The published writings of Walter Marshall are few. Apart from The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, we know of no work of his except a sermon on Justification. It is said about his writing that there is not enough attention to arrangement, there is frequent repetition of certain points and his meaning is sometimes obscure. This might well be true, but throughout the book we find that unstudied and self-denying eloquence of strong and devout feeling produced in those men who wrote and preached in the light of eternal realities. It is said that he made his own feelings and the dealings of God with his own soul the universal rule of divine conduct in the salvation of others. It has to be realised, however, that this book is the result of one man’s pilgrimage from a cold-hearted legalism to a warm-hearted piety. Though it is not characteristic of this author to make personal references, the following statement clearly indicates the personal nature of the treatise: “The doctrine of salvation by sincere obedience may well be ranked among the worst errors. For my part, I hate it with a perfect hatred, and account it mine enemy, as I have found it.”
This last sentence also indicates that the book is somewhat polemical. It is a statement of the doctrine of sanctification which has grown out of, not only a love for the truth, but also a holy hatred of all soul-destroying, heretical views of this fundamental doctrine of the Word of God. It is a loud blast of the gospel trumpet against the errors of Arminianism, Antinomianism and Neonomianism, where they touch upon the doctrine of gospel holiness. Marshall does not identify his adversaries by name, only by the principles which they hold – the principles by which they identify themselves as enemies to the truth. The main errors which Marshall refutes are the following:
Arminianism: Arminians teach that man is not totally depraved, that he has the ability to choose to be holy, that repentance and faith precede regeneration, that the human will is one of the causes of regeneration, and that faith is a good work and a ground of acceptance with God. This is of course not a full summary of Arminianism, but only of those parts of it which Marshall found to contradict the Scriptural doctrine of sanctification. (2)
Antinomianism: Antinomians deny that the law is the measure of duty for believers; they do not believe that Christians need to seek personal holiness. When the Scriptures are so pointed and explicit in requiring holiness, it is difficult to account for the origin of this error in the Church. It is the swing of the pendulum from salvation by works, the other extreme. The one is as dangerous to our souls as the other. Scriptural theology, the system of grace, which is usually termed Calvinism, was slanderously dubbed Antinomian by Arminians. The preposterous accusation is that, because the gospel excludes our own works from having any part in our justification, it excludes all personal holiness. Walter Marshall clearly shows the slanderous nature of the accusation.
Neonomianism: This is a dangerous error which makes repentance, faith and sincere obedience the conditions of our acceptance with God. Whatever truth opposes this scheme is by the Neonomians deemed a branch of the Antinomian heresy. (3)
Many divines have expressed the highest admiration for this book, among them Thomas Chalmers, Robert Traill, James Hervey and Adam Gib. The editor of our edition (4) wrote, “His directions exhibit views of the gospel so much beyond those of many other divines that . . . those who bestow on [his book] sufficient time and attention, will find it a repository of evangelical truth and worthy of all the encomiums which different writers have bestowed on it”. Rather than give a synopsis of the book, which has been done by several writers, we will attempt to give the substance of the work by identifying the principles which undergird Walter Marshall’s treatise, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.
The first principle is: The Word of God is the rule of the sanctified life. The moral law, as the sum of the precepts of God’s Word, is expressly and exclusively identified as the rule for our obedience. It is the standard to be ardently and continually aimed at, in heart and life, privately and publicly. The keeping of God’s law, this royal law, is so great an honour that our author says, “I cannot imagine any more noble work for the holy angels in their glorious sphere” (p 20).
Antinomians deny that the Christian is obliged to keep this perfect law of liberty. Romanists and Arminians wrongly teach that God has lowered the requirement of the law. Pelagians blasphemously assert that God will not hold man responsible for what he cannot perform. Marshall will have none of this. He states the purpose of his treatise clearly: “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 requires 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 22:37,39), and more largely explained throughout the Holy Scriptures.”
This is not perfectionism. Where there is true repentance, “an apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ” and a turning from sin unto God, there will be a “full purpose of, and endeavour after, new obedience” – after conformity to the law of the Lord. The believer is no longer condemned by the law, but he is obliged by the most powerful gospel considerations to pursue holiness. The mystery in sanctification is: How is a sinner – even a redeemed, regenerate sinner – to pursue this work when so much ignorance and wilfulness accompanies him and when he daily contracts further defilement? “My work”, says Marshall, “is to show how the duties of this law may be done.”
The second principle is: Neither the source, means, manner or matter of sanctification could ever be known without a revelation from God. A divine mystery is something that remains unknown by man until God reveals it to him. The way of sanctifying a rebellious, ruined sinner could never have been discovered – such is the difficulty of it – unless it was revealed in the Holy Scriptures. Here God unfolds the mystery, making known the effective means of sanctifying the sinner. Here the law shows us our utter ruin in sin and the impossibility of recovering ourselves. Here is made known the indispensable importance of union to Him who is the only storehouse of grace. Here the free offer of Christ is made to self-destroyed sinners – the unsearchable riches of the grace of Christ. However, as many examples sadly show, it is one thing to know the gospel doctrine of Christ; it is another actually to repose our ruined, sin-sick souls on the adorable foundation laid there by God.
The third principle therefore is: There is no sanctification without the Holy Spirit. The gospel way of sanctification begins in regeneration. The Holy Spirit, by the Word of God, works saving faith in us, thereby uniting us to Christ as the solitary but altogether adequate fountain of spiritual life. By means of this union, the believer has communion with the Lord Jesus Christ in respect of the life and the grace that is stored up in Him. And, as a consequence, the believer is rooted and built up in Him, and Christ is formed in him. The Holy Spirit sanctifying the soul of a redeemed sinner is a most bounteous gift of divine love.
The fourth principle rises from the last: Sanctification is perfectly impossible apart from union to Christ as the source of all spiritual life. Here lies the thrust of Marshall’s book. Vital, saving union to Christ, practically improved in the ordinary means of grace, is the powerful, divinely-ordained instrument for sanctifying sinners. By this union, a new disposition is in brought into the soul. It is a new power to govern our purposes. It is a holy principle determining the will. As Marshall says, we “receive from Christ a new, holy frame and nature whereby we are enabled for a holy practice, by union and fellowship with Him”. This new nature begins in the new birth. It is the life of holy beauties from the womb of the morning of the new birth. It is entirely different to the nature derived from Adam. It is Christ formed in the soul.
This is indeed a great mystery: Christ laying hold on a ruined soul to quicken it to spiritual life by a powerful act of intimate, loving life-giving union to Himself, and living in the believer by His Spirit in order to accomplish the purposes of God in sanctification. It is the Lord of glory setting up His kingdom in the soul of a sinner, the Lord of Hosts coming into the heart in a day of power to make the unwilling soul willing, to bring forth right judgement and to rule there until He perfects the believer’s sanctification at death. It is the Lord of battles gaining a divine conquest over the sinner; “His right hand and His holy arm hath gotten Him the victory”.
The believer might see more of the unregenerate nature than he sees of the new nature in himself, but the new nature is striving against the old. And though the old nature strives against the new, the new will be victorious. The oil that flowed down the head of Aaron to the skirts of his garments illustrates the holy unction with which those who are united to Christ are anointed when they are about Christ in the means of grace. The woman with the issue of blood touched the garments of Him from whom power and virtue flowed out; so grace is strengthened when we draw near to Christ as those who are united to the One anointed with the Holy Spirit without measure. As the branch receives nourishment from the vine, so the believer receives grace out of the fullness of grace in Christ.
To say that a man can be holy as a result of his own choice displays monumental ignorance. Marshall identifies several grave errors at the root of this barren tree of free will: (1) that we can abstain from sin if we will; (2) that Christ has restored to fallen man the freedom of will to do good, which was lost in the fall; (3) that fallen, ruined nature is set on its feet again; (4) that man is to co-operate in salvation; and (5) that the new birth only reforms and repairs our natural state (pp 117,118,120).
Marshall states that our fallen, natural state wholly disables us for the practice of holiness, and enslaves us to the practice of sin. From Adam we are by nature enslaved to the service of sin; we have a fixed propensity to lust against the law. How can the natural man love God when he hates Him? How can he say, “O how love I Thy law”, when he has an evil inclination powerfully subduing him to the service of sin? If the soul which hates holiness is to love it, a fundamental change has to take place in the disposition of his soul. He must be born again; he must be united to a source of spiritual life which will motivate, govern and determine his will so that he will hate sin. If we are to be holy, says Marshall, “we must delight to do the will of God; it must be sweeter to us than the honey or the honeycomb . . . we are to love [holiness] not as a sick man loves his medicine, which is unpleasant but effective, but as he loveth health”.
1. This is the first of two articles giving the substance of a paper presented to the 2001 Theological Conference. It dealt with the volume, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, by the Puritan, Walter Marshall.
2. See Cairns’ Dictionary of Theological Terms.
3. See Thornwell’s essay on “Antinomianism” in his Collected Writings, vol 2.
4. That published in Edinburgh by James Taylor around 1862.
This article is part 1of a series
Other articles in this series: [part 2]