We come to the heart of the antinomian controversy in England in the late 1600s, that which was most ‘warmly’ disputed among the Protestant theologians and in their congregations, namely, “the utility of holiness,” as Witsius labels it.1 This is simply another way of referring to good works and their place in the life and salvation of the redeemed: their benefit, their usefulness, their incentive, and even in what sense they are necessary.
It was an area of dispute (one that has always retained that potential) because of what Rome made of good works, namely, meritorious works. A whole misbegotten theology was constructed on their performance, one that corrupted the gospel, which is to say, salvation by grace alone by the power of God alone, and justification based on Christ’s atoning work alone.
Grace itself is redefined as grace earned, which is no grace at all.
In reaction to Rome’s corruption of the gospel, and the pivotal truth of the gospel, namely, justification by faith alone without works, Reformed men have always been cautious about what value good works have. We refer to such things as their profit, their benefit, and their motivation; lest works, once again, come to occupy an improper place in the preaching; lest grace be displaced by works, and faith in Christ’s work alone becomes, for all intents and purposes, a faith in one’s own works along with Christ’s.
For many the fear of replacing salvation by grace and faith in Christ with salvation by works and faith in self is so great that there arises suspicion by reflex when mention is made of good works as being necessary and having a vital value in the life of the believer in any real sense at all. If one does speak of their ‘necessity,’ it is only to be in the sense of good works being the necessary fruit (which is to say, the inevitable fruit) of being saved and an expression of gratitude. Surely, for preaching to speak of the necessity of and motivation for good works in any other sense will bring us back to the bondage of Rome. It will be a blow against salvation being all of God and by grace and grace alone.
And so, out of fear of what Rome has done with the doctrine of good works (and, later, what conditional covenant views have done), there arises a desire, and even resolve, to mute calling the saved with urgency to live a life of holiness; that is, if that holiness is defined in terms of doing what God’s precepts require, namely, performing deeds of godliness (good works) and in terms of those deeds being motivated, in part, by their being of benefit to one’s relationship to God, as well as to others.
As a result, in the name of misguided piety, an antinomian spirit shows itself. Preaching of the whole counsel of God is truncated. A host of scriptural phrases, if stated with emphasis in the preaching, are viewed with suspicion, in particular those calling for sanctifying one’s life and to which are attached either threats or promises. Does not such preaching imply that God’s dealings with His people now somehow depends on their works? Where is the “it’s all of grace”?
Accordingly, grace defined in terms of salvation being contrary to all one’s deserving receives all the emphasis. As if this alone magnifies salvation by grace alone. But efficacious grace (which is to say the work of the Holy Spirit) which/who transforms a man and makes him a new creature with renewed spiritual abilities enabling one to walk in the ways of righteousness (uprightness) is minimized, and even dismissed. And preaching that pointedly reminds one of that grace and what it means for a man and how one ought to be living if one is a Christian indeed is criticized and, in some instances, even condemned.
This happened in England in the days of Witsius. And parallels can be found throughout the history of Protestantism to this present day.
Coming at last (in Chap. XV) to the place of good works (that is, the life of holiness) in the life of the believer, Witsius in the following propositions lays out what some in England were promoting, and what he considered to be an antinomian perspective:
With respect to the utility of holiness and good works, I find the following things disputed; whether it [can] be justly said,
In the first proposition, Witsius refers to the possession of salvation. He is not talking about the right to possess salvation in all its aspects, about which, as he stated previously, all agree. It is all earned by Christ. Rather, Witsius is referring to the personal aspect of one’s salvation as it is one’s own possession, having to do with the newness of life with its joys, activities, and experiences.
To this life of salvation, the antinomian maintained, the life of good works is of no profit (of no benefit).
The antinomians pointed out, works cannot be the cause for Christ’s grace reigning (ruling) in us. That is simply according to God’s predestinating will.
And that is certainly true.
But now the question: Does that mean, therefore, that good works may not even be considered to be the way to the kingdom. By this Witsius refers not to the way into the Kingdom, but rather to the way of life if one will enjoy the life of one’s salvation and be on the path that leads to glory.2 Such language was opposed by some. The preaching must not leave the impression in any sense that we live in holiness and godliness so that we may live, but simply because we do live (that is, have spiritual life, which, therefore, must and will inevitably show itself).
This sentiment is closely connected with the second and third propositions.
In the second proposition the contention was, since we are to be Christ-centered in all that we do, surely it would be unlawful (improper and unbiblical) to urge upon the believer the life of godliness (of good works) because in some sense, this life of good works serves one’s own salvation. Surely, this would be too self-serving and not Christ-centered enough.
The third proposition states that these same men insisted that no virtue of holiness could gain (be profitable for) even the least good (benefit) to oneself either in time or for eternity. This in turn implies that preaching must not then teach or leave the impression that the life of uprightness has any vital value when it comes to peace of conscience, joy in Spirit, or assurance of forgiveness. After all, even our best works are naught but “filth and dung”?
So it was argued.
The fourth and fifth propositions are, I think, clear enough as they stand.
Witsius in honest, objective fashion sets forth what it is that motivates those of the doctrinal antinomian persuasion. We quote some representative selections:
…they put us to mind [remind us], that in all these [above] assertions, the only end they propose is, that the glory of free justification may remain entire to God and Christ, and that no justifying virtue may be attributed to our works of whatsoever kind…(XV, p. 154).
…[And] Christ is the only way to life; the practice of godliness is the necessary labour and occupation of those who walk in this way. Further, we do no good for ourselves, since all things requisite to salvation, were abundantly performed for us by Christ…(pp. 154-55).
…[W]hat do our works avail to peace of conscience and joy in Christ? Which, if we attend to their imperfection, and the pollution wherewith they are defied, proclaim nothing but war; the blood of Christ only proclaimeth peace, which you see in vain elsewhere…(p. 156).
Such was the perspective of those of an antinomian bent, their justification for opposing how many Protestant clergy were preaching the importance, value, and vital necessity of good works in the life of the child of God. They were doing so to protect the “glory of free justification” and “Christ as the only way of life.”
Witsius’ response is found in Chapter XV, entitled “The Doctrine of Scripture concerning the Utility of Holiness.” In his introductory summary he sets forth what he is convinced is the scriptural and Reformed view of the place of good works for the redeemed (the life of godliness in the life of the child of God); their importance, value, benefit, and even their necessity, which things all serve as the proper incentive for resolving to live unto God, and then doing so. What Witsius is implying is, these things are to be preached so that the child of God fully understands why he must live that way if he is to walk in fellowship with his God.
Witsius’ first proposition sums up his evaluation of the antinomian propositions dealt with in the previous chapter (in XIV, as listed above). He begins by declaring, “The interest of religion is ill consulted by such rugged phrases [as proposed by those of an antinomian perspective].”
Witsius’ statement stands as an indictment of where antinomian sentiments inevitably lead. And it is not to true religion, or if you will, to true piety, but to its diminishing.
Witsius then proceeds to set forth what he is convinced is the Reformed perspective:
II. In the matter itself [the controversy set before us] some things are to be approved, others not. III. Scripture teaches that something must be done that we may be saved. IV. That holiness is the way to life. V. That it is not inconsistent that we live to Christ, and consult our own advantage. VI. That we must do good because we live, and that we may live. VII. That it is good and holy, that in the study of good works we have a regard also to our own salvation. VIII. Provided that love to ourselves be properly subordinate to the love of God. IX. That godliness is profitable to all things. X. That by it impending calamities are avoided, and peace of conscience and joy promoted. XI. Some seem unjustly to deny that sanctification is an evidence of justification…. XIV. Assurance of election arises from a consciousness of Christian virtues. XV. By them it is demonstrated whether one be in the faith and in Christ…. XIX. The holiness of believers, though imperfect, is pleasing to God for Christ’s sake. XX. Nay also, insomuch as it is true holiness, for its own sake. XXI. Whence it is, that by how much one is more holy, by so much he is the more acceptable to God (XV, p. 159).
Due to space, we cannot in this article give select quotes of Witsius explanation of these propositions. We will let the reader reflect upon what Witsius wrote above and consider how orthodox one finds these statements to be, how Reformed, how scripturally sound. In light of previous exchanges in this magazine, the third proposition might raise some eyebrows. But we will let Witsius speak for himself.
However, before we conclude, we do well to give Witsius’ explanation of what is listed as proposition “II.” above. Writes Witsius,
In the matter itself, there is that [which] I approve, and what I disapprove. I approve indeed, of the scope [the intention] of all this doctrine; which has this for its object, that men may be called off from all presumption upon their own righteousness, and trained up to the exercise of genuine piety, which flows from the pure fountain of Divine love. But I do not equally approve… to take from good works all that fruit and utility, so frequently assigned them in scripture. Free justification is so to be consulted, that nothing be derogated from the benefit of sanctification. And as the oracles of the Divine Spirit which speak of the former [namely, of free justification—kk], are to be explained according to their utmost emphasis, lest the merits of Christ alone be any how diminished; so those which treat of the latter [namely, the benefits of sanctification], are not to be extenuated by unnatural interpretations. We must accurately distinguish between a right to life, and the possession of life [!]. The former must so be assigned to the obedience of Christ, that all the value of our holiness may be entirely excluded. But certainly our works, or rather these, which the Spirit of Christ worketh in us, and by us, contribute something to the latter. And here again, the excessive rigidity of disputation is inconsistent with the moderation and mildness of the scriptures. Which I shall show distinctly and in order (XV, pp. 161-62).
Take note of the sentence that reads, “We must accurately distinguish between a right to life, and the possession of life.” This takes us to the heart of the dispute. Men drift in the direction of an antinomianism exactly because they fail to distinguish between what grants the right to life, and what has to do with the possession (the enjoyment and benefits) of that newness of life.
Witsius, in chapter XVI, makes that plain.
As we shall see next issue, 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.
2 That this is Witsius’ meaning is spelled out in the next chapter, as we will see—pp. 162-63.