Book Review: The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, by Walter Marshall
Synopsis: Walter Marshallâ€™s classic seventeenth-century treatment of the doctrine of sanctification lays out in clear and simple terms the means by which a Christian might be enabled to grow in holiness. His basic proposition may seem foreign to many modern believers, who are desperately striving to produce in themselves the fruits of obedience, and so guarantee Godâ€™s continuing favor. But it is as scriptural as it is refreshing: sanctification, just like justification, is Godâ€™s free gift of grace, and can be apprehended only through the faith which looks to Christ and his perfect work.
Many books have been written on sanctification and holiness, some helpful and some not. But of all the works that attempt to define what holiness is, or teach a Christian what he ought to do, very few devote much space to the question of means â€“ how can I do what I know I should, when my natural inclinations seem so opposed to all that is right? Apart from an understanding of the means by which a Christian may become progressively more holy, a mere description of the nature of holiness will be of no practical help.
That is why Marshallâ€™s work is so vital. Ever since Adamâ€™s fall, mankind has been powerless to perform that which is good. The problem is not merely one of education â€“ we certainly do need to be taught what is good, but we also must be enabled to do it. And, while God tells us what to do in his law, he enables us to do it only through the gospel.
Why is this? Because the gospel unites us by faith to the only One who can truly perform acceptable acts of righteousness; and who can, moreover, produce those same acts in us, from the inside out. The message of the gospel is that we do not become holy by doing, but by not doing â€“ we do not work so that we may become holy, but we become holy by faith, with the result that we begin to work naturally, from our heart. Sadly, many who recognize this truth in the matter of justification forget it when it comes to sanctification. But we are no more able for the latter than we are for the former, apart from the work of Christ in us.
It may be objected that such a teaching must result in license and lawlessness. But as Marshall demonstrates, it is actually the teaching of a works-based sanctification that issues in lawlessness, for it throws the pursuit of holiness on the abilities of the flesh, which can do nothing according to Godâ€™s law. The pursuit of sanctification by the gospel-truth of faith in Christ is the only means that can ever be successful.
This truth, when apprehended, produces some marvelous results: first, it gives all glory to God alone, for the whole process of salvation â€“ without him, none of it is possible. Second, it serves to alleviate the tormented conscience, and makes the yoke of Christâ€™s law easy and refreshing indeed â€“ for it turns our eyes to him, when before they were fixed on the impossible weight of the law hanging over our weak resolve. And finally, it actually produces true and acceptable holiness, where years of ardent efforts had left only failure and defeat â€“ for it is only through gospel faith that Christâ€™s power flows through us because of our vital union with him.
For all these reasons, John Murray speaks of The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification as the most important book on sanctification that has ever been written. He may well be right.