30 June 2007

Gospel Sanctification 3 - Walter Marshall to My Rescue

Probably the greatest help to me, during deep personal struggles in understanding the Biblical process of Sanctification, was the book "Gospel Mystery of Sanctification" by 17th Century puritan Walter Marshall.

If you seek to stir guilt in yourself or your people to motivate obedience then this post is for you!
So, let me share a little about Marshall's book, his times, and the influence on me. I think you'll find the history interesting and the noted quotes worth the read.

Marshall, in his book, examines what he calls is "The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification". His aim was to minister the much needed balm to those beaten under the weight of legalistic teaching and ultimately to save lives from the depths of what Bunyan calls, "The Slough of Despond".

Marshall's Battle

Marshall struggled despairingly with the issue of seeking after holiness in himself and his people although he preached it hard and often. He went to a number of preachers and writers in his time but found little help. He also went to a hero of his, Richard Baxter, who didn't help although at the time he still much appreciated Baxter's writings and largely modelled his own ministry after the same pattern – this later changed.

Regarding the discussions with Marshall, Baxter later stated that he felt Marshall had misunderstood him and taken him "too legally". Still, Marshall found Baxter useless as regards sanctification.

Can you relate!? Have you ever struggled with obtaining a peace filled life of obedience and have sought help only to find legalistic dung where sweet streams should be sourced? I've sure been there!

Thomas Goodwin to the Rescue

Later, when Thomas Goodwin visited the congregation and heard Marshall preaching, he accused Marshall saying, "You are trying to squeeze oil out of a flint" (an expression that became popular among grace preachers describing legalists). That is, he was trying to squeeze holiness out of the efforts of the flesh. Goodwin explained that holiness is to be sought by "Gospel Means" and he also exhorted Marshall to stop "railing against his people".

The two became friends and Goodwin spent much time with Marshall explaining and discussing the 'gospel mystery of sanctification'.

Marshall took on board the instruction of Goodwin and throughout his life studied Sanctification further. It was towards the end of his life that Marshall wrote his book.

Marshall Identifies the Problem

In his book he discusses, among other reasons, he is writing that some might not commit suicide as a result of the despair arising from much of the preaching of the time. The problem was not so much what was said but what was left out. Much preaching was very clear on the holiness of God, the sinfulness of man, and the duty of man (and rightly so). The problem, as Marshall saw it, was the means of attaining holiness and the means of dealing with failure was not understood and preached. In Marshall's day, people were exhorted, in the words of Bryan Chapell, to live the principles of:

- "Sola-bootstrapsa" (I must keep the law in my own strength & effort) and

- "Ego-nomianism" (I am able to keep the law).

In his book, Marshall takes Baxter to task for being legalistic. He doesn't name Baxter but a knowledge of the times & Baxter makes it clear who he's speaking of.

John Murray on Marshall's Book

John Murray calls Marshall's book the most important work on Sanctification ever written. I think I agree but unlike John Murray I haven't read every work on Sanctification ever written!! ; )

If you're interested in a modern version of Marshall's book you could read "Holiness by Grace" by Bryan Chapell. I've not read it all but have read good chunks and skimmed a lot. A friend of mine has read both books and said that "Holiness by Grace" is simply a modernized version of Marshall's book and much easier to read. It also extensively quotes Marshall's book. Personally, I think you can't beat the original although the old style may be difficult for a modern audience.

Another book that has been recommended (by Chad Bresson) is Jerry Bridges’ “Transforming Grace”.

Others on Marshall's Book

William Cowper expresses my own feelings regarding this book when he wrote, "The doctrines Marshall maintains are, under the influence of the divine Spirit, the very life of my soul, and the soul of all my happiness".

And, "James Harvey began life with strong prejudices against the truths which he was afterwards honoured so signally to advance. But about the year 1741 his preaching underwent an entire change, partly in consequence of the influence of his lifelong friend Whitefield, but chiefly from the perusal of certain books. Marshall's Gospel Mystery of Sanctification first lead him to the great spring and secret of gospel holiness. . ." Quote from the Editors introduction to the 1902 reprint of the 1645 classic, "The Marrow of Modern Divinity".

Where to Get Marshall's Book

The version of Marshall's book updated and simplified into modern English can be found here:


An electronic version of the original can be found here:


This page has a great single sentence summary of each chapter – let this page alone minister to your soul and whet your appetite for more.

A hardcopy of the original can be purchased here:


Marshall, Whyte and Me

The reason I tracked down a copy and worked through the book is that it was so strongly recommended by Alexander Whyte in one of his books. Alexander Whyte, the Scottish Presbyterian, has probably been the single most helpful writer and greatest post-apostolic influence over me - although my New Covenant Theology (NCT) views and overall understanding of the structure of Scripture doesn't come from Whyte, of course!

Interestingly, both Marshall and Whyte name Goodwin as a primary influence on their thinking.

From Whyte: "In his classical book on Sanctification Walter Marshall tells his readers that he had been labouring all his days to squeeze oil out of a flint. That is to say, he had been labouring all his days to squeeze holiness out of his own sinful heart. And he had gone on performing that fruitless toil till a great spiritual teacher took him and told him that he was to have all his sanctification, as well as all his justification, out of Jesus Christ alone. That great spiritual teacher tells us that he himself for nearly seven years sought for satisfactory signs of grace in his own heart. It took him all that time till he was taken off entirely from searching for the grounds of peace and the source of power within himself, and was lead to look simply to the grace of God and thus to live and grow by faith in Christ alone. Up to that epoch-making conversation with Thomas Goodwin, Walter Marshall's whole life had been one long and painful and fruitless endeavour after inward holiness of mind and heart. But when he opened his whole mind and heart about that matter to Thomas Goodwin, that great spiritual teacher told him that he was to look to Jesus Christ for the sanctifying of his sinful heart, as well as for the cleansing of his sinful conscience. And ever after that illuminating and enfranchising interview with the great Puritan, Marshall set himself to study the person and work of Christ in a new way, and to preach the person and work of Christ in a new way, till he attained to that eminent spirituality of mind and heart and doctrine out of all which he wrote in his ripe old age his standard work on 'The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification' . . . .

The congregation will not have forgotten dear old James Stewart of the cab office at the Dean Bridge, who was wont to sit in the front seat down there with all his eyes and all his ears always open to the pulpit and to the desk. Well, at the last pastoral visit I had the privilege of paying to James Stewart's deathbed, laying his hand on Marshall's book . . . and he kissed that old brown book after his own passionate manner and said again: 'O! that heavenly direction on the Mystical Union!' Now, if your interest in this matter survives until tomorrow morning, your bookseller will supply you with 'Walter Marshall'. . . .

Well, then, all you people of sufficient interest and of sufficient enterprise in the life of Sanctification; all you who are old enough and deep enough in the Divine life, be sure to buy and to read again and again, that true classic of the soul. And send it to some of your most intimate friends as a Christmas gift. To all them who are sufficient intellect and of sufficient heart to appreciate such a great book. . . . And, if you do so, I warrant you they will thank and bless you all their days for so remembering them and for so honouring them and for so enriching them." Alexander Whyte

Spot the Influence

After reading Marshall's book I wrote our Nurturing Philosophy. I wanted to clearly spell out how believers would be nurtured coming into our fellowship. This is something that is often not clear in church creeds, confessions, doctrinal statements, constitutions, etc. Two churches can look the same on paper but one will minister grace, strength, power & Christ, and the other feed the flock the wood, hay, and stubble of will-power religion.

For anyone interested, a copy of our nurturing philosophy can be found here (and a keen eye will also spot the influence of John Piper and John Reisinger, as well as Marshall):

swf: http://treasuringchrist.com/_TCCC/TCF_NurturingPhilosophy_1-2.swf

pdf: http://treasuringchrist.com/_TCCC/TCF_NurturingPhilosophy_1-2.pdf

Section 7 succinctly covers what I consider to be the heart of what Marshall was driving at (although the entire document is ' Marshall' flavoured).

Marshall Strays into NCT

Marshall holds to Covenant Theology (CT), yet like many (e.g. Andrew Murray, John Owen, etc) this hasn't stopped him from making observations such as this one:

"You also should learn the true difference between the two covenants, the old and the new, or the law and the gospel: that the former shuts us up under the guilt and power of sin, and the wrath of God and His curse, by its rigorous terms: 'Do all the commandments, and live; and, cursed are you if you do not do them, and fail in the least point'; the latter opens the gates of righteousness and life to all believers ( i.e. the new covenant) by its gracious terms: 'Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and live,' that is, all your sins shall be forgiven, and holiness and glory shall be given to you freely by His merit and Spirit."

Although I don't agree with the CT of Whyte and Marshall, I still owe a great debt to both! The influence of Marshall's book on my thinking and life has been deeply profound!! It was just what I needed at the time when I was enduring week in, and week out, legalistic thumping while Christ's help and grace were hardly ever in view. Marshall (and Whyte) ministered to my soul and changed my life.

(The only other post-apostolic book that has had a similar impact was "Christian Take Heart" by Tom Wells. A simple book but for a messed-up Pentecostal becoming a messed-up Calvinist it was also just what I needed at the time – some overlap with Marshall's work also but it took many years before I 'got it' thanks to Marshall.).

Finally I Finish My Post

Get a copy and read Marshall's book. If you've made it this far into this overdone post of mine then I'm sure you are of 'sufficient intellect and of sufficient heart to appreciate such a great book'.

Take your time, linger over it, let it soak in, and then read it again. If you (or your people) are 'sanctified by vinegar', as Alexander Whyte would say, under legalistic counsel, you will rejoice at the soothing oil of grace and love that will flow as a result of Marshall, or rather Christ through Marshall, moulding you into a person who has 'been mastered by the unconditional grace of God, and from whom iron clad orthodoxy has been torn away and the whole armor of a gracious God has been applied; the armor of him who would not break the bruised reed or quench the dimly burning wick' (A Whyte).

"How can we command holiness without causing despair among saints who know that they are still sinners? Walter Marshall's answer to this 'mystery' not only saved lives in his time, but continues to bring renewed zeal for God to believers in the generations since. The relief and resolve of grace are the Gospel mystery that elude so many but find rejuvenating expression in the firm grasp of Marshall." Dr. Bryan Chapell, President, Covenant Theological Seminary.



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