Herman Witsius (1636-1708) is one of the greatest of the Reformed theologians in the latter half of the 17th century. He taught theology successively at Franeker, Utrecht, and then Leyden. He wrote many books on theological and philological matters. In addition, he was a pious man who wrote several shorter works of piety, including ‘Practice of Christianity’
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Chapter 2 – On the True Religion, Cont.
10. But since the nations that bear the name of Christian are divided into so many different sects, what should someone who is concerned about his salvation do?
He should not be too surprised or be shaken in his faith since he knows that the corrupted reason of man is inclined towards novelty and will worship and that the devil is always trying to forge false doctrines and introduce them among men. But it is necessary for a Christian to examine all these things and test them by the standard of Scripture. He must receive all that is in accord with Scripture and reject all that is opposed to it.
11. But that is a dizzying and hard work and which not all who seek their salvation are capable of doing. Can’t you show me some shorter and more general way to discern the true Christian religion from those that falsely bear the name?
In all the doctrines that have a direct connection with salvation, God gives all His spiritual children such strong sense that they can easily distinguish a saving remedy from poison. Thus, it is impossible that they would be seduced. But to say something more precise and instructive, it is only necessary among all the pretended Christian religions to recognize that which has the following four qualities.
- The first quality is that it gives God the most glory and recognizes the best that God is the first and sovereign cause of all good, for it is necessary to recognize as divine that which observes and advances the glory of God the best. That is the language of Canaan. It is its Shibboleth. That’s the voice of the true church, “Not unto us, not us, but unto Your Name, give glory” (Ps. 15:1).
- The second quality is that it humbles man most profoundly, abases him, makes him smallest before God, and makes him recognize his inability, misery, and nothingness. For that’s how the doctrine of Saint Paul made man known that he was nothing (Gal. 6:3). However humbled one may be, he can never be humbled too much for Jesus Christ.
- The third quality is that it brings man most powerfully to godliness and makes him the most capable of it, for the doctrine of the truth is a doctrine that leads to godliness (1 Tim. 6:3, Tit. 1:1).
- The fourth quality is that it consoles most efficaciously the beaten down sinner and that it is able to calm the conscience. For that’s a unique property of the true doctrine of the Gospel: “Comfort, comfort My people,” says the Lord (Is. 40:1).
All these things joined together are an assured proof of the truth of the true religion. And to the degree that a doctrine is more or less conducive to these qualities, it participates more or less in the truth.
12. Which of the Christian sects do you think fits these marks the best?
It is the Reformed religion, as it is commonly called, because she has reformed the doctrine by the truth and has purified it from the idolatry, superstition, and human traditions of the papacy, and has returned it to its ancient simplicity.
[Editor’s Note: See Confession of Faith of the Baptists, the Thorough Reformers]
13. I would like you to show me that with a bit more precision. First, how does the Reformed religion give the most glory to God?
The Reformed doctrine attributes to God and His pure grace, the beginning, the progress, and the completion of every blessing and of the salvation of man. And no other religion does it as she does. That someone is elected for salvation is not, says she, because God has foreseen someone’s faith or works (Rom. 9:11), but only because God loved him. That a man is regenerated does not occur, says she, by any good dispositions that he had, or by the powers of free will [Ed. John 1:13], but by the all powerful grace of God who produces in him the power, the will, and the execution of it (Phil. 2:13). That a man is confirmed in grace is not, says she, because he has merited the grace of perseverance or that he had within himself enough strength to accomplish it but because the power of God keeps him by faith for salvation (1 Pet. 1:5). Finally, if a man enters into heaven, it’s not, says the Reformed doctrine, that he has acquired any right of salvation by his works (Eph. 2:8) but it’s because God gives it to him by His pure grace, since Jesus Christ alone has merited for him and thus, says she, all comes from God and by God and through God, to whom alone be the glory forever. Amen (Rom. 11:36).
14. How do you prove that it is the Reformed religion that most abases, humbles, and empties man?
That happens in part from what we just said, for all that we attribute to God for His glory, we take away from ourselves in order to abase ourselves. But further, there is no communion in which one teaches so strongly and clearly the power of sin, the corruption of man, and his inability to do any good, except that of the Reformed. There is no communion in which man is more convinced of his imperfection, since the Reformed teach that it is always attached to our best and most holy works while we are on earth. This is true in such a way that among them one learns to say from the most profound feelings of the heart, “Where is boasting? It is excluded” (Rom. 3:27).
15. How do you prove that the Reformed doctrine is the most conducive to piety?
The true piety of Christians is a demonstration of thanksgiving. Thus, nature itself teaches us that the more that anyone shows to a man that the goods that he has received are great, precious, and purely free, the more that someone excites him by this to gratitude. Thus, who is it who gives the greatest idea of the blessings of God? Is it that religion which says to man, “If you are elected to eternal life, then you have caused God to choose you by your faith or your good works that He foresaw. If you are converted and regenerated, it’s because you have made such a good use of the powers of your free will. If you are justified before God, it’s because of the work of your faith or because of the dignity of your works”? That’s how everyone speaks outside of the Reformed Church. But is not the one who gives the greatest idea of God the one who says to man, “God has elected you because of His good pleasure and grace, and He could have instead left you and ordained you to eternal perdition. He has converted you and brought you to life when you were dead in sins, and you could not have contributed anything more to your conversion than a dead person could to his being raised to life. He has justified you freely when you had merited hell, only because of the merit of Jesus Christ”? That’s how the Reformed speak with the Scriptures. It follows, therefore, that since they give the greatest idea of the blessings of God that they bring man most efficaciously to gratitude, that is to say, to the practice of true piety.
16. Can’t you show that clearly in another way?
Finally, the Reformed, who instruct their people to do all things by the Spirit and by the power of Jesus Christ, effectively bring them to a truly spiritual and living piety. All the others, by contrast, who want to bring about conversion and faith by their natural powers, accomplish merely a worldly and natural change to which a hypocrite can also come.
17. How will you show that the Reformed doctrine is the best able to console a contrite sinner in his affliction?
Because the Reformed faith drives man straight to Jesus Christ, the great, unique, and perfect Savior of all His people, and to His efficacious suffering and merit and says, “blessed are those who trust in Him” (Ps. 2:12). She teaches also that the man who examines his heart well and considers the rule of the word of God can and should be assured of the grace of God in him and for him and say with Saint Paul: “I know whom I have believed in and am persuaded that He is able to keep my deposit until that day” (2 Tim. 1:12). For faith, according to the description that the Reformed give of it, does not consist only in a simple and naked speculation or in a general assent to the divine truth but in making a particular application of it to one’s self with a firm assurance that Jesus Christ is my Savior and resting in Jesus Christ and receiving Him as my Savior. These are acts that the soul can know and feel unto its inexpressible consolation. Finally, the Reformed doctrine teaches that a man who has once been truly a participant in saving grace cannot be lost; that this source will never completely dry up but that however it may at times appear a bit blocked, it is and remains in such a soul a source swelling up in eternal life (James 4:14).
18. Explain that more a bit more exactly by an example.
Suppose that I find a Christian who, beaten down by the sight of his sins which are great and numerous, was ready to fail with sadness, I would desire, according to the principles of the Reformed to doctrine to console him in this way, “My Brother (or my Sister), why do you appear so overcome with fear and deprived of all hope? Do you not think that God has sent His dear Son Jesus into the world for all dismayed sinners, that He has accomplished all righteousness for them, that He has taken their sins, and that He has expiated them on the wood of the Cross by His passion and sorrowful death? Do you not know, therefore, so little of Jesus that you would not think that one can find in Him all salvation? Only run to Him and throw yourself at His feet and pray to Him to save you, desiring to receive salvation from His hands, and I assure you that He will not be able to refuse you. Do you have trouble conceiving of such a hope, and do you think that there is no salvation for you? Why, then, do you have such hunger and thirst for the righteousness of Jesus Christ? From whence does it come that you make so much of His grace, that you would not want to exchange it for all the world? Why are you, then, so afflicted that you do not feel the sweet movements of His consoling grace? Whence does it come about that you love the people in whom you notice some trace of the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ? Tell me, sincerely, and as before God, is it not true that your heart is in this disposition? You must not, then, doubt any longer about the grace of God. For all these things are signs of this grace. Do you not remember also to have seen your sanctification more clearly in the past? Do you not remember that you have felt at other times the movements of the Holy Spirit and that you have had some taste of the love of God? Recall to your remembrance the times past, and if you find that the matter is thus, happily dry your tears, ‘The gifts and the grace of God are without repentance’ (Rom. 11:29) and the One who has began this good work in you will also complete until the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6).” That’s the way I would console an anguished soul, and there is no other doctrine that can procure a similar consolation.