As indicated when we ended our previous editorial (Jan. 1, 2021), we intended in this editorial to quote Witsius’ conclusion to his book Antinomians and Neonomians. It is a conclusion worth quoting in full, one written in an irenic spirit but with firmness, laying down what must characterize Reformed theology in the interests of gospel preaching if it is to remain fully biblical.
Witsius has deep insight into what must be preserved and insisted upon if the gospel of grace is to be fully preached, which means not neglecting the exhortations unto godliness (commands unto all good works) that must accompany gospel preaching. To be sure, the gospel of doctrinal truth with its promises is to be preached, but so is the call to godliness and the sanctified life, with its incentives.
Good works as the fruit and evidence of thankfulness for so great a redemption is to be emphasized. When it comes to reasons for and incentives unto godliness, gratitude leads the list. That no one denies. But in the interests of incentives for the child of God to walk in ways of obedience, Scripture lays out more than the wonder of one’s redemption. Recognition of that, and not finding fault with preaching that emphasizes that when it is the text, is the antidote to antinomianism. This was Witsius’ conviction. That we sought to make plain from the quotes lifted from Witsius’ book.
Now, take note that Witsius underscores this in his God-glorifying, grace-magnifying conclusion:
CONCLUSION: Thus far we have disputed concerning these things. From which I draw the following inferences: That it will be our best, if leaving the dangerous precipices of opinions, we walk on the easy, the plain, and safe way of scripture, the simplicity of which is vastly preferable to all the sublimity of highswollen science [knowledge]: if we are not afraid to say what scripture says, foolishly hoping, by our more convenient phrases, to polish those which seem somewhat rugged; and do not by expressions, rigid, stubborn, hyperbolical, and unusual to the Holy Spirit, sharpen the moderate language of scripture, giving none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully:
If finding that some things incautious have dropped from us, we candidly and generously cancel, correct, or retract them; and what things have unwillingly fallen from others, provided it appear they were not from an evil design, let us rather assist these with a favourable interpretation than torture them with a rigid [interpretation]: if we so assert the free grace of God, that no pretext be given to the licentiousness of the flesh; so extol free justification, that nothing be derogated from sanctification; so inculcate the one righteousness of Christ, which only can stand before the Divine tribunal, that neither the utility nor the reward, which scripture assigns it, be denied to our piety; in fine, so preach the saving grace of the gospel, that the most holy law may still have its place and its use. [!]
If on both sides we sincerely do these things, by the goodness of God, it shall follow, that instead of the quibbles of obscure controversy, the clear day shall begin to shine, and the day star arise in our hearts: instead of the briars and brambles of thorny disputation, righteousness and peace shall spring out of the earth; and banishing the contentions of unhappy differences, we shall all, as with one voice, celebrate the glorious grace of God, in Christ, and with united strength, eagerly adorn the chaste bride, the Lamb’s wife, with the embroidered garments of the beauty of holiness, and with the golden chain of Christian virtues.
With which benefit, through the unsearchable riches of his free grace, may we be graciously honoured by the blessed God, the only Potentate, the King of kings, the Lord of lords, who only hath immortality, dwelling in light inaccessible, whom no man hath seen, nor can see: to whom be honour and power everlasting. Amen (pp. 192-93).
In his second paragraph, Witsius lists a number of things that all must agree upon if antinomianism in its various shades is to be avoided.
As Witsius acknowledges, grace is to be magnified as “free grace,” but warns that such is not truly magnified if, in its name, “pretext” (flimsy excuse) is given for “licentiousness of the flesh.”
This is antinomianism in its basic form.
Says such a fellow, “We are really still totally depraved, are we not? So what can one expect? But I grieve over my depravity and feeding my carnal appetites. I ask for forgiveness. Surely, I am forgiven. After all, it is all of grace, is it not, not salvation based on either merit, works, or worth. What will greater godliness ever gain me? I am a believer. That’s the essential thing, is it not? Comfort me, preacher! That is why I, chief of sinners, come to church. Not to be exhorted where there should be improvements in my life and progress in holiness. And not to have my lack of spirituality in various aspects pointed out, afflicting my conscience, as if that puts into question my salvation and whether I am saved. I have faith. I am justified. What more does one need? You say I need more? How can that be comforting gospel truth for me?”
Witsius will have none of this.
In the first place, to be born again (regenerated) means one is no longer totally depraved, that is, as Scripture describes it, “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1, 2). To be sure, the born-again child of God has an old man that remains completely corrupt, what Paul refers to as “my flesh, [in which] dwelleth no good thing” (Rom. 7:18). And to be sure, that remaining depravity with its inherited carnal appetites for “forbidden fruits” remains ever so susceptible to temptation. But that remaining depravity no longer rules the regenerated man in the totality of his life (Heidelberg Catechism, L.D. 3, Q&A 8). From that “total” bondage the power of grace has set one free. It is this new life and freedom that enables a man to repent and believe.
This should be clear. When the Arminians’ contended that natural, unsaved man has a free will by which he also can will the good and believe, what the Reformed charged them with was a denial of natural man’s total depravity. Supposedly the natural man, though spiritually dead in sins, still retains spiritual abilities.
A contraction in terms.
By necessary inference, according to Reformed doctrine, if one is now able to will the good and can and does believe, this can only imply one thing—one must no longer be totally depraved, not as the Canons define it in III/IV, 3. If one remained such a totally depraved person, one would not be able to repent in sincerity and believe. It is exactly from that total depravity with its spiritual inabilities that irresistible grace saves and frees one.
Let that be established.
When a confessing member seeks to blame his persisting in a way of sin by pleading his “total depravity,” either he is seeking to justify his pursuing “forbidden fruit” with the most mistaken and flimsiest of excuses (like so many fig leaves); or, it just might be, that such a one still is as totally depraved as he says, still dead in trespasses and sins, and not actually alive spiritually (as such persons yet also want to claim).
Which is it? It is either-or.
Elders, when confronted by those who persist in ways of sin and seek to justify their walk with such an appeal, have every right to respond, “You know what, brother, we begin to think you are right. Your life gives no real evidence of the power of grace, which has everything to do with hearkening to the commandments of God. For all your claims of faith and expressions of remorse, we see no evidence of sincerity of repentance with its ‘eschewing of evil.’ You very well may yet be totally depraved, as you claim, and so, not ‘born again.’ It is time to read with you Lord’s Day 32, Q&A 87, which reads as follows….”
As the Lord Christ Himself declared, “By their fruits ye shall know them” (Matt. 7:20).
In that connection, as Witsius points out, Reformed truth asserts “free grace,” but not a “free grace” that allows a man to claim to be a believer—a saved, forgiven sinner—while at the same time refusing to leave ways of sin that so satisfy one’s baser appetites.
Because such is not “free grace” in its fullness. Free grace is not only that which grants God’s approval and favor contrary to what a sinner deserves, saving one from sin’s guilt, but free grace is also that according to which almighty God sets a sinner free from the rule and dominating power of sin.
Saving grace is based on the blood and sacrifice of Christ crucified. That atoning blood and its grace not only provide payment for sin and sinners, saving us from sin’s condemnation (justification), but are also the power according to which the Holy Spirit works in the elect and sets them free from sin’s bondage. And being made alive, one begins to walk in the ways of righteousness again (sanctification).
If that second aspect of Christ’s grace does not show itself in deeds of godliness and love for the neighbor, one can claim to be a believer all one wants, but such a one has not been truly “graced.” Such a claim to being a believer and having faith cannot be “justified.” As James declares, the Devil has that kind of ‘faith,’ a ‘faith’ that is devoid of godly fruit as evidence. Such a faith without accompanying works is “dead”(James 2:17-22).
This is so because true faith is the work of life-transforming grace, which is to say, of Christ’s life-giving Spirit. And such a spiritual life, under the preaching and, if need be, under sharp admonitions such as found in James, will show itself in “graces,” in spiritual virtues and deeds of godliness. If you will, in good works!
Not meritorious or perfect, but good and pleasing to God for all that, as our Father recognizes the fruit of His own saving, life-transforming grace, and graciously blesses them accordingly.
If the life of one professing to be a Christian is devoid of such, dominated by some carnal appetite, one may claim to be a believer all one wants, but one’s claim is empty. “Shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works” says James (2:18). Because where free grace works, holiness is infused, and works of godliness and love will show themselves. Christ, by His Holy Spirit, will have it no other way.
This is the fullness of free grace the Reformed creeds assert. A whole salvation, not a partial.
And a truly Reformed man will not object to preaching that expects such to display itself, demands such, and reproves its hearers where such is absent.
Further, Witsius exhorts, unity in truth can be found only where the controverting parties “…so extol free justification, that nothing be derogated from sanctification.”
In other words, it is not biblical and Reformed to so focus on the wonder of justification that the wonder of and call to sanctification (a holy life, obedience to the law, to God’s ordinances and commandments) is minimized or all but set aside. As if that somehow magnifies ‘salvation all of grace.’ As if the doctrine of faith laying hold on free, undeserved justification magnifies salvation all of grace, but the call to holiness of life and the evidence of that holiness in the believer does not. Because, they say, a holy life and walking in the ways of uprightness has to do with man’s doings and works. Therefore, such is to be minimized, not needing to be emphasized, in Reformed, biblical preaching.
As if that is true piety.
To be sure, God’s wonder of justification and His way of justifying the ungodly is the hinge on which the gospel of grace swings. But, do not forget, the goal of Christ’s great saving work is not only justification, so that sinners are only counted as righteous, forgiven, and spared God’s wrath.
And leave it there?
The goal and ultimate purpose of Christ coming into the world is to restore a people to the life lost in Adam, to restore a life in them so that they begin to walk again in the ways of righteousness in this life already, and so live as the friends of God—like Enoch, like Abraham, like Job, and more. Which is to say, sanctification is the goal of Christ’s saving work. And the call to that life is not to be minimized. Nor is its evidence.
When, under the exhortations and admonitions of the preaching, holiness of life shows itself, a sinner responding willingly in obedience, something is magnified. And that something is not the redeemed man’s works! Rather, it is God Triune’s sovereign grace miraculously restoring spiritual life to heretofore spiritually dead, rotten corpses. It is a grace that enables a heart and a will to hear and obey once again. Which is to say, this too brings glory not to man, the benefactor of God’s restoring work, but to the wonder-working God and His grace alone.
Not to see that, not to acknowledge that, is to insult the Holy Spirit and what He graciously is able to make of men and women such as ourselves. He brings that to expression not only under the preaching of the gospel with its promises, but also of His holy law.
Such is Witsius’ point when he writes, “…in fine, so preach the saving grace of the gospel, that the most holy law may still have its place and its use.”
Such preaching must not be averse to promoting the call to godliness by reminding believers of the “utility and reward” of good works, of living the life of true conversion. The Holy Spirit Himself moved men to write such incentives to godliness for the encouragement of God’s children. Where such biblically based preaching is rebuked and forbidden, shades of antinomianism are sure to follow.
As Witsius in his conclusion reminds the disputing parties, the utility and reward of the life of godliness also is the fruit of Christ’s righteous work on the cross. It is Christ who earned for the elect the right to be restored to godliness again. It is Christ who by His Spirit restores the image of Himself in sinners. It is Christ who has laid up the reward of righteousness for His own. And it is Christ’s righteousness and blood that purges the unrighteousness from our imperfect works.
Therefore, grace is not minimized when the call to godliness and good works and their necessary practice in the Christian life is preached. Rather, saving grace in its fullness is magnified.
To say it is not, would be to truncate biblical and Reformed preaching. And that can only result in deficiencies in the Christian life.
We conclude by reiterating words quoted previously, letting Witsius have the last word, as is only proper:
And banishing the contentions of unhappy differences, we shall all, as with one voice, celebrate the glorious grace of God, in Christ, and with united strength, eagerly adorn the chaste bride, the Lamb’s wife, with the embroidered garments of the beauty of holiness, and with the golden chain of Christian virtues.
May God so grant.
Next time, reflections on the year past, 2020, D.V.