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What Is Enmity and How Does It Relate to the Gospel?

What Is Enmity and How Does It Relate to the Gospel?

I am kind of a nerd when it comes to language. I love studying the history of language. There is a neat little Google feature that few people know about called the Google Books Ngram Viewer. It graphs the usage of a particular word or phrase that appears through a selection of books. For example, a word like “automobile” (rather obviously) does not appear until the early 1900s. But when it does appear, it is a word that appears frequently. Then it slowly declines.

The word “enmity” was a word that was relatively common in the 1800s. It appeared about as frequently as people wrote about automobiles in the 1980s. But it saw a sharp decline in the 1840s. By 2018 the word hardly appears.

All that to say you are forgiven if you aren’t quite sure what the word enmity means. You probably assume it has something to do with the word “enemy” because the words sound so familiar. Is that accurate? What does the word have to do with the Bible? And how does the gospel relate to enmity?

What Does Enmity Mean?

If you assumed that enmity was close to the word enemy, then your assumption is fairly accurate. To be at enmity with someone means to be “actively opposed to someone or something.” If you are hateful toward someone or you have the intention of harming someone, then you are at enmity with this person.

Merriam-Webster gives the modern definition of enmity as "positive, active, and typically mutual hatred or ill will." But what about the historical meaning and Bible significance of enmity?

The word comes from the Latin inimicus. Literally, it is the opposite of a friend—it is an “unfriend.” Does this mean that when you unfriend someone on social media you are at enmity with the person? Perhaps. Have you ever heard the word amicus? You’ve maybe heard of an amicus brief. That’s a legal term for someone who is not part of a case assisting by offering information, expertise, or insight. In other words, you make yourself a friend to one of the parties involved. In Latin “in” means “not.” Inimicus basically means, “I’m not going to help that guy, I’m on the other team. I’m playing against him.”

The word comes from Latin, but the concept is as old as the Garden of Eden. The concept is all over the Bible, but the word itself only appears a handful of times.

Where Do We See Enmity in the Bible?

In Genesis 3:15 God says that he will put ’ebhah between the serpent and the woman—between the serpent’s offspring and the offspring of the woman. This is a very significant verse for the Bible. The offspring will later be identified as Jesus. And you see in the story of Cain and Abel this enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent played out.

Yet, the word itself doesn’t appear often throughout the Old Testament. The word translated enmity only appears five times throughout the whole of the OT. And in each instance, it refers to humans being in opposition to one another. Certainly, the concept of being at war is all throughout the pages. This enmity that we see in the Garden is the root of all other expressions of anger, hatred, war, violence, etc. that we find throughout.

In the New Testament, the word translated enmity is the word ‘echthra. It is often translated as either enmity or hostility. In Luke 23:12 we see that Herod and Pilate became friends even though they used to be at enmity with one another. The usage there shows how enmity is the opposite of friendship.

The word also appears in Ephesians 2:14-16 in discussing the “dividing wall of hostility” between Jew and Gentile. The idea here is that while this dividing wall stands, Jews are pitted against Gentiles, and vice versa. The two cannot be friends. They are at enmity with one another.

The only other appearance in the New Testament is in Galatians 5:20 where it appears as a work of the flesh. Here it seems to mean something of a contentious spirit that is always at odds with other people. It’s more than simply being unfriendly—it is to set oneself against other people.

Romans 8:7 and James 4:4 are also informative. In Romans 8:7 we read that “the mind set on the flesh is hostile to God.” This means that the flesh has set itself as an enemy of God. They are at odds. They are at war with one another. They are not compatible. The mind set on the flesh is not going to file an amicus for the kingdom of God. And in James 4:4 we see that friendship with the world places one “at enmity with God.” You cannot be friends with the world system and at the same time a friend of God. Friendship with one brings about enmity with the other.

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/fizkes

What Does It Mean to Be in "Enmity with God?"

Earlier we noted the connection between enmity and enemy; they are similar but they are not exact synonyms. Enemies can be reconciled. But that cannot happen while enmity exists—enmity must be abandoned and obliterated. In Romans 5:10 we see that even while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son. But note what happens to the dividing wall of hostility in Ephesians 2:14-16. He “broke it down,” and in doing so we were reconciled to one another, and the hostility was killed.

That helps us understand a little what it means to be in enmity with God. It means more than being an enemy or a rival.

Perhaps we can illustrate this with sports. The Browns and Steelers are rivals. In sports terms they are enemies. But they only play each other two or three times per year. When they occupy the same space, they will rival one another. Yes, some of the moves they make via free agency are meant to cause their team to be better than the other. Again, that is what rivals do. But enmity would play out differently. Everything they do would be in direct opposition to one another. There would be no common ground. There would be no trades among clubs. Everything the Browns did would be to destroy the Steelers and vice versa. No friendly handshakes after the game. No weeks off where you move on to another opponent. In a world of enmity, everything you do is set in open hostility to the other party.

So what does it mean, then, for our flesh to be at enmity with God? It means that we are never going to satisfy God in the flesh. It is always in opposition to the things of God. It is always hostile toward God. Though a bit dated in language, John Owen says it well:

“As every drop of poison is poison, and will infect, and every spark of fire is fire and will burn; so is every thing of the law of sin, the last, the least of it,—it is enmity, it will poison, it will burn…The meanest [i.e., slightest] acting, the meanest and most imperceptible working of it, is the acting and working of enmity. Mortification abates of its force but doth not change its nature. Grace changeth the nature of man, but nothing can change the nature of sin.”

In other words, you cannot transform enmity with God. It must be dropped completely. And the flesh is always at enmity with God. But all we do is “of the flesh,” so what hope do we have? 

How Did God Provide a Path away from Enmity?

Thankfully, from the very beginning, God was marching toward our redemption. When the first couple sinned, they placed themselves on a path of enmity. It was a path of enmity with one another (we see it in their blaming each other), a path of enmity with God as well as with creation, and even their own bodies. But in Genesis 3:15 there is a clue that a Redeemer is coming. He, the offspring of the woman, will crush the head of the serpent. And this will provide reconciliation with humanity (reconciliation with one another, with God, and even with creation).

The work of Christ is not only the means to our reconciliation with God, it is also the means to our reconciliation with one another. According to Galatians 5:20 enmity is a mark of the flesh. We cannot be walking in step with the Spirit and have hearts filled with enmity. In fact, the work of Christ has made it to where the dividing wall of hostility has been broken down between our fellow man.

As John Owen said, “Grace changeth the nature of man, but nothing can change the nature of sin.” What Christ does is he changes the person. He rescues us from the flesh that is set at enmity with God. We now are those who walk by the Spirit instead of the flesh. In Christ, the path away from enmity has been purchased for us. He walked it Himself and he carries us along that path. Love shatters enmity.

The Need for Reconciliation

Even though enmity is a word that seldom appears in our vocabulary, the concept itself is smattered upon the pages of our newspapers and our social media feeds. We are a polarized people, often at enmity with one another. Perhaps the greatest need of our day is reconciliation. We are a fractured people—torn asunder by the ravaging impact of enmity against God and one another. Lewis Drummond may very well be correct:

"It may well be that the most relevant aspect of salvation to our post-modern day centers in the truths implied by the word reconciliation. It has already been pointed out in some detail that we all live in a three-fold relationship—to God, our fellows, and ourselves. The rupturing of these vital relationships constitutes the tragedy of sin. Reconciliation means the restoring of these essential and vital relationships, and post-moderns zealously seek out relationships."

May we be reconciled to God and to one another through Christ. 

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/YuraDobro

Mike Leake is husband to Nikki and father to Isaiah and Hannah. He is also the lead pastor at Calvary of Neosho, MO. Mike is the author of Torn to Heal and Jesus Is All You Need. His writing home is and you can connect with him on Twitter @mikeleake. Mike has a new writing project at Proverbs4Today.