Herman Witsius was a renowned theologian of the latter half of the 17th century. One his devotional works is entitled ‘The Practice of Christianity’. It was written originally in Dutch in 1665 and was translated into French in 1731. The work is being translated from French into English by Pastor Wes White.
For the original post of this section of chapter 3, look HERE.
Self Denial, part 2
part 1 HERE
8. Must we also recognize ourselves to be totally without strength for and incapable of doing any spiritual good as we ought?
Yes, for when we consider ourselves in and of ourselves, we cannot do any good. We are not sufficient of ourselves of having any good thought as from ourselves (2 Cor. 3:5). And whatever good works that we do when we are animated and strengthened by the Spirit of God, the glory for those works does not go to us but to God (1 Cor. 4:7). And whenever the devil or our flesh want to use the occasion of these good works to hurl us into pride, we must always remember what the Apostle says, “Yet not I but the grace of God that is in me” (2 Cor. 15:10).
9. But in doing that, don’t we humble ourselves too much in order to make all the more of the honor of God by a mere appearance of humility?
We cannot humble ourselves too much in spiritual matters. And whatever humility there may be, we cannot fear that it will be too much for Jesus Christ. Can we put ourselves lower than nothing? However, that’s what the Apostle does to us. He says, “If anyone imagines himself to be something when he is nothing, such a man deludes himself” (Gal. 6:3). We cannot take away from man an understanding and reason and a will accompanied with intelligence which loves or hates something in consequence of the judgment that the understanding pronounces on the subject. But there is nothing but the natural in that. We cannot deny that a man can by custom, education, or other considerations have in some way a morally good conduct and perform externally some of the duties of Religion without the special cooperation of the grace of God. But to do some spiritual good or perform external duties in a spiritual manner is what a man cannot do at all, and man cannot humble himself too much for this inability.
10. But doesn’t this give man an opportunity to think that since I can do nothing in spiritual matters, “I can sit here with my arms crossed and wait until God works in me by His grace,” since that’s what perfectly despairing of one’s own strength would seem to imply?
That view would certainly take this idea to a wrong extreme. For although a man can do nothing that is spiritually good as long as he has not received the grace of regeneration, yet he should pursue the means that God has prescribed to him as his part. He must learn from the Word of God (by reading, hearing, and carefully meditating) how miserable the natural condition of all men is. He must consider and reflect very seriously that in all the world there is no creature who can deliver him from this misery and procure for his soul a secure repose. He must consider that the more that he gives himself to sin, the more he will go astray and harden himself in it. And God wants him to think about these things again and again. The natural conscience, when it is a little instructed, can easily be persuaded that this is true. In fact, this is so true that if he neglects the means that God uses and others of a similar nature, it is as if he has already willingly judged himself unworthy of eternal life and made himself inexcusable.
11. But what use is all of that, since man cannot acquire any strength by that for spiritual things, for it does not depend on either man’s willing or running (Rom. 9:16)?
Man should never be so audacious to ask God whether it’s useful to do or not do something when God has commanded us to do it. “All of God’s commandments are for our good” (Dt. 10:13). And as to how useful these things will be for us, we should simply rest on the wisdom of God, if we cannot understand why He wants us to do something. Luther, that great servant of God, said one time with good reason, “If God commands me to eat dung, I will do it, because I know that it will be good for me.” Didn’t it seem useless for the Israelites to have to go around the walls of Jericho several times, sound their trumpet, and shout with cries of joy (Josh. 6)? However, since they did it by the command of God, they made themselves masters of that city by doing all that He commanded. Thus, we should not reject the means that God prescribes to us under the pretext that their success does not depend on ourselves but on God. …
12. If we should completely despair of our own strength in spiritual matters and renounce ourselves, how then can we begin and even promise to God that we will perform in the future any spiritual duty?
We should begin and promise to perform our duty, not by our strength but by the strength of Jesus Christ. That is, we should not rest on our own reason, wisdom, and power, for we can accomplish nothing of value in that way. When the Israelites rashly and foolishly promised to serve the Lord, Joshua responded to them, “You are not able to serve God, for He is a holy God” (Josh. 24:19). But we should humble and abase ourselves and depend uniquely on God’s merciful aid and the Spirit’s help, ask for it in prayer, receive it by faith, and do all by the strength that He gives. When we begin some good work and promise to do it, it’s God “who produces in us the will” (Phil. 2:13), and we should ask that He would produce in us its completion according to His good pleasure. See also Jer. 10:23, Ps. 119:4–5.
13. But isn’t this something that would end up giving us the glory, since we are the ones who do the good work?
Not at all. There is no reason, either before God or man, for pride and for exalting ourselves when we do good. “For what did you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you glory as if you did not receive it” (1 Cor. 4:7)? In fact, it is a necessary characteristic of every good work that it be done not for our glory but for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). If anyone wants to praise us on such an occasion, we should not let it stroke our pride, but we should always “give glory to God” (Acts 13:23). “You will not have the glory on this journey” (Judg. 4:9). However, since God works these good works in us, but not without us in that which we do when God empowers us, and since it is also our repentance, our faith, and our obedience that we perform, God even wants to freely give us some praise and reward for them. For the Apostle testifies touching the Jew in spirit that “his praise does not come from man but from God” (Rom. 2:29).
14. What should we do, then, when others praise our spiritual gifts and good works?
We should not allow such praise readily nor let it tickle our pride. For what appears good before others is sometimes quite evil and always quite defective before God. Besides, the devil is extremely cunning. If he cannot bring man to such a gross extreme that he would glory in himself for his virtues, he tries to bring him to take a great pleasure in hearing the praise of others. Consequently, the Christian must be prudent and take care to arm himself against the wiles of Satan. Instead, when other men praise us, we should be concerned because our own heart testifies that the things on which they base their praises are either not at all found in us or are sullied with so many imperfections that anything praiseworthy in them is obscured. And that should cause us to humble ourselves, to feel that we are still so far from those good qualities that others imagine that they see in us by a judgment of charity. Above all things, we should be on guard against exercising our virtues in order to be praised by others. If our heart appears so purified by faith, if virtue shines in us with so much brightness, that everyone sees it and notices it, this must be the consequence of our actions and not the goal that we set for ourselves. Otherwise, we have not denied ourselves and our own views nearly enough. At least, whatever others think and say about us, we should in imitation of the Apostle, we should consider ourselves to be “the greatest of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15) and among the “least of all the saints” (Eph. 3:8).
15. But can everyone really say in truth that he is the worst sinner, since not everyone can be the worst?
The Apostle prescribes the following rule of humility that true Christians must exercise among themselves, namely, that “everyone must esteem the other more excellent than himself” (Phil. 2:3). There is good reason for that rule, for one must not judge by conjecture but by knowledge. Thus, each Christian knows himself as a poor, miserable sinner, but he only know the disposition of others by conjecture. He also knows how corrupt his own heart is and how defective his sadness over sin and repentance is, but he cannot know this about others because he cannot know their heart. That’s why by a principle of charity he judges them to better than himself. Finally, we should think with good reason that many people, if they were in our place, would perhaps acquit themselves much better of their duties than we do. On the other side, we, if we were in their place and had their temptation would perhaps do much less in some situations in which others perform their duty reasonably well. Consequently, in all these respects, there is no evil or sin in which a man, who may be better before God than many others, should not consider himself a greater sinner than everyone else.