17 June, 2017

“The Organic Idea in Scripture”

Herman Hoeksema (1886-1965)

[Source: Believers and their Seed: Children in the Covenant (RFPA, 1997), chapter 9, pp. 116-123.]

God’s people in this world are pictured to us in nature as a plant, of which some of the branches bear fruit and others do not. You are acquainted with such plants. Think, for example, of our well-known tomato plant. You have there an organism, growing out of one root. The entire organism is called by the name of the fruit-bearing plant. As such it is fertilized; as such it receives rain and sunshine. But when presently the organism of that plant has developed, then you discover that there are nevertheless two kinds of branches shooting forth on that one plant. There are fruit-bearing branches; but there, between them, you also find suckers, which indeed draw their life-sap out of the plant, but which never bear any fruit. Such shoots and suckers are then also cut out, in order that the good branches may bear more fruit. Thus it is with many plants. Thus it is also, for example with the cucumber or with the grapevine.

And in this you have the scriptural figure of the people of God as they exist in this world. God forms His covenant people in the line of believers and their seed. As such they manifest the figure of such an organic whole. He, then, who would refuse to call that people by the name of the people of God, he who would refuse to address them as God’s people, he would refuse to assure them as God’s people of the riches of God’s promises in Christ, he who would refuse  to point them as God’s people to their calling as those who are of the party of the living God in the midst of the world, but who would rather treat them as a mixed multitude, without any spiritual character or stamp—that man would surely err sorely. Yet on the other hand, he who would think that he may presuppose that there are absolutely no unregenerate and reprobate individuals among that people, and who therefore would refuse to proclaim woe as well as weal to them if they do not walk in the paths of God’s covenant—that man would err just as sorely. No, that entire people must be addressed, treated, comforted, and admonished as the Israel of God. And yet, at the same time, you may never forget that not all is Israel that is called Israel [Rom. 9:6]. There are branches which never bear fruit, which bring forth wild fruit, and which are presently cut off.

This conception of God’s covenant people as it develops in the world in the line of generations, as believers with their seed, is everywhere supported by Holy Writ.

You find it already in the word which the Lord addresses to Abraham. “I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.” It is very plain from history, and especially from Romans 9, that not all the seed of Abraham, but only the spiritual seed are actually children of the promise. Yet Scripture makes no distinction in this word to Abraham, but all the seed of the father of believers are here called according to the spiritual kernel. Thus you find it also in the eightieth Psalm. There the poet complains:

Thou has brought a vine out of Egypt: thou hast cast out the heathen, and planted it. Thou preparedst room before it, and didst cause it to take deep root, and it filled the land. The hills were covered with the shadow of it, and the boughs thereof were like the goodly cedars. She sent out her boughs unto the sea, and her branches unto the river. Why hast thou then broken down her hedges, so that all they which pass by the way do pluck her? The boar out of the wood doth waste it, and the wild beast of the field doth devour it. Return, we beseech thee, O God of hosts: look down from heaven, and behold, and visit this vine; And the vineyard which thy right hand hath planted, and the branch that thou madest strong for thyself. It is burned with fire, it is cut down: they perish at the rebuke of thy countenance (vv. 8-16).

Also here the people are conceived of as one organism. It is the object of the infinite love of God. God has delivered it and transplanted it from Egypt to the promised land. He has blessed it and made it great. And yet that people is also the object of God’s wrath and complains about the destruction which God Himself has wrought in their midst. The vine of that people is plucked by “all them which pass by the way.” It is devoured. It is rooted up by wild swine. It is burned with fire and cut down. And yet it is plain that that vine is still there, and that presently the tender mercies of the heavenly Husbandman will be spread abroad over it.

All of this can only be understood if we cling to the organic idea, an idea which is also implied in the very figure of the vine. It is one vine. And that vine is, according to its proper essence, or core, the object of God’s grace and favor. But that same vine is, from the viewpoint of the branches which bring forth no fruit or which bring forth wild fruit, corrupt fruit, the object of God’s fierce anger and wrath. That vine, then, is also saved; but some branches are pruned out.

Isaiah 5:1-7

The same phenomenon is found in Isaiah 5:1-7:

Now will I sing to my well-beloved a song of my beloved touching his vineyard. My well-beloved hath a vineyard in a very fruitful hill: And he fenced it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the midst of it, and also made a winepress therein: and he looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes. And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem, and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, betwixt me and my vineyard. What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it? wherefore [why then], when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes? And now go to; I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard: I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up; and break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down: And I will lay it waste: it shall not be pruned, nor digged; but there shall come up briers and thorns: I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: and he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry.

If you do not hold fast to the organic presentation which you find throughout Scripture, you have here in this one passage a firm basis for all the errors of Arminianism. You have here then, first of all, a clear proof for the assertion that grace is resistible and that it is in last instance dependent upon the free will of those to whom it is offered. God says here that He has done all that He could do to His vineyard. There is nothing more to be done. But His grace is simply rejected by the free will of men. You have here then the presentation that God is disappointed in His own work. He expected good fruits; wild grapes are brought forth. You have here the presentation that God’s people fall away, and that God Himself is changeable. For the same people which He once loved He will reject and destroy. In a word, you have here then all the dreadful errors of Arminianism together. And do not say now that here we have the one line and that the other line is that of eternal election and irresistible grace. For those two lines are simply mutually exclusive. To wish to maintain both is impossible. That is the juggling which the Christian Reformed Church attempts.

But if you hold fast to the organic idea, then all the difficulties disappear. Then you have here the one people which is nevertheless twofold; one vineyard which nevertheless brings forth a twofold fruit. From the viewpoint of its good kernel, that vineyard is the object of God’s favor. For the sake of that good kernel the Lord cultivates that vineyard. He does all that there is to be done to a vineyard. Thus the Lord did with Israel. Therefore He also expected good fruits. Nor was He disappointed in that expectation by that good kernel. But at the same time there grew in that vineyard a great many bad branches, which grew so luxuriantly that it sometimes appeared as though there was nothing good in the entire vineyard. Thus it was in the time of Isaiah. From that viewpoint now—not from the viewpoint of that good and elect kernel, but from the viewpoint of that reprobate element—the vineyard is here addressed. Also that evil element in Israel, along with the good kernel, was cultivated. In the outward sense of the word they had together received the same labor. They had the same sign of the covenant; they were in the same manner delivered from Egypt; they had the same giving of the law, the same fathers, the same covenants. They had the same temple, the same altars, the same offerings. They dwelt in the same land and they enjoyed the same benefits of the land. The same prophets were sent unto them, and the same word was directed to them. And all these things caused the same outcome to be expected: the bringing forth of good fruits of righteousness. But that reprobate element in Israel brought forth the wild grapes of unrighteousness. Therefore the Lord shall presently destroy and curse His vineyard, considered now from this viewpoint.

But when all this has happened, has God then cast away His people? Indeed, you know better. God never casts away His people. The vineyard may be pruned and sometimes apparently wholly destroyed; the remnant according to the election of grace is always preserved. And the Lord receives the expected fruit from His own work.

John 15:1-2

Nor do you find it to be different with the presentation of Holy Writ in the New Testament. You find this presentation in John 15:1-2:

I am the true vine, and my father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.

Surely, there is a broader view of the passage possible. Yet there can be no doubt that the Savior here has in view His people as it exists in the world and manifests itself outwardly. And how will you escape Arminianism, if, when reading these words, you do not hold fast to the organic idea, if you do not constantly apply to God’s covenant people the proper figure of the vine and the branches as it actually manifests itself to you in nature? Are there then living and good branches in Christ which shall nevertheless be cut off presently? Are there then those who were once ingrafted into Christ by a true faith and who nevertheless shall be rejected because they did not bear fruit in Christ? You do not get one step farther away from Arminianism by clinging to the idea that the covenant is according to its essence nothing else than a promise, and that it now depends upon those who are born and raised in the covenant historically to appropriate that promise. After all, that entire presentation is, in the first place, itself Arminian. But, in the second place, along this line you do not explain the fact that there are branches in Christ, the vine, which are cut off and cast into the fire. But that is precisely what  you find in the natural vine. You have branches there which are indeed in the vine, which also draw their life-sap out of the vine, and which nevertheless bear no fruit. Now thus you find the situation also with God’s people in the world. It is one organism. But in that one organism you always have the good kernel and the rejected shell.

In what sense also those covenant children which never bear fruit are nevertheless in the organism of the body of Christ here on earth and therefore may be called branches in the vine? and what influence proceeds from the organism upon the non-fruit-bearing members? These are questions for later consideration. For the moment, let it be sufficient to remind you that Scripture indeed makes proper mention of such an influence, and that the children of the kingdom who are cast out are not to be placed on the one line with the heathen. But the fact is that only thus can you understand the Lord’s figure of the vine and its twofold branches. There are in the one organism branches which bear fruit and branches which bear no fruit. Thus there are in the one people of God also Israelites according to the flesh and Israelites according to the Spirit and of the promise.

Romans 11:17-21

Scripture offers the same presentation in Romans 11:17-21:

And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert grafted in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree; Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee. Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be grafted in. Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spared not thee.

Also here you have the same presentation. The olive tree is the people of God’s covenant, the church. From a natural point of view that olive tree was Israel of the old dispensation as a nation. Israel was the historical manifestation of that covenant people in Old Testament times. From that point of view the apostle here calls the Israelites even the natural branches of that olive tree. But in that olive tree not all is genuine and fruit-bearing. There were also in that tree branches which never bore fruit. Therefore God cut off those natural branches which were not spiritual, fruit-bearing branches. The tree indeed remained. The root was never rooted out. For God cares for His church. And out of all nations there are now ingrafted in the tree others in the places where other and natural branches were cut off. But also thus there always remain branches in that tree which are nevertheless again cut off. From thence arises the very appropriate admonition not to boast, understanding well that since God spared not the natural branches, He also could indeed not spare us.

That this is so finds reason in this, that it has pleased God to have His covenant upon earth run in the line of fleshly generations, while there are nevertheless those among the children of believers who were not elected. Surely, there are also other reasons, but in this lies the chief cause. If God had seen to it that only the elect were members of the church on earth, this figure of God’s people in the world would not have been possible, could not have been used. But now God, according to His own purpose, takes up into His covenant according to its outward form all the fleshly children, while nevertheless only a remnant is saved. From thence arises this duality in that unity.

From this same viewpoint also, the kingdom of heaven on earth is likened unto a net which is cast into the sea and which gathers all kinds of fish, according to our Savior’s parable. That net cannot be a figure of the preaching of the Word. That preaching just exactly does not gather all who come into contact with it; on the contrary, the preaching makes separation, and it makes more separation according as the Word is more purely proclaimed. But this is indeed the case with the historical development of God’s covenant in the line of successive generations. Such a net was not only cast into the sea, but was drawn through the sea, made a path through the sea. Naturally, then, everything that was in the path of that net was also gathered in the net. Thus it is also with God’s covenant. And just as there are bad and good fishes that come into the net, just as it is unavoidable with that manner of fishing that good and evil fishes are gathered, so it is also unavoidable that when the Lord lets His covenant run in the line of successive generations while not all in those generations head for head, are elect children of the covenant—it is unavoidable that a reprobate element is gathered along with the elect kernel. Presently, at the shore of eternity, the angels will separate those two elements finally and forever. But here on earth they are found together in the same sphere; and they have everything in common, except grace.

Thus, finally, we also understand the fact that the apostles repeatedly address the congregations as the church of Christ. A congregation may appear to be ever so bad but the apostle Paul addresses it as the church of Christ, as beloved in the Lord, as brethren in Him. That congregation may be divided by party-strife; it may be guilty of drunkenness and adultery; it may even deny or doubt the truth of the resurrection of the dead; it continues to be the church of Christ to which the apostle writes. It may even be necessary at the end of his epistle for the apostle to pen the dreadful words, “If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema Maranatha.” Yet he writes to that congregation as the one organism of the body of Christ. Thus we can also understand the letters which the Lord Himself addresses to the seven churches of Asia Minor through the apostle John. Those congregations are praised and are reproved; they are comforted and encouraged with various promises, but also threatened with various punishments and judgments; but it is always one and the same congregation, and as such it is repeatedly addressed. Even in the case of the very congregation which is threatened by the Lord that He will spew her out of His mouth, He nevertheless stands at the door, and knocks, so that they may hear His voice and He may sup with them. One congregation, with the same name, the same labor bestowed, the same covenant, the same calling of God in the world; but in that one congregation always and again the elect kernel, which can never go lost, in the reprobate shell.

If we have understood this truth somewhat, then otherwise remains a riddle to us in Holy Scripture or with which we would tend to go in an Arminian or Pelagian direction will also be much clearer to us.

Thus, in recent times, appeal has been made once again to Psalm 81 in defense of a general grace of God in the preaching of the gospel. Alas, in recent times in the Christian Reformed Church appeal is made more and more to texts which also the old Remonstrants quoted in order to prove their Christus pro omnibus (Christ for all), their doctrine of general grace. This lies, indeed, in the nature of the case. In order to be able to maintain a theory of common grace, they have declared that the preaching of the gospel is grace for all who hear it. It is but human that when this proposition is contested by us, they exert themselves to the utmost in order nevertheless to find proof for it in Scripture. And thus it comes about that they appeal to Psalm 81. After all, it is clear—thus they reason—that God meant it so well, that He indeed intended to be gracious, to the very people whom He has given over to their own hearts’ lust. He laments about it. He cries out, “Oh that my people had hearkened unto me, and Israel had walked in my ways!” Don’t you see—thus they cry almost triumphantly—that God was well-meaning toward Israel, toward reprobate and ungodly Israel, and that therefore there is a well-meant offer of grace to all? And if then you point out that in this way they make God’s Word speak Arminian language, then they quickly add that this is the one line of God’s Word, while the other is that of sovereign election and sovereign grace. And if then you insist that those two completely exclude one another, that God cannot well-meaningly offer what He never intends to bestow, then they boldly try to get away with the argument-silencer that this is a mystery and that we must not even want to understand those things.

But this is playing with Scripture and with the Reformed truth. In this way one is Reformed according to a dead confession, but in actual fact a thoroughbred Arminian. In this fashion we may as well abandon every attempt to understand Scripture. Following this course, we can make Scripture say anything whatsoever, under the pious motto that “the hidden things are for the Lord our God.”

But we surely may not deal thus with Scripture. We have indeed the calling to contemplate and study the Word of our God until we understand it. And although we gladly concede that there are mysteries, things which for our finite understanding are never to be fathomed, because our God is unfathomable, yet we maintain that in Scripture we have a revelation of God which is adapted to our thinking and our understanding, and which we indeed can understand. We maintain that this Scripture does not teach and cannot teach that black is also white, that God will not bestow but also will bestow grace on the same persons, that He offers what He does not will to bestow. Scripture is not both Reformed and Arminian.

And thus it is also with Psalm 81. If only we keep in mind the organic unity of the people of God in the midst of the world, then every problem with this passage disappears. Then you can compare God’s people on earth with the individual believer. He is one person, a child of God, called by God’s name, baptized in His name. But there is also still in him the operation of sin; he still carries about with him the body of this death. If now he acts in harmony with that old nature and walks for a time in the paths of sin, and the Lord chastises him and leads him in ways of adversity and suffering, then it appears as though God is angry with him, and it appears as though God rejects His own elect child. And this is true, too, if only it be properly understood. For also then the Lord does not reject His elect child, but gives him over as he exists historically, in order to save that child. Thus it is also with Israel in the old dispensation. That people is one. It has one name. It is called “My people.” Thus the Lord also addresses that people: “Hear, O my people, and I will testify unto thee” (v. 8). To that people He said: “There shall no strange god be in thee; neither shalt thou worship any strange god. I am the Lord thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt: open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it” (vv. 9-10). But that one people consisted of an elect kernel and a reprobate shell. Besides, the sinful nature of that reprobate shell penetrated even into the elect kernel: for also the spiritual children of the promise were not perfect.

This is the reason why that people as a unity could sometimes apostatize as it did, and could make its ways more abominable than the ways of the heathen. And if then that people revealed itself under the domination of that wicked shell, then the Lord said of that people: “But my people would not hearken to my voice; and Israel would none of me” (v. 11). And then the Lord gave that people over, according to its wicked and reprobate shell, unto the lusts of their own hearts. But that never changed the fact that hidden in that people was always the real people of the promise, the elect kernel toward which the heart of Israel’s God went out in love. And if then the enemies subjugated that people, and Israel was given over into captivity, then God lamented over His people: “Oh that my people had hearkened unto me, and that Israel had walked in my ways!” And not only did the Lord lament thus, but thus it also came about again: for the remnant according to the election of grace was always preserved. This presentation is surely in harmony with Scripture in general; it is in accord with Israel’s history; and it is free from all Arminianism.

Thus, to mention but one more passage, what God says to Isaiah at the time of his calling to be a prophet in Israel also becomes clear. In connection with this we read in Isaiah 6:9-13:

And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert and be healed. Then said I, Lord, how long? And he answered, Until the cities be wasted without inhabitant, and the houses without man, and the land be utterly desolate, and the Lord have removed men far away, and there be a great forsaking in the midst of the land. But yet in it shall be a tenth, and it shall return, and shall be eaten: as a teil tree, and as an oak, whose substance is in them, when they cast their leaves: so the holy seed shall be the substance thereof.

Those who want to see in the preaching of the gospel a well-meant offer of grace to all who hear certainly do not know what to do with this passage of Scripture, no more than with the similar word of the Savior, which is put still more sharply in Mark 4:8-12. If they will be honest, they will have to admit that they do not hold to the line of Scripture which is here presented, but reject it altogether. Notice that the subject here is precisely the preaching of Isaiah, his calling as prophet. And he is told from the outset that he must serve as prophet in order to make the heart of this people fat, and to make their ears heavy, and to shut their eyes, lest they convert and be healed. And when the prophet almost afraid of such a calling, asks, “How long must this continue, Lord?” he receives the answer that this must continue until all is destroyed. Only he has the promise of a remnant, a remnant which in turn shall also be eaten away, but of which the holy seed shall be the substance. In other words, the real object here is that remnant and that holy seed. But precisely for the sake of the salvation of that holy seed the preaching of Isaiah must serve for the blinding and hardening of the reprobate shell.

If now you keep in mind the organic idea, then you will understand this very well. There come times in Israel’s history when the ungodly segment of the nation gets the power and has the upper hand; times when it becomes well-nigh impossible for the elect kernel to exist in the midst of that reprobate shell. In such times judgment must come upon Israel: Israel must be eaten away, precisely in order to save it from the domination of the ungodly. However, if this is to happen, if a portion of that reprobate shell is to all away, then it must first become ripe for judgment. And Isaiah’s preaching must service exactly to accomplish that ripeness of the reprobate shell. Then presently the tenth part shall be preserved, and the remnant, of which the holy seed shall be the substance.

With this organic conception of God’s covenant people in the line of generations we are in a strong position, we have a scriptural-Reformed point of view. Then we stand strong over against the Baptist position, which exactly does not see and know that organic idea, and therefore also holds that baptism may only be administered to persons who are themselves able to confess that they belong to Christ. Then we also stand strong over against Arminianism, also over against that form of Arminianism which wants to view the preaching to the congregation as a well-meant offer of grace. Instead of this, the matter stands thus, that labor is bestowed upon the entire congregation, that to the entire congregation Christ is proclaimed, and the promises of God in Him, that the entire congregation is exhorted to walk in the ways of the Lord and as friends of God in the midst of the world, but that all this is never grace, cannot be grace, and cannot be intended as grace by the Lord, except for the elect kernel, after which the entire congregation is named, while the other branches are cut off. Also in the congregation the preaching is a savour of life unto life, but also a savour of death unto death.

With this conception we stand strong, too, over against those who want to teach a presupposed regeneration of all the children of the covenant. For that idea we exactly do not teach. Nor can such a presupposition ever be maintained in the light of Scripture and in the light of reality. No, we understand that there is also carnal seed which nevertheless comes under the very same labor as is bestowed upon the entire congregation, and that, too, according to the will of God. What God’s purpose is with this carnal seed in the church, and what influence is exercised upon that carnal seed because of their affinity with the congregation, this we shall see later. And thus it will also be clear that it is exactly not our view that all in the visible church, head for head, are elect, and that there is also room in the preaching to the congregation, according to our conviction, for the proclamation of an everlasting woe for those who will not walk according to the rule of God’s covenant.

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