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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