For those acquainted with church history, you understand how few things have changed over time. There is really nothing new under the sun. As in our day, the issue of sanctification was a much-debated topic in Walter Marshall’s day as well.
During his ministry, Marshall sought to walk a fine line between the two extremes of Neonomianism (new law) and Antinomianism (against law). Both views misunderstand the gospel and lead believers to either hypocrisy or despair. At the end of the 17th century, Marshall was involved in what is known as the Neonomian Controversy.
And twenty-seven years after the publication (1692) of The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, Marshall’s book again was at the center of controversy, this time in The Marrow Controversy. In April 1719, Principal Hadow of St. Andrew’s, preached a sermon later published entitled, The Record of God and Duty of Faith therein Required, where he fiercely attacked the teaching of Marshall’s book as well as The Marrow of Modern Divinity.
Two crucial topics (though not the only two) debated in The Marrow Controversy involved the relationship of law and gospel and the nature of saving faith. As a result of the legalism that had come to plague the church in Scotland in the 18th century, both areas of doctrine (i.e., relationship of law/gospel and the nature of saving faith) had been corrupted which left believers struggling with assurance of their faith.
Consider how Walter Marshall explains the way pastors in his day sought to deal with the problem of assurance. Marshall writes,
…pastors tell them to do things that are totally opposed to their natural inclinations. Their pastors tell people to obey God, even though those people are fearful, depressed, and totally corrupt. By doing this, they (i.e., pastors- J.F.) hope that people will be able to do well enough so that they can get some comfort and assurance by their attempts to obey God, (Marshall, p. 123).
Marshall’s description is strikingly applicable to the contemporary Evangelical culture of our day. The two extremes that Marshall dealt with in his day are still present in ours.
From Marshall’s response to the controversies of his day, pastors (and church goers so they can know what kind of pastor/preaching they ought to have) learn an invaluable lesson:
You can’t beat and threaten people with the law in order to motivate their hearts to obedience!
Gospel not law (any kind of law) is what strengthens people to obey (cf., Neh. 8:10). The Gospel not law calls believers effectually to sanctification (cf., 2 Thess. 2:13-14). Paul says that it was the love of Christ that controlled him (2 Cor. 5:14).
Marshall (and later the Marrow Men) shows us that the gospel gives a far better way of sanctification than legalism or easy believism. Marshall writes,
“God does not drive us on with whips and terrors, and by the rod of the schoolmaster, the law; but leads us, and wins us to walk in His ways, by allurements (Song 1:3; Hos. 11:3-4; 2 Cor. 5:15; 7:1; Rom. 12:1),” (p. 125 in original text).
Those who think following practical advice, steps to victory, secrets for success, moralistic exhortations from Old Testament stories, etc… will lead to holiness and obedience are deceived.
You cannot use law to motivate people to obey the law!
This is precisely what many Evangelical pastors are doing every Sunday.
One may respond in protest, “We are not beating and threatening people with the law. We are seeking to make the Bible and its truths practical and relevant. We are seeking to help our congregation translate Biblical truths into helpful and meaningful ways into their daily lives. We want to intersect the Bible’s truth with real life.”
But, the fact is, regardless of how “helpful or practical” it may seem, believers who are being fed a steady diet of tips and principles week after week are being driven on with whips and terrors and by the rod of the schoolmaster.
Again Marshall writes,
You will fail to obey God because you are not trying to obey God out of gospel principles. In order to truly obey God, you must have the assurance of God’s love for you. Think about all of the things you are called to do in your Christian life that absolutely must be based upon God’s love for you, and not upon legalism:
rejoicing in the Lord always
having a hope that does not make you ashamed
acknowledging the Lord as your God and Savior
praying to the Lord as your Father in heaven
offering up your body and soul as an acceptable sacrifice to the Lord
casting all your cares, both body and soul, upon the Lord
having contentment and thanksgiving in every circumstance
boasting only in the Lord
triumphing in his praise
rejoicing in tribulation…
loving Christ’s second coming, and looking for it as the blessed hope…” (pp. 140-141).
Following steps is to live under law.
No amount of insightful, practical, relevant tips will enable a believer to carry out such duties. Why? Following steps is to live under law. To live under law is to live without out Christ, in whom sanctification is only to be found (cf., 1 Cor. 1:3).
The believer who is saturated in “relevance” Sunday after Sunday will not progress in sanctification. Why? The law is weak through the flesh and it cannot justify nor sanctify him.
Ralph Erskine points out,
We must therefore make a God of our works, and deify them, and endow them with a creating power, if we think, by the works of the law, to be sanctified; or ascribe such efficacy to them, as to work true sanctification in us. No man, then, that is under the law, or covenant of works, by giving himself to all holy duties and actions, and exercising himself in them, can come to attain true holiness, or to be truly sanctified,” (“Law-Death, Gospel-Life,” p. 47).
To be sure, the law commands people to obey. This is why Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:9 calls it “the ministry of condemnation.” The law has an accidental power due to man’s sinful, corrupt and depraved state. The law itself is holy, righteous and good (Rom. 7:12). But, due to the corruption in man, the law stirs up sin. Instead of making a man better, the law makes a man worse. How? The law provokes and stirs up the corruption of a man’s heart like a hive of bees being provoked by one’s touching of the nest.
Even believers in this life cannot give perfect obedience to the law. Heidelberg Catechism Q. 62 asks,
Why can’t the good we do make us right with God, or at least help us make us right with him?
A. Because the righteousness which can pass God’s scrutiny must be entirely perfect and must in every way measure up to the divine law.1 Even the very best we do in this life is imperfect and stained with sin.2 (1Rom. 3:20; Gal. 3:10/Deut. 27:26; 2Isa. 64:6).
This is why the believer needs a continual daily supply of gospel grace so as not to grow weary and lose heart.
“…if pastors desire to truly help their believers to grow and stay motivated to obey, they must be eager to preach more gospel not less.
Thus, if pastors desire to truly help their believers to grow and stay motivated to obey, they must be eager to preach more gospel not less. Ralph Erskine is correct,
“They that think they know the Gospel well enough bewray their ignorance; no man can be too evangelical.”
Paul was eager to proclaim the gospel to the church in Rome because he understood that a proclamation of the spiritual riches of God’s grace brings about the obedience of faith (Rom. 1:5; 16:26).
And yet, as important as obedience and faith are, this was not the only reason Paul was eager to preach the Gospel to believers.