We concluded our last editorial (Dec. 15) with a lengthy quote from Witsius’ book Antinomians and Neonomians.1 His assessment of the controverted material was, “In the matter [of the disputation I was asked to assess], there is that [which] I approve, and what I disapprove” (161).
What he approved was the antinomians’ desire and goal, namely, “that men may be called off from all presumption upon their own righteousness, and trained up to the exercise of generous piety, which flows from the pure fountain of Divine love” (161).
An admirable and proper desire.
But there was that which Witsius did not “equally approve,” namely, “to take from good works all that fruit and utility, so frequently assigned them in scripture” (161).
To this Witsius turns in Chapter XVI.
What governs Witsius’ analysis is, as was quoted at the end of our last article, “We must accurately distinguish between a right to [spiritual] life, and the possession of [spiritual] life.”
As we stated, this takes us to the heart of the antinomian dispute in Britain. Men drift in the direction of antinomianism exactly because they fail to distinguish between what grants the right to life, over against what God has ordained shall contribute to the possession (the personal enjoyment and benefits) of that new life, and may properly be promoted as such in the preaching. And by “contributes to” we simply refer to the various ways God is pleased to bring manifold blessings (spiritual enrichment) to self and to others, one of which, of course, would be prayer. Another is spelled out in the fifth commandment, which commandment is applied to the New Testament church by Paul in Ephesians 6:1-3. As Witsius begins to make his case for the “utility of good works” in the salvation of believers, he makes an insightful point. “What an unhappy thing is it…that immediately [upon mentioning these things], you need a tedious explication before simple and candid hearers, and an apology before the less favourable and the suspicious” (160-61).
Witsius is lamenting a climate of suspicion stirred up by those who are so extremely rigid about how every phrase is formulated that as a result, the preacher must continually assure the hearers phrase after phrase what he is neither implying nor denying. Such preaching becomes “tedious.”
Then comes Witsius’ statement that “Scripture teaches that something must be done that we may be saved.” The question is, “done” in what sense, and “may be saved” in what sense? It matters what aspect of salvation one is speaking of. We do well to allow Witsius to explain himself.
III. [First,] Scripture teacheth that man must do something, that he may obtain the possession of the salvation purchased by Christ, “Labour, (said he) for the meat which endureth unto everlasting life,”…John vi. 27-29. And Paul expressly says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” Phil. ii. 12.
As Witsius proceeds, it becomes plain when he asserts that a man “must do something” that he “may obtain the possession” of his salvation, he is neither referring to doing something to give Christ the right to save one’s self nor to gaining a right to salvation. The key word is “possession.” Witsius is referring to the personal experience of one’s own salvation and one’s enjoyment of it. When the Word is preached, there must be a response to the call of the gospel in a positive, submissive, obedient way. Not just, “Well, Christ does it all. Let’s wait and see. If I am elect, there will be an indication it is so. If not, what can I do about it anyway?”
Rather, there must be a ‘responding’ to the word in a willing, active manner. And if one has been born-again, there will be.
IV. Neither because Christ is the way to life, is the practice of Christian piety not the way to life. Christ is the way to life, because he purchased us a right to life. The practice of Christian piety is the way to life, because thereby we go to the possession of the right obtained by Christ. For it is more than a hundred times designed [designated in Scripture] by the name of life…Prov. vi. 23 “…the law is light, and reproofs of instruction are the way of life.…” And x. 17, “He is in the way of life who keepeth instruction.…” And what does Christ himself understand by that narrow way which leadeth unto life, Matt. viii, 14 but the strict practice of Christian religion? (162-63).
From the scriptural passages Witsius quotes it is evident that Witsius is using the phrase “the way to life” in two different manners. In the first instance, Christ is the way to life in the sense of being the one only ground for approaching God and His work the sole basis for the right of access. But for Witsius, using the phrase “the way to life” in connection with that central truth does not rule out using that phrase also in connection with Christian piety. As for the second usage of the phrase, it is clear that what Witsius has in mind is what we now refer to as “in the way of.” As he states, “… because thereby we go to the possession [!] of the right obtained by Christ.” As we have stated, for Witsius, “possession” has to do with the personal experience of one’s own salvation and enjoyment of it.
Why Witsius is so insistent on this, he makes plain in his next couple of sections.
V. It is certain indeed that the true Christian lives to Christ, that is, to his glory: but it does not follow from thence that he does nothing for [with a view to] his own [spiritual] advantage. It is not contrary to the duty of a holy man to desire life, love days, and enjoy good, Psal. xxxiv. 13 [v. 12]…(163).
And keep in mind, Witsius states the above with an eye on the preaching, what a Reformed preacher may, and even, when expounding certain texts, must preach. As my homiletics professor never tired of saying, “Brothers, preach the text!” If the Holy Spirit saw fit to phrase His words that way, then do not pretend to be wiser than He, in what He evidently is pleased to use to promote and draw out godliness in the life of the redeemed. Which is to say, to preach the importance and value of the Christian life (that of godliness and good works) with the believer’s own spiritual benefit (advantage) emphasized as an incentive is not improper nor to be condemned. Not when the text phrases it in those terms.
Witsius proceeds to underscore that point with a homely figure:
VI. In fine, it is not inconsistent to do something from this principle, because we live, and to the end, that we may [!] live. No man eats indeed but that [as a result] he lives, but [for all of that] he also eats that he may [!] live…(163).
What Witsius has to say next takes us to the heart of his assessment of the value a life of holiness with its “good works.”
VII. [Secondly, we acknowledge], [a] mercenary baseness is certainly unworthy of the high-born sons of God: but their heavenly Father does not forbid them to have any regard to their own advantage in the exercise of holiness. He not only permits, but also willeth, “that by a patient continuance in well-doing, we seek for glory, and honour, and immortality;” and to them who do so, he will render eternal life, Rom. ii. 6, 7…. It is also just [right and proper] that the study of holiness be excited in us by this [proper] love to ourselves. For, pray, what is the end of all these promises, whereby God hath commended his precepts to us, but that stimulated with a desire after them, we might the more cheerfully obey him? Not to love the benefits promised, is to contemn the goodness of God who promiseth (emphasis added). Not to be animated to piety through a desire after them is to abuse them to a purpose quite opposite to that for which they were designed of God (164-5).
Witsius’ position is that God calls and encourages His children “unto all good works” by giving them incentives that are clearly to their own spiritual advantage and will pay rich dividends (spiritually!) in the end. Witsius’ point is, this does not turn God’s prompting obedience with promised blessing into something ‘mercenary,’ that is, a kind of monetary exchange: we do what God requires simply because we decide it is to our advantage in the long run. God now, as it were, owes us. And humble gratitude and thankfulness for all the blessings so contrary to what we really deserve is cast away.
Such is how Rome and the Phariseees viewed things. Such is not worthy of how a high-born son of God considers his calling.
Rather, this is the proper understanding. God, as a Father, deals with us as we often deal with our own children in their weaknesses, namely, by motivating them with incentives that will not only please us but, we remind them, will profit them and be to their advantage. As it is with us and our children, so it is with God and His dear children.
Some may be inclined to object to this. It matters not. This is clearly scriptural. As Witsius points out, “Not to love the benefits promised, is to contemn [belittle] the goodness of God who promiseth.” Let us not pretend to be wiser than God when it comes to dealing with His children and His way of drawing obedience from His own. If this is what the Spirit says in Scripture, we best preach it.
Having quoted a number of texts such as Deuteronomy 6:18, I Timothy 6:6, 4:8, and Titus 3:8, Witsius proceeds to guard against any misunderstanding:
When we believe the scriptures asserting all these things, we do not believe that the exercise of virtue or religion merit any such thing, or that the efficacy of these duties is so great, that of themselves, setting aside the Divine blessing, they can procure benefits, or avert calamities: but we believe, so great is the goodness [!] of our heavenly Father, that for Christ’s sake, he liberally rewards [!] the sincere endeavors of his children, who rejoice to please him. “For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have shewed toward his name,” Heb vi. 10 (167).
And then there is the matter of the connection between sanctification (a life of holiness) and assurance. Can there be any real connection at all, seeing our best works are always imperfect and defiled? Witsius answers:
XVII. The brethren confess that none can have a consciousness of his justification, but from faith, and by faith…. [That] I do not choose to oppose. But pray, let them tell the reason, why the soul is less conscious of its affection, than of its assent. How comes it, that I do not as well know that I frequently think with pleasure concerning God, that I eagerly desire and long after familiar communion with him, and am solicitous to do what may be pleasing to him, and in fine, am grieved when I wander from the rule of duty; as that I know the sacred whispers of God to my soul is truly the voice of God and that my soul, by the assent of faith, answers to it? Hence, I conclude, that sanctification and its effects, are by no means to be slighted, when we treat of assuring the soul as to its justification (172).
Witsius asks, “[W]hy they should be less conscious of its affection, than of its assent.” By “its affection” Witsius refers to what one loves and desires; by “assent” he refers to faith and what one knows as a result. By faith one assents to the gospel truth, declaring, I believe that I, a sinner, am justified by Christ’s atonement. One knows it to be true, one is “conscious” of it. But if one has a love for God and desires to serve Him, is that not also an evidence that one has been saved and justified? “I must be numbered with the saved, with the justified. Why else would I have these affections?” One is conscious, “aware” that one is saved and justified. And thus one is reassured that he is numbered with the forgiven and justified after all.
By that last phrase, where Witsius speaks of sanctification as “assuring the soul as to its justification,” he is not speaking of sanctification serving as the basis of justification, but of one’s sanctification (which is worked by Christ’s Holy Spirit) serving as evidence to the soul that one is numbered with the justified, namely, with those who have received the gift of faith by that same saving Spirit.
But now the question: How can this be, seeing our best works are imperfect and defiled? First, Witsius states that with which he does not disagree:
XIX. [Fifthly,] with respect to the beauty of Christian virtues, and their acceptableness in the sight of the Lord, I thus judge, that none in this life obtains such perfect holiness, but that it labours under its imperfections; on account of which, if God should deal with us according to the rigour of the law, and his highest right over us, it would be rejected. Hence it is, that our righteousness can, by no means, have place before him in order to justification. And if any should presume to obtrude it upon God for that very purpose, truly it would be loss and dung to the man himself. Neither do the brethren differ here, as to the substance of the matter. For I see it taught on both sides… (175-76).
Witsius then proceeds to what he is convinced is the biblical and Reformed view:
XX. In the mean time, since that holiness to which we were predestinated by the Father, which Christ purchased for us by his blood, and which is infused into us by the efficacy of the Holy Spirit, is true holiness, and the very image of God, according to which we are renewed; it cannot, but…because it is holiness, and as it is holiness, please God, and in this respect, Christian virtues are not filthiness and dung; but the beauty of the royal bride, and the comeliness where with she is all glorious within, Psal. xlv. 13, 14 (176-77).
In other words, for us simply to dismiss all the labor of the saints in service of God as being naught but filth and dung would be to disregard and belittle the work of God Himself in us, as if the Holy Spirit accomplishes nothing in the elect. Does not the Holy Spirit renew the elect in the image of Jesus Christ? Since He does, then what God has respect to in the good works of the redeemed (which he now freely and willingly does) is but the fruit of His own work in us. And that must not be belittled and simply dismissed as so much dung. Such may sound pious (and in some circles is counted the mark of deepest piety), but it is not. Rather, what such evaluation amounts to is to insult the Holy Spirit and to do despite to His work of grace in and through the redeemed.
To conclude: The great issue in this whole ‘British’ dispute was, what glorifies grace and God as the God of saving grace?
Witsius’ answer was, it is not enough or proper to focus on grace defined simply as God’s undeserved favor, salvation contrary to all one’s deserving. This was the focus of those of the antinomian persuasion, almost to the exclusion of the other aspect of grace. That other aspect of grace is the power of grace, the life-transforming work of the Holy Spirit who makes us new creatures, renewing the elect in Christ’s own image.
And this grace working newness of life not only is to show itself in faith calling upon God for mercy (whereby one is justified), but also is to show itself in a life of godliness (of all good works and of love). This too is to be addressed by the preaching, and not in such a way as to minimize the importance, value, and necessity of this godly way of life for one’s personal benefit and for the body of Christ (as if this really is impossible to expect anyway and does not glorify “it’s all of grace”). Rather, it is to be emphasized in the preaching with its exhortations and admonitions exactly because it magnifies grace, that is, what God Almighty can and does make out of heretofore “dead, rotten wood,” a people who can respond willingly to the incentives given by God’s Word.
And these fruits of godliness reassure the elect that they are God’s own and saved. This Witsius demonstrates by quoting I John 3:14—“We know [are conscious] that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren.”
Next editorial, D.V., we intend to conclude our treatment of Witsius and his book by a lengthy quote with which Witsius concludes his treatise.
Witsius’ irenic, solid wisdom deserves a wide reading.
And we will also reflect on the events of this past year and what it bodes for the future.
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.