RPM, Volume 13, Number 38, September 18 to September 24, 2011


By Walter Marshall

Chapter Nine

We must first receive the comforts of the gospel, that we may be able to sincerely perform the duties of the law.

Since man fell from obedience to God, which he was enabled and engaged to perform by the comforts of his first happy state in Paradise, God might have justly refused ever to give man again any comforts beforehand, to encourage him to his duty, that the way to holiness being hedged up against him with the thorns and briars of fear, grief and despair, he might never be able to escape the sentence of death which was denounced against his first transgression. This justice of God is manifest in the method of the legal covenant, in which God promises us no life, comfort or happiness, until we have thoroughly performed His law, and may be seen in the Mount Sinai promulgation, explicated throughout Leviticus 26. And we are by nature so strongly addicted to this legal method of salvation that it is a hard matter to dissuade those that live under the light of the gospel from placing the duties of the law before the comforts of the gospel. If they cannot make salvation itself, yet they will be sure to make all the comforts of it to depend on their own works. They think it as unreasonable to expect comfort before duty, as wages before work, or the fruits of the earth before the husbandman's labour (2 Tim. 2:6). They account the only effectual way to secure the obedience we owe to the law of God is to ground all our comforts on the performance of it; and that the contrary doctrine strengthens the hands of the wicked, by prophesying peace to them, where there is no peace (Ezek. 13:16, 22), and opens the floodgates to all licentiousness. Therefore, some preachers will advise men not to be solicitous and hasty of getting comfort, but that they should rather exercise themselves diligently to the performance of their duty; and they tell them that, in so doing, their condition will be safe and happy at last, though they never enjoy any comfort of their salvation, as long as they live in this world.

That you may rightly understand what I have asserted in the direction against such vulgar errors, take notice that I do not make the only place of gospel comfort to be before the duties of the law. I acknowledge that God comforts His people on every side (Ps. 71:21), both before and also after the performance of their duty, and that the greatest consolations do follow after duty; yet some comforts God gives to His people beforehand, as advance money, to furnish them for His service, though most of the pay comes in afterward. Neither do I hereby speak any peace to those that continue in their sinful natural state, for the comforts I speak of cannot be received without rejecting those false confidences by which natural men harden themselves in sin, nor without that effectual working of the Spirit by which we are made good trees, that we may bring forth good fruit. Though they are given before the sincere practice of the law, yet they are not given to us in our corrupt sinful nature, but in and with the new holy nature, which immediately produces a holy practice, though it must necessarily go before, as the cause before the effect; and they are no other than comforts of those spiritual benefits by which our new state and nature is produced, and of which it is constituted and made up - as the comforts of redemption, justification, adoption, the gift of the Spirit and the like. Neither do I intend here any transport or ravishment of joy and delight, but only such manner of comfort as rationally strengthens, in some measure, against the oppression of fear, grief and despair, which we are liable toy reason of our natural sinfulness and misery.

This explanation of the sense of my assertion is sufficient to answer some common objections against it. And I hope the truth of it will be fully evidenced by the following arguments.

1. This truth is a clear consectary from those principles of holiness that have been already confirmed. I have shown that we must have a good persuasion of our reconciliation with God, and of our happiness in heaven, and of our sufficient strength both to will and to do that which is acceptable to God through Jesus Christ, that we may be rationally inclined and bent to the practice of holiness. These endowments must be had by receiving Christ Himself, with His Spirit, and all His fullness, by trusting on Him for all His salvation, as He is freely promised to us in the gospel; and that by His faith we do as really receive Christ, as our food by eating and drinking. Now, let right reason judge: can we be persuaded of the love of God, of our everlasting happiness and our strength to serve God, and yet be without any comforts? Can the glad tidings of the gospel of peace be believed, and Christ and His Spirit actually received into the heart, without any relief to the soul from oppressing fear, grief, despair? Can the salvation of Christ be comfortless, or the bread and water of life without any sweet relish to those that feed on Him with hungering and thirsting appetites? God will not give such benefits as these to those that do not desire and esteem them above the world. And certainly the very receiving of them will be comfortable to such, except they receive them blindfold, which they cannot do, when the very giving and bestowing them opens the eyes of a sinner and turns him from darkness to light, by which, at least in some measure, he sees and perceives spiritually the things that concern his present and future peace, and reaps some encouraging and strengthening comfort by it to the practice of holiness.

2. Peace, joy, hope are recommended to us in Scripture as the spring of other holy duties; and fear and oppressing grief forbidden as hindrances to true religion: 'The peace of God keeps our hearts and minds through Christ Jesus' (Phil. 4:7). 'Do not be sorry; for the joy of the Lord is your strength' (Neh. 8:10). 'Every man that has this hope in him, purifies himself, even as He is pure' (1 John3:3).

'Fear has torment: he that fears is not made perfect in love' (1 John 4:18). This is the reason why the apostle doubles the exhortation, to rejoice in the Lord always, as a duty of exceeding weight and necessity (Phil. 4:4). What are such duties, but comfort itself? And can we think that those duties are necessary to our continuance in a holy practice, and yet not to the beginning of it, where the work is most difficult and encouragement most needful? Therefore we must make haste in the first place to get a comfortable frame of spirit, if we would make haste, and not delay, to keep God's holy commandments.

3. The usual method of gospel doctrine, as it is delivered to us in the Holy Scriptures, is first, to comfort our hearts, and in this way to establish us in every good word and work (2 Thess. 2:17). And it appears how clearly this method is adjusted in several Epistles written by the apostles, in which they first acquaint the churches with the rich grace of God towards them in Christ, and the spiritual blessings which they are made partakers of for their strong consolation, and they exhort them to a holy conversation, answerable to such privileges. And it is not only the method of whole Epistles, but of many particular exhortations to duty, in which the comfortable benefits of the grace of God in Christ are made use of as arguments and motives to stir up the saints to a holy practice; which comfortable benefits must first be believed, and the comfort of them applied to our own souls, or else they will not be forcible to engage us to the practice for which they are intended.

To give you a few instances, out of a multitude that might be alleged, we are exhorted to practice holy duties because we are dead to sin and alive to God through Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom. 6:11); and because sin shall not have dominion over us, for we are not under the law, but under grace (Rom. 6:14); because we are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, and God will quicken our mortal bodies by His Spirit dwelling in us (Rom. 8:9, 11); because our bodies are the members of Christ and the temples of the Holy Ghost (1 Cor. 6:15, 19); because God has made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21); and has promised that He will dwell in us, and walk in us, and be to us a Father, and we shall be to Him sons and daughters (2 Cor. 6:18; 7:1); because God has forgiven us for Christ's sake, and accounts us His dear children; and Christ has loved us, and given Himself for us; and we, that were sometimes darkness, are now light in the Lord (Eph. 4:32; 5:1, 2, 8); because we are risen with Christ and, when Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall we also appear with Him in glory (Col. 3:1, 4); because God has said, 'I will never leave you,. nor forsake you' (Heb. 13:5); because of the many promises made to us (2 Cor. 7:1). Search the Scriptures, and you may with delight see that this is the vein that runs through gospel exhortations, and you may find the like vein of comfort running through the prophetical exhortations in the Old Testament.

Some may object that the apostles used this method, in their writings to saints, who had practiced holiness already, that so they might continue and increase therein. But to that I may easily reply, 'If it be a method needful for grown saints, much more for beginners, that find the work of obedience most difficult and have most need of strong consolation.' And I hope to show how we may be able to lay hold of these consolations by faith, in the very first beginning of a holy life. Besides, the gospel proposes peace and comfort freely to those that are not yet brought to holiness that, if they have hearts to receive it, they may be converted from sin to righteousness. When the apostles entered into a house they were first to say, 'Peace be to this house' (Luke 10:5). At their very first preaching to sinners, they acquainted them with the glad tidings of salvation by Christ, for everyone that would receive it as a free gift by faith (Acts 3:26; 13:26, 32, 38; 16:30, 31). The assured them, if they would but trust heartily on Christ for all His salvation, they should have it, although they were at present the chief of sinners - which was comfort sufficient for all that duly esteem spiritual comfort, hungering and thirsting after it. And this is a method agreeable to the design of the gospel, which is, to advance the riches of the grace of God in all our spiritual enjoyments. God will give us His consolations before our good works, as well as after them, that we may know that He gives us everlasting consolation and good hope through grace, and not through the procurement of our works (2 Thess. 2:16).

4. The nature of the duties of the law requires a comfortable state of the soul for the performance of them. I have before proved sufficiently that they require a persuasion of our reconciliation with God, and of our future happiness, and strength by which we may be able to walk in holy obedience. Joshua must be strong and very courageous, that he might observe to do according to the law that Moses, the servant of the Lord, commanded Him (Josh. 1:7). I shall instance briefly in the comforts without which several great duties cannot be sincerely performed. Can we love God, and delight in Him above all, while we look on Him as our everlasting enemy, and apprehend no love and mercy in Him towards us that may render Him a suitable good for us, and lovely in our eyes?

What doleful melody will the heart make in the duty of praise, if we account that all those perfections, for which we praise Him, will rather aggravate our misery than make us happy? What a heartless work will it be to pray to Him, and to offer up ourselves to His service, if we have no comfortable hope that He will accept us? Is it possible for us to free ourselves from carking cares by casting our care upon the Lord, if we do not apprehend He cares for us? Can we be patient in affliction, with cheerfulness, and under persecutions, except we have peace with God and rejoice in hope of the glory of God? (Rom. 5:1-3.) What reason can persuade us to submit willingly, according to our duty, to the stroke of present death, if God is pleased to lay it upon us, when we have no comforts to relieve us against the horrible fear of intolerable torments in hell for ever?

If we should be called to suffer martyrdom for the Protestant religion, as our ancestors in this nation have done, we should find it necessary to abandon the late upstart notions that have been bred in a time of ease, and to embrace the comfortable doctrine of former Protestants, which, through the grace of God, made so many courageous and joyful martyrs.

5. The state of those that are to be brought from sin to godliness requires necessarily that, after they be convinced of the vanity of their former false confidences, and of their deadness in original sin and subjection to the wrath of God, they should have a supply of new gospel comforts afforded, to encourage their fainting souls to holy practices. How little do many physicians of souls consider the condition of their unconverted patients, that are altogether without spiritual life and strength, and are or must be convinced of it? He that prescribes bodily exercise to a man lying bedridden under a dead palsy, before any effectual means is used to strengthen him, deserves the name of a merciless insulting tormentor rather than of a wise and tender-hearted physician. How unreasonable is it to prescribe the immediate practice of love to God, and universal obedience to Him out of love, as the means of cure for those that see nothing but wrath and enmity in God towards them in their present condition? What is it but to require a man to work without strength, promising him that he shall have strength when his work is done? For comfort or joy is so called because it strengthens (Neh. 8:10).

True it is that the law, which is the ministration of condemnation, obliges them to obedience; but our merciful God expects no sincere performance of His law from such impotent miserable wretches, in order to their salvation by Christ, till He has first delivered them, in some measure, from those discomforts, slavish fears and despondencies that hold them captive under the law of sin and death. We may require a strong healthy person first to work, and then to expect meat, drink and wages; but a fainting, famished person must first have food, or a reviving cordial, to strengthen his heart before he can work.

6. Both Scripture and experience show that this is the method by which God brings His people from sin to holiness. Though some of them are brought under terrors for a while, that sin may be the more embittered, and the salvation of Christ rendered more precious and acceptable to them, yet such are again delivered from their terrors by the comforts of God's salvation, that they may be fitted for holiness. And, generally, a holy life begins with comfort and is maintained by it.

God gave to Adam, at his first creation, the comfort of His love and favour and the happiness of Paradise, to encourage him to obedience, and when he had lost these comforts by the Fall, he was no longer able to obey until he was restored by new comfort of the promised seed. Christ, the second Adam, set God always before His face and He knew that, because God was at His right hand, He should not be moved; therefore His heart was glad, and His glory rejoiced (Ps. 16:8, 9). This made Him willing to bear His agony and bloody sweat, and to be obedient to death, even the death of the cross. God drew the Israelites to obedience with the cords of a man, with the bands of love, by taking off the yoke of their jaws and laying meat before them (Hos. 11:4). David tells us, for our instruction, how he was brought to a holy conversation: 'Your loving kindness is before my eyes; and I have walked in Your truth' (Ps. 26:3); 'Lord, I have hoped for Your salvation, and done Your commandments' (Ps. 119:166).

We have several examples in the New Testament of the joy that sinners had in the first receiving of Christ (Acts 2:41). And when the gospel first came to the Thessalonians, 'they received the word in much affliction, with joy in the Holy Ghost' (1 Thess. 1:4, 5, 6). 'When the Gentiles heard the word of God, they were glad; and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed' (Acts 13:48). The apostle Paul was constrained by the love of Christ to give up himself to live to Christ (2 Cor. 5:14, 15).

I dare appeal to the experience of any that obey God out of hearty love. Let them examine themselves and consider whether they were brought to give up themselves to serve God in love without comfortable apprehensions of the love of God towards them? I dare say there are no such prodigies in the new birth. 7. What comfortless religion do those make that allow people no comfort beforehand, to strengthen them for holy performances, which are very cross, displeasing and grievous to their natural inclinations, as the plucking out a right eye, cutting off a right hand; but would have them first to do such things with love and delight, under all their present fears, despondencies and corrupt inclinations, and to hope that, by doing the work thoroughly and sincerely, they shall at last attain to a more comfortable state? All true spiritual comfort, as well as salvation, is indeed quite banished out of the world, if it be suspended upon the condition of our good works - which has already appeared to be the condition of the law, that works no comfort, but wrath (Rom. 4:14, 15). This makes the way of godliness odious to many. They think they shall never enjoy a pleasant hour in this world, if they walk in them, and they had rather comfort themselves with sinful pleasure than have no comfort at all.

Others labour a while in such a comfortless religion, with inward fretting and repining at the bondage of it, and at last grow weary and throw off all religion, because they know none better. They that bind such heavy burdens on men, and grievous to be borne, will plead that they are not to be blamed, because they do but preach the gospel of God and Christ; whereas, indeed, they preach a gospel of man's own forging, contrary to the nature of the true gospel of Christ, which is glad tidings of great joy to all people (Luke 2:10). An uncomfortable gospel cannot proceed from God the Father, who is the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort (2 Cor. 1:3); nor from Christ, who is the consolation of Israel (Luke 2:25 ); nor from the Spirit, who is the Comforter (John 14:16, 17).

God meets him that rejoices and works righteousness (Isa. 64:5). He will be served with gladness and singing, as He showed by the type of variety of music and great numbers of musicians in the temple, as Christ speaks to us by His gospel, that His joy may abide in us, and that our joy may be full (John 15:11). No sorrow is approved of by God, except godly sorrow, which can never be in us without some comfort of the love of God towards us. They that are offended at the uncomfortableness of a religious life never yet knew the true way of religion; else they would find that the ways of wisdom are the ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace (Prov. 3:17).

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.

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