Closely allied to this is the fifth principle: The sanctification of believers is, most emphatically, not a restoration to holiness of their fallen nature, derived from Adam, but its mortification. Sanctification without the mortification of our fallen nature is a simple contradiction. It is impossible to make that nature holy. “You can no more bring it to holiness . . . than you can bring a dead carcass to life by chaffing and rubbing it” (pp 124,125). The disposition, or principle, of soul associated with the expressions the natural state, the flesh, or the old man, is utterly dead in sin; it can never be revived but must be destroyed. Christ died on the cross, not that the natural disposition of sinners might be made holy, but so that that nature would be crucified in all for whom He died. He who tries to reform the old man is like a fool who tries to rub a black coal clean, supposing it is white underneath.
The sixth principle is: Faith is necessary to the practice of holiness. Marshall says, “Faith in Jesus Christ is the grace with which a holy life is to begin, and by which the foundation of all other holy duties is laid in the soul. . . . This is the uniting grace whereby the Spirit of God knitteth the knot of the mystical marriage between Christ and us, and maketh us branches in that noble Vine”. “By faith we have actual enjoyment and possession of Christ Himself, and not only of remission of sins but of life, and so of holiness.” “All spiritual life and holiness continue, grow or decay in us according as faith continueth, groweth or decayeth in vigour”. “Trusting on Christ, I know no work of obedience which it is not able to produce.”
Saving faith is the inward means of sanctification. Faith identifies and “putteth away from itself everything that keepeth the soul at a distance from Christ”, as Paul declares: “Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ” (Phil 3:8). The voice of faith is: “Asshur shall not save us; we will not ride upon horses: neither will we say any more to the work of our hands, Ye are our gods: for in Thee the fatherless findeth mercy” (Hos 14:3). Faith gets above other confidences to Christ as the only happiness and salvation.
Saving faith views the revelation of God in Christ in such a way as inclines the soul lovingly to serve and obey Him. Believing that Christ has obtained salvation for us inclines us to serve Him. To be “persuaded of the future enjoyment of . . . everlasting happiness . . . must precede our holy practice as a cause disposing and alluring us to it. . . . The sure hope of heaven is made use of ordinarily by God . . . as an encouragement to the practice of holiness.”
We not only lack power, but also the will, to keep the law, “for it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Phil 2:13). The believer knows that all his wellsprings are in Christ and not in himself, and that he needs quickening daily. Faith lays hold on the promised strength laid up in Christ, which we need both to will and to perform our duties in the practice of holiness.
Despite the lucid manner in which this book describes the function of a living faith in the sanctification of a believer, there are places where Marshall has cast many readers into troubled confusion, for he sometimes seems to convey the idea that assurance of sense is essential to faith. While there is undoubtedly confusion, or at least opacity, in some of his language regarding faith, we must remember that his purpose was to oppose those Arminians and Neonomians who denied the biblical doctrines of justification and the preservation of believers. They slanderously alleged that the doctrine of a perfect and immediate justification of those who believe savingly leads to licentiousness. They said the same about the doctrine of the preservation of the justified. Our author, in that zeal that characterises his writing, seeks to prove that, however the hypocrite may misuse these doctrines, the believer’s assurance of these things leads to holiness, not to sin. Furthermore, the author is anxious to dismiss as absurd a kind of faith that is unbelieving in its nature. The Arminian “doubtsome faith” cannot lead to sanctification but to mistrust, indeed dread, of God.
As the matter is of great importance to believers, let us try to distinguish between the assurance that is essential to faith and that which is not. There is an assurance that is essential to faith; there is no saving faith without it. And there is an assurance that is not essential to faith; there may be saving faith where it is absent. The first, the assurance essential to faith, has the Word of God as its object. The second has the work of God in one’s soul as its object. We may explain the difference as follows:
- The function assigned to saving faith in the scheme of salvation is: I trust, with my whole heart, that God is faithful to His Word, that Christ is able to save unto the uttermost all those who come unto God by Him, and that, despite the greatness of my sin, He is able to save me too if I believe in the manner proposed in His Word. This is assurance with respect to the Word of God. Some might say that this describes a merely speculative faith. But a speculative faith involves only the understanding; saving faith involves the whole heart – that is, the understanding and the will. In the promises and invitations of the gospel there is what addresses the understanding as true, and the will as good. When the sinner believes with the whole heart, his understanding knows that what is presented is true and acquiesces in it, and the will embraces as good what is there presented.
- The function assigned to the assurance of sense is: I believe upon sure grounds that the work of God is begun in my soul, and thus I reason that I am – to the praise of God and His free grace – loved with a divine, electing, redeeming, regenerating and sanctifying love. This is assurance with respect to the work of God in my soul. While it is not essential, it is helpful, comforting and strengthening. Furthermore, it is glorifying to God and ought to be sought diligently, especially as it may be attained in the diligent use of the ordinary means of grace. (2)
The seventh principle is: Though sanctification is a mystery, it does not dispense with the ordinary and outwards means which God has ordained for strengthening grace in the soul. The means of grace which the author explains are: hearing and reading the Word, prayer, Psalm-singing, fasting, the sacraments, self-examination, and fellowship with God’s people.
By way of warning, our author refers to the possible misuse of the means of grace. He cautions us against using these means in such a way as to contradict the grace of God in Christ. They are intended to guide us to Christ alone, and if we turn them to any self-righteous use, it is a gross violation of a divine institution.
By way of commendation, Marshall states: “Though 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 here made void but rather established”. He speaks of “carnal gospellers” who imagine themselves to be in such a state of perfection that they are above the ordinances as “lazy solifidians”. (3) The true believer knows how soon faith and all other graces wither without the use of means. Faith, that gift of God, working by love, makes use of the spiritual bond between Christ and the believer for sanctifying grace.
This biblical method of sanctification glorifies God’s grace and power through Jesus Christ and His Spirit, and it abases man. It shows that all our good works are not by the strength of an arm of flesh but by the power of Christ living in us, and that Christ is the “immediate principal Agent of all their good works”.
1. This is the second 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. After an introduction which outlined the errors Marshall had in view, the first article went on to begin identifying the principles which undergird his book. They were: (1) The Word of God is the rule of the sanctified life. (2) Neither the source, means, manner or matter of sanctification could ever be known without a revelation from God. (3) There is no sanctification without the Holy Spirit. (4) Sanctification is perfectly impossible apart from union to Christ as the source of all spiritual life.#
2. A quotation from William Gurnall’s Christian in Complete Armour on the subject of assurance: “Faith, in time, after much communion with God, acquaintance with the Word, and experience of His dealings with the soul, may flourish into assurance. But as the root truly lives before the flower appears, and continues when that hath shed its beautiful leaves, and gone again, so doth true justifying faith live before assurance comes and after it disappears. . . . Assurance is, as it were, the cream of faith. Now you know there is milk before there is cream; this riseth not but after some time standing, and there remains milk after it is skimmed off. How many, alas, of the precious saints of God must we shut out from being believers if there is no faith but what amounts to assurance? . . . Assurance is like the sunflower, which opens with the day and shuts with the night. It follows the motion of God’s face. If that looks smilingly on the soul, it lives; if that frowns or hides itself, it dies. But faith is a plant that can grow in the shade, a grace that can find the way to heaven in a dark night. It can ‘walk in darkness’, and yet ‘trust in the name of the Lord’ (Is 50:10).”
3. Those who misuse the doctrine of justification by faith alone, from the Latin solifidius.
This article is part 2 of a series