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We continue our consideration of Herman Witsius and his little book, Antinomians and Neonomians.1

The book is a treatise dealing with controversial issues that sorely divided the Protestant churches in Britain, issues that the English theologians sent to Witsius, seeking his help in answering and, hopefully, resolving. The issues ranged from what the imputation of man’s sin to Christ meant for His sinless character and person; from whether faith and repentance were really even necessary for the elect, seeing they were united to Christ from all eternity by God’s decree; to the need in the preaching of stressing the importance and necessity of a life of holiness and good works.

After all, is not salvation all of grace, contrary to all deserving, and “the best works of believers are nothing but filth and dung”? (XV, 152).

It was especially this latter issue that bedeviled the Protestant churches in Britain and dominated the focus of the English divines in their disputations and questions. Hence, the title Witsius gave to his treatise.

In light of controverted issues with which we are dealing in the PRC, we are convinced Witsius’ judicious insights are of value to us. The issues as they touch on magnifying salvation being all of God and not of man, the place of the activity of faith in salvation, and especially the Christian’s calling to good works (their necessity), are not new issues disrupting ecclesiastical unity and theological harmony. Witsius’ book published in the late 1600s is proof of that.

In the last article we established Witsius’ Reformed orthodoxy. As well, we stated that Witsius was of an irenic character, a man seeking to bring about peace in Christ’s church, even when necessity meant errors had to be addressed and dealt with.

We begin this article by giving evidence of that.

In the following quote, note well that Witsius makes plain that when it comes to disputation between brethren, it is not only what one stands for and maintains that is important, but how one goes about it, the words and phrases one uses, and those one avoids. Beware of acrimony!

Be ye willing or unwilling, in battle [for the faith] you must engage; O that it were always that good fight of faith, which Paul recommended to Timothy! However, if we are not persuaded to shun the conflict, the prudence of the just demands that they, who in the defense of orthodoxy show themselves the rigid guardians of truth, should remember studiously to avoid those things which are not lawful for the ministers of peace…; that they seriously rejoice in the harmony of minds, and promote it as much as possible in a consistency with truth: that in differences they should with a judicious lenity [leniency] approve their equity and modesty to God and to men; that they think humbly concerning themselves, and highly of their brethren, not effecting fame of a more exquisite wisdom, but justly esteeming the gifts of God in those who are their neighbors: that they calumniate no man’s words, or by caviling, impute opinions to any, to which he professes himself averse… (Preface, 6-7).

Words to take to heart. Especially for those who still view each other as brothers in Christ, saved by His blood. Our calling is to think humbly concerning self, not ‘effecting fame,’ that is, elevating oneself as if one is superior in wisdom, and not to ‘calumniate’ (misrepresent) a man’s words, giving them the worst possible twist and implication.

Such, as is plain these days, is commonly done between disputing politicians. It ought not so to be in Christ’s church. If we do, Christ Himself will judge.

And it is noteworthy, that throughout his treatise, Witsius refers to both parties of the disputation as “brethren,” often underscoring the label when he is taking issue with a view and pointing out error. He does not call into question the salvation of those whom he is correcting. We do well to pay heed!

In his treatise, Witsius was confronted with what he labeled “antinomianism.” Hence, the title. Not so much practical antinomianism, which is represented by the phrase, “Let us sin, that grace may abound,” and so ‘believers’ justify reveling in immoralities; rather by what is known as doctrinal antinomianism, a shade of antinomianism whose adherents do not really like to be confronted in preaching by the must of good works, and who, when they are, either object sharply or misrepresent its full implications for the truly Christian life.

There are various ‘species’ of doctrinal antinomianism. One of the more radical views Witsius had to evaluate is set forth in the following question:

Whether God imputes no more in point of guilt to the elect, even when living in all the excess of wickedness and lasciviousness, than when after they are truly sanctified, yea, also perfected and received into heaven (V, 59).

In chapter XII, Witsius deals with a variation of this view. He lists a number of assertions:

That God sees no sin in believers…. That no guilt is contracted by new sin…. That sin does them no hurt. That neither is God offended with any sin of theirs. That confession is not necessary to obtain pardon (XII, 122).

That such could be an issue may sound strange to the ears of the reader. It does not to mine.

In a former congregation, I regularly visited an old, godly woman whose husband had been excommunicated for creating schism. He, pretending to read a newspaper, would listen in and invariably, at some point, would respond to a statement I had made (admittedly, at times, on purpose to prod him). Usually his retorts had to do with how the PRC had left the pure doctrines of sovereign grace, especially those of eternal election and of the truly unconditional covenant. We newer generations of preachers were once again, as men did prior to 1953, beginning to put the emphasis not on salvation all of God’s sovereign, unconditional grace but on what men were ‘required’ to do to be in the favor of God. He listened to sermons by our men, but only, he assured me, because his wife played them on a recorder! “All this practical preaching!” The very words were distasteful to him.

Having stated his high esteem for salvation by the grace of eternal election (which, he stated, nothing could change, not even his excommunication from an apostatizing church), he would invariably quote his favorite text, “[Jehovah] hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob” (Num. 23:21). And “Jacob” was God’s name for His elect. Because the elect are eternally in Christ, God never saw or sees any sin in them—not before they were born, not while they live, and certainly not to be recounted on the judgment day. This was stated with dogmatic finality!

I am familiar with the sentiment. It is a more radical ‘shade’ of doctrinal antinomianism.

Witsius’ perspective is as follows:

Hence it follows, that an elect person, before his regeneration, while he gives himself up to luxury, lasciviousness, and all ungodly lusts, is in the way of perdition and destruction, and in his sins appears before God as odious, abominable, most deserving of all his wrath and curse; and it is impossible for him to escape impending wrath, if he continue with obstinacy to go on in the way of wickedness. Truly it is much safer and far more candid by sober speech to infuse these doctrines, and such as these, into a man, however certainly elected, that by the terror of the Lord he may be excited to faith [emphasis added], than to fill him with a persuasion, that provided he be elected, God has no more to impute to him, though he live ever so wickedly, than if he were already received into heaven (V, 65-66).

This, states Witsius, is how all men are to be confronted by gospel preaching, the elect included. Until one is in Christ Jesus by the “actual union of the Spirit” (Rom. 8: 1-2), one is under condemnation (V, 66). States Witsius, “This is the perpetual and the constant doctrine of the scriptures, from which we must not depart, no, not in the form of words” (V, 66).

In other words, God’s election does not mean He turns a blind eye to our sins. As if that magnifies grace. It does not. All that does is minimize God’s holiness and the seriousness of sin, of our sins, be we elect in Christ. And that Scripture never does.

This same aberration, though now in the name of eternal justification, was raised elsewhere.

Whether all sins, not only past, but also future, are, in justification, so forgiven together and at once to believers, that God sees no more sin in the justified, that no deformity of sin, no guilt, no burden lie upon them, that no sin however great can truly hurt them, that God is not offended with any of their transgressions, that they need neither humiliation, nor confession, nor prayers, in order to obtain the pardon of sin recently committed; finally, that immediately after the committing of sin, they are as certain of pardon, as after the deepest humiliation [of self] (VII, 74).

Along the same lines the issue was debated, and by some denied, that repentance necessarily had to precede the remission of sins.

But this also deserves consideration, whether sorrow for sin, penitence, and repentance, or a purpose to live according to the will of God, go before justification and remission of sins, as a disposing condition, pre-requisite in the subject [the person] (XI, 119).

Note, that Witsius speaks here of repentance not in terms of being a “condition for” justification and remission of sins, but as a “disposing condition,” a phrase long used in old Reformed circles, that is, as something which, according to God’s stated will, was to precede His granting something else (119). Such as a willingness to forgive one who has sinned against us, before God will forgive us (allow us to lay hold of God’s forgiving our debts, cf. Matt. 6:15).

Witsius’ answer, found in chapter XI, is “judicious.” He answers along the lines, “And here the simplicity of scripture is far more acceptable to me than all the subtleties of the schools, which minister questions, rather than godly edifying, which is in faith” (119).

And then he elaborates:

[T]hat the soul, quickened by the Spirit, should…both see itself defiled and undone with innumerable sins, and see Christ full of grace, truth, and salvation. Such a view cannot but cause, both that with shame and sorrow it [the soul] be displeased with itself, and [also] with ardent desire, be carried out unto Christ. Hence arises the receiving and accepting of Christ, that it may be delivered from the filthiness and guilt of its sins. Now it [the soul] cannot receive him for justification, except at the same time, it receive him for sanctification; nor receive him as a Priest, to expiate sin, unless it also receive him as a King, to whom it may submit, in order to obedience. Hence it follows, that that act of faith, whereby we receive Christ for righteousness, cannot be exercised, without either a previous, or at least a concomitant [accompanying] repentance, and a purpose of a new life. If therefore faith go before justification, as we have lately asserted, the same must be said of repentance, springing up together with it from the same principle of spiritual life (XI, 120).

Witsius does not ignore that statement that God, in Scripture, declares He sees no iniquity in Jacob. It is so stated in Scripture. Witsius’ response is insightful:

But it must be well understood, [God] does not so see it, that he purposes, on its account to condemn [!] them. For in this sense, he is said “to cover their sins, to cast them behind his back…”

[Yet he also sees our sins] with a remarkable displeasure. For he is not a God who hath pleasure in iniquity; no, not in that of those who are his own.

He sees [them] also with anger and wrath, not the wrath of a rigid and a condemning judge, but of a holy and an angry father. So he was angry with Aaron and Moses, though otherwise a pardoning God… (XIII, 137-138).

In other words, neither God’s election nor our justification means the righteous God turns a blind eye to our sins. As if thinking so would magnify grace. It does not and cannot. That would only minimize God’s holiness and the seriousness of our sins. And God’s Word never does that. Hence, the necessity of repentance, and the call to engage in such with heart-felt sincerity (Joel 2:12- 14; Acts 2:38).

Having in a number of chapters dealt with speculative and improper views of the implications of election, faith, and the place of repentance in the scheme of laying hold of one’s salvation—views that were not truly ‘Reformed’ and biblical, but radical and ‘deformed’— Witsius sums-up his assessment as follows:

…In fine, I know that the word of the gospel [that we are justified by faith in Christ alone] is the surest foundation of our certainty of the remission of sins. But I know this also [emphasis added], that sincere penitence is to us a certain evidence[!], that the word of grace pertains to us. For none knows this, but he who repents of his sin.

I conclude this chapter with the warmest [most fervent!] wishes; that these detestable words may henceforth be banished; and that it may never be heard from the mouth of any Reformed Divine, to the dishonor and reproach of our most holy religion: [namely], That sin does no manner of hurt to believers, and that a believer, immediately after committing the most atrocious crime, is as much assured of pardon, as he can be after the deepest humiliation (XIII, 143-144).

With such mentality, declares Witsius, the thoroughly Reformed man must have nothing to do.

What Witsius is saying in effect is this: God’s wonder of grace does not render an elect man passive and inactive, nor is the preaching of this salvation by sovereign, free grace to leave the impression that it does. But exactly because God’s grace is a grace that powerfully transforms life, it being the work of the Holy Spirit Himself, the commands of the gospel are to face a man with his calling, his solemn duty, setting before him the necessity of the repentant life.

And that brings us to the next subject on which Witsius was asked to give his judgment, namely, the ‘utility’ of holiness, or if you will, the benefit, usefulness, and incentive to a life of good works.

Next time, D.V.


 

1 Conciliatory, or Irenical Animadversions, on the Controversies Agitated in Britain, under the Unhappy Names of Antinomians and Neonomians, T. Bell, transl. (Glasgow: W. Lang, 1807). First published 1696 in Latin in Utrecht. All references in parentheses are to this work and edition. Roman numerals refer to chapters, regular numerals to pages. Unless otherwise noted, italicized words are Witsius’ for emphasis.