Category Archives: Marshall – The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification

The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification – Direction 4: Find Holiness and Union With Christ By Means of the Gospel

[This is the 4th of a 14 part highlight of Walter Marshall’s book, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.]

“Direction 4: The means of instruments whereby the Spirit of God accomplisheth our union with Christ, and our fellowship with him in all holiness, are the gospel, whereby Christ entereth into our hearts to work faith in us; and faith, whereby we actually receive Christ himself, with all his fullness, into our hearts. And this faith is a grace of the Spirit, whereby we heartily believe the gospel, and also believe on Christ, as he is revealed and freely promised to us therein, for all his salvation.”

Marshall built precept upon precept in the fourteen “directions” required to unfold the gospel mystery of sanctification. Direction four deals with the nature of saving faith, since it is one of two means used by the Spirit of God to affect the believer’s union with Christ (the first being the gospel of the grace of God, and the second being faith).

Marshall identified two acts necessarily found in saving faith: 1) believing the truth of the gospel; and 2) believing on Christ as promised freely to us in the gospel, for all of salvation. He also asserted that these two acts of saving faith must be performed heartily, with an unfeigned love to the truth and a desire for Christ and his salvation above all things. He elaborated on the manner of such hearty performance by asserting:

  1. Our assenting must not be forced by mere conviction of the truth, such as devils and wicked men may have.
  2. Our believing in Christ must neither be only a constrained fear of damnation, without any hearty love and desires towards the enjoyment of Christ.
  3. This love must be to every part of Christ’s salvation: to holiness as well as forgiveness of sins.

When comparing Marshall’s definition of saving faith here with that of Calvin, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Westminster Confession of Faith (follow this link to an earlier, related blog), we find common ground with respect to what it means to believe on Christ (i.e., trusting in and resting upon Christ for salvation). Marshall’s treatment, though, includes an aspect of repentance. In coming to Christ, the repentant sinner turns from sin to God for happiness and life and everything. Repentance isn’t a superficial matter of obtaining “fire insurance” in order to continue on a path of ungodliness, but a total renunciation of all that is contrary to God, and so is never ending this side of heaven. Marshall puts it more succinctly:

“We must desire earnestly, that God would create in us a clean heart and right spirit, as well as hide his face from our sins (Ps. 51:9, 10); not like many, that care nothing in Christ but only deliverance from hell. Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled (Matt. 5:6).

So a key observation to be gleaned here is how specious are the claims of many so-called Christians today who care little for being conformed to the image of Christ. How silly would it be for someone to say, “I really love Sally, but I can’t stand to be in her presence because of the way she looks, moves, talks, thinks, and basically everything about her.  She is so embarrassing.”

Just as Sally will not be taken in by such vapid sentiments, neither will the Lord, in that those who are His will be conformed to His image in holiness, without exception (Heb. 12:14). Or as the Psalmist warns (Psa. 50:16-23, ESV):

16 But to the wicked God says: “What right have you to recite my statutes or take my covenant on your lips?

17 For you hate discipline, and you cast my words behind you.

18 If you see a thief, you are pleased with him, and you keep company with adulterers.

19 “You give your mouth free rein for evil, and your tongue frames deceit.

20 You sit and speak against your brother; you slander your own mother’s son.

21 These things you have done, and I have been silent; you thought that I was one like yourself. But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you.

22 “Mark this, then, you who forget God, lest I tear you apart, and there be none to deliver!

23 The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me; to one who orders his way rightly I will show the salvation of God!”


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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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The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification – Direction 2: The Prerequisites of Repentance and Faith


[This is the 2nd of a 14 part highlight of Walter Marshall’s book, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.]

“Direction 2: Several endowments and qualifications are necessary to enable us for the immediate practice of the law. Particularly we must have an inclination and propensity of our hearts thereunto; and therefore we must be well persuaded of our reconciliation with God, and of our future enjoyment of the everlasting heavenly happenings, and of sufficient strength both to will and perform all duties acceptably, until we come to the enjoyment of that happiness.”

This second direction lists four endowments which are required for the practice of holiness. We need to keep in mind the lessons of the first direction which defined holiness essentially in terms of conforming to the moral law in its entirety, which may be summed up via two greatest commandments: to love the Lord with all one’s heart mind, and strength, and one’s neighbor as himself. This is no small task, in that is it beyond one’s natural ability to perform, hence the need for divine assistance, beginning with regeneration.

Lest we rush past them, the four endowments Marshall identified here as prerequisites to the practice of holiness (sanctification) are:

  1. An inclination and propensity of heart to the duties of the law;
  2. A persuasion of our reconciliation with God;
  3. A persuasion of our future enjoyment of the everlasting heavenly happiness; and
  4. A persuasion of sufficient strength both to will and perform our duty acceptably, until we come to the enjoyment of the heavenly happiness.

We may find some of these prerequisites to be akin to putting the cart before the horse. But if we understand justification by faith correctly, Marshall’s counsel here will resonate with our understanding of the truth, and our own frustrated efforts if we attempt sanctification any other way.

I want to focus on the second endowment (persuasion of our reconciliation with God) in this short space, in no small part because Marshall himself gave more attention to it. He described it as a great mystery, and then gave five arguments in support of it:

“This is a great mystery (contrary to the apprehensions, not only of the vulgar, but of some learned divines) that we must be reconciled to God, and justified by the remission of our sins, and imputation of righteousness, before any sincere obedience to the law; that we may be enabled for the practice of it.”

  1. The first Adam was framed for the practice of holiness at his creation without any sin imputed to him, and this was a great advantage to him for the practice of holiness. The second Adam was the beloved of the Father. Can we then expect to be imitators of Christ, by performing more difficult obedience than the first Adam was before the fall?
  2. Those who know their natural deadness under the power of sin and Satan, are fully convinced, that if God leave them to their own hearts, they can do nothing but sin; and that they can do no good work, except it please God, of his great love and mercy, to work it in them.
  3. The nature of the duties of the law is such as requires an apprehension of our reconciliation with God, and his hearty love and favor towards us for the doing of them.
  4. Our conscience must of necessity be first purged from dead works, that we may serve the living God.
  5. God has abundantly discovered to us, in his word, that his method of bringing men from sin to holiness of life, is, first to make them know that he loves them, and that their sins are blotted out.

That first argument is insightfully persuasive, and we are indebted to Marshall for such an astute comparison. Unlike his progeny, the first Adam didn’t have a sin nature to contend with prior to the fall. Marshall pressed the point here by asking: “can we reasonably expect to be imitators of Christ, by performing more difficult obedience than the first Adam’s was before the fall; except the like advantages be given to us, by reconciliation, and remission of sins, and imputation of a righteousness given by God to us, when we have none of our own?”

When explaining his fourth argument with regard to the necessity of having our conscience cleansed from dead works prior to the practice of holiness, he underscored even more the need for a right understanding of justification by faith:

“I have often considered, by what manner of working any sin could effectually destroy the whole image of God in the first Adam: and I conclude, it was by working first an evil guilty conscience in him, whereby he judged, that the just God was against him, and cursed him for that one sin. And this was enough to work a shameful nakedness by disorderly lusts, a turning his love wholly from God to the creature, and a desire to be hidden from the presence of God (Gen. 3:8, 10) which was a total destruction of the image of God’s holiness.”

So in the final analysis, coming to Christ in repentance and faith is the prerequisite for the practice of holiness. Abiding in Him is the key to sanctification, for apart from Him we can do nothing.




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The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification – Direction 1: Learning About Powerful and Effectual Means

Out of all the Puritan works I have read thus far, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification (GMS hereafter) by Walter Marshall  is one of my favorites (easily within the top 5).  I gauge my affinity for a particular work by the number of times I find myself referring back to it and by the insights gained therein.

I read GMS back in 2013, and recently completed outlining it.  I am forever indebted to Marshall for a greater appreciation of the mystery of the believer’s union with Christ.  And since that spiritual reality is unfathomable, the truths contained in the book deserve perpetual study.

In his endeavor to unfold the mystery of sanctification Marshall presented his reader with fourteen directions.  I’m only going to touch on the first one in this post, leaving room for future installments as time allows.

“Direction 1: That we may acceptably perform the duties of holiness and righteousness required in the Law, our first work is, to learn the powerful and effectual means whereby we may attain to so great and end.”

Marshall made two main points when unpacking this direction, the first being clarification of the objective in view.  Sanctification aims for a spiritual objective, which can only be obtained by spiritual (i.e., supernatural) means.

Secondly, in order to be sanctified, a person must be well acquainted with the means required thereunto.  Marshall then presented his reader with eight considerations in regard to these means (summarizing here):

  1. We are all by nature incapable of performing that holiness and righteousness which God’s law requires.
  2. Those who doubt or deny the doctrine of original sin must realize that the exact justice of God is against them (in other words, they are in deep trouble!).
  3. General revelation is insufficient to save or sanctify.  Special revelation is indispensable in this regard.
  4. Sanctification is a grace of God communicated to us as well as is justification.
  5. Since God has taken the trouble to give us plentiful instruction in righteousness in the holy scriptures, it is incumbent on us to sit down at his feet and learn it.
  6. The way to attaining godliness is not a mere matter of education, but rather a supernatural work whereby the dead are raised to life, and therefore far above all the thoughts and conjectures of men.
  7. The knowledge of the means of sanctification is of utmost importance for the establishment of true faith, because we cannot rationally doubt that love to God and our neighbor are absolutely necessary to true religion.
  8. Knowledge of these means is of great importance and necessity for establishment in holy practice, because one cannot apply himself to the practice of holiness with hope of success without some expectation of divine assistance, which one cannot expect without using the means God has appointed.

Take up and read!  If you need a copy, it is available from Reformation Heritage Press here.

Gospel Mystery of Sanctification Marshall cover

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