The Antithesis – Its Meaning

When was the last time you heard the word antithesis? How often do you hear it? If someone were to challenge you to write a brief definition of it, could you do it? Do you know its basic concepts?

These questions are directed toward all readers of Beacon Lights, but especially toward our young people, since this is a youth magazine. Besides, you young people often face the antithesis in ways that older folks do not, and that makes this subject even more important for you.

When I was a teenager in the 1960s, we heard the word frequently in the preaching. The word or its equivalent, world and life view, was part of our education, was stressed in catechism, and was an integral part of our thinking and conversation. It was a kind of “code word” that when used, instantly conjured up an entire concept in our minds. When someone used the word, everyone immediately understood the meaning. Perhaps this was because in those days we were much closer historically to the origin of our churches, which was directly related to a controversy concerning the antithesis, and more indirectly to the conditions controversy that came to a head in 1953. Perhaps there were other reasons as well.

In my experience, today the word is not heard nearly as frequently in any of the venues mentioned above. It is not my intention to attack anyone or to cause trouble by pointing the finger of blame at anyone; this would be unprofitable and unnecessary. Yet I do not apologize for being mildly critical regarding the diminishing use of the word and its meaning. I don’t really know why the situation has changed, but I think that it has. And I am sure that this lack of use is not a compliment to any of us. It is not beneficial to allow such a definitive and descriptive idea to fall into disuse.

This is true from two viewpoints. The first is that the antithesis is one of the cardinal doctrines of Scripture. It appears on virtually every page of the Bible. It has great practical application to our lives. In fact, it governs every aspect of our lives as Christians. For these reasons alone it behooves us to know and understand this truth. The second is that the antithesis is almost universally overlooked, compromised, or denied on an unprecedented scale. We as Protestant Reformed churches are among the few who still hold to this teaching. And since you, the youth of the church, are the next mature generation of the covenant, it falls to you to understand, maintain, and teach this truth to those who follow you.

To aid you in fulfilling this important responsibility, it is my intention to write a series of editorials on the antithesis. I will base my articles on some of the clearest expressions of Scripture regarding this subject, answering questions such as, What is the antithesis? Between whom is the antithesis? Where does it come from? Where will you find it? I will attempt to do this with specific application to you. What I write will surely not be the last word on the subject, but it should provide a basic understanding of this concept. As we move along, your comments and questions are welcome.

Foundational is an understanding of the meaning of the antithesis, and first must be a working definition. The antithesis is the sharp and absolute spiritual distinction between sin and grace, light and darkness, truth and lie, elect and reprobate, God and Satan, Christ and antichrist, believers and unbelievers.

The term antithesis is not a biblical term; nowhere will you find the word in Scripture. Rather, it is a theological term, a word used to describe concisely a biblical truth. It is like the word providence, which also does not appear in Scripture, but wonderfully describes the truth that God sovereignly upholds and governs all things for the salvation of his people and the glory of his name. The antithesis was a word used by our Reformed fathers to define an idea, and the concept was already well-developed by the time of the synod of Dordrecht in 1618–19.

The term has two parts. Positively, it is composed of the word thesis, which means something that stands or that is placed or set forth; it has the idea of taking a position. In this context, the thesis is God, his truth, his grace, his Christ, his kingdom, and his people. The other part of the word is the preposition anti, borrowed from the Greek, which in turn has a double meaning. Primarily it means “against,” but with the connotation of “instead of.” An anti-thesis is something that opposes the thesis by seeking to destroy it and take its place. This negation of the thesis is Satan, his lie, his sin, his antichrist, his kingdom, and his people. The antithesis says “no” to God’s “yes.”

It almost goes without saying that the thesis and the antithesis are oppositionally related. They cannot and do not co-exist peacefully. They do not exist side by side, so that they do not touch or affect each other. Rather, there is constant and unrelenting warfare between them. Yet the two are not dualistically related as equal but opposing forces. We must not think of their relation as if the outcome of the battle is in doubt.

Instead, the antithesis is subserviently related to the thesis. The antithesis, regardless of its motives and intentions, must despite itself serve the thesis. Sin must serve grace; antichrist must serve Christ; the lie must serve the truth; reprobation must serve election; faith must serve unbelief; and unbelievers must serve believers. Whether or not this relationship is always apparent is not the point. It is a fact that can easily be proven from Scripture.

The question may perhaps arise, Why do we not speak positively of the thesis rather than negatively of the antithesis? The answer is that the antithesis is a negative term with positive implications. When we speak of the antithesis, we mean exactly that we stand for the thesis and against the antithesis. This truth is called by its negative name for two reasons. First, because we live in the sin-cursed and wicked world, the antithesis is our predominant experience. On every side and in all aspects of life, to say nothing of our own sinful natures, we face sin and evil relentlessly and incessantly. Thus we think and speak in terms of black, not of white. Second, we speak of the antithesis because we are always inclined to say “no” to the thesis and “yes” to the antithesis due to our sinful natures. A comparison with the form of the Ten Commandments will clarify the point. Why are all but one of the commandments negatively expressed as “Thou shalt not…”? Exactly because it is our inclination to break them by doing precisely what we are forbidden to do.

The scope of the antithesis is twofold, encompassing the whole of our lives as Christians.

First, the antithesis concerns matters of doctrine, which govern matters of practical life. Doctrine (literally, “teaching”), is first and essential. It matters not what the subject of the teaching is; principles are always basic and fundamental. The Christian life flows from teachings. If our doctrine is biblically correct, our lives will reflect the antithesis; if we maintain the distinctives of the Reformed faith, our lives will be consistent with our faith. Conversely, if we ignore, compromise, or deny any aspect of the teachings, this will be evident in our lives.

Second, the antithesis concerns how we live in the world. It concerns how we show that we are children of the thesis and how we reject the antithesis. The principle of the antithesis governs who our friends are; it determines whom we marry (and do not divorce); it dictates our choice of employment; it tells us how we are to raise our covenant children; it rules our relationship with the brother and the neighbor; and it controls our attitude toward the world’s sports, entertainment, TV, online material, and much more (2 Cor. 6:14–18).

Considered against this background, the heart of the antithesis is that above all else, it is a spiritual principle. This can be seen from James 4:4, one of the clearest expressions of the antithesis: “Ye adulteresses [[adulterers does not appear in the original], know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.” this is blunt language, and the meaning is not difficult to understand. The world refers to the wicked, the evil who inhabit the earth as they are children of the devil; as well this includes all that characterizes the world—its sinful attitudes and actions, expressed in 1 John 2:16 as the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life. Friendship means communion, having something in common, being united with the world in heart, in thoughts, in will, in desires, in actions, in goals and purposes. Friendship is a covenantal idea; here it means to be in a relation of friendship with Satan and all that he represents—to enter into covenant with all that is evil. Enmity is the opposite of friendship. It means that you have nothing in common, no unity of any kind, no covenantal relation of friendship, but only hatred, which is the desire to destroy someone.

When we put these ideas together, there can be no mistaking the meaning of James. Not once but twice he says that the friendship of the world is enmity with God. He draws a sharp and absolute line. There are only two alternatives: black and white, with no gray area. The one equals the other. The friendship of the world—the antithesis—is enmity with God—the thesis. By implication, the opposite is also true: Friendship with God is enmity with the world.

Notice that the antithesis is not first a matter of actions or deeds. The antithesis does not mean that like the monks of the Middle Ages (and even still today) we go hide in a monastery to get away from the sinful world. It does not mean that like the Anabaptists—the Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterites—we retreat into isolated colonies and shun the world. And the antithesis is certainly not legalism—a list of do’s and don’ts that if obeyed will merit salvation. Surely the antithesis comes to manifestation in deeds and actions, but that is not its primary idea.

James does not speak in terms of doing anything, but in terms of being something. The antithesis asks, “Who are you? What are you? What is the basic and fundamental principle of your life? Are you a friend of God and the enemy of the world? Or are you friends with the world, so that God is your enemy? Who are you as to your heart, your will, your mind, your attitude? From what spiritual viewpoint do you see and judge all things?

This spiritual character of the antithesis places added emphasis on its importance. It is not just a matter of occasionally doing something right, or even doing what is right somewhat consistently. It is instead a matter of our essential character. It is from this spiritual viewpoint that James calls his readers adulteresses and then asks his question, “Don’t you know…?” His calling them adulteresses (in the spiritual sense) indicates that there was a problem either with their knowledge of the antithesis or with their living of it. This is the reason that he wonders if they know that they cannot be friends with the world and with God at the same time.

What the apostle says fits us also. We live in a world that is more developed in wickedness than that of his time; it is characterized even more by the coveting, lust, and envy of which he speaks in the context. The world with all that it represents is not some sort of theoretical abstraction that has little or no effect on us. It is all around us, touching every aspect of our daily lives. It is even present in the church, as is clear from the fact that James here addresses God’s people. And it is within us, for although we confess that we are redeemed Christians, because of our sinful natures we also are inclined to spiritual adultery. We are reluctant to teach and to live the spiritual principle of the absolute distinction between light and darkness. James makes this a universal truth when he says, “Whosoever wants to be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.”

This confronts us with a very serious question: What do we want? Do we want to be friends with the world? It is so tempting to be exactly that, is it not? To live in covenant with the world would make our lives easy, because we like to conform; no one wants to be different from the majority by insisting on believing in and living from the governing principle of the antithesis. But if we are friends with the world, then we are the enemies of God. This is the only alternative; there is no neutral possibility. Can you think of anything more awful than to be the enemy of the living God, the object of his implacable anger and wrath both in this life and in the life to come?

The question is, What then will you be spiritually, in doctrine and in life? Will you stand for the thesis with all that you are and in all that you do? The answer must be affirmative, because otherwise we are not the covenant friends of God. And by grace the answer is affirmative. Never in our own strength can we answer rightly or stand in covenant with the Lord, and if we try, we only fail and fall.

Stand, therefore, by the power of grace through faith, as children of the antithesis.