The Gospel Mystery of Sanctificaton – Direction 3: Union With Christ

[This is the 3rd of a 14 part highlight of Walter Marshall’s book, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.]

“Direction 3: The way to get holy endowments and qualifications necessary to frame and enable us for the immediate practice of the law, is to receive them out of the fullness of Christ, by fellowship with him; and that we may have this fellowship, we must be in Christ, and have Christ himself in us, by a mystical union with him.”

In this third direction for the pursuit of sanctification, Walter Marshall’s closing thought provides a nice summary:

Christ’s “incarnation, death, and resurrection, were the cause of all the holiness that ever was, or shall be given to man, from the fall of Adam, to the end of the world; and that by the mighty power of his Spirit, whereby all saints that ever were, or shall be, are joined together, to be members of that one mystical body whereof he is the head.”

In the first church I ever attended several decades ago, a guest speaker used a latex glove to illustrate how many Christians attempt to live the Christian life. Holding the empty glove by the tip of the middle finger, he would admonish it: “Ok now, Christian, live the Christian life.”  Then he would let go, and the empty glove collapsed onto the table. He did this several times, to convey the idea that it is impossible to live the Christian life by one’s own effort. Only when Christ dwells within, illustrated by putting a hand inside the glove, is it possible to live the Christian life. That is essentially the lesson Marshall held out in this third direction.

What is so obvious in the object lesson, however, tends to be overlooked many times in actual practice. Marshall saw this back in his day as well:

“One great mystery is, that the holy frame and disposition whereby our souls are furnished and enabled for immediate practice of the law, must be obtained by receiving it out of Christ’s fullness, as a thing already prepared and brought to an existence for us in Christ, and treasured up in him; and that as we are justified by a righteousness wrought out in Christ, and imputed to us; so are we sanctified by such a holy frame and qualifications, as are first wrought out, and completed in Christ for us, and then imparted to us. And as our natural corruption was produced originally in the first Adam, and propagated from him to us; so our new nature and holiness is first produced in Christ, in making or producing that holy frame in us, but only to take it to ourselves, and use it in our holy practice, as made ready to our hands. Thus we have fellowship with Christ, in receiving that holy frame of spirit that was originally in him: for fellowship is, when several persons have the same thing in common (1 John 1:1-3). This mystery is so great, that, notwithstanding all the light of the gospel, we commonly think that we must get a holy frame by producing it anew in ourselves, and by forming and working it out of our own hearts.”

The “endowments” Marshall mentioned in Direction 3 refer back to the four endowments enumerated in Direction 2 (an inclination and propensity of heart to the duties of the law; a persuasion of reconciliation to God; a persuasion of future enjoyment of everlasting heavenly happiness; and a persuasion of sufficient strength to will and perform our duty acceptably). In this third direction, Marshall identified the source of these endowments as Christ Himself. Hence, it is impossible for someone to be a true Christian and to be totally indifferent to the pursuit of holiness. Why? It is because the indwelling power of Christ is always effectual to bear fruit to one degree or another.

Marshall’s spoke at some length about the “great mystery in the way of sanctification” in terms of “the glorious manner of our fellowship with Christ, in receiving a holy frame of heart from him.” This mystery consists of the mystical union between Christ and the believer (one of three mystical unions in Scripture, the other two being the union of the trinity of persons in one Godhead, and the union of the divine and human nature in Jesus Christ). Marshall described the nature of this union and its effect masterfully:

“Though Christ be in heaven, and we on earth; yet he can join our souls and bodies to his at such a distance without any substantial change of either, by the same infinite Spirit dwelling in him and us; and so our flesh will become his, when it is quickened by his Spirit; and his flesh ours, as truly as if we did eat his flesh and drink his blood; and he will be in us himself by his Spirit, who is one with him, and who can unite more closely to Christ than any material substance can do, or who can make a more close an d intimate union between Christ and us. And it will not follow from hence, that a believer is one person with Christ, any more than Christ is one person with the Father, by that great mystical union. Neither will a believer be hereby made God, but only the temple of God, as Christ’s body and soul is; and the Spirit’s lively instrument, rather than the principal cause. Neither will a believer be necessarily perfect in holiness hereby; or Christ made a sinner: for Christ knoweth how to dwell in believers by certain measures and degrees, and to make them holy so far only as he dwelleth in them. And though this union seem too high a preferment for such unworthy creatures as we are; yet, considering the preciousness of the blood of God, whereby we are redeemed, we should dishonor God, if we should not expect a miraculous advancement to the highest dignity that creatures are capable of, through the merits of that blood.”

The more progress a believer makes in sanctification the more he realizes his need of Christ in everything. As Wilhelmus à Brakel observed with regard to spiritual growth: “He who is of the opinion that he only needed Christ at the outset of his spiritual life and that he is now beyond that and thus leaves Christ alone, only focusing upon holiness – or if he solely makes use of Christ as an example for holiness – has gone astray and regresses more than he progresses.” (Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service; Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books; vol. 4, p. 146)

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