Walter Marshall’s The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification

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A book review of a classic Puritan work on the doctrine of Sanctification. This work has been printed and reprinted many times of the years. Some have considered it among the greatest works on the topic ever written. In the forward, William Hervey writes that if he could only take one other book with him besides the Bible, this would likely be it. That feels like a bit of a stretch to me, ha, but it certainly was a practical and theologically stretching read that our modern Church would do well to acquaint themselves with. (You can find the entire book in pdf form here. My own page numbers are from a physical copy I purchased here.)

Walter Marshall was an English puritan, who like many other faithful pastors of his day, was ejected from his parish under the 1662 Act of Conformity. He eventually became the Pastor of an independent congregation in Gosport, Hampshire where he served for the remaining eighteen years of his life. It was in Gosport, while enduring great bouts of spiritual depression, and gaining direction and wisdom from both Richard Baxter and Thomas Goodwin, that he wrote The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.

The book is divided into fourteen directions that are designed to instruct the reader on their journey of sanctification. Each direction begins with a short paragraph concisely summarizing the contents within, and is then followed by a lengthier explication working through the various nuances and potential applications of the doctrine. By way of introduction, the first direction serves as an entryway to the all the others. It reads, “That we may acceptably perform the duties of Holiness, and Righteousness required in the law, our first work is, to learn the powerful and effectual means whereby we may attain to so great an end (Marshall, 14).” Marshall’s primary intent with this first direction is twofold. First, Marshall aims to demonstrate that true religion must be aimed at the performance of holiness and righteousness in accordance with the moral law, in both deed and in thought (I developed this theme in a recent sermon here). Second, Marshall insists that we must utilize and press into God’s means of growth, provided in the Scriptures, in order to accomplish such an excellent end.

In the second direction, Marshall highlights four endowments and qualifications that are necessary for this journey. He aims to ensure that nobody begins down the track without being supplied with the necessary tools. The first necessary endowment, and chief among the four, is that we must have an “inclination and propensity of heart, to the duties of the law (Marshall, 21)…” Notice, how we cannot escape the duties every Christian has to follow the law. This is a core drumbeat for Marshall that he returns to again and again. To grow in holiness is to grow in one’s joyful, humble, law abiding. This inclination cannot be attained by the natural unregenerate man due to the corruption of the heart as a result of sin. Second, we must be persuaded deeply of our reconciliation to God. Third, we must be persuaded of our future glorious inheritance in heaven. Fourth, we must be persuaded that God will provide the necessary strength both to desire and to perform the duties prescribed to us in the law.

A number of the subsequent directions reenforce over and again this same premise though with different nuance, namely that we must not think that our sanctification can come before, or be the basis of, our justification. So, Marshall states in direction five that we are unable to pursue holiness while in our natural unregenerate state. “It is a common error of those that are in a corrupt natural state, that they seek to reform their lives according to law, without any thoughts that their state must be changed, before their lives can be changed from sin to righteousness (Marshall, 47).” Similarly, direction six insists that all who attempt to achieve their salvation by works of the law are simply operating under the corrupt wisdom of the world and not according to God’s instruction. He combats a variety of heretical teachings in this direction, including antinomianism and Roman Catholicism, and accuses those who make sincere obedience to the law a condition of our salvation of, “building again that Judaism which the apostle Paul destroyed (Marshall, 58).” In direction seven Marshall labors to show that sincere faith in Christ must be in place before sanctification can begin. “The first right holy thoughts thou canst have of God, are thoughts of his grace and mercy to thy soul in Christ, which are included in the grace of faith. Get these thoughts first by believing in Christ, and they will breed in thee love to God, and all good thoughts of him (Marshall, 74)…”

The eight direction moves the reader through the proper order of salvation in order that we do not attempt to seek holiness prior to our union with Christ. The ninth direction instructs the reader to first receive comfort from the gospel before proceeding in our duties of holiness. He writes, “And, generally, a holy life beginneth with comfort, and is maintained by it (Marshall, 84).” The tenth direction instructs the reader to get assurance of our faith, to believe on Christ confidently, if we are to make any true headway in the pursuit of holiness. The eleventh direction encourages believers to pursue holiness without delay. “Therefore, as soon as we know the duty of believing, we are to apply ourselves directly to the vigorous performance of the duty (Marshall, 104)…”

Direction twelve is particularly useful. In it, Marshall instructs the reader to walk no longer according to the natural state of the flesh, but only according to the new regenerate state. He labors to show from the Scriptures that though a believer is truly born again, the flesh remains and wages war against our souls. “We are said to walk, after either of these natures, when we make the properties or qualifications of either of them to be the principles of our practice (Marshall, 119).” In a sense, this chapter brilliantly describes the internal battle of the everyday Christian seeking to overcome the temptations of the flesh. He writes, “Our way to mortify sinful affections and lusts, must be, not by purging them out of the flesh, but by putting off the flesh itself, and getting above into Christ by faith, and walking in that new nature that is by him (Marshall, 132).” As a wise Pastor, he assures his readers, “Christ dealt with his people as a good careful shepherd, that will not over-drive his sheep” (Marshall, 1332).

It is the final two directions in which Marshall begins to get highly practical. In the thirteenth direction the reader is instructed to, “make the right use of all the means appointed in the word of God, for obtaining and practicing holiness (Marshall, 133).” In this direction, ten principle means of holiness are reviewed. First, we are to “endeavor diligently to know the word of God.” Second, we are to regularly examine our lives according to God’s Word. Third, we are to meditate on the Word of God with the aim not for, “mere speculation and knowledge of the truth, but rather the vigorous pressing it on our consciences, stirring our hearts to the practice of it (Marshall, 139).” Fourth, we are to recognize how the sacrament of baptism promotes the life of faith. Fifth, we are to recognize how the Lord’s Supper is a “spiritual feast to nourish our faith (Marshall, 141).” Sixth, we are to deeply engage in heart felt prayer. Seventh, we are to sing hymns and spiritual songs of praise. Eighth, fasting is to be used as a “help to extraordinary prayer and humiliation (Marshall, 149).” Ninth, we are to not rely on the strength of keeping vows, as a primary means of sanctification. Tenth, we are to enjoy fellowship and communion with the saints.

Upon reflection, this book has grown on me over the few weeks I spent working through it. At times I found myself eager to skip forward to the more practical final two directions. However, Marshall’s lengthy treatment on the prerequisites and proper ordering of sanctification, is what makes this work so effective. He removes the shortcuts many seek to take, and forces the reader to recognize the inability of the unregenerate man to perform the duties of holiness written in the law. I am particularly grateful for direction twelve which discussed the war of two natures within the Christian between the old natural flesh and the new man. Marshall’s advice is beautifully experiential as he exhorts the reader to make haste in every opportunity to overcome the deceits of the flesh with the truth of our new birth. In short, he sets our gaze firmly on our need of salvation by grace through faith in Christ as both the starting point, and the enduring source of power, for our sanctification.


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