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Spiritual and Carnal Children

Rev. Herman Hoeksema

As has been said, Romans 9 deals with the tremendous question of the rejection of the Jewish nation, involving the exclusion from the kingdom of God of many individual Israelites. And this fact the apostle explains in the light of God's sovereign dealings with men. God chooses and He rejects; and His counsel of predestination sovereignly cuts right through the church visible an earth, making distinction between spiritual and carnal children, children of the promise and children of the flesh. This is taught first of all in Romans 9:6-8, "Not as though the word of God hath 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."

The apostle introduces these words by the statement that the Word of God has not taken none effect, has not "fallen out." This statement is of fundamental importance. The fact that so many of the Jews of the old dispensation and many baptized children of the Church are forever lost is no proof that the promise of God has failed. Frequently Scripture speaks of the promise. Sometimes it uses the singular, "the promise" ; and in other passages it uses the plural, "the promises." Essentially the expression always refers to the same truth. The promise is God's revealed and pledged, yea, sworn purpose of salvation for His people through Jesus Christ our Lord. It is the promise of redemption and deliverance from sin and the inheritance of eternal glory in the kingdom of heaven. It is the promise of the Spirit, the promise of eternal salvation, the promise of life. Now, superficially considered, it would seem that this promise concerns all the children of the Church, both in the old and in the new dispensation. Was not the Word of God to Abraham quite without limitation, "I will establish my covenant between me and thee, and thy seed after thee, in their generations, to be a God unto thee and to thy seed after thee?" And does not the apostle Peter sound forth the same general promise when, standing at the very entrance of the new dispensation on the day of Pentecost, he proclaims: "For unto you is the promise, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call ?" But, what then? Is it not a fact, the very fact that looms large before the apostle's mind and that causes him to be filled with heaviness and great sorrow, that many, that the very large majority of the descendants of Abraham, never received the promise; that thousands upon thousands of the seed of Abraham in the old dispensation perished; that at the very moment when the promise of God entered upon its realization the nation of Israel was definitely rejected, and that the hearts of many individual Jews were so hardened that they were closed to the influence of the gospel? And must not the same be said of the children of believers in the new dispensation? How many of them receive the seal of God's covenant in infancy, are instructed in the way of God's covenant from their youth, in order to spurn and despise the promises of God and choose the way of destruction even unto the bitter end? How, then, shall we explain this glaring fact in the light of the promise of God concerning Abraham and his seed, concerning believers and their children?

Many there are who, as they face this question, take refuge in the explanation that the promise of God is contingent upon the consent and acceptance of the promise by the seed of Abraham, by the children of believers. The promise, they say, is for all the natural seed of Abraham and for all the children of believers. They are all, without exception, comprehended in the covenant of God. From God's side the covenant is established with them; on God's part the promise to them is ''Yea and amen.'' This, they claim, is the privilege of all that are born of believers in the Church of Christ, that God sincerely holds out His promise to them and promises them the blessings of salvation without distinction. Only, when they come to years of discretion, they must accept their covenant obligations. Upon this the promise is contingent. And if the promise is not accepted, they simply cannot receive it. Thus it was in the old dispensation: the promise to Abraham and his seed includes, indeed, all the natural seed of Abraham; but thousands for whom the promise was intended failed to accept God's offer of salvation. Hence, many of the children of the promise were lost. And the same failure to accept the promise explains why so many children of believers in the new dispensation, for whom the promise is intended, are cast out and rejected.

Let us not fail to note, however, that this explanation is quite contrary to the Word of God in our text. For the apostle writes that the Word of God has not become of none effect. Yet, according to the explanation just mentioned, this is exactly what happened. God's promise was for all; yet, in the case of thousands upon thousands this promise failed of its realization. O, I know, and fully understand, and admit, that in the way of their unbelief and iniquity they were lost. But I deny that this can serve as an explanation of the fact that God did not fulfill His promise in them. Are not all the children of Abraham by nature alike? Are not all the children of the covenant by nature dead in trespasses and sins, as they are born? Is any one of them by nature able to enter into the covenant of God, to believe and hope in the promise, unless God first realizes His promise unto them? How, then, shall children of believers ever become spiritual children of the promise, unless God takes the initiative and realizes His promise? If, then, God's promise is for all the seed of Abraham, and if by nature all the children of Abraham according to the flesh are alike unable to render themselves worthy or receptive for the promise of God, it follows that the Word of God has fallen out, has become of none effect, has utterly failed in the case of those children of Abraham that never receive the promise.

But, as has been stated, this is contrary to the Word of God in our text. "Not as if the word of God has taken none effect," the apostle writes. The Word of God is the Word of God. It is never contingent upon man. It is never dependent upon the creature for its realization. Its realization depends on God alone, and He is the Amen; He is the Rock; whatever may fail, His Word faileth never. And also in this case it did not fall out, not even in the case of them that were lost. All to whomsoever the promise was given and pertained were surely saved. Not one of them perished. But from this it follows that the Word of God in question was limited in its scope, and that the promise did not pertain to all the carnal seed of Abraham. That is the explanation of the Word of God here. They are not all Israel that are of Israel, that are descendants of Jacob; neither are they all children, true children of God, because they are the seed of Abraham. The children of the flesh are not children of God, but the children of the promise are counted for the seed. The truth of this explanation is demonstrated by the example of Isaac. Abraham had more sons. At the time of Isaac's birth he was already father of the son of Hagar, the bond-woman. And after his marriage with Keturah he gained several more children. It cannot be denied that all these children of Abraham were included in the "seed" of Abraham in the natural sense of the term. Yet, God plainly limits His promise to Isaac. "In Isaac shall thy seed he called."

What is the meaning of the expression "the children of the promise"? Does the term simply mean the same as if the apostle had written, "the promised children"? Thus some interpret the phrase. Or, is the meaning, as others would interpret, children to whom the promise pertains, that are heirs of the blessed promise of God? 'To be sure, the children of the promise were also promised children, and the promised blessing was for them. But the expression "children of the promise" has a deeper significance.

Frequently Scripture speaks of the promise. And children of the promise are those that were brought forth by the power of the promise. The promise is, as it were, their mother. God brings them forth by realizing His word of promise in them. Hence, they are those in whom the promise of redemption has been realized in principle: spiritual children, born not of the flesh but of the Spirit. That is the real meaning of the expression "children of promise." This may be gathered not only from the expression itself, but also from a comparison with the expression as it occurs in Galatians 4:23, 28: "But he who was of the bond-woman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise. The phrase "by promise" in verse 23 literally reads in the original "through the promise." Isaac was born through the means of, by the power of the promise. So we are also "children of the promise as Isaac was." And that this refers indeed to their spiritual birth is evident if we compare verse 29 of the same chapter of Galatians: "But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now." By nature, apart from the power of the promise of God, we are born after the flesh. That which is born of the flesh is flesh. But by the promise of God we are horn of the Spirit and after the Spirit. For that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit. And therefore, children of the promise are spiritual children in whom God wrought and realized the power of His promise of salvation.

Hence, only the children of the promise are children of God, according to the text. They are those whom God adopted as His children in Christ before the foundation of the world, for whom Christ died and rose again that they might have the right of sonship, and in whom God realizes this adoption by, the Spirit of grace. And only the children of the promise, who are the real children of God, are also the real Israel: ''For they are not all Israel which are of Israel." And again: only "the children of the promise are counted for the seed.'' The rest, even though they are born of Abraham, even though they are born in the church, of believers, and are baptized, are not included in the promise of God. Even though they are under the covenant, they are not in the covenant. They are carnal, sinful, and remain carnal. And their very close proximity to the covenant of God, their living, as it were, as carnal children in the house of God, simply brings to manifestation all the more clearly their wicked and carnal nature. But the promise of God never fails, but runs in the line of election: "For men verily swear by the greater and an oath for confirmation is to them the end of all strife. Wherein God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath." Heb. 6:17. God's counsel of election and reprobation cuts right through the Church, and within the Church makes separation and distinction between carnal and spiritual children.

Now, what is the relation between these two kinds of seed in the same line of the generation of the people of God; and what is the significance of the carnal seed within the Church?

Outwardly and for time, they are one people. In the stricter sense this was the case in the old dispensation, when the line of the covenant was confined within the limits of the nation of Israel. Nor is it different in the new dispensation. The Church in the world is the gathering of confessing believers and their children. And they form one people, even though the course of God's covenant is no longer confined to one nation. And to this one people God reveals His covenant. They are called after his name, and outwardly all that belong to them are subject to the same dealing. We are all baptized in the name of God Triune. To all the Word is preached. All celebrate the Lord Supper. All, young and old, are instructed in the knowledge of God and our Savior Jesus Christ. Yet also to the Church of the new dispensation, also to us as the Church of Christ in the world, the Word of God applies: ''All is not Israel that is of Israel." Always there are the children of the promise, the true, spiritual seed; and again there also develops always again the carnal seed, that live in close proximity and outward fellowship with the spiritual seed, dwell in the same house with the latter, are subject to the same influences as these, but are not children of the promise and receive not the grace of God in their hearts.

And the presence of the carnal children is of great significance to the Church of Christ.

First of all, it may be remarked that they are a cause of continual sorrow, of the great sorrow of which the apostle speaks in the beginning of this chapter. They are of our own flesh and blood, and we greatly and earnestly desire the salvation of them that are dear to us. What is there that parents would more earnestly desire for their children than that they all may walk in the fear of the Lord and be saved? And what is true of parents in relation to their children applies to a pastor, to the office-bearers in general, to the whole congregation with respect to all the individual sheep of the flock to which they belong. They rejoice when the children of God's covenant grow up as children of the promise and serve the Lord. Such is their constant prayer. To this end they labor, preach, instruct, admonish, rebuke, encourage, comfort, publicly and privately, in the midst of the gatherings of the Church and in individual contact. Yet, not all become manifest as children of the promise. Many despise the birthright, as Esau. You labor with them, you pay special attention to them; when they become wayward and indifferent, more labor is bestowed on them than upon those that constantly walk in the way's of the covenant. You admonish them; you pray with them; but it is of no avail: they despise the spiritual blessings of the kingdom of God; they trample under foot God's covenant; and finally, they forsake the fellowship of God or are excommunicated from the Church, to seek their delight in the pleasures of sin. This is a great sorrow and a grievous burden to bear as long as we are in the earthly house of this tabernacle. Our flesh cries out when God's sovereign mercy cuts right through the midst of the seed of Abraham to separate the children of the promise from the carnal seed.

But there is more.

It is because of the presence of the carnal seed, especially, that the Church on earth is always in danger of apostatizing from the truth. How clearly this is illustrated in the history of the people of Israel in the old dispensation. How the carnal element abounded in their midst! How they always led Israel astray to serve other gods, to seek the pleasures of sin, to bring the terrible wrath of Jehovah upon the nation. The same is still true: the carnal element in the Church on earth always tends to corrupt the truth, to expose the Church to every wind of doctrine. It is they that find the way of the kingdom too narrow, that would broaden it out to make room for them that follow after their fleshly lusts, that would amalgamate the Church and the world. and for that reason desire to draw the world into the Church.

And thus, finally, it is by this carnal element that the measure of iniquity is filled, and from the carnal seed the antichristian power is constantly developing until the man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition, the culmination of all the forces of iniquity. It is in the carnal seed that sin becomes manifest in all its horror. With them the children of the promise are engaged in continual spiritual warfare, until the days come in which there shall be great tribulation, days in which the very elect would be deceived if they were not shortened for their sake.

Watch, therefore Let us not say: "We have Abraham to our father." All are not Israel that are of Israel; neither are the'. all children of God because they are of Abraham's natural seed. Nor ever say that the Word of God has fallen out. For God realizes His promises in all His people. His word never fails. But walk as spiritual children of God in Christ, watching and praying individually, and as a church, that no one take our crown!

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