The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification – Direction 5: Holiness Is Impossible For the Unregenerate

[This is the 5th of a 14 part highlight of Walter Marshall’s book, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.]

“Direction 5: We cannot attain to the practice of true holiness, by any of our endeavours, while we continue in our natural state, and are not partakers of a new state, by union and fellowship with Christ through faith.”

All mankind, Marshall, observed, falls into one of two states at present: a spiritual state (those regenerated by the Holy Spirit), or a natural state (consisting in those things as we have either by natural birth or can attain to by natural power through divine assistance). Marshall then listed nine considerations that confirm the truth of this fifth direction. While some might find Marshall redundant, a more charitable reader will discover a pastor’s heart as the motive for Marshall’s steady plodding. His goal here, we note, was to free “ignorant zealots from their fruitless tormenting labors” toward moral reform and good works apart from first being regenerated and having their lives changed from sin to righteousness. The stakes were high in his day as they are in ours, since those who attempt to reform their lives apart from union with Christ, as Marshall put it: “when they have mis-spent many years in striving against the stream of their lusts, without any success, do at last fall miserably into despair of ever attaining holiness, and turn to wallowing in the mire of their lusts, or are fearfully swallowed up with horror of conscience.”

Space will not permit review of all nine of his considerations, so I want to focus on the fifth, sixth, and ninth ones.   In his fifth consideration Marshall identified four properties of the natural state which wholly disable such a one from the practice of holiness and rather enslave him to the practice of sin. Those four properties are:

  1. the guilt of sin,
  2. an evil conscience from which gives rise to a hatred and abhorrence of God as an enemy rather than love for Him,
  3. an evil inclination, tending only to sin, and
  4. subjection to the power of the devil.

In his sixth consideration, Marshall argued against the Arminian doctrine that Christ’s death has restored the freedom of the will for all men:

“Sixthly: We have no good ground to trust on Christ to help us to will or to do that which is acceptable to him, while we continue in our natural state; or to imagine that freedom of will to holiness is restored to us by the merit of his death. For, as it hath been already showed, Christ aimed at an higher end, in his incarnation, death, and resurrection, than the restoring the decay and ruins of our natural state. He aimed to advance us to a new state, more excellent than the state of nature ever was, by union and fellowship with himself; that we might live to God, not by the power of a natural free-will, but by the power of his Spirit living and acting in us. So we may conclude, that our natural state is irrecoverable and desperate, because Christ, the only Saviour, did not aim at the recovery of it.”

In other words, the goal in salvation is not to return us to a state of innocence of neutrality, but rather to union and vitality with Christ in all its fullness (Eph. 4:13).  As Marshall went on to observe: “Our old natural man was not revived and reformed by the death of Christ, but crucified together with him, and therefore to be abolished and destroyed out of us by virtue of his death (Rom. 6:6).” I think I should point out that Marshall is here speaking of the corruption of the old man being destroyed, and he is not decrying the resurrection of our self-same bodies (WCF 32.2).

In his ninth consideration, Marshall anticipated and answered an objection that many might raise: what about examples of heathen philosophers or Jews or Christians by outward profession who may have lived without the saving knowledge of God in Christ and yet lived outstanding moral lives and were famous for their wise sayings and attainments? His answer was simple enough, beginning first with the Apostle Paul. Despite his former boastings about keeping the law, once he came to the knowledge of Christ Paul judged himself to be the chief of sinners. In addition, efforts at self-reform lack love for God, which make them utterly vapid since loving God with all one’s heart is the greatest commandment. And Marshall closed by exhorting his readers to be thankful, because things could always be worse if God stopped restraining the sinful desires of natural men:

“If God should leave men fully to their own natural corruptions, and to the power of Satan (as they deserve) all show of religion and morality would be quickly banished out of the world, and we should grow past feeling in wickedness, and like the cannibals, who are as good by nature as ourselves. But God, who can restrain the burning of the fiery furnace, without quenching it, and the flowing water, without changing its nature, doth also restrain the working of natural corruption, without mortifying it: and through the greatness of his wisdom and power, he maketh his enemies to yield to feigned obedience to him (Psa. 66:3); and to do many things good for the matter of them, though they can do nothing in a right holy manner. . . . As vile and wicked as the world is, we have cause to praise and to magnify the free goodness of God, that it is no worse.”

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