Last year I bought a book on Kindle because the title intrigued me. I forgot about the book and a couple of months ago I listened to a podcast that was discussing the book. The podcast interviewed Dr. Bruce McRae who translated the original work from 1692 into modern English. The book is called “The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification” by Walter Marshall. Marshall was an English non-conformist Puritan Pastor who lived from 1628-1680. If you have ever read the Puritans, you will understand why this work was translated into modern English! Professor John Murray said the book was “the most important book on sanctification ever written.”

Bruce McRae introduced the book by talking about the importance of sanctification. He defined sanctification as “the lifelong process of being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.” He said that there is confusion over sanctification when these questions are asked, “How Christians become holy? Where does the power for godly living come from?” He explained that the church has taught different ideas on sanctification such as “asceticism, legalism, perfectionism, higher life, and second blessing movements.” He also gave some historical information about Marshall’s life and personal experience with sanctification.

Marshall divided the book into fourteen sections (or directions) on the topic of sanctification. His style of writing is direct and repetitive. He also quotes a lot of Scripture to defend his argument. One of the strengths of this book is that he carefully holds the truth of God’s work of sanctification and man’s responsibility. He has a fair balance which keeps him from the position of antinomianism or legalism.

There are three themes that I think were helpful in this book, 1) union and fellowship with Christ, 2) assurance and sanctification, and 3) the means of grace.

  1. Union and fellowship with Christ

Why is union with Christ so important?

Marshall argues that the foundation for holy living is union with Christ. He explains the problem that the law calls you to love God with all your heart, but you are powerless to do so because of your sinful nature. The law leads you to Christ who supplies the double cure, the forgiveness of sins, and the power and desire to change. You may lead a moral life apart from Christ, but not a holy life. He explains that a holy life includes “thoughts, motives, and feelings” which is the language the Bible uses when referring to the “heart.” I am glad he did not talk merely about behavior but directed his readers back to the heart.

A person needs a new nature to live a godly life that can only come through union with Christ. This new nature includes both power and desire to pursue a holy life.  This occurs when God grants the believer a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26-27). He keeps coming back to union with Christ throughout the book because it is the truth that keeps a Christian balanced as he pursues sanctification. The balance is that you have the responsibility to pursue sanctification, but the power and desire for change come not from self-effort but through union and fellowship with Christ. Yet, there is a great mystery. He states it like this, “The key to living a holy life is union with Christ. Now, we have to acknowledge that union with Christ is a great mystery. Beyond dispute, the mystery of godliness is great!”

I think his emphasis on union with Christ has another benefit. It keeps the Christian from a “Christ-less sanctification.” In other words, sanctification can easily become man-centered and lose focus on Christ. The power and desire to change come from union with Christ, and the goal of change is not self-improvement or behavioral modification but the glory of God. Therefore, I appreciate how much Marshall emphasizes that power for godly living comes through union and fellowship with Christ for God’s glory.

2. Assurance and sanctification

What does assurance have to do with sanctification?

I have read a lot of books on sanctification, and this was the first that talked about the assurance of salvation and sanctification. I think this occurs because of the order of assurance and salvation. Some argue that assurance comes from sanctification, instead of assurance as a motivation for sanctification. In other words, there is an argument that after one is saved the good works and obedience that follow give assurance. Marshall argues that to truly obey God, you need assurance, which is knowing that you are totally loved by God and have his favor. You are not trying to gain his favor or love by your obedience, you already have that because of the gospel. Your union with Christ grants you assurance as you are completely reconciled to God, receiving his forgiveness and righteousness. When you have this assurance, you love God and want to please him (Eph 4:32). The illustration he uses is “Forgiveness is the horse that pulls the cart of good works. Don’t put the cart before the horse.” He says that “your reconciliation with God is what produces your good works.”

I think there is another reason why addressing assurance and sanctification is important. It helps believers understand remaining sin and not become hopeless. Marshall addresses the important question, “If I have this wonderful new nature, why do I struggle with sin?”

I have talked to a lot of people who struggle with assurance because they constantly look to their progress (or lack thereof) in sanctification as the proof of their salvation. There is a sense that if you become a Christian, you should no longer struggle with sin. The Scriptures talk about the opposite reality, that when you become a Christian you now daily struggle with sin. Marshall’s answer is that believers are “new creations” and their flesh lusts against the Spirit (Gal 5:17). The flesh “remains dead because of sin” even while “your spirit is alive because of righteousness” (Rom 8:10). He says, “this war of the flesh and the Spirit will not end until death when there will be perfect holiness.”  If you look to your obedience for assurance, you will always find some way in which you fall short. If you look to Christ, the one who perfectly obeyed, then the objective truth of the gospel gives assurance. That assurance then becomes the motive for wanting to obey God.

  1. Means of Grace

How do we pursue sanctification?

Marshall calls believers to pursue holiness by faith. He calls this pursuit “sanctification by grace through faith, which humbles man and exalts God.” The enabling power for holiness comes through union and fellowship with Christ. Then he shows what it looks like to pursue sanctification by faith. Marshall says that God’s Word has given us “means” to grow in holiness. These are not an end in themselves, but they are means to help believers “live by grace through faith.”

He gives the following “means of grace” to help believers:

  • Reading and meditating upon the Word of God
  • Examining yourself and repenting of your sins
  • Sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism
  • Praying
  • Fasting
  • Worshiping God
  • Involved in the local church

He gives practical guidelines for using each of the means of grace. He adds a caution that these actions do not make one holy, but they “draw you into deeper fellowship with Christ, the True Vine, who makes you holy as you abide in him.”

Concluding thoughts

Sanctification is not a formula; there is a divine mystery (Gal 2:20). The process of growing into the image of Christ is a slow process that stays incomplete until heaven. Marshalls gives us hope for the journey with this summary, “The gospel gives you a sure foundation for godliness. You now have the power to love God with all your heart, might, and soul. Through the gospel, sin is not only restrained, but put to death. Not only is the outside made clean, but also the inside. The image of God is renewed in you. Because of what God has done in you, holy living surely follows.  You are not perfect, because of the remnants of the old nature within you; however, you are no longer a total slave to sin like you once were.”

Marshall addressed sanctification in a balanced way to call believers to find their greatest hope in union and fellowship with Christ, and out of that to pursue godly living. I think this is a very important work on sanctification and a helpful read for any Christian who wants to grow and change.

I end this review with my favorite quote in the book,

Sanctification by grace through faith is the never-failing, powerfully effective, totally sufficient, and sure way to attain true holiness.

Walter Marshall

Soli Deo gloria

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