RPM, Volume 13, Number 34, August 21 to August 27, 2011


By Walter Marshall

Chapter Five

We cannot attain to the practice of true holiness by any of our endeavours while we continue in our natural state and are not partakers of a new state by union and fellowship with Christ through faith.

It is evident all do not have that precious faith by which Christ dwells in our hearts; yea, the number of those that have it is small comparatively to the whole world that lies in wickedness (1 John 5:19, 20); and many of those that at length attain to it do continue without it for some considerable time (Eph. 2:12). And though some may have the spirit of faith given to them from their mother's womb (as John the Baptist, Luke 1:15, 44), yet even in them there is a natural being by generation before there can be a spiritual being by regeneration (1 Cor. 15:46). Thus arises the consideration of two states or conditions of the children of men in matters that appertain to God and godliness, the one of which is vastly different from the other. Those that have the happiness of a new birth and creation in Christ by faith are thereby placed in a very excellent state, consisting in the enjoyment of the righteousness of Christ for their justification, and the Spirit of Christ to live by in holiness here and glory for ever, as has already appeared. Those that are not in Christ by faith cannot be in a better state than that which they received together with their nature from the first Adam by being once born and created in him, or than they can attain to by the power of that nature, with any such help as God is pleased to afford to it. This latter I call a natural state, because it consists in such things as we have either received by natural generation or can attain to by natural power through divine assistance, as the Scripture calls man in this state the natural man (1 Cor. 2:14). The former I call a new state, because we enter into it by a new birth in Christ. I may call it a spiritual state, according to the Scripture, because it is received from Christ the quickening Spirit, and the natural and spiritual man are opposed (1 Cor. 2:14, 15); though some call both these states spiritual, because the everlasting weal or woe of the soul, or spirit, of man is chiefly concerned in them.

It is a common error of those that are in a corrupt natural state that they seek to reform their lives according to the law, without any thoughts that their state must be changed before their lives can be changed from sin to righteousness. The heathens, that knew nothing of a new state in Christ, were urged by their own consciences to practice several duties of the law, according to the knowledge they had by the light of nature (Rom. 2:14, 15). Israel according to the flesh had a zeal of God and godliness and endeavoured to practice the written law, at least in external performances, while they were enemies to the faith of Christ. And Paul attained so far that he was blameless in these external performances of the righteousness of the law, while he persecuted the church of Christ (Phil. 3:6).

Some are so near the kingdom of God, while they continue in a natural state, that they are convinced of the spirituality of the law, that it binds us principally to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbour as ourselves, and to perform universal obedience to God, in all our inward thoughts and affections, as well as in all our outward actions, and to do all the duties that we owe to our neighbour, out of this hearty love (Mark 12:33, 34). And they struggle and labour with great earnestness to subdue their inward thoughts and affections to the law of God, and to abstain, not only from some sins, but from all known sins, and to perform every known duty of the law with their whole heart and soul, as they think; and are active and intent in their devout practice, that they overwork their natural strength, and so fervent is their zeal, that they are ready even to kill their bodies with fastings and other macerations, that they may kill their sinful lusts. They are strongly convinced that holiness is absolutely necessary to salvation, and are deeply affected with the terrors of damnation; and yet they were never so much enlightened in the mystery of the gospel as to know that a new state in Christ is necessary to a new life; therefore they labour in vain to reform their natural state, instead of getting above it in Christ. And some of these, when they have misspent many years in striving against the stream of their lusts, without any success, do at last fall miserably into despair of ever attaining to holiness, and turn to wallowing in the mire of their lusts, or are fearfully swallowed up with horror of conscience.

There are several false opinions by which such ignorant zealots encourage themselves in their fruitless endeavours. Some of them judge that they are able to practice holiness, because they are not compelled to sin, and may abstain from it if they will. To this they add that Christ, by the merit of His death, has restored that freedom of will to good which was lost by the Fall, and has set nature on its legs again, and that, if they endeavour to do what lies in them, Christ will do the rest, by assisting them with the supplies of His saving grace; so they trust on the grace of Christ to help them in their endeavours. They plead further that it would not consist with the justice of God to punish them for sin, if they could not avoid it; and that it would be in vain for the ministers of the gospel to preach to them and exhort them to any saving duty, if they cannot perform it. They produce examples of heathens, and of such as had the name of Christians, without any acquaintance with the faith that I have described, who have attained to a great excellency in religious words and works.

My work at present is to deliver those ignorant zealots from their fruitless tormenting labours, by bringing them to despair of the attainment of holiness in a natural state, that they may seek it only in a new state by faith in Christ, where they may certainly find it, without such tormenting labour and anxiety of spirit. For this end, I shall confirm the truth asserted in the direction, and fortify it against the forementioned false opinions by the ensuing considerations.

1. The foundation of this assertion is firmly laid in the direction already explained, and confirmed by many places of Scripture. For, if all endowments necessary to enable us for a holy practice can be had only in a state of union and fellowship with Christ by faith, and faith itself, not by the natural power of free will, but by the power of Christ, coming into the soul by His Spirit, to unite us with Himself, who does not see that the attainment of true holiness by any of our most vigorous endeavours, while we continue in our natural condition, is altogether hopeless? I need add no more, were it not to show more fully what abundance of light the Scripture affords to guide us right in this part of our way, that those who wander out of it by following any false light of their own, or other corrupted judgements, may find themselves the more inexcusable.

2. It is evident that we cannot practice true holiness while we continue in a natural state, because we must be born of water and of the Spirit, or else we cannot enter into the kingdom of God (John 3:3, 5); and we are created in Christ Jesus to good works, which God has before ordained that we should walk in them (Eph. 2:10). If we could love God and our neighbour as the law requires, without a new birth and creation, we might live without them, for Christ has said, 'This do, and you shall live' (Luke 10:28). Now, a new birth and creation is more than a mere reforming and repairing our natural state. If we were put into a certain state and condition by the first birth and creation, much more by the second. For the first produces the substance of a man as well as a state; the second had nothing to produce, but a new state of the same person. And note that we were first created and born in Adam the natural man, but our new birth and creation are in Christ the spiritual Man. And, if any man is in Christ, he is in a new state, far different from the state of Adam before the Fall. He is wholly a new creature; as it is written, old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new (2 Cor. 5:17).

3. It is positively asserted by the apostle Paul that those that are in the flesh cannot please God (Rom. 8:8). Many are too overly and negligent in considering the sense of this gospel phrase, what it is to be in the flesh. They understand no more by it than to be sinful, or to be addicted inordinately to please the sensitive appetite. They should consider that the apostle speaks here of being in the flesh, as the cause of sinfulness; as the next verse speaks of being in the Spirit, as the cause of holiness; and, whatever cause it is, it must needs be different from its effect. Sin is a poverty of the flesh, or something that dwells in the flesh (Rom. 7:18), and therefore it is not the flesh itself. The flesh is that which lusts against the Spirit (Gal. 5:17), and therefore it is not merely sinful lusting. The true interpretation is that by flesh is meant the nature of man, as it is corrupted by the fall of Adam and propagated from him to us in that corrupt state by natural generation; and to be in the flesh is to be in a natural state, as to be in the Spirit is to be in a new state, by the Spirit of Christ dwelling in us (Rom. 8:9). The corrupt nature is called 'flesh', because it is received by carnal generation; and the new nature is called spirit, because it is received by spiritual regeneration. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit (John 3:6). So the apostle, if he is rightly understood, has said enough to make us despair utterly of attaining to true holiness while we continue in a natural state.

3. The apostle testifies that those that have been taught as the truth is in Jesus have learned to avoid their normal sinful conversation by putting off the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and by putting on the new man, which after God, is created in righteousness and true holiness (Eph. 4:21, 22, 24). Putting off the old man and putting on the new man is the same with not being in the flesh, but in the Spirit, in the foregoing testimony; that is, putting off our natural state and putting on a new state by union and fellowship with Christ. The apostle himself shows that by the new man is meant that excellent state where Christ is all, and in all (Col. 3:11). Therefore, by the old man, must needs be meant the natural state of man, in which he is without the saving enjoyment of Christ, which is called 'old', because of the new state to which believers are brought by their regeneration in Christ. This is a manner of expression peculiar to the gospel, as well as the former, and as slightly considered by hose that think that the apostle's meaning is only that they should put off sinfulness and put on holiness in their conversation, and so they think to become new men, by turning over a new leaf in their practice and leading a new life.

Let them learn here that the old and new man are two contrary states, containing in them, not only sin and holiness, but all other things that dispose and incline us to the practice of them; and that the old man must be put off, as crucified with Christ, before we can be freed from the practice of sin (Rom. 6:6, 7). And therefore we cannot lead a new life until we have first got a new state by faith in Christ. Let me add here that the meaning of the apostle is the same where he directs us to put on the Lord Jesus Christ, as the means by which we may cast off the deeds of darkness and walk honestly, as in the daytime, not fulfilling the lusts of the flesh (Rom. 13:12-14).

5. Our natural state has several properties that wholly disable us for the practice of holiness and enslave us to the practice of sin while we continue in it. Here I shall show that the old man, the flesh, or natural state, is not only sin, as some would have it, but it contains in it several things, which I shall name, that make it to be sinful, besides several other things that make it miserable. I have shown that in Christ we have all endowments necessary to frame us for godliness; so, in our fleshly state, we have all things contrary to that holy frame. One thing belonging to our natural state is the guilt of sin, even of Adam's first sin, and of the sinful depravation of our nature, and of all our own actual transgressions, and therefore we are by nature the children of wrath (Eph. 2:3) and under the curse of God. The benefit of remission of our sin and freedom from condemnation is not given to us in the flesh, or in a natural state, but only in Christ (Rom. 8:1; Eph. 1:7). And can we imagine that a man should be able to prevail against sin, while God is against him, and curses him?

Another property, inseparable from the former, is an evil conscience, which denounces the wrath of God against us for sin, and inclines us to abhor Him as our enemy, rather than to love Him, as has been shown; or, if it is a blind conscience, it hardens us the more in our sins.

A third property is an evil inclination, tending only to sin, which therefore is called 'sin that dwells in us', and 'the law of sin in our members', that powerfully subdues and captivates us to the service of sin (Rom. 7:20, 23). It is a fixed propensity to lust against the law without any deliberation; and therefore its lustings are not to be prevented by any diligence or watchfulness. The mind of the flesh is enmity against God, for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be (Rom. 8:7). How vain then is it to plead that they can do good, if they will, when their minds and will itself are enslaved to sin?

A fourth property is subjection to the power of the devil who is the god of this world, that has blinded the minds of all that do not believe (2 Cor. 4:4), and will certainly conquer all whom he fights with on his own dunghill, that is, in a natural state.

And, from all these properties, we may well conclude that our natural state has the property never to be good, to be stark dead in sin (Eph. 2:1), according to the sentence denounced against the first sin of mankind in Adam: 'In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die' (Gen. 2:17). For you can no more bring it to holiness, by any of the most vehement motives and endeavours, than you can bring a dead carcass to life, by chafing and rubbing it. You can stir up no strength, or fortifying grace, in the natural man by such motives and endeavours, because there is no strength in him to be stirred up (Rom. 5:6). Though you do all that lies in you to the utmost, while you are in this flesh, you can do nothing but sin, for there is no good thing in you, as the apostle Paul shows by his own experience: 'I know, that in me (that is, in my flesh), no good thing dwells' (Rom. 7:18).

6. We have no good ground to trust on Christ to help us to will or to do that which is acceptable to Him while we continue in our natural state, or to imagine that freedom of will to holiness is restored to us by the merit of His death. For, as it has been already shown, Christ aimed at a higher end in His incarnation, death and resurrection, than the restoring the decay and ruins of our natural state. He aimed to advance us to a new state, more excellent than the state of nature ever was, by union and fellowship with Himself, that we might live to God, not by the power of a natural free will, but by the power of His Spirit living and acting in us. So we may conclude that our natural state is irrecoverable and desperate because Christ, the only Saviour, did not aim at the recovery of it. It is neither holy nor happy, but subject to sin and to all miseries, as long as it remains. Even those that are in a new state in Christ, and do serve the law of God with their mind, do yet with their flesh serve the law of sin (Rom. 7:25). As far as it remains in them, it lusts against the Spirit (Gal. 5:17); and it remains dead, because of the sin, even when the Spirit is life to them, because of righteousness (Rom. 8:10), and must be wholly abolished by death, before we can be perfected in that holiness and happiness that is by faith in Christ. After God had promised salvation by Christ, the seed of the woman, He placed cherubims and a flaming sword to keep man out of Paradise, in this way teaching him that his first state was lost without hope, and that the happiness intended for him was wholly new. Our old natural man was not revived and reformed by the death of Christ, but crucified together with Him, and therefore to be abolished and destroyed out of us by virtue of His death (Rom. 6:6). It is like the part of a garment infected with the plague of leprosy, which was to be rent off as incurable, that the garment might be clean (Lev. 13:56). If Christ is not in us, we are reprobates (2 Cor. 13:5), that is, we are in a state which God has rejected from partaking of His salvation; so that we are not to expect any assistance from God to make us holy in it, but rather to deliver us from it.

7. This does not at all discharge those that are in a natural state from obligation to holiness of life, nor render them excusable for their sins at the tribunal of God's justice. For God has made man upright, but they sought out many inventions (Eccles. 7:29). Observe well the words of this text, and you will find that all they who have sought out many inventions, rather than upright walking, are comprehended in man that was at first made upright. And 'man' in the text signifies all mankind. The first Adam was all mankind, as Jacob and Esau were two nations in the womb of Rebecca (Gen. 25:23). God made us all in our first parent, according to His own image, able and inclined to do His law and, in that pure nature, our obligation to obedience was first laid on us, and the first wilful transgression, by which our first parent bereaved himself of the image of God, and brought on himself the sentence of death, was our sin as well as his, for, 'In one man, Adam, all have sinned, and so death is passed on all' (Rom. 5:12); because all mankind were in Adam's loins, when the first sin was committed, even as Levi may be said to have paid tithes in Abraham before he was born, because, when his father Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek, he was yet in his loins (Heb. 7:9, 10). The promise of God, that He will not charge the iniquities of parents on their children, is a promise belonging to the new covenant confirmed in the blood of Christ; and it is yea and amen to us only in Christ, in whom we have another nature than that which our parents conveyed to us, so that we cannot justly claim the benefit of it in our old natural state (Jer. 31:29-31; 2 Cor. 1:20). Those that account their impotency a sufficient plea to excuse them or others show that they were never truly humbled for that great wilful transgression of all mankind in the loins of Adam. Inability to pay debt excuses not a debtor that has lavished away his estate; neither does drunkenness excuse the mad actings of a drunkard, but rather aggravates his sin. And our impotency consists not in a mere want of executive power, but in the want of a willing mind to practice true holiness and righteousness. Naturally we do not love it, we do not like it, but lust against it (Gal. 5:17), and hate the light (John 3:20). If men in a natural state had a hearty love and liking to true holiness, and a desire and serious endeavour to practice it out of hearty love, and yet failed in the event, then they might, under some pretence, plead for their excuse (as some do for them) that they were compelled to sin by an inevitable fate. But none have just cause to plead any such thing for their excuse, because none endeavour to practice true holiness out of hearty love to it, until the good work be begun in their souls and, when God hath begun, He will perfect it (Phil. 1:6), and will, in the meantime, accept their ready mind, though they fall short in performance (2 Cor. 8:12). 'How abominable,' then, 'and filthy is man, that drinketh iniquity as water?' (Job. 15:16), that cannot practice holiness, because he will not? This is their just condemnation, that they love darkness rather than light. They deserve to be partakers with the devils in torments, as they partake with them in evil lusts; and their inability to do good will no more excuse them than it excuses devils.

4. Neither will this assertion make it a vain thing to preach the gospel to natural people, and to exhort them to true repentance and faith in Christ for their conversion and salvation. For the design of our preaching is not to bring them to holiness in their natural state, but to raise them above it, and to present them perfect in Christ in the performance of those duties (Col. 1:28). And though they cannot perform those duties by their natural strength, yet the gospel is made effectual for their conversion and salvation by the power of the Holy Ghost, which accompanieth the preaching of it; to quicken those that are dead in sin, and to create them anew in Christ, by giving to them repentance to life and lively faith in Christ. The gospel cometh to the elect of God, not only in word, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in such assurance that they receive it with joy of the Holy Ghost (1 Thess. 1:5, 6). The gospel is the ministration of the Spirit, that giveth life (2 Cor. 3:6-8); it is 'mighty through God' (2 Cor. 10:4). It dependeth not at all upon the power of our free will to make it successful for our conversion, but it conveyeth into the soul that life and power whereby we receive and obey it. Christ can make those that are dead in sin to hear His voice and live (John 5:25). Therefore He can speak to them by His gospel and command them to repent and believe with good success, as well as He could say to dead carcasses, 'Talitha cumi' (Mark 5:4); 'Lazarus come forth,' (John 11:43, 44); and to the sick of the palsy, 'Arise, take up thy bed, and go into thine house' (Matt. 9:6).

5. There is no reason that the examples of heathen philosophers, or any Jews or Christians by outward profession, that have lived without the saving knowledge of God in Christ, should move us, by their wise sayings and renowned attainments in the practice of devotion and morality, to recede from this truth that has been so fully confirmed out of the Holy Scriptures. Have we not cause to judge that the apostle Paul, while he was a zealous Pharisee, and at least some few of the great multitude of the Jews in his time that were zealous of the law and had the instruction of the Holy Scriptures, attained as near to that true holiness as the heathen philosophers, or any others in their natural state? Yet Paul, after he was enlightened with the saving knowledge of Christ, judged himself the chief of sinners in his highest former attainments, though, in the judgement of others, he was blameless touching the righteousness which is in the law; and he found it necessary to begin to live to God in a new way by faith in Christ, and to suffer the loss of all his former attainments, and to count them but dung that he might win Christ (1 Tim. 1:15; Phil. 3:6-8).

And none of the great multitude of Jews that followed after the law of righteousness did ever attain to it, while they sought it not by faith in Christ (Rom. 9:3, 32). What performances are greater in outward appearance, than for a man to give all his goods to the poor, and to give his body to be burnt? And yet the Scripture allows us to suppose that this may be done without true charity, and therefore without any true holiness of the heart and life (1 Cor. 13:3). Men in a natural state may have strong conviction of the infinite power, wisdom, justice and goodness of God, and of the judgement to come, and the everlasting happiness of the godly and torments of the wicked. These convictions may stir them up, not only to make a high profession, and to utter rare sayings concerning God and godliness, but also to labour with great earnestness to avoid all known sin, to subdue their lusts, to perform universal obedience to God in all known duties, and to serve Him with their lives and estates to the utmost, and to extort out of their hearts some kind of love to God and godliness, that, if possible, they may escape the terrible torments of hell and procure everlasting happiness by their endeavours. Yet all their love to God is but forced and feigned; they have no hearty liking to God or His service; they account Him a hard Master, and His commandments grievous, and they repine and fret inwardly at the burden of them, and, were it not for fear of everlasting fire, they would little regard the enjoyment of God in heaven, and they would be glad if they might have the liberty to enjoy their lust without danger of damnation. The highest preferment of those that are born only after the flesh, in Abraham's family, is but to be children of the bondwoman (Gal. 4:23). And though they toil more in God's service than many of His dear children, yet God does not accept their service, because their best performances are slavish, without any childlike affections towards God, and not better than glittering sins. And yet these natural men are not at all beholden to the goodness of their natures for these counterfeit shows of holiness, or for the least abstaining from the grossest sins. If God should leave men fully to their own natural corruptions, and to the power of Satan (as they deserve) all show of religion and morality would be quickly banished out of the world, and we should grow past feeling in wickedness, and like the cannibals, who are as good by nature as ourselves. But God, that can restrain the burning of the fiery furnace without quenching it, and the flowing water without changing its nature, also restrains the working of natural corruption without mortifying it. Through the greatness of His wisdom and power, He makes His enemies yield feigned obedience to Him (Ps. 66:3), and to do many things good for the matter of them, though they can do nothing in a right holy manner. He has appointed several means to restrain our corruptions - as the law, terrors of conscience, terrible judgements, and rewards in this life, magistrates, human laws, labour for necessaries, as food and raiment. And those gospel means that are effectual for sanctification serve also for restraint of sin. God has gracious ends in this restraint of sin, that His church may be preserved and His gospel preached in the world; and that these natural men may be in a better capacity to receive the instructions of the gospel; and that such of them that are chosen may, in due time, be converted; and that those of them that are not truly converted may enjoy more of the goodness of God here, and suffer less torments hereafter. As vile and wicked as the world is, we have cause to praise and to magnify the free goodness of God that it is no worse.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

Subscribe to RPM

RPM subscribers receive an email notification each time a new issue is published. Notifications include the title, author, and description of each article in the issue, as well as links directly to the articles. Like RPM itself, subscriptions are free. To subscribe to RPM, please select this link.