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’. The book is being translated into English ‘chunk-by-chunk’ by Wes White, Pastor of New Covenant Presbyterian Church in Spearfish, South Dakota.
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Chapter 3 — Self-Denial
1. What is the first lesson that we must learn in the school of Jesus Christ?
Jesus Christ Himself teaches us: “If anyone desires to follow Me, let Him deny himself” (Mt. 16:24).
2. What does “self-denial” mean?
Self-denial in general includes three things. First, we should not imagine ourselves to be worthy at all of the grace of God or of the salvation that flows from it. Second, we should recognize our inability to do any spiritual good as we ought. Third, we should renounce our own wills and desires and submit them in all things to the will of God.
3. Must we consider ourselves as being entirely unworthy of salvation?
Yes. We should always recognize that God could have thrown us into hell from the very moment of our conception, since from that very moment we were by nature children of wrath on account of original sin (Eph. 2:1). And since that time, we have committed many actual sins for which God could have cut the cord of our life and brought us into judgment before Him. According to the law of God and the threats that are attached to it, whoever violates a single law even once merits the loss of eternal life. How much more have we merited it, since we have offended God a thousand times more?
4. Must we also consider ourselves completely unworthy of the grace of God?
Just as we consider ourselves unworthy of salvation, we ought to think of ourselves as completely unworthy of the gifts and grace of God because we ruin and corrupt everything that goes through our hands. We are unworthy to hear the Gospel of peace because we defile the pure Word of God as soon as we receive it in our impure hearts. We are unworthy to live among Christians; on the contrary, we are worthy of being excluded from the society of Christians so that we would no longer scandalize any Christian by our evil actions and since we are not able to edify them by any good example. We should regard ourselves as unworthy of absolutely any physical blessing, even of a little piece of bread or a glass of cold water.
5. What should the condition of our hearts be in relationship to this unworthiness that we find in ourselves?
It is not enough for us to have a simple knowledge of it and speak of it with little interest as we would news from a far away country. Rather, it should powerfully penetrate our hearts, and we should feel a profound grief over it. When we look up into heaven, we should sigh that it is a place from which are banished by our own fault. We should consider hell to be a place that has opened its mouth wide in order to swallow us up. We should think of the devil as an enemy who desires us and powerfully pursues us from hell. All this should lead us to sigh, weep, cry, and lament without allowing any restoration of peace to our souls until we are assured by solid reasons that God has imputed to us the merit of Jesus Christ so that by the love of Christ and His pure grace we can be esteemed worthy of eternal life.
6. But doesn’t this sort of talk lead man to despair?
There is a despair that is good and praiseworthy. Good despair is a despair man has of himself and of his own ability to do anything leading in the direction of salvation. This is the despair that Jesus Christ produced by His Word and Spirit in the hearts of His disciples when they said: “Then, who can be saved” (Mt. 19:25)? Insofar as a man stops in himself, he finds nothing that is not worthy of condemnation and thus nothing that would not give place to a holy despair. But he must by this holy despair be pushed toward Jesus Christ so that, being found in Christ, he might never despair of the grace of God.
7. But can’t someone be overly distressed and worried about his own spiritual misery?
We can distinguish people, their miseries, their distress, and the greatness of their distresses. Following these different categories, we can answer the question in different ways. The man to whom you present his misery can be considered either in his miserable natural estate and insofar as he is not yet actually reconciled with God through Jesus Christ or as already in grace and having received the redemption of Jesus Christ by faith.
One can also consider the misery of man either uniquely in itself, separated from the grace of God or in comparison with this grace.
One can also consider distress either as sorrow over sin or as a natural effect of reason or the understanding. It can also be considered as being found only in the rational soul of man or as a sadness that truly affects the soul and powerfully moves the emotions.
Finally, we can distinguish the greatness of the distress either in relation to violence or in relation to duration and continuation.
After having made these distinctions, I respond as follows.
A man who still remains in his misery and who is not yet reconciled with God through faith in Jesus Christ, when he sees his misery in itself and reflects on his own and all creature’s inability to deliver him, cannot be too distressed at his misery whether in the understanding or in the emotions. He should not stop the course of this distress, at least in the relationship to its direction, until he finds himself reconciled with God through Jesus Christ. The reason is that the misery of this man is as great as one could possibly conceive and (in its own manner) infinite. Thus, it is reasonable that his sadness might be proportional to the greatness of his misery.
But a man who is already in a state of grace can have too much of a feeling of his misery when he compares that misery with the grace of God and thinks that it could not or should not be taken away and says that his sins are too great to be pardoned (as Cain said [Gen. 4:13]). He can also be swallowed up by too much sadness (2 Cor. 2:7) and become demoralized in such away that the strength of the body and the soul collapse under the weight of it so that he becomes incapable by this of serving his God who wants not just to be served but to be served with joy (Ps. 100:2). Finally, this distress can last too long when the believer looks too often and too long at his misery in order to be distressed by it and does not give enough attention to the goodness of God so that he might rejoice in it and be consoled by it.