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The Gospel is our cause. Satan is our primary enemy. When I say this, I am not talking about national enemies, as when nations go to war with each other. And I know someone may call us an enemy and attack us. So Jesus can say, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44).

Yet the Bible consistently identifies the devil as the Christian’s primary enemy. In a prior article, I argued for this general principle. There, I pointed to Scripture which points back to the devil as the Christian’s enemy. Here, I want to return to this important affirmation to highlight how the neo-Calvinist notion of antithesis without the doctrine of common grace can lead one to misidentify the Christian’s true enemy.

Believers sometimes view the world in stark ways. It is “us” vs. the world or “us” in an antithetical relationship to others. The Bible certainly groups people: there are believers and unbelievers. But the question is how believers then should relate to unbelievers.

Those who push the antithesis idea can make their neighbours into an enemy. But people are not the enemy. Satan is: “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood” (Eph 6:12).

In this article then, I want to define antithesis and common grace in their historical context to show that these concepts, when held together, help us to maintain a Scriptural balance. They help us remember that the devil is our enemy (not humanity) and humans are the recipients of God’s common grace.

The Antithesis

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Dutch politician and theologian Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920) spoke about an antithesis between believers and unbelievers. Others like Herman Bavinck (1854–1921) occasionally spoke about this idea. The basic sense of antithesis refers to the foundational differences between believers and unbelievers.

However, as a recent episode of Grace in Common (with three Bavinck scholars) noted, many today misunderstand the historical circumstances and meaning of the idea of the antithesis. Some use the idea to say that Christians can learn nothing from unbelievers, or to create a sense in which Christians are against unbelievers or certain categories of unbelievers.

In contrast, the neo-Calvinist notion of antithesis roughly maps over the biblical truths of human corruption and salvation and could be applied very broadly.[1] For example, Kuyper particularly applied this antithesis in all sorts of ways—between Rome and the Reformed church, between Islam and Paganism, and other such groupings.[2]

Believers sometimes use the concept today to say that Christians and non-Christians have little in common. We alone are good. They are not good. Non-Christian thinking, science, politics, and the rest have no good features since they are set against Christianity.

This estimation wrongly understands neo-Calvinist thinkers, especially Herman Bavinck, who regularly appreciated the insights of non-Christian thinkers.[3] In any case, any idea of the antithesis without a healthy dollop of common grace will miss the meaning of Scripture and the riches of God’s grace in creation.

After all, when we need brain surgery, we will seek the person with the greatest skill and knowledge of the brain, believer or not. We will not ask an x-ray technician to do the surgery, simply because she is a Christian.

Common Grace

Connected to the doctrine of antithesis is the idea of common grace. Common grace corresponds to the doctrines of Providence and restraining grace. While an antithesis between believers and unbelievers exists, God commonly gives grace to the world by restraining evil and allowing for genuine virtue to exist.

The doctrine of common grace begins in Genesis.[4] Common grace means that God, after the Fall of mankind, did not stop sharing his goodness with humanity. So even when Cain murders Abel, God gives him a mark of protection (Gen 4:15). The second great sin is matched by God’s grace, just as original sin led to a word of promise (Gen 3:15).

Cain’s protection led him to grow a family whose family line created a society. They ranched, invented forms of musical arts, as well as the mechanical art of bronze and iron (Gen 4:20–22). Grace upon grace, even upon the children of Lamech (Gen 4:18–19, 23–24) who did great evil.

While much of the Bible focuses on insiders, believing Israel and the church as its audience, it continues to show God’s never-ending grace to all. God, for example, institutes all governments who keep peace and order in society (Rom 13:1–7).

For this reason, the Bible not only knows sin but grace, grace that allows humans to flourish in limited and imperfect ways. Even while people sin and are totally corrupt, they still by God’s grace can exhibit excellent gifts as the children of Lamech did.

John Calvin specifically attributes the work of God’s common grace to the Holy Spirit. He explains, “If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishnonor the Spirit of God.”[5]

Calvin then speaks of philosophers, scholars, and mathematicians and concludes: “No, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without great admiration.” He is also quick to affirm their gifts come from God.

A little later in the Institutes, Calvin argues that the Spirit distributes excellent benefits “for the common good of mankind.” These include “physics, dialectic, mathematics, and other like disciplines.” Calvin then says, “For if we neglect God’s gift freely offered in these arts, we ought to suffer just punishment for our sloths.”[6]

Herman Bavinck, after a thorough study of Scripture, concluded: “There is thus a rich revelation of God even among the heathen—not only in nature but also in their heart and conscience, in their life and history, among their statesmen and artists, their philosophers and reformers.”[7]

Making a Devil Out of Our Neighbours

Despite the reality of the antithesis between believers and unbelievers, God’s common grace restrains evil and allows for the possibility of excellence, in a corrupt and imperfect form. Even Christians have a battle between flesh and mind in themselves (Rom 7:23). Only grace allows us to do anything of excellence.

“What do you have that you did not receive?”, asks Paul (1 Cor 4:7). The answer is nothing. God gives us everything, whether believer or unbeliever. As Paul affirms in Acts 17:28, “In him we live and move and have our being.” Our very lives, activity, and being itself is from God. We are his offspring (cf. Acts 17:28), created in his image (Gen 1:27).

While some will sadly make enemies out of Christians, deceived by the devil and their own sin, Christians have a duty to remember “to stand against the schemes of the devil” (Eph 6:11).

“For,” explains Paul, “ For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12).

This is not cherry-picking a Pauline passage. The Bible tells us from the start, who the enemy is. When the serpent invaded the holy grounds of the garden in Eden, he became the first and greatest enemy to the people of God.

God himself tells the serpent that he will be at odds with the whole human race, the seed of the woman: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring” (Gen 3:15).[8] There is an antithesis between two groups of people. But those groups are the offspring of the serpent and the offspring of the woman—Satan and Eve, the mother of all living (Gen 3:20).

Now, I am not so naive that I cannot admit that we will have enemies in this life. My point is that they will declare us so. And we can admit that basic reality without forsaking the Christian ethic of loving our enemies.

Instead of hating our enemies, we battle the true enemy, that ancient foe, the great serpent and dragon, Satan. He is our true enemy. Our neighbours are to be loved, even when they are Samaritans.

The antithesis without common grace makes a devil out of our neighbour.

We should see all people as our neighbours, image-bearers, those worthy of our love because of Christ. We should be able to spot with Calvin the work of the Spirit—that spiritual grace which allows for excellence in others so that we can humbly learn from anyone. All truth is God’s truth.

 


[1] Common grace and the antithesis map unto traditional reformed categories as this episode of Grace in Common recently noted.

[2] These and other antitheses appear in Kuyper’s famous 1898 Stone Lectures, which he delivered at Princeton Theological Seminary.

[3] While this is true of all of his works, his little book Christian Worldview, highlights how aware he was of non-Christian thinking from Aristotle to Hegel (and more!).

[4] I follow the impulse of Herman Bavinck in his essay “Common Grace.” He highlights common grace by pointing to Genesis 4 (among other places), although the form and content of the argument above belong to me.

[5] Inst. 2.2.15.

[6] Inst. 2.2.16.

[7] “Common Grace,” 41.

[8] While I have known the two-seed idea for many years, I owe the insight of applying the antithesis to this biblical-theological theme to a discussion in this podcast.

Correction: An earlier version noted that the Grace in Common had two Bavinck scholars on it. The number is actually three: Cory Brock, Nathaniel Gray Sutanto, and James Eglington. 

 

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