Question on Witsius
Is there not a major contradiction between Witsius (Standard Bearer—“Still relevant”—Dec. 15, 2020, p. 127) and what we confess as Protestant Reformed believers? Witsius’ writings are put forward by Rev. Koole as a relevant solution to our doctrinal struggle. I do not think so. Among many of Witsius’ problem statements, one stands out in summary: “Whence it is, that by how much one is more holy, by so much he is the more acceptable to God.” In direct contrast, we believe and confess that we are acceptable to God not on account of our own works or worthiness, but only on account of the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, who Himself is our righteousness before the judgment seat of God. In Him we have complete holiness.
Even though Rev. Koole writes, “We will let the reader reflect upon what Witsius wrote above and consider how orthodox one finds these statements to be,” he leaves the reader with the impression that this statement can be orthodox or unorthodox. At a minimum he should either condemn the statement or prove that it’s true and relevant to the current issues in the churches. Please clear up this major contradiction between truth and error for all the readers of the Standard Bearer.
Be assured the statement of Witsius you bring to our attention is not one I commend or approve of, not as it is worded, concluding with the phrase “by so much more he is acceptable to God.” When it comes to our being accepted by or acceptable to God, that can be and is only and ever in Christ Jesus, based on His atoning work. Our works never, not even the best of them, have any standing with God when it comes to our being acceptable to Him. That is only in and because of the Beloved. But I included it in the assertions I quoted as listed by Witsius’ to avoid being charged with being selective when it came to Witsius’ statements, ignoring those statements and responses to the antinomian assertions of which we would not approve. Because the statement as it stands (as worded) is in error, I did not expand on that particular proposition when I turned to Witsius’ explanation of his various phrases. Reflecting back, it would have been better that I had called attention to it and stated that, as worded, the statement is in error.
You will note that I find the statement objectionable due to “the wording,” that is, due to the use of the word “acceptable” as it is found in the translation (of the Latin original). The use of that word raises issues with the whole statement. So, regardless of Witsius’ brief explanation that followed a few pages later, I offered no commentary. Looking back, I should have at least stated, “With this assertion, translated as it is, we cannot agree. As it stands, it is in error.”
That said, from Witsius’ explanation that follows a case can be made that, while the word used is translated “acceptable,” what Witsius meant was, “By how much one is more holy, by so much more he is pleasing to God.” And that is not objectionable. There are those of the saints who in their spirituality and consistent holiness are more pleasing to God than others. In fact, a believer himself may at one point of his life be living more pleasing to God than at another. I say this may well be what Witsius meant, because later in explaining the short assertion, he states, “Further, since God cannot but love himself, he also delights in that which is like him[self]; and the more of his image he discerns in anything, the more he delights in it” (p. 177, emphasis added). If by that explanation, Witsius meant merely to state that the more one is committed to living in holiness unto God and is consistent in that, the more pleasing he is to God (the more he, as a child of God reflects who his Father and Lord is), the statement could stand.
The Lord certainly calls us to growth in holiness and to consistency (to diligence) in pursuing godliness and resisting (eschewing) evil and temptations in this life. And He delights when it is so. Such pleases Him. This is something that can be and should be emphasized in preaching with its persistent call to the life of godliness. Not only is the preaching to comfort sin-proned saints that there is forgiveness full and free in the cross, but it is also to face every member with the question, “Where are you at in your spiritual life and development? More and more earnest in the pursuit of holiness with a disciplined diligence, or just spiritually drifting along, finding scant time for your daily devotions to the neglect of your spiritual life and your witness to Christ? If the latter, you are not pleasing God. Wake up. Start seeking God and following His precepts with the single eye, and put away your double mindedness!”
Do not forget, the Catechism itself speaks of holiness according to a scale. Lord’s Day 44 refers to the “holiest of men,” though even such fall far short of the perfection required, as they daily acknowledge. This variation of holiness of life is discernable from any study of Bible history (to say nothing of our own knowledge of fellow saints). Consider Abraham in comparison to Lot, Samuel in comparison to Eli, Joseph in comparison to his own sinful and yet saved, believing brothers. One could go on. God Himself says concerning Job, “Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect [a spiritually mature] and an upright man, one that feareth God, and esheweth evil?” (1:8). None like him, though he was certainly not the only believer living at the time. The three friends must have been children of God, or they would not have been his friends. But they lacked the degree of holiness displayed by Job. Of Job, God Himself spoke highly. Not so of his friends as they gave their miserable assessment of things.
There are saints who come to the end of their lives and are saved as brands pulled from the fire (Jude 23), much like Lot who vexed his righteous soul due to his lack of spiritual wisdom and his many foolish choices. Such lives serve as warnings not to emulate, lives of weak, anemic Christians, vexed with various sore consequences for self and often for one’s generations as well. And then there are those whose lives are exemplary, who die in wonderful peace, sinner-saints numbered with the wise because they knew their own susceptibility to sin and who daily sought and found the grace to live and grow in holiness, saints whose lives were certainly more pleasing to God than that of others. If that was what Witsius meant to say, I can agree.
But the word found in Witsius’ assertion as it is translated is, “more acceptable.” That word has connotations we cannot approve if one is speaking of being acceptable to God. Such a statement would be promoting error, and is one we should not use. It is a word to be reserved for our standing before God in Christ, whose atoning sufficiency alone can make us and our works acceptable to God. Looking back, it would have been better that I had pointed that out to avoid any misunderstanding, rather than letting it stand without comment.
The statement as it stands, as worded, is not an orthodox statement, and not one to be used in the preaching, regardless of Witsius’ explanation. I thank the brother for pointing this out for clarification and correction.
Cordially in Christ,
Rev. Kenneth Koole
Questions on the two thieves
Dear Prof. Gritters,
I refer to your editorial in the Standard Bearer April 1 (vol. 97, no. 13) on “Schism: Doctrinal Issues.”
Concerning good works, I fully agree with you that we do not swing from one extreme of upholding good works to the other extreme of undermining good works. Our proper understanding of good works ought to be as mentioned in Philippians 2:13. It is God who works in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure. We are saved unto obedience and good works. None of us can claim any merit for obedience and good works.
However, I do not think it appropriate to accrue the two extremes of the two thieves on the cross: 1) The left one representing those who uphold good works; 2) the right one representing those who undermine good works These associations could be misleading and confusing.
In Luke 23:43, Jesus told the thief on His right, “Today thou shall be with me in paradise.” What outcome could we then draw about the thief on the right? To what extent could we spiritualize the two thieves on the cross?
Covenant ERC, Singapore.
Dear Professor Gritters,
I have some questions about the April 1, 2021 editorial in the Standard Bearer, titled “Schism: Doctrinal Issues.” I agree that there are often two extreme false doctrines, and the truth is found in between them. I also agree that the truth is between the ditches of legalism and antinomianism. But I do not believe that the analogy of Christ crucified between two thieves, each representing a different extreme, is an appropriate analogy to make.
I believe that the truth taught by Christ’s crucifixion between two thieves is the doctrine of election and reprobation, and that the elect of God are worthy by nature of the same condemnation as the reprobate. Both malefactors were justly condemned, as confessed by the penitent thief: “And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss” (Luke 23:41). But one thief was chosen of God unto salvation. The fundamental difference between the two men was not that each man held to a different extreme doctrine, but that Christ died for one and not the other. As a result, the one remained impenitent and mocked Christ, saying “If thou be Christ, save thyself and us” (Luke 23:39), but the other was brought to see his salvation, to rebuke the other, and to confess Christ, calling Him “Lord,” and asking Him to “remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Is the truth of election and reprobation the primary takeaway we should have of the fact Christ was crucified between two thieves?
There are two possibilities for what the analogy is. Which of these two analogies is made, or is there an alternative?
The first possibility is that the two thieves represent two extremes of doctrine in general, so that this concept can also be applied to the extremes of legalism and antinomianism. If this is the case, I do not agree that the two thieves represent two extreme false doctrines or that we should use the two thieves to explain two extreme false doctrines. This is because one thief held to true doctrine, relying on Christ for salvation, and the other held to false doctrine, rejecting Christ.
The second possibility is that the extremes of legalism and antinomianism are found in the two thieves. I do not know that there is any evidence in Scripture that one thief was antinomian and the other legalistic. We do not know much about these men, not even whether each man was a Jew or a Gentile.
The fact that both men were crucified for breaking the law suggests that neither man was a legalist. We also cannot know for certain that either man was antinomian in the sense that either man believed or confessed he could sin that grace may abound. I do not know that the penitent thief could be considered antinomian because, though he had lived a wicked life before, we do not know that he ever had previously confessed the grace of God. Since he was probably converted on the cross, I do not know that he would have been an antinomian any longer if he had been one. I also do not believe the impenitent thief was antinomian, because he neither believed nor confessed the grace of God, but mocked the thought.
Some final questions: Is the two extremes argument a purpose of Christ’s crucifixion between two thieves? Is it right to use a Scripture passage to explain good or true things not taught by the passage? Does this change with historical precedent?
Saint John, IN
The letters point out the reality that with every illustration or analogy to make a truth clear there is a danger of misunderstanding the analogy. Both letters have misunderstood the analogy. Neither of Mr. Moore’s proposed explanations is the point of the analogy. Daisy’s reading of it also misses the point, because neither thief, in my explanation, merely “upholds good works.” The only point of the analogy is that orthodox soteriology is always opposed by errors on two sides. The penitent thief does not represent one or the impenitent thief the other. Perhaps the analogy, used for centuries now, ought to be discarded so that the reality may be emphasized: there are two very serious errors, both of which must be avoided. It is a happy thing that both writers acknowledge that, for not everyone today sees it.