are polluted sinners; but rather it is an affronting and contemning the saving-grace, merit, and fullness of Christ, if we endeavor to make ourselves righteous and holy before we receive Christ himself, and all righteousness and holiness in him by faith.”

Believers do well to remember the need to come to Christ perpetually “just as we are” as well, for we will always need forgiveness of sins as long as we are in these unglorified bodies. The Lord’s Supper serves as a vivid reminder from our Lord about our ongoing need of an alien righteousness, that is, a righteousness outside of ourselves.  To Him be the glory!



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