Themes and Emphases in Walter Marshall’s The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification

Kenneth J. McMullen
Associate Professor of Theological Bibliography and Research
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte

How many Christians can describe sanctification biblically and clearly?  Sanctification is the theological term most often used to describe the Christian life, or at least it has been in the past.  Even one who can recite WSC Question 35 from memory may be hard pressed to define it without falling into one of two errors, antinomianism or neonomianism (legalism).  More to the point, can the average Christian rightly discuss how sanctification is related to justification?  These are critical aspects of the gospel which every believer needs to come to understand and even delight in.

A lack of assurance of salvation is one of the many implications springing from an incomplete or improper understanding of these truths.  John Bunyan was a well-known example of a Christian who battled doubts about his faith, but our focus here is on one of his contemporaries who also struggled with assurance until he came to a clearer grasp of the glorious doctrine of sanctification.

Thus, we turn to the work of the Puritan, Walter Marshall, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.[1]  Though it has largely remained in print since its initial writing, it is not as well-known as some other Puritan writings or more recent titles (such as J.C. Ryle’s Holiness). Given its key focus on the doctrine of sanctification in the life of believers, it is beneficial to look at this work to discover themes which are instructive in growing in understanding the topic.  For those who have not read Marshall’s work, the hope is that this overview will spur you on to do so; for those who have read it before, this summary may be beneficial in recounting what was learned before.

Walter Marshall was a non-conformist Presbyterian pastor in the tumult of 17th century British religion.[2]  Due to the Act of Uniformity, he, with many others, chose not to comply and was removed from his parish in the Great Ejection.  Arthur Wood details this:

At the Restoration Marshall’s position was immediately jeopardized. As a Presbyterian he could not long endure episcopacy. He was formally presented to his cure in 1661, according to the Episcopal Registers of Winchester, but his patron was Richard Major, father of Oliver Cromwell’s wife, Dorothy, a man who – so we learn from Oliver Cromwell’s Letters – ‘did not like sectaries.’  It is therefore not a matter of surprise that the association between him and Marshall was soon dissolved and that the latter was presented at the autumn Assizes of 1662 for refusing to use the Book of Common Prayer.[3]

He spent the last eighteen years of his life and ministry in an independent congregation in Gosport, Hampshire. Marshall’s book was published in 1692, twelve years after his death.

What prompted the writing of this book with an intriguing title?  The subtitle gives us a hint (since few Puritans ever used a brief title!): “opened, in sundry practical directions: suited especially to the case of those who labor under the guilt and power of indwelling sin.”  Joel Beeke, in his introduction to the recent reprint of the book tells us:

During this time, [following the ejection] Marshall also experienced profound spiritual distress.  For years he sought after holiness and peace. He read Richard Baxter extensively, then questioned Baxter, who said that Marshall had taken him too legalistically.  He went to Thomas Goodwin next, telling him about the sins that weighed heavily on his conscience.  Goodwin’s response was that Marshall had forgotten to mention the greatest sin of all, of not believing on the Lord Jesus Christ for the remission of sins and the sanctifying of his nature. …Marshall began to focus more on studying and preaching Christ. He realized that he had been trying to make his own righteousness the basis of his dealings with God as well as the ground of his peace. Consequently, he had not submitted himself to the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ.  When he focused upon Christ, he found holiness, peace of conscience, and joy in the Holy Ghost. Gospel Mystery of Sanctification was the fruit of such experience.[4]

With this new understanding and focus in Marshall’s spiritual walk, his ministry and preaching were transformed, as Wood notes:

It was evidently whilst ministering at Gosport and itinerating amongst the dissenting congregations in the neighbourhood that Walter Marshall was brought to an experience of full salvation. His preaching had an increasing efficacy not only upon his hearers but also upon his own heart. He was awakened to a sense of spiritual need and led to find its satisfaction in the sanctifying work of grace.[5]

This same newfound clarity of heart became the foundation of his book.

Marshall sought to find the Biblical path between antinomianism and neonomianism (as evidenced by his angst with Baxter).  Michael Christ comments, “Marshall was aware of the pendulum swing between antinomianism and neonomianism. Moreover, he believed that the two errors played off each other, driving the factions further apart. …fear drove both sides further apart.  To counter this, Marshall made the brilliant move of confronting both errors at the same time.”[6]  Marshall believed one could walk that path without falling off to one side or the other (ironically like Bunyan’s Pilgrim).

This was a very personal spiritual matter for Marshall. Michael Christ notes, “At some point during his pastorate, he had what his biographer N. N. called a ‘disquieted spirit.’ N. N. writes that Marshall was ‘much exercised with troubled thoughts, and that for many years, and had, by many mortifying methods, fought [for] peace of conscience; but notwithstanding all, his troubles increased.’ It is nearly certain that Marshall’s spiritual melancholy was occasioned by the writings of Richard Baxter, the most verbose proponent of neonomianism in England in the seventeenth century.”[7]

Marshall was far from the first (and certainly not the last) to try to thread that theological needle. J.I. Packer commented, “Where the Puritan had said, Put sin out of your life, the Antinomian said, Put it out of your mind. Look at the law, consider your guilt, learn to hate sin and fear it and let it go, said the Puritan. Look away from the law and forget your sins and guilt, look away from yourself and stop worrying, said the Antinomian.”[8]

Vague or improper differentiations between the nature of justification and sanctification have almost always been the source of the errors of antinomian or neonomian extremes. Michael Christ notes, “The emphasis on justification raises fears one has diminished sanctification, and a robust doctrine of sanctification raises the suspicion that one has abandoned the Protestant principle of sola fide.”[9]  Both errors are outgrowths of the same root, as Sinclair Ferguson points out: “Although in one sense antinomianism is the ‘opposite’ error from legalism [neonomianism], in another sense it is the ‘equal’ error, for it similarly abstracts God’s law from God’s person and character (which undergoes no change from old to new covenant). It fails to appreciate that the law that condemns us for our sins was given to teach us how not to sin.”[10]

Marshall utilized fourteen “directions”, or chapters, to outline his discussion (with numerous sub-directives in each).  Beeke notes five lessons that can be gleaned from Marshall’s work:[11]

  1. The inseparability of union with Christ and sanctification.
  2. The inseparability of justification and sanctification.
  3. The inseparability of Christ and his Word.
  4. The inseparability of the mind and soul.
  5. The inseparability of the sacred and secular.

The first three themes are certainly found in Marshall; the last two are not as prominent.  Rather than being bound by two or three categories, we will examine multiple themes in The Gospel Mystery.  The hope is to gain a summary sense of Marshall’s arguments which we can then apply in our own understanding of sanctification.  The order in which these are treated is not identical to the order in which Marshall discusses them.

Defining Holiness/Sanctification

Marshall provides a concise definition of sanctification early in his work, stating,

“Sanctification, whereby our hearts and lives are conformed to the law, is a grace of God, communicated to us by means, as well as justification; and by means of teaching and learning something that we cannot see without the word.”[12]

Here we see that Marshall certainly defines sanctification in terms of its place in the ordo salutis.  John Fesko comments,

When we look more specifically at the different elements of the generally agreed view of the Reformed ordo salutis, every aspect of our redemption is coordinated with union with Christ: election (Eph 1:4), effectual calling (1 Pet 5: 10), faith (1 Cor 1:2), justification (Rom 8: 1), adoption (Gal 3:26), sanctification (John 15:5), perseverance (John 15:6a), and glorification (2 Cor 5:l7a). However, even though the entirety of our redemption consists of union with Christ, this does not mean that the applicatio salutis is simply an undifferentiated redemptive mass. [John] Murray explains: ‘When we think of the application of redemption we must not think of it as one simple and indivisible act. It comprises a series of acts and processes.’[13]

Marshall’s focus is more on the experiential side of the process, or what he here calls the spiritual nature of sanctification.

The scope of all is, to teach you how you may attain to that practice and manner of life which we call holiness, righteousness, or godliness, obedience, true religion; and which God requireth of us in the law, particularly in the moral law, summed up in the ten commandments, and more briefly in those two great commandments of love to God and our neighbour (Matt. xxii. 37, 39). … the holiness which I would bring you to, is spiritual (Rom. vii. 14). It consists not only in external works of piety and charity, but in the holy thoughts, imaginations, and affections of the soul, and chiefly in love; from whence all other good works must flow, or else they are not acceptable to God: not only in refraining the execution of sinful lusts, but in longing and delighting to do the will of God, and in a cheerful obedience to God, without repining, fretting, grudging, at any duty, as if it were a grievous yoke and burden to you.[14]

Though not a concise definition, we hear in it echoes from the Westminster Larger Catechism:

WLC 75 What is sanctification? A. Sanctification is a work of God’s grace, whereby they whom God hath, before the foundation of the world, chosen to be holy, are in time, through the powerful operation of his Spirit applying the death and resurrection of Christ unto them, renewed in their whole man after the image of God; having the seeds of repentance unto life, and all other saving graces, put into their hearts, and those graces so stirred up, increased and strengthened, as that they more and more die unto sin, and rise unto newness of life.

It is uncertain how much Marshall may have been influenced by the WCF and catechisms, but it seems likely he would have been conversant with its content.

In another place, Marshall discusses much of what does not constitute true sanctification.

(1) Many Christians content themselves with external performances, because they never knew how they might attain to spiritual service. (2) And many reject the way of holiness as austere and unpleasant, … (3) Many others set upon the practice of holiness with a fervent zeal, and run very fast; but tread not a step in the right way; and finding themselves frequently disappointed and overcome by their lusts, they at last give over the work and turn to wallow again in the mire: … (4) Some of the more ignorant zealots do inhumanly macerate their bodies with fasting, and other austerities, to kill their lusts; and, when they see their lusts are still too hard for them, they fall into despair, and are driven, by horror of conscience, to make away with themselves wickedly, to the scandal of religion.[15]

Such empty moralism is doomed to failure.[16] He further clarifies true and false holiness when he discusses the differences between the law and the gospel, but we see here that he attacks both extremes of antinomianism and neonomianism, showing that neither will lead to true holiness in the believer.

There is nothing novel in Marshall’s definition of sanctification.  What has made this work so appealing for many generations is its rich, experiential emphasis.

Nature of Sin

In dealing with the nature of mankind’s sin, Marshall is clear about the problem which besets us.  “Those that doubt of, or deny the doctrine of original sin, may all of them know concerning themselves (if their consciences be not blind) that the exact justice of God is against them, they are under the curse of God, and sentence of death, for their actual sins, if God should enter into judgment with them.”[17]  Sin, apart from the saving work of God, makes any true holiness impossible. “Original corruption (whereby we are dead to God) consisteth in a propensity and inclination of the heart to sin, and averseness to holiness.”[18]

Marshall’s work is aimed at those already saved. Its focus is certainly on sin post-justification (as will be discussed below), yet he makes it clear that apart from justification, there is no holiness.[19]  The two doctrines are interdependent. No fruitful discussion of sanctification can occur apart from a biblical understanding of sin.

Image of God

Sin cannot be defined adequately or biblically apart from a discussion of the holiness and justice of God.  While not extensive in his discussion of this doctrine (since it is not a systematic theology), yet Marshall does not ignore it. Marshall notes, “The image of God …consisteth in an actual bent and propensity of to the practice of holiness: not in a mere power of will to choose good or evil; for this, in itself, is neither holy nor unholy, but only a groundwork, on which either the image of God, or of Satan, may be drawn.”[20]  That God is holy in His nature makes for a stark contrast with our sin.  If God is not wholly holy, then sin becomes a mere character fault or flaw, and all morality is relative.  No holiness in God would mean no holiness in man, no hope of deliverance from sin whatsoever. We are recreated in this image (2 Cor. 3:18).[21]

Moral Law

Marshall agrees with a Reformed view of the third use of the law as an ongoing guide for our work of sanctification.  The law is not abrogated but instead is confirmed by and fulfilled in Christ. “The ten commandments bind us still, as they were then given to a people that were at that time under the covenant of grace made with Abraham, to show them that duties are holy, just, and good, well-pleasing to God, and to be a rule for their conversation.”[22] The Ten Commandments continue to serve as our guide in the new covenant. “Sincere obedience cannot be performed to all the commands of Christ in the gospel, except it be also performed to the moral law, as given by Moses, and as obliging us by that authority.”[23]

Marshall denies any sort of definitive or complete sanctification in this life.[24]  But he does not shy away from the demand to be holy. “The holiness aimed at, consisteth in conformity to the whole moral law, to which we are naturally obliged, if there had never been any gospel, or any such duty as believing in Christ for salvation.”[25] Inability to reach the goal does not negate striving for it.  He goes on to deal with our ability at some length.

Ability to Keep the Law

First, Marshall clearly shows our problem. “We are all, by nature, void of all strength and ability to perform acceptably that holiness and righteousness which the law requireth, and are dead in trespasses and sins, and children of wrath, by the sin of our first father, Adam.”[26]  Therefore a change in our nature must occur in order for us to gain any ability to keep the law.  “In the first place, I assert, that an inclination and propensity of heart, to the duties of the law, is necessary to frame and enable us for the immediate practice of them.”[27]

Marshall further explains the problem of our unregenerate will:

Neither is the will so free as is necessary for the practice of holiness, until it be endued with an inclination and propensity thereunto; as may appear by the following arguments. …First: The duties of the law are of such a nature, that they cannot possibly be performed while there is wholly an aversion or mere indifferency of the heart to the performance of them, and no good inclination and propensity towards the practice of them: because the chief of all the commandments is to love the Lord with our whole heart, might, and soul; to love everything that is in him; to love his will, and all his ways, and to like them as good.[28]

Not only must our hearts be reborn of God, but there must also be a cleansing from sin. “Doubtless there can be no power in the will for this kind of service, without an agreeableness of our inclination to the will of God, a heart according to his own heart, an aversion of our hearts from sin, and a kind of antipathy against sin: … Love to God must flow from a clean heart (l Tim. i. 5); a heart cleaned from evil propensities and inclinations.”[29] Certainly Marshall would agree with the imputation of Christ’s righteousness as a part of our justification, but his description here offers a more experiential aspect to that imputation and how it begets the transformation which makes sanctification possible.  Such a cleansed heart is now able to desire holiness and to strive for it.

He uses the now rare term of ‘quickening’ to describe the process:

We are, by nature, dead in trespasses and sins, unable to will or do anything that is spiritually good, notwithstanding the redemption that is by Christ until we be actually quickened by Christ …whosoever can courageously attempt the practice of the law, without being well persuaded of a sufficient power, whereby he may be enabled to be heartily willing, as well as to perform when he is willing, until he hath gone through the whole work of obedience acceptably: such a one was never yet truly humbled, and brought to know the plague of his own heart; neither doth he truly believe the doctrine of original sin, whatever formal profession he makes of it.[30]

While quickening is usually thought of as a facet of justification, it is also a bridge between justification and sanctification, for we are made alive that we might walk in holy living (Col. 2:13-14; Eph. 2:8-10; Titus 2:14).  Unless the Spirit continually works to stir up a desire to please the Lord, we all too easily fall again into sin (Phil. 1:6; 2 Cor. 4:16).

Marshall shows how our new birth then creates an awareness of our impotence apart from God’s work in us. “Those that 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.”[31]  Likely as a rebuke to neonomianism, he notes the significance of the difficulty of keeping the law apart from God’s work in us, saying, “If a man’s ability were the measure of acceptable duty, the commands of the law would signify very little.”[32]

While we now have the ability as believers to keep the law to some degree, Marshall does not skirt the difficulties of sanctification.  “Those that think sincere conformity to the law, in ordinary cases, to be so very easy, show that they neither know it nor themselves.”[33] Thus he will go on to speak of the duties of sanctification.

Duties of Sanctification

Marshall does not shy away from using the idea of duty in our sanctification.  While he affirms God’s initiative in sanctification as well as in justification, yet our responsibility remains.

The principal duties of love to God above all, and to each other …are the chief works for which we were at first framed in the image of God, …  They are works which depend not merely on the sovereignty of the will of God, to be commanded or forbidden, or left indifferent, or changed, or abolished at his pleasure, as other works that belong either to the judicial or ceremonial law, or to the means of salvation prescribed by the gospel; but they are, in their own nature, holy, just, and, good (Rom. vii. 12), and meet for us to perform because of our natural relation to our Creator and fellow creatures; so that they have an inseparable dependence upon the holiness of the will of God, and an indispensable establishment thereby.[34]

This duty is a relational duty, the duty of the adopted sons and daughters of God.  God does indeed establish the duties and our ability to keep them, but this does not remove our obligation to work.

Such duties are shown to be duties not of mere legal obligation, but of love toward God.  “The nature of the duties of the law is such, as requireth an apprehension of our reconciliation with God, and his hearty love and favour towards us for the doing of them. The great duty is love to God with our whole heart, …a practical love whereby we are willing, that God should be absolute Lord and governor of us and all the world, to dispose of us and all others according to his will.”[35]

Marshall paints a beautiful picture of how God’s love forms the basis of our obedience in love, stating, “the duty of love cannot be extorted and forced by fear, but it must be won, and sweetly allured by an apprehension of God’s love and goodness towards us; as that eminent, loving, and beloved disciple testifieth (1 John iv. 18, 19).”[36] He expands upon the love of God as a part of this gospel mystery at work in us.

Love of God and For God

To grow in grace, we must be assured of God’s love toward us. This provides the only proper hope and motivation for sanctification.

True hope is grounded in God only, that he will bless us, that he may be an anchor for the soul, sure and steadfast (Heb. vi. 17, 18, 19). If you trust, rely, and stay yourselves on Christ, or hope in him, without assuring yourselves at all of salvation by him, you make no better use of him, than if he were a broken reed; and, if you would stay yourselves on the Lord, you must look upon him as your God; as the prophet teacheth, ‘Let him trust in the name of the Lord, and stay upon his God (Isa. l. 10). If you will rest in the Lord, you must believe that he dealeth bountifully with you (Ps. cxvi. 7); or else, for ought you know, you may make your bed in hell.[37]

Our assurance of salvation is a necessary ingredient in our sanctification, even if less than perfect.  This was a critical point in Marshall’s personal understanding of his position before the Lord.

We see this apprehension of God’s love further described. “God hath abundantly discovered to us in his word, that his method in bringing men from sin to holiness of life, is, first to make them know that he loveth them, and that their sins are blotted out.[38]

This is an apprehension which ought to grow over time. “The more good and beneficial we apprehend God to us to all eternity, doubtless the more lovely God will be to us, and our affections will be the more inflamed towards him.”[39]

Marshall makes it clear that our desire is not holiness for its own sake, but a coming to Christ for all things in our lives.  Sanctification will proceed only out of a growing love for Christ.

Another thing to be observed diligently, is, that you must come to Christ for a new holy heart and life, and all things necessary thereunto, as well as for deliverance from the wrath of God and the torments of hell. You must also come to him with an ardent love and affection to him, and esteem him better than a thousand worlds, and the only excellent portion, loathing and abhorring yourself, as a vile, sinful, and miserable creature, and accounting all things dung in comparison of his excellency; that you may be able to say, from the bottom of your heart, ‘Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides thee” (Ps. lxxiii. 25).[40]

While we are indeed responsible to grow in holiness as we grow in love toward God, He does not leave us without the means to grow in grace.

Means of Grace

Marshall begins by showing the shortcomings of natural revelation. “Though Heathens might know much of the work of the law by the common light of natural reason and understanding (Rom. ii. 14); yet the effectual means of performance cannot be discovered by that light and therefore are wholly to be learned by the teaching of supernatural revelation.”[41] Thus apart from God’s justification, there will be no obedience to the law.

His initial definition of sanctification is again useful: “Sanctification, whereby our hearts and lives are conformed to the law, is a grace of God, communicated to us by means, as well as justification; and by means of teaching, and learning something that we cannot see without the word.”[42] The taught word of God is how we know the ways of righteousness as believers. “God hath given, in the holy scriptures by his inspiration, plentiful instruction in righteousness, that we may be thoroughly furnished for every good work (2 Tim. iii. 16, 17). … The way of attaining to godliness is so far from being known without learning out of the holy scriptures, that, when it is here plainly revealed, we cannot learn it so easily as the duties of the law.”[43]

Marshall confirms that there is no holiness apart from the means God appoints:

Though all holiness be effectually attained, by the life of faith in Christ, yet the use of any means appointed in the word for attaining and promoting holiness, is not hereby made void, but rather established. …We must use them [means] as helps to the life of faith, in its beginning, continuance, and growth; and as instruments subservient to faith, the principal instrument, in all it acts and exercises, whereby the soul receiveth Christ, and walketh in all holiness by him.[44]

The Word is the primary means of grace he has in mind here.  God’s grace is a revelatory grace which found its final fulfillment in Christ.  Our confidence then is not in the Bible itself but the Bible as God’s Word given to His people for such a purpose. “The certain knowledge of these powerful and effectual means, is of the greatest importance and necessity for our establishment in the true faith, and avoiding errors contrary thereunto.”[45] This means is sufficient both for our justification and sanctification.  It is the foundation upon which everything is laid. “God giveth us sufficient ground in scripture to come to Christ with confident faith, at the very first; trusting assuredly that Christ and his salvation shall be given to us, without any failing and delay, however vile and sinful our condition hath been hitherto.”[46]

Preaching About Holiness

Marshall does not spend much time discussing the centrality of the preached Word.  It seems rather to be an underlying assumption.  Since the Word is God’s means of grace, the preaching of the Word is integral to the Christian life.  Yet confused preaching can mislead the flock.

The enquiry of most, when they begin to have a sense of religion, is, What good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? (Matt. xix. 16); not How shall I be enabled to do anything that is good? Yea, many that are accounted powerful preachers, spend all their zeal in the earnest pressing the immediate practice of the law, without any discovery of the effectual means of performance: as if the works of righteousness were like those servile employments, that need no skill and artifice at all, but industry and activity.[47]

Preaching that is based on an improper understanding of the nature of our sanctification can do far more harm than good to the flock.  If our preaching is to be effective, it must be Biblical in all respects.

What then is the goal of preaching as it relates to sanctification? Marshall states:

…the design of our preaching is not, to bring [the unsaved] to holiness in their natural state, but to raise them above it, and to present them perfect in Christ, in the performance of those duties (Col. 1. 28). And though they cannot perform those duties by their natural strength; yet the gospel is made effectual for their conversion and salvation, by the power of the Holy Ghost, which accompanieth the preaching of it, to quicken those that are dead in sin, and to create them anew in Christ, by giving to them repentance unto life, and a lively faith in Christ.[48]

Biblical preaching which challenges believers to greater progress in holiness must both convict and encourage.  There is a clear goal – to be like Christ as much as is possible this side of glory. This preached Word also establishes us by faith in our sanctification.

Faith and Sanctification

Marshall emphasizes the instrumentality of faith not only in justification but also in sanctification.  “It is also of great importance and necessity for our establishment in holy practice; for we cannot apply ourselves to the practice of holiness, with hope of success, except we have some faith concerning the divine assistance, which we have no ground to expect, if we use not such means as God hath appointed to work by.”[49] Trusting in the faithfulness of God’s help both flows from and bolsters our assurance in Him. “It is also a great and necessary office of saving faith, to purify our heart, and to enable us to live and walk in the practice of all holy duties, by the grace of Christ, and by Christ himself living in us, as hath been showed before; which office faith is not able to perform, except some assurance of our own interest in Christ, and his salvation, be comprehended in the nature of it.”[50]  We will see more below from Marshall concerning assurance.

Marshall ties faith with our love for God in the midst of sanctification. “A love to the salvation of God, and to the free gift of holiness, is included in the nature of faith; so that it cannot be hearty without it. Act faith first, and the apprehension of God’s love to thy soul will sweetly allure and constrain thee to love God and his service universally.”[51] Michael Christ points to the critical place Marshall gives to faith in this process:

A critical part of Marshall’s pastoral theology appears in the last section of the body of the book, in which he gives directions for living a sanctified life by faith. He begins direction 13, the penultimate one, by stressing the centrality of faith. Holy actions are not accomplished by brute force but through the skill of living by faith. …Believers belong to the new age, and yet they live in the old. They must exercise faith in the future promise, even as their experiences fall short of the full glory to come. Understanding this provides believers with the ability to be concerned about their sin, but not to let their sin overwhelm them. …In direction 14, the last, Marshall explains how to strengthen one’s faith by the means of grace. These “means” include prayer, Scripture reading, fellowship with other believers, and the sacraments. These practices strengthen believers in their faith, which thereby increases them in holiness.[52]

To grow in holiness is to grow in love for Christ; the two things are inseparable.

Reconciliation and Justification

Marshall reflects on the impact of our justification for our ongoing holiness. “Observe here, that though Christ died, that we might be justified by the righteousness of God and not by our own righteousness, which is of the law (Rom. 5, 6; Phil. iii. 9.); yet he died also, that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, and that by walking after his Spirit, as those that are in Christ.”[53]  This new man is thus enabled to walk in new ways. “Our conscience must of necessity be first purged from dead works, that we may serve the living God. And this is done by actual remission of sin, procured by the blood of Christ, and manifested to our consciences; as appeared by Christ’s dying for this end.”[54]

Marshall is clearly affirming the Reformed consensus on the ordo salutis, but his main emphasis remains an experiential one. “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.”[55] He once more condemns any neonomian leanings by affirming the true nature of justification as monergistic, apart from any works of the law.

Fourthly: God restoreth his people to holiness, by giving to them a new heart, and a new Spirit, and taking away the heart of stone out of their flesh, and giving them an heart of flesh (Ezek. xxxvi. 26, 27); and he circumciseth their heart to love him with their whole heart and soul. …neither can the true practice of holiness be secure, except the persuasion of our justification, and reconciliation with God, be first obtained without works of the law, that we may be enabled thereby to do them.[56]

Apart from such an affirmation, one becomes mired in a conflation of justification and sanctification, never finding any assurance of our standing with God.

Sanctification, while something in which believers participate, is still firstly a work of God’s grace.  Fesko reflects:

First, Christ through the Spirit sanctifies and conforms the believer to his holy image; the believer does not sanctify herself. … Second, if Christ through the Spirit sanctifies, then sanctification is by faith alone in Christ alone. … Sola fide takes the introspective gaze of sinful humanity and turns it extrospectively to Christ. The same is true of sanctification — we are not sanctified by our own obedience but by the work of Christ through the Spirit as we look upon him by faith.[57]

Marshall affirms throughout that God is the initiator of our sanctification.

Perhaps contrary to some antinomian thoughts that good works are mere grudging duties,  Marshall also connects our happiness with our sanctification.

I have showed, that we must have a good persuasion of our reconciliation with God, and of our happiness in heaven and of our sufficient strength both to will and to do that which is acceptable to God through Jesus Christ, that we may be rationally inclined and bent to the practice of holiness; and that these endowments must be had, by receiving Christ himself, with his Spirit, and all his fullness, by trusting on him for all his salvation, as he is freely promised to us in the gospel; and that by this faith we do as really receive Christ, as our food by eating and drinking.[58]

Our assurance and happiness in Christ incline our hearts to growth in grace.  Such an emphasis may be missing for many believers.  We ought instead to be like Jesus, “…My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” (John 4:34)

This sort of unity of spirit with our Lord comes from our union with Him.

Union with Christ

Perhaps more than any other focus, Marshall’s work is beneficial to believers for the connection he makes between our union with Christ and our sanctification. He points to the clear teaching of scripture about this mystical union.

Particularly, this union between Christ and believers, is plain in several places of scripture, affirming Christ is, and dwelleth in believers, and they in him (John vi and xiv. 20); and that they are so joined together as to become one Spirit (1 Cor. vi. 17); and that believers are members of Christ’s body, of his flesh, and of his bones and they two, Christ and the Church, are one flesh (Eph. v. 30, 31).[59]

This indeed is the gospel mystery which undergirds Marshall’s work.

In relation to Marshall’s efforts to avoid erroneous emphases on sanctification, Michael Christ notes,

Broadly similar to John Calvin and John Owen, Marshall argues that justification occurs only in Christ, and to be in Christ for justification necessitates also being in Christ for sanctification. …The doctrine of union with Christ provided him with two limiting concepts that counter antinomianism and neonomianism.

First, to counter antinomianism, Marshall proposed the organic connection between justification and sanctification. That believers enter into salvation by grace apart from works is affirmed; but that believers live out salvation apart from works is rigorously denied. Holiness is an essential part of salvation, not because it is a condition for it but because it is a part of it. … complete rescue from the fall (i.e., salvation) requires a new nature in which humans are renewed in the image of God (i.e., sanctification).

Marshall also recognized that believers receive this nature in union with Christ in the context of an eschatological framework. The believer is fully in Christ and thereby decisively new in Christ, but what being in Christ entails is only partially realized. The full salvation, including complete holiness, must await heaven, when the believer’s union with Christ is openly manifested.[60]

Ferguson adds similar comments, “There is only one genuine cure for legalism. It is the same medicine the gospel prescribes for antinomianism: understanding and tasting union with Jesus Christ himself.  This leads to a new love for and obedience to the law of God, which he now mediates to us in the gospel. This alone breaks the bonds of both legalism …and antinomianism.”[61]  This touches on the experiential Christian life which is centered in Christ.

Our union with Christ has clear ramifications for our spiritual lives.

Christ aimed at the 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.[62]

Marshall makes it clear that union with Christ is not an end in itself but rather the beginning of a new orientation of our wills.

Michael Christ brings out a fascinating point about Marshall’s views on Christ as the bridegroom:

Marshall emphasizes that through union with Christ, believers actually receive the bridegroom. Christ himself – who became incarnate, died, and rose again in glory –  is the central benefit of this union. …Thus, the benefits can in no way be separated from the person. Marshall’s theology holds together justification and sanctification because the chief benefit of salvation is Christ, who, in his person, brings both gifts to the believer. The framework of union with Christ allows Marshall to dwell at length on the implications of justification without justification becoming the central benefit in salvation and therefore eclipsing the need for sanctification in one’s life.[63]

This is a very organic, relational view of the gospel, and indeed a biblical one.

This new nature and will that are given to us in Christ enable us to live like Him. “The end of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection was, to prepare and form a holy nature and frame for us in himself to be communicated to us by union and fellowship with him; and not to enable us to produce in ourselves the first original of such a holy nature by our own endeavours.”[64] Our holiness was the goal of the Son’s incarnation.  As Paul notes, “And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him” (Col. 1:21-22).

In this way, Marshall points out that Christ initiated our sanctification as much as our justification.

…we are not ourselves the first makers and formers of our new holy nature, any more than of our original corruption; but both are formed ready for us to partake of them. And, by union with Christ, we partake of that spiritual life that he took possession of for us at his resurrection, and thereby we are enabled to bring forth the fruits of it; as the scripture showeth by the similitude of a marriage union (Rom. vii. 4). We are married to him that is risen from the dead, that we might bring forth fruit unto God.[65]

This does not negate our participation in our sanctification; instead, it establishes it.

Our union with our Savior through the Holy Spirit inclines and empowers us to seek after holiness. “If we be joined to Christ, our hearts will be no longer left under the power of sinful inclinations, or in a mere indifferency of inclination to good or evil; but they will be powerfully endowed with a power, bent, and propensity to the practice of holiness, by the Spirit of Christ dwelling in us, and inclining us to mind spiritual things and to lust against the flesh.”[66]   There should be evident desire and progress in holiness in the lives of believers rather than stagnation or indifference.  Since there is no definitive (completed) sanctification in this life, we are always to be striving for progress in holiness.

Marshall speaks of this union with Christ in terms of a privilege to us. “It is by our being in Christ, and having Christ himself in us; and that not merely by his universal preference as he is God, but by such a close union, as that we are one spirit and one flesh with him; which is a privilege to those who are truly sanctified.”[67] He further clarifies what this entails, stating, “Our union with Christ … is not a privilege procured by our sincere obedience and holiness, as some may imagine, or a reward of good works, reserved for us in another world; but it is a privilege bestowed upon believers in their very first entrance into a holy state, on which all ability to do good works doth depend, and all sincere obedience to the law doth follow after it, as fruit produced by it.”[68]  We too seldom think upon let alone preach about the privileges of being in Christ.

Speaking of this union as a privilege may strike our ears as odd. But when we think of it also in terms of our adoption in Christ, then the language does indeed ring true since we have an inheritance in Him.  Paul speaks of this often and prays in Ephesians 1, “having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Eph. 1:18).  Peter also speaks to this: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Pet. 1:3-4).

Marshall reaffirms the place of sanctification and union with Christ in the ordo salutis. “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 Ghost; and, in that order, seek it earnestly by Faith, as a very necessary part of your salvation.”[69] Once more we see the desire to steer between the errors of antinomianism and neonomianism.[70]

Thinking of our union with Christ gives us great encouragement.  “Believing on Christ for salvation, as freely promised to us, must needs include a dependence on Christ, with a persuasion, that salvation shall be freely given, as it is freely promised to us.”[71] This union is affected by the Holy Spirit, giving us hope of progress.

Hope of Growth

To pursue holiness day by day in the face of our own sin and the temptations around us requires a firm belief that we will be supplied with the strength to do so. “The wisdom of God hath ever furnished people with a good persuasion of a sufficient strength, that they might be enabled both to will and do their duty.”[72] This does not mean we will not have doubts, nor will we succeed at every turn.  We are to remember, as Paul prays, “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might” (Eph. 1:17-19).

Indeed, we ought not despair, remembering our standing in Christ.

The true way of mortifying sin, and quickening themselves to holiness, is by receiving a new nature out of the fulness of Christ; and that we do no more to the production of a new nature, than of original sin, though we do more to the reception of it; if they knew this, they might save themselves many a bitter agony, and a great deal of misspent burdensome labour, and employ their endeavours to enter in at the straight gate, in such a way as would be more pleasant and successful.[73]

Again, Marshall is not saying we add no effort to our sanctification, nor is it definitive.  But we build upon the foundation of the fullness of our salvation in Christ and union with him.

This brings Marshall again to the great mystery of this work of God in His people.

Here, as much as anywhere, we have great cause to acknowledge, with the apostle, that, without controversy, great is the mystery of godliness, even so great, that it could not have entered into the mind of man to conceive it, if God had not made it known in the gospel by supernatural revelation. Yea, though it be revealed clearly in the holy scriptures, yet the natural man hath eyes to see it there; for it is foolishness to him: and, if God express it ever so plainly and properly, he will think that God is speaking riddles and parables.[74]

Truly it is a mystery that we who once were dead in our sin are now able to walk in holiness and be formed in the image of Christ.  “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18).

Marshall expands upon this thought by comparing our nature, that of the first Adam, and the nature of the second Adam.

One great mystery is, that the holy frame and disposition whereby our souls furnished and enabled for immediate practice of the law, 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 we are 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, and derived from him to us, or as it were propagated.  So that we are not at all to work together with 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 i. 1, 2, 3).[75]

Though some might see almost an affirmation of definitive sanctification here by means of an imputation of holiness in both justification and sanctification, that conclusion is unfounded.  Marshall speaks of an impartation of holiness, but he hearkens back to our union with Christ and how that forms the foundation of our sanctification.  It is much as scripture says, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).  Perhaps he strives too much here to counter neonomianism.  But, if we read this in light of his expansive comments on union with Christ, we get a truer picture of Marshall’s intent.

Hope of Reward

Marshall also speaks of the present and future hope of rewards as a factor in our growth in holiness.  Here again we see the experiential emphasis.

Now, mark well the great advantages you have for the attainment of holiness, by seeking it in a right gospel order.  You will have the advantage of the love of God manifested toward you, in forgiving your sins, receiving you into favour, and giving you the spirit of adoption, and the hope of his glory, freely, through Christ, to persuade and constrain you, by sweet allurements, to love God again, who hath so dearly loved you, and to love others for his sake, and to give up yourselves to the obedience of all his commands out of hearty love to him; you will also enjoy the help of the Spirit of God, to include you powerfully unto obedience, and to strengthen you for the performance of it against all your corruptions.[76]

The present benefits are many, and they are founded in and enabled by the love of God toward us.

Yet the future hope of reward is also essential to our holy conduct. “The …endowment necessary to enable us for the practice of holiness, …is, that we be persuaded of our future enjoyment of the everlasting heavenly happiness. This must precede our holy practice, as a cause disposing an alluring us to it. … The nature of the duties of the law, is such, that they cannot be sincerely and universally practised without this endowment.”[77] This future hope, rather than causing apathy or laxness, instead spurs us on toward the prize. “The sure hope of the glory of heaven, is made use of ordinarily by God, since the fall of Adam, as an encouragement to the practice of holiness; as the scripture doth abundantly show. Christ, the great pattern of holiness, for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame (Heb. xii.2).”[78]

He utilizes an interesting illustration from worldly work. “As worldly hope keepeth the world at work in their various employments; so God giveth his people the hope of his glory, to keep them close to his service … Those that think it below the excellency of their love, to work from a hope of the heavenly reward, do thereby advance their love beyond the love of the apostles and primitive saints and even of Christ himself.”[79]  In addition, to show that even the Lord Himself looked toward a future reward for His work is indeed a powerful picture to encourage believers in their striving for holiness.

Fruits of Holiness

Our increasing holiness does indeed have tangible, present benefits though. Marshall comments:

Justification, the gift of the Spirit to dwell in us, the privileges of adoption, are parts of our salvation, which we partake of in this life.  Thus also, the conformity of our hearts to the law of God, and the fruits of righteousness with which we are filled by Jesus Christ, in this life, are a necessary part of our salvation – God saveth us from our sinful uncleanness here, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost, as well as from hell hereafter. …Conclude we then, that holiness in this life is absolutely necessary for salvation, not only as a means to the end, but by a nobler kind of necessity, as part of the end itself.[80]

Sanctification, as much as justification, is bound up in the entirety of our salvation, beginning in this present life.   The washing and renewing of the Holy Spirit is integral to this, producing conformity of our hearts to the will of God.  This is not some continual search for a ‘second blessing,’ but a daily appropriation of what is already ours in union with Christ.

So, it is no surprise that Marshall would be incredulous at Christians who have no care or concern for sanctification.

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. …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. i. 13).[81]

Such a state of mind could have several causes which in general could be summarized as forgetting our benefits in Christ (cf. Psalm 103:2). Forgetting our justification, our adoption, our union with our Savior – all these things can easily lead to spiritual malaise and indifference.

Assurance and Comfort

One other important factor in our motivation to grow in holiness is our assurance of salvation, which we’ve already noted was an area Marshall himself struggled with for some time. While calling Marshall’s discussion of assurance ‘unique’ would be a stretch, yet his discussion of it is different from many others before or since his time. Beeke comments, “as Marshall repeatedly emphasized, if you are a believer, you are united with Christ. What you need is not a new experience, but to draw more deeply upon Christ. The emphasis in Marshall’s writing is always upon understanding and living by that which God has already so gloriously given in Jesus Christ.  Marshall did not proceed by promoting dissatisfaction. Rather, he started and ended with satisfaction in and with Christ. Christ alone is sufficient.”[82] This is a transformative reassurance for believers.

Michael Christ shows how differently Marshall’s described assurance:

Marshall’s uniqueness is also evident in the way he inverts the typical question related to assurance: instead of asking, “How do I get the kind of sanctification that will give me assurance?” he asks, “How do I get the kind of assurance that will give me sanctification?” Marshall admits that the first question — which puts assurance after sanctification — is legitimate because there is a sense in which assurance flows from sanctification, but he leads with the idea that a sense of assurance is grounded in faith because he sees assurance as a precondition for sanctification. By doing this, Marshall averts both prominent errors of his day: he avoids neonomianism by stressing that assurance is possible and foundational; he also avoids antinomianism by showing that the goal of assurance is not merely to leave people assured but to lead them into holiness.[83]

This sort of reverse approach to the relation between assurance and sanctification is not only personal for Marshall but pastoral.  If we pursue assurance for its own sake, we distort other doctrine in the process.

To avoid this, Marshall describes assurance in relation to the gospel:

It is evident, that those comforts of the gospel, that are necessary to a holy practice, cannot be truly received without some assurance of our interest in Christ and his salvation; for some of those comforts consist in a good persuasion of our reconciliation with God, and of our future heavenly happiness, and of strength both to will and to do that which is acceptable to God through Christ; as he hath been before showed. Hence it will clearly follow, that this assurance is very necessary, to enable us for the duties of the law, in order of nature, as the cause goeth before the effect, though not in any distance of time.  My present work is, to show, what this assurance is, that is so necessary unto holiness, and which I have here asserted we must act, in that very faith whereby we receive Christ himself into our hearts, even in justifying saving faith.[84]

Note he does not say we need complete or perfect assurance (cf. WCF 18).  Yet there should be some assurance of being united to Christ in order to work for greater holiness through the law.

Ferguson makes the same connection between faith and assurance:

It bears repeating: assurance of salvation is the fruit of faith in Christ. Christ is able to and does, in fact, save all those who come to him through faith. Since faith is fiducia, trust in Christ as the one who is able to save, there is a certain confidence and assurance seminally inherent in faith. The act of faith, therefore, contains within it the seed of assurance. Indeed, faith in its first exercise is an assurance about Christ. This dimension of assurance is therefore implicit in faith.[85]

Thus, one cannot exist without the other in some degree. Marshall freely admits that we may experience doubts at times “Beware of thinking so highly of this assurance, as if it were inconsistent with any doubting in the same soul.”[86]

Michael Christ comments on how assurance ties into both justification and sanctification.

Sanctification, however, does not eclipse justification either, because Marshall’s other limiting concept is that some sense of assurance precedes sanctification. This notion prohibits neonomianism. …Moreover, because human beings in their fallen condition know themselves to be under the wrath of God, it is impossible for them to move voluntarily toward God without first experiencing a change that relieves them from fearing God’s wrath any longer. Apart from reconciliation in Christ, a person can no more love God than a criminal can love his executioner. Thus, before believers display any holiness, they must have confidence in God’s disposition to look upon them favorably. This confidence is obtained only through the knowledge of union with Christ and its accompanying justification.[87]

Given what we’ve already seen from Marshall, this seems to be an accurate assessment.

The hope of future reward is also connected to assurance, both present and future assurance. “I do not make the only place of gospel-comfort to be before the duties of the law.  I acknowledge, that God comforteth his people on every side (Ps. lxxi. 21), both before and also after the performance of their duty; and that the general consolations do follow after duty; yet some comforts God giveth to his people beforehand, as advance money, to furnish them for his service, though most of the pay comes in afterward.”[88]

God’s gracious comfort and the assurance He gives us work to spur us onward in our pursuit of holiness, encouraging us in the ups and downs of that pursuit.

As we grow in holiness, there should be tangible comforts. “Can the glad tidings of the gospel of peace be believed, and Christ and his Spirit actually received into the heart, without any relief to the soul from oppressing fear, grief, and despair? Can the salvation of Christ be comfortless, or the bread and the water of life without any sweet relish, to those that feed upon him, with hungering and thirsting appetites?”[89]  This peace of heart is a part of our assurance, lest assurance be thought of as a mere acknowledgement of our minds.  Marshall’s pastoral concern is very evident in these statements.

He also addresses the antinomian concerns about assurance, that it leads to licentiousness or false comfort. “The assurance directed unto, is not a persuasion of our salvation, whatever we do, or however we live and walk; but only in a limited way, through mere free grace in Christ, by partaking of holiness as well as forgiveness, and by walking in the way of holiness to the enjoyment of the glory of God.”[90] Forgiveness is offered when we fail, but it does not breed laxity. “Assurance …will not destroy religious fear, and breed carnal security; but rather it will make us fear going aside from Christ our only refuge and security, walking after the flesh.”[91]

Marshall lastly cautions against thinking of assurance in subjective terms. “In the last place, let it be observed, that the reason why we are to assure ourselves in our faith, that ‘God freely giveth Christ and salvation to us particularly,’ is not because it is a truth before we believe it, but because it becometh a certain truth when we believe it, and because it will never be true, except we do, in some measure, persuade and assure ourselves that it is so.”[92] Assurance is first and foremost anchored in the work of Christ, not in our own works.  Neither is not to be pursued for its own sake. Here too, faith is critical to placing it in proper perspective.

Law and Gospel

Marshall’s book seeks to counter both antinomian and neonomian extremes in misunderstanding the gospel. He offers a very helpful summary to that end. “The difference between the law and the gospel doth not at all consist in this, that the one requireth perfect doing; the other, only sincere doing; but in this, that the one requireth doing, the other, not doing, but believing for life and salvation.”[93] In this definition he seeks to clarify the difference between justification and sanctification over against the law.

J.V. Fesko reflects on Marshall’s anchoring of sanctification in the gospel:

Marshall’s point, one based upon Paul’s explanation of the differences between the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants is this: the Mosaic covenant is incompatible with the eschaton. The believer’s holiness is not found in the imperative of, ‘Be holy as I am holy’ (Lev 19:2; cf. 1 Pet 1:3-16), nor is it the command to circumcise one’s own heart (Deut 10:16) and to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength (Deut 6:4-6). Rather through the Abrahamic and new covenant these imperatives become indicatives, or promises: ‘The LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live’ (Deut 30:6). God would give these promises through his Messiah and the outpouring of his Spirit upon his people (Jer 31:31; Rom 8; Gal 3:14).

… The answer to the Galatians’ quest for holiness, whether in their justification or sanctification, lies not in their observance of the law but in their union with Christ. Again, knowing the context of our sanctification drives us to the necessary conclusion that our union with Christ is vital to our sanctification.[94]

Faith precedes works, justification before sanctification.  It is simply the classic Reformed understanding of the third use of the law expounded in a pastoral application.

This indeed continues to go against the sinful inclinations of the human heart. “Seeing man did not use his natural knowledge and wisdom aright, God is resolved to revenge the abuse of it, by giving us salvation in a way contrary to it, that seemeth foolishness to the natural man; and wholly to abolish the way of living by any of our works, or by any wisdom or knowledge that the natural man can attain unto. [1 Cor. 1:19-21]”[95]  Seeking to achieve salvation by works is foolhardy and alien to the gospel. “Those that endeavor to procure Christ’s salvation, by their sincere obedience to all the commands of Christ, do act contrary to that way of salvation by Christ, free grace, and faith, discovered in the gospel, though they own it in profession ever so highly.”[96]

Once again, the true gospel does not lead to a licentious attitude, of sinning that grace may abound (Rom. 6:1).

This persuasion of our future enjoyment of everlasting happiness cannot tend to licentiousness, if we understand well, that perfect holiness is a necessary part of that happiness, and that though we have a title to that happiness by free justification, and adoption, yet we must go to the possession of it in a way of holiness (1 John iii. 1, 2, 3). Neither is it legal or mercenary, to be moved by this persuasion; seeing the persuasion itself is not gotten by the works of the law, but by free grace through (Gal. v. 5).

….this comfortable [i.e., comforting] persuasion of our justification and future happiness, and all saving privileges cannot tend to licentiousness, as it is given only in this way of union with Christ; because it is joined inseparably with the gift of sanctification, by the Spirit of Christ, so that we cannot have justification, or any saving privilege in Christ, except we receive Christ himself, and his holiness, as well as any other benefit; as the scripture testifieth, that, There is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit (Rom. viii. 1).[97]

This balanced description is yet another example of the value of Marshall’s work to so many Christian readers over time.

Ultimately, we are to love godliness out of a love for Christ and His free grace.

Most of those that live under the hearing and profession of the gospel, are not brought to hate sin as sin, and to love godliness for itself, though they be convinced of the necessity of it to salvation; and therefore they cannot love it heartily. …the zeal and love that they have for God and godliness, their self-denial, sorrow for sin, strictness of life, are in a manner forced and extorted from them by slavish fear, and mercenary hope; so that they are afraid, that, if they should trust on Christ for salvation, by free grace without works, the fire of their zeal and devotion would be quickly extinguished, and they should grow careless in religion, and let loose the reins of their lusts, and bring certain damnation upon themselves.[98]

There is no gospel without godliness, no grace which lacks the fruits of holiness.  Once we have believed on Christ for our justification, our sanctification ought to flow naturally from this new life. Beeke summarizes, “We must also vigorously promote a biblically based religion in which both justification and sanctification are experienced.  As it is essential to be united with Christ in justification, so it is essential that we know Him experientially in sanctification. The religion of Marshall and the Puritans was filled with vitality because it encompassed both.”[99]


Marshall approached his discussion in a conscious attempt to avoid distorted views of sanctification prevalent in his day.  Michael Christ points to rationalism as a major cause of such distortions. “Marshall also saw that antinomianism and neonomianism shared an essential common feature: rationalism. Marshall rejects rationalism in favor of the epistemological approach that was normative among the Reformed orthodox.”[100]  This doesn’t mean Marshall’s approach was anti-rational.

But neither did Marshall descend into a form of mysticism.  Fesko notes,

The key to comprehending the doctrine of sanctification lies in the recognition that believers are sanctified by Christ working through the Holy Spirit. In a word, our sanctification comes through our union with Christ. John Webster explains: “A Christian dogmatics of holiness is not metaphysic, because the holy God, reaching out into the world in Son and Spirit, is the sanctifier; nor is it mysticism (or moralism), because human reality is holy-only in dependence upon the Spirit of the Son who makes holy.”[101]

Marshall sought to approach his discussion without attempting to achieve a rationalistic precision.

For Marshall there has to be a degree of ‘gospel mystery’ in the discussion.  Michael Christ continues:

…for Marshall, reason was not magisterial. Scripture was the principium cognoscendi (principle of knowledge). Thus, Marshall began his understanding of union with Christ by recognizing that it — like the hypostatic union and the Trinity — is “beyond our comprehension” and that “we cannot frame an exact idea of the manner of any of these three unions in our imaginations.” Because these unions are beyond human comprehension, the human “judgment of sense” cannot be the final arbitrator concerning the truth of them. “Yet,” Marshall insists, “we have cause to believe them all because they are clearly revealed in Scripture.” …This theological method, which recognized the magisterial authority of Scripture, prevented him from following one implication of union with Christ in such a way that it would contradict or overshadow another. Thus, Marshall fought a two-front war against antinomianism and neonomianism with a robust theology of union with Christ and a theological method that rejected rationalism in favor of a strong commitment to the authority of Scripture.[102]

Marshall has no desire to frame this discussion in a merely academic or abstract way.  His desire is pastoral application.  Michael Christ reflects,

Marshall’s work is remarkable in that it attempts — and, in my judgment, succeeds — in integrating theology and application consistently. Indeed, his whole work is a manual for becoming holy and thus can hardly be accused of tending toward antinomianism. Further, his whole work is also aimed at comforting people in the gospel so that they have a sure basis for work towards holiness, and so his approach mitigates the charges of neonomianism and antinomianism simultaneously.[103]

That God the Father joins us to Christ in a real union and gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit to aid us in our sanctification – and yet commands us to work toward holiness – truly is a gospel mystery.  Fesko concurs, “What we as the church must grasp is that the source of our sanctification is our union with Christ.”[104] It defies a full explanation[105], and yet the necessity of our sanctification is abundantly clear in scripture.

This is what Marshall sought to explain in this lasting work.  This is not only a scriptural balance but a very pastoral one which can foster both a greater understanding of the nature of sanctification and a more consistent pursuit of holiness in the life of believers in the context of the local congregation.  Ferguson picks up on this pastoral focus:

This is a fundamental pastoral lesson. It is not merely a matter of the head. It is a matter of the heart. Antinomianism may be couched in doctrinal and theological terms, but it both betrays and masks the heart’s distaste for absolute divine obligation, or duty. That is why the doctrinal explanation is only part of the battle.  We are grappling with something much more elusive, the spirit of an individual, an instinct, a sinful temperamental bent, a subtle divorce of duty and delight. This requires diligent and loving pastoral care and especially faithful, union-with-Christ, full unfolding of the Word of God so that the gospel dissolves the stubborn legality in our spirits. … We are dealing here with a disposition whose roots go right down into the soil of the garden of Eden. Antinomianism then, like legalism, is not only a matter of having a wrong view of the law. It is a matter, ultimately, of a wrong view of grace, revealed in both law and gospel — and behind that, a wrong view of God himself.[106]

No doctrine can ever be treated as merely abstract.  We must, like Marshall, connect all doctrine to the gospel mystery of the free gift of God’s salvation in Christ. This is what must drive the pastoral focus on sanctification.

Upon Walter Marshall’s death, a notice summed up the impact of his ministry:

In this latter [notice] occurs the solitary paragraph which conveys any information at all concerning Marshall himself. It reads: “Christian friends, it hath seemed good to the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth to make a breach upon you, by snatching away from you a faithful and laborious servant of Christ, who fed you with his doctrine, and edified you by his example; he wooed you for Christ in his preaching, and allured you to Christ by his walking. Though the seedsman be dead, yet the doctrine he preached is incorruptible seed, the word of God, which lives and abides for ever; and though his service among you by vocal preaching is past, yet your account for your profiting by and growth under, his ministry is to come.”[107]

This was the legacy of a ministry where there was an expectation of sanctification based on a scriptural grasp of the doctrine, which was then applied faithfully in the pastoral setting.  There remains pervasive misunderstanding of the relation between justification and sanctification in the Church today, largely due to a failed grasp of our union with Christ.  Thus, Marshall’s Gospel Mystery of Sanctification remains a much needed and edifying corrective.

[1] “‘There is but one book in the language admitted by all to be the standard one on sanctification’, affirmed Andrew Murray. ‘It is the work of Rev. Walter Marshall, published in 1692, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.’ …In the preface to the first edition of The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification the elusive N.N. speaks of Marshall’s translation by death, ‘Elijah-like, dropping these sheets as his mantle for succeeding Elishas to go forth with, for the conversion of sinners and comfort of drooping souls.’ Some of the ‘succeeding Elishas’ who benefited by his book and paid their tribute to its usefulness are known to us and a rehearsal of their names will indicate the continuing influence of this classic of holiness. A recommendatory preface was prefixed to the Edinburgh edition of 1733. It was signed by the founder of the Scottish Secession Church, Ebenezer Erskine, and his brother Ralph, together with such other ministers of the Kirk and the Associate Presbytery as Alexander Hamilton, James Wardlaw, James Ogilvie and James Gibb. They welcomed the first publication of Marshall’s work in Scotland and warmly commended it to others. ‘As we have perused the book ourselves with great edification and pleasure, so we know it hath had the high approbation and testimony of many eminent for grace and holiness, and judge the publication of it at this time of day seasonable among us, for promoting practical religion and godliness, and for giving a just view of the vast odds there is betwixt heathenish morality, adorned with the finest flourishes of human rhetoric, and true gospel holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.’” Arthur Skevington Wood, “Walter Marshall and the Gospel Mystery of Sanctification,” The Evangelical Quarterly 30, no. 1 (1958): 18, 21-22.

[2] “There is no extant biography of Walter Marshall and the notices of his life prefixed to the various editions of his work are meagre in detail and often inaccurate at that. A short sketch accompanied the original appearance of The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification in 1692 over the unidentified initials of N.N. …we learn from the notice of his brother. John, in Foster’s Alumni Oxonienses that the father was Walter Marshall, a cleric in holy orders.” A. Wood, “Walter Marshall,” 18-19.

[3] A. Wood, “Walter Marshall,” 20. “At no great interval from his removal from the vicarage of Hursley he was called to assume the pastoral care of a Presbyterian congregation at Gosport, …Here Marshall ministered to a faithful people until the day of his death.” A. Wood, 21.

[4] Walter Marshall, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification. Ed. Joel R. Beeke. (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 1999), vi. “For a number of years he had been increasingly distressed about the state of his soul. He had diligently sought peace of conscience by many mortifying methods, but without avail.” A. Wood, “Walter Marshall,” 21.

[5] A. Wood, “Walter Marshall,” 21.

[6] T. Michael Christ, “The Value of Marshall’s Gospel Mystery of Sanctification,” Unio cum Christo 5, no. 2 (2019): 114.  “Marshall assumes that only through the gospel of free grace can one be in union with Christ, and only in union with Christ is real holiness possible. Therefore, if one takes away the gospel of grace — even with the aim of more rigorous law keeping — the result will be increased sin. This reality is why neonomianism is, at root, an antinomian error.” Christ, 118.

[7] Christ, “The Value of Marshall’s Gospel Mystery,” 112-113. Christ’s dissertation is titled, A New Creation in Christ: A Historical-Theological Investigation into Walter Marshall’s Theology of Sanctification in Union with Christ in the Context of the Seventeenth-Century Antinomian and Neonomian Controversy (PhD thesis, University of Chester, 2016).

[8] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, vii-viii (in Beeke’s introduction).

[9] Christ, “The Value of Marshall’s Gospel Mystery,” 112.

[10] Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance: Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 141.  “At root then antinomianism separates God’s law from God’s person, and grace from the union with Christ in which the law is written in the heart.  In doing so it jeopardizes not simply the Decalogue; it dismantles the truth of the gospel.” Ferguson, 154.

[11] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, xviii-xxiv.

[12] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 6.

[13] J.V. Fesko, “Sanctification and Union with Christ: A Reformed Perspective,” The Evangelical Quarterly 82, no. 3 (2010), 198-199.

[14] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 1.

[15] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 9.

[16] External performances without internal realities and true spiritual fruit are reflected in the parable of the unclean spirits (Luke 11:24-26) and the parable the sower/seeds (Mark 4/Luke 8).

[17] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 5.

[18] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 13-14.

[19] Cf. Sherif A. Fahim, Justification, Sanctification, and Union with Christ: Fresh Insights from Calvin, Westminster, and Walter Marshall. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2022).

[20] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 13.

[21] References to scripture taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

[22] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 71-72.

[23] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 69.

[24] “That the believer constantly struggles with sin means that there is no point in her existence prior to her death and resurrection when she is not completely and utterly dependent upon Christ and the Spirit for her sanctification. There is no impeccability or perfection in sanctification this side of glory for any believer. The believer, according to Paul, always carries about the body of death (Rom 7:24) and it is only the resurrection that delivers her from it. This means that the Christian must constantly seek Christ and avail herself of his sanctifying power through the Spirit by faith alone.” Fesko, “Sanctification and union with Christ,” 205.

[25] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 96.

[26] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 4.

[27] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 11-12.

[28] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 12.

[29] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 13.

[30] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 24.

[31] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 16.

[32] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 25.

[33] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 24.

[34] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 2-3.

[35] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 16-17.

[36] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 17.

[37] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 118-119.

[38] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 19.

[39] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 23.

[40] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 151.

[41] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 5-6.

[42] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 6.

[43] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 6-7.

[44] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 184-185.

[45] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 7.

[46] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 121.

[47] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 4.

[48] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 61.

[49] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 8.

[50] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 129.

[51] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 93.

[52] Christ, “The Value of Marshall’s Gospel Mystery,” 123.

[53] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 35.

[54] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 18.

[55] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 10.

[56] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 15.

[57] Fesko, “Sanctification and Union with Christ,” 203.

[58] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 103.

[59] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 29.

[60] Christ, “The Value of Marshall’s Gospel Mystery,” 115.

[61] Ferguson, The Whole Christ, 157.

[62] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 59.

[63] Christ, “The Value of Marshall’s Gospel Mystery,” 116-117.

[64] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 34.

[65] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 36.

[66] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 37.

[67] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 28-29.

[68] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 31.

[69] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 96.

[70] Fesko comments, “There are three different aspects to our union with Christ: the predestinarian ‘in Christ’, which is the union that the elect sinner has in the decree of election with Christ (Eph 1:4); the redemptive-historical (historia salutis) ‘in Christ’, which is the union involved in the once-for-all accomplishment of salvation (Rom 5:12-21; 6:1-4; 8:3-4; Gal 2:19-20; Eph 2:6; Col 2:6-3:4); and the applicatory ‘in Christ’., which is the actual possession or application of salvation through work of the Spirit of Christ (1 Cor 6: 15, 19; Eph 2:3, 12; Rom 16:7).” Fesko, “Sanctification and Union with Christ,” 199. This last aspect is the focus for Marshall.

[71] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 118.

[72] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 26.

[73] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 28.

[74] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 27.

[75] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 27-28.

[76] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 97.

[77] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 21.

[78] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 22.

[79] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 22-23.

[80] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 98-99.

[81] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 100.

[82] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, xxv.

[83] Christ, “The Value of Marshall’s Gospel Mystery,” 118.

[84] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 110.

[85] Ferguson, The Whole Christ, 197. “…how do we know we are believers? This is a matter of self-awareness. It is a reflex act of faith, not its direct act. So any discussion of the topic must take place within the context of faith, never apart from it.” Ferguson, The Whole Christ, 198.

[86] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 114.

[87] Christ, “The Value of Marshall’s Gospel Mystery,” 117.

[88] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 103.

[89] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 104.

[90] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 113.

[91] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 114.

[92] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 116.

[93] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 69.

[94] Fesko, “Sanctification and Union with Christ,” 206-207.

[95] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 84.

[96] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 72.

[97] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 23, 37-38.

[98] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, 65.

[99] Marshall, Gospel Mystery, xxi.

[100] Christ, “The Value of Marshall’s Gospel Mystery,” 119.

[101] Fesko, “Sanctification and Union with Christ,” 197.

[102] Christ, “The Value of Marshall’s Gospel Mystery,” 119-120.

[103] Christ, “The Value of Marshall’s Gospel Mystery,” 123.

[104] Fesko, “Sanctification and Union with Christ,” 197.

[105] “If union with Christ is a mystery, then everything based on union with Christ would be equally mysterious, including the process of sanctification. Hence, ‘the gospel mystery of sanctification’ is a way of sanctification that submits ultimately to Scripture and not to the dictates of reason.” Christ, “The Value of Marshall’s Gospel Mystery,”121.

[106] Ferguson, The Whole Christ, 161-162.

[107] A. Wood, “Walter Marshall,” 23.