Walter Marshall was born in 1628 at Bishops Wearmouth in Durham, England. At age eleven, he went to study at Winchester College. He then became a fellow at New College, Oxford, from 1648 to 1657. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1652. Two years later, he was approved for the living of Fawley, Hampshire. In 1656, he was appointed to the vicarage of Hursley, Hampshire, four miles from Winchester. From 1657 to 1661, he served as a fellow at Winchester College. He married and had two daughters.
When the Act of Uniformity passed in 1662, ministers of the Church of England were asked to give proof of Episcopal ordination and their conformity to the Book of Common Prayer. Like hundreds of his Puritan colleagues, Marshall decided on the basis of conscience not to conform. He and other Nonconformists were ejected from their parishes on St. Bartholomew’s Day, August 24, 1662. In the preface to Marshall’s work on sanctification, a friend said, “He [Marshall] was put under the Bartholomew Bushel with near two thousand more lights whose illumination made the land a Goshen.”
Soon after that, Marshall was installed as minister of an Independent congregation at Gosport, Hampshire, where he served the last eighteen years of his life. At Gosport, he wrote a book on sanctification, titling it Gospel Mystery from Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 3:16: “Great is the mystery of godliness.”
During this time, Marshall experienced bouts of deep spiritual depression. For years he sought holiness and peace. He read Richard Baxter extensively, then questioned Baxter, who said that Marshall had taken him too legalistically. He went to Thomas Goodwin next, telling him about the sins that weighed heavily on his conscience. Goodwin’s response was that Marshall had forgotten to mention the greatest sin of all: not believing on the Lord Jesus Christ for the remission of his sins and the sanctifying of his nature.
Marshall began to focus more on studying and preaching Christ. He realized that he had been trying to make personal righteousness the basis of his dealings with God and the ground of his peace. Consequently, he had not submitted to the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ. When he focused upon Christ, he found holiness, peace of conscience, and joy in the Holy Ghost. The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification was the fruit of that experience. Of this book, James Hervey stated that if he were banished to a desert island and could take only a Bible and two other books, Marshall’s classic would be one of them.
Marshall’s preaching was edifying, though it did not win him great recognition. Still, he preached in many places in the last years of his life, including Winchester, Alton, Winton, Taunton, and Crewekerne.
Marshall died at Gosport in 1680. Before he died, he said to his visitors, “I die in the full persuasion of the truth, and in the comfort of that doctrine which I have preached to you.” He then offered his last words, “The wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). Samuel Tomlyns of Andover preached at Marshall’s funeral. In the preface to the sermon, Tomlyns said of his friend, “He wooed for Christ in his preaching, and allured you to Christ by his walking.”
The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification (RHB; 247 pages; 1999). First published posthumously in 1692 and then many times thereafter, this classic Puritan work on sanctification also deals with justification. It is divided into fourteen sections that Marshall called “directions.” In the first direction, Marshall asserts that “sanctification, whereby our hearts and lives are conformed to the law, is a grace of God that He communicates to us by means.” Holy Scripture is the means. We must sit at Christ’s feet to learn from Him the way of holiness. The second direction stresses that if our works are not motivated by God’s love to us and do not flow out of reconciliation with Him, then we are still at enmity with Him. The third direction says that just as we are justified by Christ’s righteousness worked out by Him and imputed to us, so we are sanctified by holiness accomplished in Christ, and imparted to us. We put holiness into practice by using what we already had received from being in union with Christ.
The fourth direction says, “The Means or Instruments whereby the Spirit of God accomplishes our Union with Christ, and our Fellowship with him in all holiness, are the Gospel, whereby Christ enters into our hearts to work faith in us; and faith, whereby we actually receive Christ himself, with all his fullness, into our hearts.” Without saving faith, no human endeavor can produce any true holiness (directions five and six).
In the seventh direction, Marshall deals with what comes prior to faith. He argues that what people think of as preparation for faith is either faith itself or the result of faith. To try to make ourselves fit for Christ is to be led away from Christ by a satanic delusion.
After emphasizing the importance of getting faith and holiness in the right order, Marshall issues a stern warning in the eighth direction against antinomianism. The best way to oppose antinomianism is “not to deny as some do that trusting on Christ for salvation is a saving act of faith, but rather to show that none do or can trust on Christ for true salvation, except they trust on him for holiness; neither do they heartily desire true salvation if they do not desire to be made truly righteous in their hearts and lives.”
The ninth direction says, “We must first receive the comforts of the gospel, that we may be able to perform sincerely the duties of the law.” To reach that purpose, we must get some assurance of salvation in that very faith whereby Christ Himself is received into our hearts; therefore, we must endeavor to believe on Christ confidently, “persuading and assuring ourselves, in the act of believing, that God freely giveth to us an interest in Christ and his salvation, according to his gracious promise” (tenth direction). To believe on Christ rightly, the eleventh direction says, means to receive Him as a free gift with ardent affection, trusting in Him alone for salvation. We must not delay but come to Christ with assurance of faith for a new heart and a holy life.
Believers should strive to obey the law by “gospel principles and means,” Marshall says in the twelfth direction. He goes on to explain in the thirteenth direction how we must use the means of grace to strive after holiness. We must endeavor diligently to know the Word of God, to examine our state and daily life by it, and to meditate on it regularly. We are to use the sacraments as spiritual feasts to promote the life of faith. We are to pray in such a way that we can live by faith in Christ, according to the new man. All of that must be accompanied by heartfelt singing of the Psalms, periodic fasting, and frequent fellowship with the saints. In all those means, however, we must take care that we use them without abusing them by putting them in the place of Christ.
Marshall concludes in the last direction that holiness, grounded in union with Christ and combined with the diligent use of the means of grace, will result in a fruitful and blessed life. Such a pursuit will abase our flesh, exalt God, and coalesce with all the doctrines of grace. This is the only pleasant and sure way to attain true holiness.
In summary, Marshall’s book teaches us the inseparability of union with Christ and sanctification, the inseparability of justification and sanctification, and the inseparability of Christ and His Word.
Excerpt from Meet the Puritans
by Dr. Joel Beeke and Randall J. Pederson
Posted with permission on Monergism.com by Reformation Heritage Books