The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification – Direction 6: Salvation Is Impossible By Works Righteousness

[This is the 6th of a 14 part highlight of Walter Marshall’s book, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.]

“Direction 6: Those that endeavor to perform sincere obedience to all the commands of Christ, as the condition whereby they are to procure for themselves a right and title to salvation, and a good ground to trust on him for the same, do seek their salvation by the works of the law, and not by the faith of Christ, as he is revealed in the gospel; and they shall never be able to perform sincere and true holy obedience by all such efforts.”

The natural man is hard-pressed to come to terms with salvation by free grace, because of his longstanding love affair with works righteousness. As Marshall put it, the natural man is addicted to the idea of salvation by works, and it is impossible for him to give up that method on his own:

“And though we have a better way revealed to us in the gospel, for the enjoyment of the favour of God, and holiness itself, and all salvation, without any procuring condition of works, by the free gift of God’s grace through faith in Christ: yet it is very difficult to persuade men out of a way they are naturally addicted to, and that hath forestalled and captivated their judgments, and is bred in their bone, and therefore cannot easily be gotten out of the flesh. Most of those that live under the hearing and profession of the gospel, are not brought to hate sin as sin, and to love godliness for itself, though they be convinced of the necessity of it to salvation; and therefore they cannot love it heartily. The only means they can take to bring themselves to it, is to stir up themselves to an hypocritical practice in their old natural way, that they may avoid hell, and get heaven, by their works.”

There is an underlying principle here, namely, that salvation requires man to come to terms with his utter dependence on God for everything, and to renounce all self-righteousness. The most succinct way to state the essence of Reformed soteriology is: God saves sinners. God is the active agent who performs the action. Sinners are the recipients of that action. The subject and direct object are diametrically opposite in relation to the verb. And yet our own depraved hearts as well as Satan seek to get us to reverse that sequence in order to miss the narrow path that leads to eternal life.

Marshall made this point in response to those in his day who held out “sincere obedience” as the condition for salvation:

“Let us now examine the modern doctrine of salvation by the condition of sincere obedience to all the commands of Christ, and we shall quickly find it to be a chip of the same block with the former legal way of salvation, in the same manner destructive to the means of holiness, and to holiness itself. It requireth of us the performance of sincere obedience, before we have the means necessary to produce it, by making it antecedent to our justification, and persuasion of eternal happiness, and our actual enjoyment of union and fellowship with Christ, and of that new nature which is to be had only in him by faith. . . . By this devised conditional faith, Satan keepeth many poor souls at bay, poring upon their own hearts for many years together, to find whether they have performed the condition, and whether they have as yet any right to Christ for their salvation, not daring to venture to take him as their own.”

But we know that “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4). Glory be to Him!


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