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Dear Rev. Koole, After reading the five installments of your editorial series Herman Witsius: Still Relevant, I still have questions on statements you make, which are difficult for me to reconcile with my understanding of the Christian life. In the third installment, you state,

…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….

As a result, in the name of misguided piety, an antinomian spirit shows itself. Preaching of the whole counsel of God is truncated.

Here you suggest 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?

The question of our good works is not one of tedium of words (as suggested in the fourth installment) but rather of what perspective we will have toward our good works. We know and understand that good works are a necessary part of the Christian life. Since they arise out of the new man of Christ we know that they are good in principle, and in their source they give glory to God. However, as these works are performed through our sinful flesh, they become (in their completed form) no better than filthy rags (Is. 64). Because of this, they are punishable (Belgic Confession, Art. 24) and we must repent even for the sinfulness of our good works. This is not dismissing good works as unnecessary, but rather having the perspective that our completed works can achieve us only punishment. However, your editorial states that living in good works provides some “benefit to one’s relationship with God.” How can we simultaneously have the perspective that our polluted good works provide a “benefit to one’s relationship to God,” and at the same time renounce those polluted works? Ought we to stop repenting of our defiled good works? Do we say, “I am not going to wear my filthy rags to the wedding, but I will still admire them”?

Your editorials express concern that believers see 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 second installment. 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?

Yours in Christ,

Mike Vermeer, Peace PRC

 

Witsius on sanctification (2)

With this response we conclude our answer to Brother Mike Vermeer’s letter (cf. March 15, 2021 SB).

We concluded last issue with the statement, “As well, we take note that Article 24 [of the Belgic Confession] states, ‘God rewards our good works.’ And ‘rewards’ implies that the labors of sinner-saints are of benefit to self, to others, and to one’s relationship to our heavenly Father Himself.”

The question arises: Is walking in godliness and in the way of charity for others of benefit to our relationship to God, that is, to its conscious intimacy and fellowship? Can this be, seeing that even our best works done in love for God’s name and the brother are imperfect and defiled?

We answer, Yes.

It is not for nothing that Scripture declares that the greatest of the three (faith, hope, and charity) is charity— love and its labors. Without it, one’s claim for faith means nothing (cf. I John 4:11, 12 and 20, 21).

We are called to walk in the ways of love and godliness as God’s covenant friends. We understand full well that when a believer fails to do that, being in Christ he does not forfeit his right to the covenant and God’s love with the inheritance. God is faithful and His love for His wayward children remains. But when one walks foolishly in sin, something is forfeited! What is forfeited, for a time, is conscious closeness to God, that is, hearing the words of His approval, having the joy of one’s salvation, and a peace with Him (cf. James 4:8). God is sorely displeased with such a child and friend, and His Spirit makes that known, however much a foolish believer may for a time try to suppress it.

One may be in the covenant, a covenant child, but for all that, not be close to God in any kind of conscious fellowship. Read Canons V, Article 5 as it speaks of those who “sometimes lose the sense of God’s favor for a time, until [!] on their returning into the right way of serious repentance….”

What was true of Samson in the bosom of Delilah? He was not close to God. Nor was Lot in Sodom. Both were thinking of one thing at that point in their lives— their own carnal satisfaction. Pleasing God was not in their thoughts, believers though they were. God says to such, “You are far from Me.” Though, due to God’s covenant mercy, not so far that He could not hear their cry in distress and of repentance. This is plain from Samson’s history, as he ground grain like a blind ox. There, brought to his senses, he repented, crying out to God, and obtained victory over his sin within and his enemies without.

Not by willfully departing from God’s ways, but walking the ways of God’s good commandments is the way in which we experience consciously the joys and benefits of that covenant relationship. Please take the time to read I John 2:3-5 and how it is that we “know that we are in him.”

This is in accordance with decisions of Synod 2019, as it explained the decisions of Synod 2018). In its decision not to sustain a protestant, Synod 20191 quoted H. Hoeksema. “And in the way of keeping his word we taste his blessed fellowship,” lifted from Communion with God (p. 15).2

Hoeksema, quoting the Psalms, speaks of “tasting his blessed fellowship.” And tasting is a very powerful internal experience. One does not ‘taste’ God’s fatherly fellowship and approval while in the bosom of some “Delilah” of sin, but rather “in the way of keeping” God’s words, as did chaste Joseph.

You ask, somewhat rhetorically, “Do we say, ‘I am not going to wear my filthy rags to the wedding, but I will still admire them’?”

I answer: the believer admiring his own imperfect labors? No, not at all. Rather, this:

First, when it comes to the marriage feast of the Bridegroom, we will base our right of entry and presence upon the righteousness of One alone, namely, that of the Great Bridegroom.

And yet take note, even in heaven the works and labors of the saints are not forgotten or dismissed. Consider Revelation 14:13 as it speaks of those who die in the Lord, “…that they may rest from their labours and their works do follow them.”

To be sure, such faithful labors, even unto martyrdom, do not give the righteous the right of entry to heaven and of remaining there, but they are remembered nonetheless. A Scripture passage such as this must not, out of fear of doctrinal error and abuse, be dismissed or somehow explained away. We must not, we may not, pretend to be wiser than the Holy Spirit when it comes to His encouraging believers unto living as Christians in the face of great difficulties.

Second, when it comes to the value (utility) of the works and labors of the godly, it has nothing to do with admiring one’s own works. What it has to do with is the testimony of the Spirit to His saints that, as they labor for the kingdom, be it imperfectly, they must not think that their labors are forgotten or for naught. Consider the God-fearing mother who, coming to the end of the day in which she has “suffered her little ones to come to Jesus,” reviews her labors and sees all her imperfections of impatience and efforts. Worn down, she is ready to despair.

Should she? Why not?

Because the Spirit assures her that He will use those imperfect labors (done in love for her Lord) for the salvation of her home. That’s Hebrews 6:10 in its entirety: “For he is not unrighteous to forget your works and labour which you have done in his name as you have ministered to [served] the saints” (which surely includes Christ’s little ones).

Are these works and labors to be discounted and thrown on the dung heap with the deeds of the wicked? Naught but filth and defiled? God be thanked, the Lord Jesus of the mothers of Israel does not view them that way. He even declares that He would be “unrighteous” if He would forget and dismiss them. A staggering thought!

And some want to belittle the value of those labors? I am thankful we are under the Lord’s mercy and not many a man’s these days. It is the encouragement needed, as many mothers of Israel well know. They belong to and serve a Lord Christ of wonderful, rewarding grace.

How the Lord Christ Himself values the labors of His saints when they begin to think all their labors (works and deeds) are in vain is precisely what they need to hear at times. Luther himself and Calvin surely needed to hear this, as did John Huss, rotting in prison awaiting martyrdom. Else why labor on? The wicked triumph. What can our imperfect labors and confession accomplish after all? This: Christ uses weak and imperfect means to accomplish His purposes! God be thanked! Your labors, be they ever so imperfect, are not in vain in the Lord.

Why do we insist on this? Is it, as some are saying, because we want to put, if not all the emphasis on good works, still an undue emphasis on them, thus displacing the primacy of faith (and thereby of Christ and salvation all of grace) with works?

Not at all.

Rather, our concern is that there develops such a fear of the errors that historically have arisen about the place and importance of good works in the life and salvation of the believers, that an overreaction results when their value and importance is underscored. As a result, every time a preacher stresses their importance in the life of the believer (“This is how you must live, and why you must do good works [live godly] if you will walk closely with God and be a proper witness to the Christian faith”), either suspicions arise about the orthodoxy of the exhortations or the preacher is charged with replacing grace with works. The sentiment, “Preacher, don’t tell us how to live, just tell us what Christ has done for us” begins to rule. As if preaching how the Christian is to live and placing before the believer the benefits of so doing are not God-glorifying.

As if such is preaching “salvation by works, not by grace.” As a result, men are hesitant to preach exhortations unto godliness with their warnings and their promises (cf. the 5th commandment). And the freedom and power of preaching “repentance unto godliness” suffers.

And when one does preach a text that emphasizes the calling to the godly, upright life (which texts abound, from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount through the epistles of James, Peter, and John), one has to so circumscribe the exhortations and warnings with explaining what one is not implying about merit and conditions, and why this does not minimize salvation all of grace, that the sharpness of the exhortations themselves is lost. And the members go home discussing whether or not what they heard really passed the test of complete orthodoxy, and if satisfied, leave it there. And that becomes the preacher’s great burden in preaching, proving his orthodoxy over and over again.

As a result, a ‘tedious,’ cautious preaching becomes the rule, instead of a bold word that sends a father home saying, “Beloved family, did you hear that? We must mend our lives in this area or that. A double-mindedness is showing itself in our lives, rather than ‘the single eye.’” Or mother saying to the children, “You wonder why we place all these restrictions on your life and instead insist on this or that? What we just heard this evening is why!”

The truth is that biblical preaching is and must be filled with incentives unto godliness. To be sure, the love of God for His own stands primary and is to be stressed. But in Scripture that does not stand alone. And when the preaching points believers to these other incentives, it is not to be condemned as promoting work-righteousness and robbing God of His glory.

Scripture is plain, God will have His children exhorted to a sanctified walk and then encouraged. And God will have His children encouraged by assuring them that walking as becometh saints will carry spiritual benefits in this life and even reach unto the life to come.

Finally, in response to your concluding statement, “Why should we add to this [that which]…draws away from (and even muffles?) the Gospel call to repent and renounce our good works?”

A most interesting and revealing statement. One could well take that statement and write a whole article on it. “Renounce our good works.” In every sense? And required to do so by the call of the gospel?

If we were speaking simply of justification and the right to God’s approval and forgiveness, that would be true. But we are not. We are dealing with the entire life of the believer in the covenant of God as His friend. And in that life ‘works’ (that is, how a child of God lives!) have an important place. This, I fear, some have lost sight of in this controversy. How important? Ask any elder called to “guard” the Lord’s “communion” table and judge who may rightly claim to be a “worthy partaker” of that table of fellowship with God (cf. “Form for the Lord’s Supper”). What is required is not just declaring, “I am right with God,” but whether one is resolved to walking in a worthy manner!

It is plain, there is a sense in which how one is living ties in with one’s very salvation, that is, one’s true conversion. The life of godliness is nothing less than the evidence of the Holy Spirit (Christ’s Spirit!) and what He, by means of the preaching, labors to bring forth. We must not minimize these evidences of godliness and love lest we insult the Holy Spirit Himself and, thereby Christ Himself.

Why an insult to Christ?

Because Christ died exactly in order to obtain the right to impart His Holy Spirit and sanctify a people unto living as children of God again. In other words, a people walking as the friends of God, be that walk ever so imperfect and fraught with stumbles and falls. And that walk, that life, that labor for good, is to show itself in this life. Are we now to minimize what the Holy Spirit by grace and means produces in us? God forbid! I will have no part of it. Neither ought any PR believer.

So, “renounce our good works” in every sense, my sincere brother? As if what the believer has done in Christ’s name for His brethren is to be considered evil? Wicked? Essentially no different than that of the enemies of the gospel?

Absolutely not!

Not, let us renounce our imperfect labors done in Christ’s name. Rather, let us sanctify them by praying, “Heavenly Father, we confess the imperfections of our good works (labors). We pray, however, that they be cleansed by the blood of Christ and that Thou wilt use our weak and imperfect efforts to the advance of His kingdom and to the benefit of the beloved body of Christ.”

Are we to renounce what Christ Himself has enabled one to do for His kingdom cause? As if that is piety?

Please, reconsider.

Paul did not. Consider his parting declaration to his beloved Timothy and the saints at Ephesus: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness…” (I Tim. 4:7, 8). The apostle, if he was truly a believer, was to renounce his own faithful labors? The gospel required this of him? Not at all. He would be renouncing what the Spirit of his beloved Lord had enabled him to do.

And, notice as well, the Spirit encouraged Paul to press on by holding before him what would crown his labors on behalf of his Lord and Savior, namely, perfect righteousness and eternal life. Such served as incentive.

Or, your pastor preaches an orthodox, edifying sermon (a good work). What does he say in his concluding prayer? “Lord God, knowing I was not perfect as I preached this sermon, I denounce it as wicked and no good. It is of no value, and let the congregation view it that way as well.”

Of course not.

Rather, “Lord, we have declared Thy word in weakness and imperfection. Yet, in Thy mercy use it to the up-building of this congregation and the glory of Thy name.”

And the Lord does. And when at last such an one enters glory, Christ says, “Well done thou good and faithful servant!” Such a thought serves as strong incentive to press on in one’s labors with greater consistency. It does me. I trust it does you too. Because if Christ does not say that, He will be saying “I never knew you! Depart into the abyss, far from Me.” Words worse than death itself.

Or, consider the good Samaritan and the mercy he showed to one he did not even know. Love for the neighbor mixed with works of mercy. To be denounced and renounced? No! It was not by Christ, and therefore must not be by us either. Rather, an example for us, knowing such is Christ-like and pleases our heavenly Father. When we show such charity, do we do it perfectly? Of course not. But it is still Christ-like behavior and not to be renounced. To be sure, in need of cleansing (for which we pray), but not renounced.

In conclusion, I recommend to you and all our readers some reading.

First, the 2019 PRC Acts of Synod, Article 85 (pp. 63-67), synod’s response to an appeal dealing with doctrinal phrases challenged. Synod did not sustain the protestant’s objections but rejected them and underscored the proper interpretation of Synod 2018.

Second, read the 2020 PRC Acts of Synod, Articles 51, 52 (pp. 72-88), synod’s response to a protestant’s objection to phrases found in three sermons, synod once again not sustaining the appellant’s objections. And thirdly, the article “John Calvin and the Reward of Grace,” by Prof. B. Huizinga, found in the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, April 2020.

All are helpful in arriving at a proper understanding of the vital truth of sanctification and the blessings that the God of the covenant attaches to His covenant friends’ obedience, which blessings serve as incentives. Because by our works and labor we have made ourselves worthy and now merit something? Absolutely not. But graciously, for Christ’s sake, God grants it to be so. So merciful in Christ is our covenantal Father to His imperfect children.

God be thanked.

Cordially in Christ,

Rev. Kenneth Koole