In the initial article on the subject of the antithesis, we defined it as the sharp and absolute spiritual distinction between between sin and grace, light and darkness, truth and lie, elect and reprobate, God and Satan, Christ and antichrist, believers and unbelievers. We emphasized that it is a spiritual principle, and that its scope encompasses the whole of the Christian life. In the light of James 4:4, we further described it in terms of friendship and enmity.
Without in any way weakening or watering down the fact that the antithesis is a spiritual principle, we must acknowledge that such a principle is abstract. You cannot see a principle or an attitude, and friendship and enmity are concepts. This does not change the fact that the antithesis is real, and that it definitely comes to concrete manifestation. Thus the question may legitimately be asked, If you look for the antithesis, where would you find it?
Most of you would probably answer instantly, between the church and the world. And you would be correct. This distinction between light and darkness is clear, obvious, and easily understandable, to say nothing of biblical.
But if you search a little more persistently, you will find the antithesis also in the church. This may be surprising at first. Does not the church stand for the thesis, for the cause and truth and kingdom of God? Is not the church supposed to be comprised of the redeemed who are saints, sanctified and holy? How then can there be antithesis within the church? These questions demand answers, and if you search the Scriptures, you will find that there is indeed antithesis within the church. In fact, the antithesis comes to its sharpest and clearest manifestation in the church. By many this truth is little understood and unpopular; it causes many problems and is the subject of debate. Often it is denied and rejected. Nevertheless, it is the truth, and Scripture teaches it in many places, perhaps no more clearly than in Romans 9, especially verses 6–8: “Not as though the word of God had taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel: Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, In Isaac shall thy seed be called. That is, they which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.”
In Romans 9 Paul is dealing with the problem of God’s rejection of Israel as his chosen people. The problem he faces is that even in the very early years of the New Testament it was clear that a twofold rejection was taking place. On the one hand, the Jews were rejecting God. All throughout the Old Testament they had been the chosen people of God, to whom the word of God came (Rom. 9:6); they alone were the children of the promise (v. 8). But when God in the fullness of time fulfilled his promises in Christ, they rejected him. They took the position that they were saved not by Christ’s atonement, but because they were the natural sons of Abraham. On the other hand, God rejected the Jews in the way of their unbelief, and sent the gospel to the Gentiles, as he was busy doing through Paul and the other apostles at the very time that Paul writes these words.
This situation is a problem for Paul. As a Jew, he was sorrowful to see his people cut off from the only way of salvation in Christ (v. 3). It was also a problem for the church to which Paul writes. How is the apostle to account for what is clearly the state of affairs?
Paul answers that the solution is the truth of the antithesis within the church. He does so by means of three negative statements.
First, not all are Israel that are of Israel (v. 6). All the Jews are of Israel; they belong to the nation in a natural, biological sense, in that they are all descended from Abraham; they belong to the sphere of the covenant, and are outwardly the covenant people of Jehovah. Because they were of Israel, they were complacent and self-righteous in their obedience to the law. Salvation for them was automatic. But not all the Jews are Israel. That is, not all belong really and truly to Israel in the inward, spiritual sense. The line of the antithesis runs directly through the church of the Old Testament.
Second, not all who are seed are children (v. 7). All are the seed of Abraham in a general, natural sense. There was no apparent difference within the nation of Israel, for all belonged to the chosen people of God. Yet not all are the children of Abraham in the true, spiritual sense. The sword of the antithesis cuts right through the church: all who are seed are not children.
Third, the children of the flesh are not the children of God (v. 8). The children of Abraham and Isaac by virtue of natural descent are not truly the children of God, nor of Abraham and Isaac, for that matter. The thesis in the outward, formal sense—membership in Israel and the seed of Abraham, and participation in the promises of God—does not necessarily mean salvation. Some who are the seed of Abraham are children according to the flesh only and do not belong to the Israel of God. The sharp line of the antithesis runs straight through the church both of the old and of the new testaments. Only some—the true Israel, the children of the promise, the offspring of Isaac—are the church of Christ.
The reason is not that the word of God had had no effect (v. 6). That some are saved and some are not is not because the word has fallen by the wayside and gotten lost, so that God did not fulfill his promises due to the powerlessness of his word. Rather, by stating the matter negatively and by placing this statement first in his line of reasoning, Paul insists that the word does have an effect. Whatever else may be true, the fault does not lie with the word of God. The effectiveness of the word is exactly the reason for the antithesis in the church. When hearing the command of the gospel, some obey and believe unto eternal life, while others do not.
The reason is to be found in the truth of sovereign, divine, double predestination.
From the positive viewpoint of the thesis, the reason is God’s word of election. It is a word spoken from eternity in Christ, the elect Son of God. It is a word spoken always and only to his people. It is the word that he spoke to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is the word that he always speaks to the church, the sovereign word of his electing love. And it is a powerful word that always has its effect because it is God’s word. Because God speaks his irresistible word of election, his people are true Israel, the seed of Isaac, and the children of God and of his promise.
From the negative viewpoint of the antithesis, the reason is God’s word of reprobation. Some are chosen and called according to election, while others are not. This is Paul’s clear teaching. Isaac was chosen and called, and he only. Other children of Abraham, including Ishmael, were not. Not even all who are the seed of Isaac are chosen, as the apostle teaches beginning in verse 10: Jacob was elect, while Esau was reprobate. This twofold line of election and reprobation runs through the church in all of its history, from the moment of the fall until the last moment of time. The same word that speaks salvation to the elect and called seed speaks the word of death and condemnation to those who are not seed. Thus the deepest reason and ground for the antithesis within the church is nothing else than the eternal and sovereign counsel of God.
The clash between the thesis and the antithesis is sharpest in the sphere of the church. The reason is that it is in the church that the effective word of God works primarily. Surely it also works in the world as it is preached and as it saves and condemns; therefore the antithesis is between the church and the world. But the word is first and foremost in the church, and in the church it works in such a way that it makes manifest the antithesis. It does this because the word is itself a double-edged sword, the power of life to those who believe and the power of death to those who do not.
In this truth of the antithesis in the church there is assurance. Certainly not for those who as the children of the flesh are of Israel; for them there is only the word of condemnation. But for those who as the children of the promise are true Israel, there are answers to questions. And questions there are. How are we to account for apparently covenant children who simply reject the word of promise when they come to maturity? How do we account for those who “go bad,” opposing the truth of God? How do we account for those who compromise the word, oppose its hard but clear teachings, and leave the church and the true preaching of the antithetical word of promise in favor of some sort of easy salvationism?
This is the reality; it happens. This struck me recently when I looked at my 1964 yearbook from Adams Protestant Reformed Christian School. Eighteen of us graduated from 9th grade that year. Today three are dead. Three are still members of the Protestant Reformed Churches. The rest are gone, who knows where.
Young people, look around you at your school classes, your congregations, your catechism classes, and at those with whom you socialize. Where will your friends and neighbors be in ten, twenty, or more years? More to the point, where will you be? I know that as young folks you tend to live in the moment. But pause for a moment and think about the truth of the antithesis and how it will work out in your lives in the years to come. We cannot know the details, nor should we make unfounded personal judgments regarding individuals. But we know that there will be division and separation. When it happens, we ought not to be surprised, for such is the clear teaching of the Scriptures.
Rather, the truth of the antithesis in the church ought to be for us an incentive to make our calling and election sure, standing for the thesis and striving to be faithful to the truth as we have been blessed to know and confess it. Then in the way of obedience and faithfulness to the word of promise we have the assurance of being partakers of that promise of salvation in Christ. That word is sure, for it is the word of Jehovah, our covenant God, whose word is always certain.