[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)