Antinomianism: It’s Bigger than You Think
Let me commend to you again Mark Jones’ fine monograph Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest. This slim academic volume is not a quick read, but it is important, for Jones demonstrates convincingly from history that antinomianism is much more than saying “let us continue in sin that grace may abound.”
For example, in 1637 the Synod of Elders, with an eye toward refuting antinomianism in New England, declared a number of theological propositions “unsafe.” These statements from antinomian theologians were deemed by the Synod to be out of bound with the Reformed faith.
1. To say we are justified by faith is an unsafe speech; we must say we are justified by Christ.
2. To evidence justification by sanctification or graces savours of Rome.
3. If I be holy, I am never the better accepted by God; if I be unholy, I am never the worse.
4. If Christ will let me sin, let him look to it; upon his honour be it.
5. Here is a great stir about graces and looking to hearts; but give me Christ; I seek not for graces, but for Christ. . . .I seek not for sanctification, but for Christ; tell me not of meditation and duties, but tell me of Christ.
6. I may know I am Christ’s, not because I do crucify the lusts of the flesh, but because I do not crucify them, but believe in Christ that crucified my lusts for me.
7. If Christ be my sanctification, what need I look to anything in myself, to evidence my justification. (8-9)
Remember, these are the statements the Synod in New England considered unsafe, as in not good. Many have a familiar ring to them. People like John Cotton and Anne Hutchinson were arguing that we should not look for evidences of grace in our lives as confirmation of our election and justification. The antinomian impulse was one which maintained that good works were not necessary for salvation, that God delights in all Christians in the same way, that God does not see sin in the believer, that the moral law is no longer binding for Christians, that law and gospel are diametrically opposed in every way, that to strive after holiness smacks of legalistic effort, that we should not speak of spiritual duties or spiritual progress, that the subject of spiritual activity is not the believer but Christ. Clearly, antinomianism was much more complicated and went much deeper than a simple indifference to sin.
As we would expect, J.I. Packer does a masterful job of unraveling the errors of antinomianism.
Thus, with regard to justification, antinomians affirm that God never sees sin in believers; once we are in Christ, whatever our subsequent lapses, he sees at every moment only the flawless righteousness of the Savior’s life on earth, now reckoned to be ours.
Then, with regard to sanctification, there have been mystical antinomians who have affirmed that the indwelling Christ is the personal subject who obeys the law in our identity once we invoke his help in obedience situations, and there have been pneumatic antinomians who have affirmed that the Holy Spirit within us directly prompts us to discern and do the will of God, without our needing to look to the law to either prescribe or monitor our performance.
The common ground is that those who live in Christ are wholly separated from every aspect of the pedagogy of the law. The freedom with which Christ has set us free, and the entire source of our ongoing peace and assurance, are based upon our knowledge that what Christ, as we say, enables us to do he actually does in us for himself.
So now we live, not by being forgiven our constant shortcomings, but by being out of the law’s bailiwick altogether; not by imitating Christ, the archetypal practitioner of holy obedience to God’s law, but by burrowing ever deeper into the joy of our free justification, and of our knowledge that Christ himself actually does in us all that his and our Father wants us to do.
Thus the correlating of conscience with the Father’s coded commands and Christ’s own casuistry of compassion need not and indeed should not enter into the living of the Christian life, as antinomians understand it.
The bottom line of all this? The conclusion of the matter? Here, as elsewhere, the reaction of man does not lead to the righteousness of God, but rather obstructs holiness. In God’s family, as in human families, an antinomian attitude to parental law makes for pride and immaturity, misbehavior and folly. Our true model of wise godliness, as well as our true mediator of God’s grace, is Jesus Christ, our law-keeping Lord. (x-xi)
The reason for this post, the reason for Jones’ book, and the reason for Packer’s foreword is to show that antinomianism is not a phantom, a straw man, or an unheard of error in our day. Throughout history we see that the recovery of grace and the triumph of gospel-centrality are often accompanied by confusion surrounding sanctification and less than careful statements about the nature of obedience, the love of God, and human exertion. We need to know our Bibles better, our history, and our confessions. For then we would remember that the moral law is not “contrary to the grace of the gospel,” but does “sweetly comply with it” (WCF 19.7).