Tag Archives: Sanctification

The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification – Direction 14: Epilogue and Closing Exhortations

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

“Direction 14: That you may seek holiness and righteousness, only by believing in Christ, and walking in him by faith, according to the former directions, take encouragement from the great advantages of this way, and the excellent properties of it.”

This final direction serves as an epilogue or conclusion to the preceding thirteen directives, with five closing motives for employing everything taught therein. Before sharing those weighty motives, Marshall exhorted his readers to remember the way of sanctification laid out in directives 1-13, namely via:

“union and fellowship with Christ, and by faith in Christ, as discovered in the gospel; not by the law, or in a natural condition, or by thinking to get it before we come to Christ, to procure Christ by it, which is striving against the stream: but that we must first apply Christ and his salvation to ourselves, for our comfort, and that by confident faith; and then walk by that faith, according to the new man, in Christ, and not as in a natural condition; and use all means of holiness rightly for this end.”

The five desirable properties or motives for following the preceding 13 directives which Marshall provided were:

  • This way tends to the abasement of the flesh, and exaltation of God only, in his grace and power through Christ.
  • This way consists well with other doctrines of the gospel, which contrary errors do not (doctrines such as original sin, predestination, justification and reconciliation by faith, union with Christ, and perseverance of the saints).
  • This way is the never-failing, effectually powerful, alone sufficient, and sure way to attain to true holiness.
  • This way is a most pleasant way to those who are in it (Prov. 3:17) in several respects.
  • This is a high exalted way, above all others, for these are the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that God has set us in (Eph. 2:5-6).

When developing the fourth property, above, Marshall made five points, the third being it is a way of peace, wherein he cited Prov. 3:17: “Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.” (ESV) And then he made this observation:

“The doubts of salvation that people meet with arise from putting some condition of works between Christ and themselves; as hath appeared in this discourse. But our walking in this way, is by faith, which rejects such fears and doubtings (John 14:1; Mark 5:36; Heb. 10:19, 22). It is free from fears of Satan, or any evil (Rom. 8:31, 32); and free from slavish fears of perishing by our sins (1 John 2:1, 2; Phil. 4:6, 7); faith laying hold on infinite grace, mercy, and power to secure us; the Lord is the keeper and shade on the right hand (Ps. 121:5). Free and powerful grace answers all objections.”

May the Lord grant grace for us to take these truths to heart and walk by faith accordingly!


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The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification – Direction 12: Making Use of Faith for the Immediate Performance of the Duties of the Law

[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)

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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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The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification – Direction 8: Seeking Holiness Here and Hereafter

[This is the 8th of a 14 part highlight of Walter Marshall’s book, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.]

“Direction 8: Be sure to seek for holiness of heart and life only in its due order, where God hath placed it, after union with Christ, justification, and the gift of the Holy Spirit; and, in that order, seek it earnestly by faith, as a very necessary part of your salvation.”

How timely this direction comes, on the eve of Reformation Day when many Reformed churches will be taking note of the anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of his Nine-Five Theses on the door of the Wittenberg castle. We rightly emphasis justification by faith alone, for there is no other means to obtain a right standing before God. As Luther and the Reformers noted: we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

But saving faith is never alone. Saving faith is accompanied by good works which flow out of union with Christ, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. It is exactly this sequence of events that Marshall points out in this direction: holiness follows union with Christ and justification.

This eighth direction is as relevant today as it was in Marshall’s day, for many today, as back then, seem only to want to escape eternal punishment, having little interest in being conformed to the image of Christ otherwise::

“What a strange kind of salvation do they desire, that care not for holiness? They would be saved, and yet be altogether dead in sin, aliens from the life of God, bereft of the image of God, deformed by the image of Satan, his slaves and vassals to their own filthy lusts, utterly unmeet for the enjoyment of God in glory. Such a salvation as that was never purchased by the blood of Christ; and those that seek it abuse the grace of God in Christ, and turn it into lusciousness. They would be saved by Christ, and yet out of Christ, in a fleshly state; whereas God doth free none from condemnation, but those that are in Christ, that walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit: or else they would divide Christ, and take a part of his salvation, and leave out the rest; but, Christ is not divided (1 Cor. 1:13). They would have their sins forgiven, not that they may walk with God in love in time to come, but that they may practice their enmity against him, without any fear of punishment. But, let them not be deceived, God is not mocked. They understand not what true salvation is, neither were they ever yet thoroughly sensible of their lost estate, and of the great evil of sin; and that which they trust on Christ is, but an imaging of their own brains: and therefore their trusting is gross presumption. True gospel faith maketh us come to Christ with a thirsty appetite, that we may drink of living water, even of his sanctifying Spirit (John 7:37-38); and cry out earnestly to save us, not only from hell, but from sin; saying ‘Teach me to do thy will; thy Spirit is good’ (Ps. 143:10); ‘Turn thou me, and I shall be turned’ (Jer. 31:18); ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right Spirit within me’ (Psa. 51:10). This is the way whereby the doctrine of salvation by grace doth necessitate us to holiness of life, by constraining us to seek for it by faith in Christ, as a substantial part of that salvation which is freely given us through Christ.”

Any who do not desire to be like Christ in holiness (i.e., set apart, devoted to God) here and now should not flatter themselves with the thought of having heaven as their eternal destiny. For as J. C. Ryle put it in his book, Holiness:

“How shall we ever be at home and happy in heaven, if we die unholy? Death works no change. The grave makes no alteration. Each will rise again with the same character in which he breathed his last. Where will our place be if we are strangers to holiness now?”

It is in this sense that we should understand Hebrews 12:14 (“Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” ESV). It isn’t talking about a certain amount of holiness that a person much achieve, but rather the bent or course of one’s life. Has there been a trajectory of being transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ, or not? If not, anyone professing faith in Christ in such manner has presumed upon some notion of their own rather than having trusted Christ, for wherever the Spirit dwells, holiness will surely follow. So let everyone seek Him now, in this the acceptable day, for He is near to all who call upon Him in truth (Psa. 145:18).

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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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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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Week 34 of 50 in the Institutes (Part 1 of 2): An Insightful Inversion

Since this blog is about my reflections on theological writings by dead guys (mostly Puritans along with the occasional Reformer, such as Calvin), I’m going to take a brief stroll down memory lane.  If you don’t want to accompany me on this brief excursion, you may skip down to the next paragraph.  I suspect some of you have made a pilgrimage similar to mine anyway.  Those who have may recall a song from the days of hymnals with shaped notes, “I’ll Have a New Body (I’ll Have a New Life)”.  Those who aren’t familiar with that hymn may listen to it here (if you dare).  In the Independent Baptist church I grew up in, we had a tenor who liked to be a little mischievous on occasion, and when it came to the phrase “I’ll have a new body, praise the Lord, I’ll have a new life, life, O yes”, he would change it up as follows:  “I’ll have a new body, praise the Lord, I’ll have a new wife, life, O yes!”  You had to listen carefully to catch his subtle change, and he would usually give himself away by an unusually large smile when he did it.

I share that because the words of that hymn immediately came to mind when I read 3.25.7 of the Institutes, because therein Calvin demonstrates how wrong they are!  Instead of a new body, every glorified saint receives a resurrected body.  After showing the error of those who would deny the immortality of the soul, Calvin turns his attention to another error, namely, the idea that saints receive new bodies, which is inconceivable or else the head (Christ) and the members will not match (3.25.7, bold emphasis added):

Equally monstrous is the error of those who imagine that the soul, instead of resuming the body with which it is now clothed, will obtain a new and different body. Nothing can be more futile than the reason given by the Manichees—viz. that it were incongruous for impure flesh to rise again: as if there were no impurity in the soul; and yet this does not exclude it from the hope of heavenly life. It is just as if they were to say, that what is infected by the taint of sin cannot be divinely purified; for I now say nothing to the delirious dream that flesh is naturally impure as having been created by the devil. I only maintain, that nothing in us at present, which is unworthy of heaven, is any obstacle to the resurrection. But, first, Paul enjoins believers to purify themselves from “all filthiness of the flesh and spirit,” (2 Cor. 7:1 the judgment which is to follow, that every one shall “receive the things done in his body, according to that he has done, whether it be good or bad,” (2 Cor. 5:10). With this accords what he says to the Corinthians, “That the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body,” (2 Cor. 4:10). For which reason he elsewhere says, “I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,” (1 Thess. 5:23). He says “body” as well as “spirit and soul,” and no wonder; for it were most absurd that bodies which God has dedicated to himself as temples should fall into corruption without hope of resurrection. What? are they not also the members of Christ? Does he not pray that God would sanctify every part of them, and enjoin them to celebrate his name with their tongues, lift up pure hands, and offer sacrifices? That part of man, therefore, which the heavenly Judge so highly honors, what madness is it for any mortal man to reduce to dust without hope of revival?. . . Moreover, if we are to receive new bodies, where will be the conformity [that is, matching ] of the Head and the members? Christ rose again. Was it by forming for himself a new body? Nay, he had foretold, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” (John 2:19). The mortal body which he had formerly carried he again received; for it would not have availed us much if a new body had been substituted, and that which had been offered in expiatory sacrifice been destroyed. We must, therefore, attend to that connection which the Apostle celebrates, that we rise because Christ rose (1 Cor. 15:12); nothing being less probable than that the flesh in which we bear about the dying of Christ, shall have no share in the resurrection of Christ. This was even manifested by a striking example, when, at the resurrection of Christ, many bodies of the saints came forth from their graves. For it cannot be denied that this was a prelude, or rather earnest, of the final resurrection for which we hope, such as already existed in Enoch and Elijah, whom Tertullian calls candidates for resurrection, because, exempted from corruption, both in body and soul, they were received into the custody of God.

At the beginning of the next section (3.25.8), Calvin talked at some length about the significance of rites honoring the body.  He pointed out that the etymology of the word “cemetery” (sleeping place) underscores the truth of the nature of the resurrection.  Scripture, Calvin contends, constantly “exhorts us in Scripture to hope for the resurrection of our flesh.” The sacraments also point to the reality of the resurrection:

For this reason Baptism is, according to Paul, a seal of our future resurrection; and in like manner the holy Supper invites us confidently to expect it, when with our mouths we receive the symbols of spiritual grace. And certainly the whole exhortation of Paul, “Yield ye your members as instruments of righteousness unto God,” (Rom. 6:13), would be frigid, did he not add, as he does in another passage, “He that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies,” (Rom. 8:11). For what would it avail to apply feet, hands, eyes, and tongues, to the service of God, did not these afterwards participate in the benefit and reward? This Paul expressly confirms when he says, “The body is not for fornication, but for the Lord; and the Lord for the body. And God has both raised up the Lord, and will also raise up us by his own power,” (1 Cor. 6:13, 14).

At the end of the section (3.25.8), Calvin went on to describe what the manner of the resurrection involved, saying that it would be a resurrection in the same body we now bear, but that the “quality” will be different.  His emphasis, in terms of sheer number of words, however, was on the continuity, rather than the discontinuity between the two states, because of the errors he felt compelled to correct in his day.  In so doing, his treatment of the subject constitutes a very interesting inversion, with primary emphasis on the sameness of the body now and hereafter.

Could it be that the hymn writer of that old “convention” song unwittingly imbibed a spirit of Gnosticism which has subtly been passed along to everyone who has ever heard that song (and made popular way back in the day by Hank Williams)?  After all, why bother so much with holiness and sanctification here if every believer gets a new body hereafter (and maybe even a new wife!)?

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Aug. 24: 3:25.7 – 3.25.8

Aug. 25: 3.25.9 – 3.25.12

Aug. 26: 4.1.1 – 4.1.4

Aug. 27: 4.1.5 – 4.1.8

Aug. 28: 4.1.9 – 4.1.14

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Week 10 of 50 in the Institutes: Calvin, Owen & Sanctification

Before putting down my thoughts on the upcoming week’s reading assignments in the Institutes, I like to peruse the Reformation 21 blogs to see if the assigned blogger back in 2009 addressed any of the issues that stood out to me (to save time such can I can merely point to them).  Those with rapid recall of everything we have read to this point may begin to have some consternation by this coming Friday when you read 2.3.11 in the Institutes and mentally compare it to what John Owen had to say in Mortification of Sin. So as point man for the group, let me try to save you a headache, or at least a little consternation.

First let’s go back to the following passage from On the Mortification of Sin, where Owen answers the question of why a person is exhorted to mortify sin, if such mortification is the work of the Spirit (at the end of chapter 3):

Secondly. If this be the work of the Spirit alone, how is it that we are exhorted to it? — seeing the Spirit of God only can do it, let the work be left wholly to him.

[1.] It is no otherwise the work of the Spirit but as all graces and good works which are in us are his. He “works in us to will and to do of his own good pleasure,” Phil. ii.13; he works “all our works in us,”  Isa. xxvi. 12, — “the work of faith with power,” 2 Thess 1. 11, Col. ii. 12; he causes us to pray, and is a “Spirit of supplication,” Rom. viii. 26, Zech. xii. 10; and yet we are exhorted, and are to be exhorted, to all these.

[2.] He doth not so work our mortification in us as not to keep it still an act of our obedience. The Holy Ghost works in us and upon us, as we are fit to be wrought in and upon; that is, so as to preserve our own liberty and free obedience. He works upon our understandings, wills, consciences, and affections, agreeably to their own natures; he works in us and with us, not against us or without us; so that his assistance is an encouragement as to the facilitating of the work, and no occasion of neglect as to the work itself.

With reference to the believer’s duty to mortify sin (Romans 8:13), Owen clearly affirmed the responsibility of man, and the idea that God doesn’t do this work “against us or without us”.  Compare this to Calvin’s remarks in 2.3.11 in regard to our efforts to cooperate in sanctification or perseverance:

As to the common saying, that after we have given admission to the first grace, our efforts co-operate with subsequent grace, this is my answer:—If it is meant that after we are once subdued by the power of the Lord to the obedience of righteousness, we proceed voluntarily, and are inclined to follow the movement of grace, I have nothing to object. For it is most certain, that where the grace of God reigns, there is also this readiness to obey. And whence this readiness, but just that the Spirit of God being everywhere consistent with himself, after first begetting a principle of obedience, cherishes and strengthens it for perseverance? If, again, it is meant that man is able of himself to be a fellow-labourer with the grace of God, I hold it to be a most pestilential delusion.

Putting these two passages side by side without careful consideration might leave the casual reader scratching his head and wondering: “So who’s right, Calvin or Owen?”  The answer is both, and I don’t think they are truly contradicting one another (read above excerpt more closely).  How could they, since they were both called “the theologian of the Holy Spirit” in their respective generations?

Louis Berkhof comes in handy here, in the following excerpt from his Systematic Theology, in the section on sanctification (note: we are talking about sanctification here, NOT justification):

It [sanctification] is a work of God in which believers co-operate.  When it is said that man takes part in the work of sanctification, this does not mean that man is an independent agent in the work, so as to make it partly the work of God and partly the work of man; but merely, that God effects the work in part through the instrumentality of man as a rational being, by requiring of him prayerful and intelligent co-operation with the Spirit.  That man must co-operate with the Spirit of God follows: (a) from the repeated warning against evils and temptations, which clearly imply that man must be active in avoiding the pitfalls of life, Rom. 12:9, 16, 17; 1 Cor. 6:9,10; Gal. 5:16-23; and (b) from the constant exhortations to holy living.  These imply that the believer must be diligent in the employment of means at his command for the moral and spiritual improvement of his life, Micah 6:8; John 15:2, 8, 16; Rom. 8:12, 13; 12:1, 2, 17; Gal. 6:7, 8, 15.

So the resolution lies in the affirmation of both the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man.  Both Owen and Calvin cited Philippians 2:13 when dealing with this issue, which is one of the most remarkable passages in all of Scripture with regard to the affirmation of both of these non-contradictory doctrines.  John Murray had an excellent interpretation of Phil. 2:12-13 (as cited by Moises Silva in his commentary on Philippians):

God’s working in us is not suspended because we work, nor our working suspended because God works.  Neither is the relation strictly one of cooperation as if God did his part and we did ours so that the conjunction or coordination of both produced the required result.  God works and we also work.  But the relation is that because God works we work. All working out of salvation on our part is the effect of God’s working in us. . . . We have here not only the explanation of all acceptable activity on our part but we also have the incentive to our willing and working. . . . The more persistently active we are in working, the more persuaded we may be that all the energizing grace and power is of God.

Now if you still have a headache, I recommend aspirin at this point!

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Mar. 9:  2.2.18 – 2.2.23

Mar. 10:  2.2.24 – 2.2.27

Mar. 11:  2.3.1 – 2.3.4

Mar. 12: 2.3.5 – 2.3.9

Mar. 13: 2.3.10 – 2.3.14

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