16 November, 2016

Common Grace’s Destruction of the Antithesis

Prof. Barry Gritters

[Source: Uncommon Grace]

What the Antithesis is

God calls His people to live in opposition to the world. They are called to say “Yes” to everything of God, and to say “No” to everything of the world. They are called to live in spiritual separation from worldliness. This is the antithesis.

When the Reformed believer maintains the antithesis, it does not mean that he wants to be an Anabaptist, fleeing from the world, taking no part in the life of this world. He does not go, as the Dutch used to say, mocking, “met e'n bookje in e'n hoekje” (“with a little book in a corner”). He lives in the world and takes part in all the activities of labour and government and society. The antithesis means that he has nothing in common with the world spiritually, that he is called to “come out from among them” and be separate.

The reason it is his calling to live the antithesis is that Christians are a different people. The life of the regenerated child of God in the world has its source in the new life of Christ and is directed by the power of God’s grace in Christ. It is a living and walking in the Holy Spirit. It is exactly the struggle of the child of God, day in and day out, to live, to think, to will, to feel, to speak, and to act out of Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. The life of the unregenerated unbeliever, in contrast, has its source in the flesh, that is, in depraved human nature, and is directed by the power of sin. It is a living and walking in sin. Therefore the life of the believer and the unbeliever are in opposition.

The antithesis must show itself, and show itself in all of life. First, the life of the believer is subject to the Word of God, whereas the unbeliever’s life is independent of the Word and in rebellion against it. Second, the goal of life is different. The believer directs his life toward God. His life is God-centred; the goal: God’s glory. The unbeliever leaves God out; his life is man-centred.

Proof that the Antithesis is Reformed

Confessional proof is not as explicit as [other] fundamentals of the Reformed faith. But this does not mean that the antithesis is not a biblical and Reformed idea. Although the concept was developed more clearly by our Reformed fathers in the 19th century, it certainly is confessional. The Heidelberg Catechism says that “the Son of God gathers ... out of the whole human race, a church chosen to everlasting life” (A. 54). The Belgic Confession brings out the idea of the antithesis when, explaining the doctrine of baptism and taking the cue from the significance of circumcision, it says that by the sacrament of baptism “we are received into the Church of God, and separated from all other people and strange religions, that we may wholly belong to him, whose ensign and banner we bear ...” (34). The sacrament of baptism, then, is a great banner which proclaims to the world, “Antithesis!”

There is biblical proof. The nation of Israel was a prime example of the antithesis. They were a separate people, called not to mix with the nations around them, punished every time they intermarried and mingled with them. Time and again God called them to be a separate people. This comes out in the New Testament, generally, when God’s people are called “foreigners, pilgrims, strangers” in the world; and specifically in II Corinthians 6, “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial?” And in James 4:4, “Know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God?”

Recent history shows that the antithesis is a Reformed concept. The book by James Bratt, Dutch Calvinism in America, points out that the early Reformed settlers in America desired to maintain the antithesis in their life here. Their attempts went to extremes, even to the extreme claim that the preservation of their mother tonguethe Dutch languagewould bolster their antithetical life. But it points out that God’s people were concerned about being a separate people, spiritually, about living the antithesis.

That the antithesis is our Reformed heritage was brought out clearly in the warning that the Christian Reformed Church’s synod gave to the churches in the decision of common grace in 1924. 

If we observe the spiritual tendencies of the present time, we cannot deny that there exists much more danger of world conformity than of world flight. The liberal theology of the present time actually wishes to eradicate the boundary between the church and the world ... The idea of a spiritual-moral antithesis is weakening in large measure in the consciousness of many, and gives way to a vague feeling of general brotherhood ... The doctrine of special grace in Christ is more and more driven to the background ... Through the press and through all sorts of inventions and discoveries, that in themselves should be valued as gifts of God, a great part of the sinful world is intruding into our Christian homes. Against all these and more pernicious influences, which press upon us from all sides, there is a crying necessity that the church mount a guard on principle; that she ... also fight tooth and nail for the spiritual-moral antithesis ... Without ceasing may she hold fast to the principle that God’s people is a special people, living from its own root, the root of faith ... And with holy seriousness may she call ... her people and especially her youth not to be conformed to the world (Bratt, p. 115; CRC Acta der Synode, 1924, pp. 146-147).

Common Grace’s Undermining of the Antithesis

The doctrine of common grace undermines the antithesis in two ways, first, in that it teaches a love and favour of God toward all men in common. If it is true that God has a favour towards all men, that God loves all men, that God is friend of all men, even those whom He wills to send to hell, even those who are fighting tooth and nail against His kingdom (and they all are!), there is no reason that the child of God should not be friends with the world. In fact, given the doctrine of common grace, there is good warrant to call God’s people to be friends with unbelievers, to fellowship with worldly men and women.

Second, common grace teaches that unbelievers are involved in works in this world with which God is pleased. If God gives unbelievers an ability to work a work that pleases Him, as a fruit of His grace (even though it is not “special grace”), the logical conclusion is that, in all endeavours, the believer is able to work side by side with the unbeliever in those endeavoursin the work of a labour union, the work of social matters, the work of politics, even in the education of their children. But according to the biblical truth of the antithesis, this is impossible because the goals of each are different.

Common grace undermines the truth that there is that “spiritual-moral antithesis” between believers and unbelievers, and denies that there is no common ground between Christ and Belial, between righteousness and unrighteousness. Common grace implies, if it does not teach, that God’s people are no longer called to come out from them, but to go in among them.

Historically, the antithesis has been rejected on the basis of common grace.

In his book Dutch Calvinism, James Bratt says that “over against the antithesis, the Journal raised the idea of common grace ...” (p. 101).

Henry R. Van Til, himself a proponent of common grace, in his book The Calvinist Concept of Culture (Baker, 1959), warns against what he would call “abusing” the doctrine of common grace. He speaks of 

a certain level of existence at which the army of the Lord is immobilized, where it does not function as an army, but suddenly takes on the appearance of crowds of vacationers, or the motley multitude at a fair and pushing one another for a better position to see. Thus there is established between the church and the world a grey, colourless area, a kind of no-man's land, where an armistice obtains and one can hobnob with the enemy with impunity in a relaxed Christmas spirit, smoking the common weed.

A CRC synodical declaration already in 1928 says, 

The question arises, what basis of fellowship there can be between the child of God and the man of this world. What have they in common which makes a degree of communion possible and legitimate? ... The solution is found in the doctrine of common grace ... The basis of our fellowship with unbelievers should be ... the grace, common, which they have in common with us.

Note that common grace is “The basis of our fellowship with unbelievers.”

And in an issue of The Banner (December 12, 1988), an issue devoted almost entirely to the question of the antithesis, there is a subtle mockery of the historical teaching of the antithesis. The Reformed believer grieves over the ridicule of the faith of our fathers, the faith of Holy Scripture. The Reformed believer prays that God will show His people the truth because, in the generations to come there will be no calling to live in spiritual separation from the world.

Let there be made an appeal to the experience of Reformed Christians. How often is it heard that the children of God must be a separate people? How often is reference made to II Corinthians 6? When is it heard that friendship with the world is enmity against God? If this is lacking, one explanation may be that the doctrine of common grace is alive and working, and that the common grace of the “three points” and the antithesis are at odds.

Our defence of the antithesis is to deny common grace, is to deny that there is a favour of God common to all men, to deny that there is a common life that we share because of common grace, and to deny therefore that we are to have fellowship with the world. This is the practical aspect of the doctrine of common grace.

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