Witsius on sanctification

I write in response to the December 15, 2020 editorial “Herman Witsius: Still Relevant (3).” Herman Witsius is unfamiliar to me and your discussion of him is interesting. Although I am sure there is more to be said in the series, the following statements in this third installment are difficult for me to reconcile with my understanding of the Christian life:

…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…of being saved and an expression of gratitude….

And so…there arises a desire…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.

Here the editorial suggests that, if we view our works as only a fruit, we show an antinomian spirit. However, recently synod decided that “Obedience [is] always a fruit in the covenant relationship…. Obedience never gains us or obtains anything in the covenant of God” (PRC Acts 2018, p. 73). How can these two ideas be reconciled?

In addition, by denying that our works are only a fruit, the editorial makes the implication that living in good works provides some benefit. However, we know that even our good works are filthy rags (Is. 64), and because of it they are punishable (Belgic Confession, Art. 24) and we need to repent of even these. How can I simultaneously think that my polluted works of holiness provide a “benefit to one’s relationship to God,” and at the same time renounce those polluted works? What is this “benefit?” Ought I to stop repenting of my defiled good works?

I understand from your editorial that you have a sincere concern that believers see the urgency in a life of holiness. Our creeds point to another way to maintain this urgency, and you even imply this other way in your December 1 editorial in this series. There you write, “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.” The implication here is that this elect person ought to be called first and foremost: Repent, and believe! When believers are called to see our depravity over against the love of God, “it is impossible that this holy faith can be unfruitful” (Belgic Confession, Art. 24). Is not this motivation of love for God valuable in a very real sense? Why would we add to this motivation some benefit we get when we perform good works, when this emphasis correspondingly draws away from (and even muffles?) the gospel call to repent and renounce our good works?

In Christ,

Mike Vermeer

Peace PRC


Brother Mike Vermeer:

Your questions asked and issues raised are worthy of reflection. As well, they give occasion to expand on some points that can be profitable to all our readers concerning the value of the imperfect good works of sinner-saints.

So important is this issue in our churches these days that I am going to answer in two installments.

Keep in mind, the question is not simply what perspective you have on your own good works (your Christian life), but what perspective does Scripture have concerning the good works of the child of God. Scripture’s perspective is to be ours. And what Scripture has in mind when it speaks of the works (the activities, the labors) of believers that God considers to be good is the life of godliness that has to do with love for others (seeking their well-being) as that love is rooted in one’s love for God.

I am sure you do not deny that we love God. But perfectly, without blemish? That we do not, does that mean this imperfect love is not truly a love at all? Of course not. Surely Simon Peter was not lying when he said, “Lord, thou knowest I love thee.” Christ did not discount that love, imperfect though it was. Nor must we.

Such a consideration is helpful in how we are to view the imperfect good works and labors of sinner-saints.

Scripture directs us to live in holiness. The question is, how is Scripture’s calling to live that life to be prompted by the preaching? What can properly serve as incentives unto godliness?

As I read your letter, brother, you appear to be implying that what Witsius presents as incentives unto godliness contradict certain decisions of our Synod 2018 and its reference to obedience always being a fruit in the covenant relationship and not something that “gains or obtains anything in the covenant of God”.

For my part, I am convinced that what Witsius presents as incentives to godliness does not contradict the decisions of Synod 2018, but is in harmony with them.

Let me explain.

Synod said: “Obedience [is] always [!] the fruit of the covenant relationship.”

Note, Synod did not say obedience and the call to obedience are only to be spoken of in terms of “fruit.”

To be sure, the godly life is always the fruit of covenantal grace and being a child of God (having been begotten unto spiritual life). One cannot bear fruits unto godliness apart from being engrafted into the Vine, Christ Jesus, our covenantal Head. Any fruit of godliness will be and can only be because one is engrafted into Him by His Spirit and joined to Him by the bond of faith. As Christ said, “Without me, ye can do nothing” (John 15:5).

But having been engrafted by the Husbandman, the exhortation comes, “You must be seeking to live out of Christ and unto Christ if that fruit is to show itself.” That’s why neglect of the means of grace is so serious for a believer. The fruits of godliness will wither and disappear until there is repentance and turning. It is by attending the means of grace that the repentant believer remains fruitful, so that good works display themselves as they should. And when they do, will the believer say, “Look what I have done!”? No. Rather one will acknowledge, “It is only because of the life of my Lord and Savior in me that made this possible.” All one’s boasting is in and of Him.

The good works of a believer are always the fruit of having been brought into the covenant of God.

But, that having been said, one may also point to their covenantal benefits as incentives. We have in mind such things as spiritual growth, blessed marriages, and salvation in generations.

The question is, how is the Spirit pleased to draw out that life of godliness so that one’s life shows that one is numbered with those “zealous of good works” (Titus 2:14)? What may properly be preached in order to lead and persuade one to live as the friend of God? What does Scripture (the Holy Spirit Himself) declare?

Keep in mind, one can be a believer and yet, for a time, not have a zeal for the life of good works, a life pleasing to God. Samson in the bosom of Delilah did not; nor did Lot as he headed towards Sodom coveting wealth. Neither sinner-saint was conducting himself as a friend of God. On the other hand, Joseph, who left his coat in the fingers of Potiphar’s wife, did.

Whose conduct was blessed by God, prospering them spiritually? And whose not?

A child can answer.

Our children and young people need to hear this in catechism and in sermons.


In the interests of developing their sanctification. Such instruction is necessary in the interests of giving the youth (and all of us) warnings and incentives [!] on how to live. One behavior (self-gratifying) will carry severe consequences; the other (denying self) will not only glorify God and the power of His grace, but serve one’s advantage as well, that is, it will be to one’s spiritual benefit. It may cost one freedom and position of honor. It did Joseph. But it will, as the saying goes, “pay rich dividends” spiritually.

The life of godliness will “pay rich spiritual dividends”? Do we dare even speak that way these days? We should. This is not contrary to Scripture. The phrase does not automatically compromise the doctrine of grace and imply the error of teaching that one can earn, merit, or deserve something from God. Rather, it underscores what a gracious God Jehovah is.

The Holy Spirit prompts the apostle to declare concerning our imperfect works: “For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labor of love, which ye have toward his name…” (Heb. 6:10).

Such was true of Joseph. Joseph was blest, even in prison where he went for a time. Though who would deny that Joseph was imperfect even as he performed the good work of fleeing temptation in Potiphar’s house.

And you can add to that Hebrews 11:26, as it speaks of Moses being willing to count the high cost of discipleship, turning his back on Egypt’s honors, “For he had respect unto the recompense [!] of the reward.”

An eye on the “recompense.” What God would graciously reimburse him, namely, the everlasting inheritance as a reward, was of infinitely greater value than what he gave up and counted as loss.

Moses’ choice, in accordance with God’s promise, served his own good (benefit). Because he deserved it? No, but because God tied the two together, graciously and bountifully. Moses saw that, and chose accordingly.

This, Witsius maintained, was biblical and in accordance with the Reformed fathers and confessions. It was to be preached without incurring the charge of promoting “works-righteousness.” With this I concur.

You point out that Synod 2018 stated, “Obedience never gains us or obtains anything in the covenant of God.”

To be sure. Obedience never gains us or obtains anything in the covenant as regards a right to the covenant relationship nor to any blessing of the covenant. Our best works are polluted, naught but filthy rags. Anything we have a right to has been gained by Christ as our Head. That what He has gained for us should be counted as ours and granted us, is a matter of grace beyond telling.

However, that said, Synod was not condemning the idea (the scriptural truth) that the blessings of the covenant with its fellowship and joy (which we all understand Christ earned, of course) are experienced in the way of the life of godliness. Not in the way of sin, but in the way of what the Catechism calls the life of daily conversion. This God graciously wills to do and, as our imperfect works are purified by the blood of Christ, does bless.

We must not now quibble and say that these works of ours as believers can in no sense be “good.” One’s quarrel then is with God’s Word itself. God Himself says they are good and that is how He looks at them. They are not “the good,” as Romans 7:18, 19 speaks of them, meaning “perfect works without blemish.” This is always our grief.

But they are “good” for all that, as defined by the Catechism in Q&A 91.

And God has a regard for them. Read Proverbs 31 and its description of the virtuous woman, whose value for her labors of love for her covenantal family the Spirit Himself places above rubies. It concludes with the words “Give her the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates” (v. 31).

Why is that placed in Scripture if not as incentive for mothers of Israel to do likewise and be encouraged for their self-giving labor, even praised—with God’s approval! And shame on the husband who has such a wife and does not praise her.

What the mothers of Israel do for Christ’s lambs as they wash their little feet (and little bottoms), perhaps even singing spiritual songs to them as they do so, is to be dismissed as naught but dung and filth? You tell their Lord Jesus that. I dare not.

If Proverbs 31 is not placed in Scripture as incentive to godly women burdened with the labors of motherhood to assure them that there is One who speaks highly of them for their faithful labors, namely, their Lord Christ Himself, even if their foolish husbands fail, then I do not know how to read Scripture.

Calvin is helpful in this matter.

Commenting on John 4:36 where Christ encourages His disciples as they will be called to the strenuous labor of sowing the Word in the face of fierce opposition, by assuring them that such will reap the ‘wage’ of joy and eternal life, Calvin writes:

It is for this purpose that Scripture everywhere mentions rewards, and not for the purpose of leading us to judge from it as to the merits of works, for which of us, if we come to a reckoning, will not be found more worthy of being punished for slothfulness than of being rewarded for diligence? …But the Lord, who acts toward us with the kindness of a father, in order to correct our sloth, and to encourage us who would otherwise be dismayed, designs to bestow upon us an undeserved reward (Commentary on the Gospel According to John, vol. 1. Baker Books, 2003, pp. 171-172).

Note two things. First, that Calvin agrees, when it comes to the Judgment Day, if judgment were based on the works of the believer, the best of them, we would still be worthy of punishment. Our good works do not work our justification.

But then note what Calvin by Scripture is compelled (and happy) to say: that for all that, the Lord graciously, with the kindness of a father (towards imperfect children) rewards those works that arise out of faith and are done in love. Notice the word “undeserved” preceding “reward.” The point being, it is God’s good will to be that gracious towards our imperfect works as He looks at them and us in Christ, in whose name and by whose power we are laboring.

In a sermon on II Timothy 4:8 dealing with the crown of righteousness promised, Calvin states, “Should this not inspire [!] us to walk loyally on and to fight steadfastly to the very end?” (Sermons on 2 Timothy, Banner of Truth, 2018, p. 403).

Calvin is always careful to point out that the mention of this reward of grace is for the believer not the primary incentive unto godliness, nor the power that drives a holy life—God’s redeeming love in Christ is. Rather, it is secondary as a motivating factor unto godliness.

Still, take note, Scripture makes plain it is an important factor to excite one unto godliness and encourage one to the life of discipleship even when the cost may be high, namely, the price of one’s life. Such is to be preached. And when, in accordance with Scripture, it is, the preacher ought not be judged as preaching some sort of work-righteousness.

Before we end this first part of our response, one more matter—your reference to the Belgic Confession, Article 24.

Your reference is incomplete.

The Confession does not say that as Reformed we maintain that our good works (due to their imperfections) are useless. It states that they are “of no account towards our justification.” It adds that “we do not found our salvation on them,” which is what Rome taught.

But note, for all the acknowledged imperfections of our works, the Confession labels them as “good and acceptable” to God. And then this especially: In the interest of a balanced, proper evaluation of the value (utility) of our works that proceed out of faith and in love, the Belgic states, “In the meantime, we do not deny that God rewards [!] our good works, but it is through His grace that He crowns His gifts.”

What I find most significant is that the Belgic, in reference to the good works the believer performs, refers to them not as “His (God’s) good works,” but as “His gifts.” They are called “our works.” Not God’s. Ours! As renewed creatures, we do not become stocks and blocks in the service to our Lord. God does not do these good works for us. Nor is the preaching to leave the impression that He does. As if that is true piety. Rather, they are what we are called to do—the responsibility laid squarely on our shoulders. And, having been transformed by grace, we want to do them and are enabled to produce them.

Nonetheless, when good works of godliness show themselves, they are always the result of God’s gift of newness of life, freely granted so contrary to everything we deserve.

God’s glory is not diminished.

As well, we take note that Article 24 states, “God rewards our good works.” And “rewards” implies that the labors of sinner-saints are of benefit to self, others, and to one’s relationship to our heavenly Father Himself.

To this point we will return next SB and finish our response to Brother Vermeer’s letter.