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White Horse Inn: Conversational Theology

The Fear of Antinomianism

Release date:

January 28, 2011


Salvation The Law

Fear is a powerful motivator. We’ve grown used to it being used in politics to argue for (or against) certain economic, immigration, or military proposals. We sometimes don’t recognize its misuse in the church.  This week, the fear of antinomianism (which means the rejection of God’s Law as a standard of righteous action required of God’s covenant people) has been raised.  There have been genuine antinomians in church history.  There are many today, who set aside God’s law as the standard for God’s righteous judgment, usually substituting their own prescriptions.  However, accusations have been raised over the last few days that target people who are decidedly not antinomian.  In a recent Christianity Today article by Jason Hood, the antinomian charge was directed at contemporary Reformed preachers and writers.  Elsewhere, the White Horse Inn was rebuked for encouraging this false teaching.

There’s no point in responding to accusations point by point.  Anyone who subscribes Lutheran or Reformed confessions is conscience-bound to repudiate antinomianism as a perversion of biblical teaching.  We do not deny the abiding role of God’s moral law in exposing our sin (first use) and guiding us in grateful and godly living (third use).  So if Reformation Christianity is “antinomian” (the perennial charge from Roman Catholic and Arminian quarters), then it would help if critics would let us know the new definition.

The conventional wisdom in many Christian circles is that “we need to find the right balance between law and grace, so that we don’t fall into legalism or license.” Although this counsel has a long history, its most recent expression was urged in Jason Hood’s article.  The author expresses concern that too many Reformed Christians today are encouraging antinomianism—or at least reveling in the charge.  The author especially criticizes appeals to the point made by Martyn Lloyd-Jones (on the basis of Romans 6:1) that if we aren’t accused of antinomianism, we haven’t preached the gospel properly.  In that verse, Paul asks the rhetorical question that he assumes his treatment of the gospel thus far will provoke: “What shall we say then?  Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?”  The author of this article points out that Paul immediately answers in the strongest possible terms, “By no means!”  Yet his article implies that those of us who invoke Lloyd-Jones’ point might answer otherwise.

This misunderstanding can be cleared up easily by looking at what Lloyd-Jones goes on to say in that Romans commentary.  It could also be cleared up by looking at the sharp denunciations of antinomianism in the Lutheran Book of Concord and the Reformed (Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, Canons of Dort) and Presbyterian standards (Westminster Confession and Catechisms), as well as the Savoy (Congregationalist) and the London Baptist confessions.  With Paul, we answer without hesitation,

By no means!  How can we who died to sin still live in it?  Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life (vv 2-4).

What’s striking is that Paul answers antinomianism not with the law but with more gospel!  In other words, antinomians are not people who believe the gospel too much, but too little!  They restrict the power of the gospel to the problem of sin’s guilt, while Paul tells us that the gospel is the power for sanctification as well as justification.

The danger of legalism becomes apparent not only when we confuse law and gospel in justification, but when we imagine that even our new obedience can be powered by the law rather than the gospel.  The law does what only the law can do: reveal God’s moral will.  In doing so, it strips us of our righteousness and makes us aware of our helplessness apart from Christ and it also directs us in grateful obedience.  No one who says this can be considered an antinomian.  However, it’s not a matter of finding the right “balance” between law and gospel, but of recognizing that each does different work.  We need imperatives—and Paul gives them.  But he only does this later in the argument, after he has grounded sanctification in the gospel.

The ultimate antidote to antinomianism is not more imperatives, but the realization that the gospel swallows the tyranny as well as the guilt of sin.  It is enough to save Christians even in their failure and not only brings them peace with God in justification, but the only liberation from the cruel oppression of sin.  To be united to Christ through faith is to receive everything that we need not only to challenge legalism but antinomianism as well.

For more on this important distinction, please see my friend Tullian Tchividjian’s post and the post of my friend and colleague at WSC, R. Scott Clark.

UPDATE: some of you are asking for a more specific response to Frank Turk. A number of charges were laid against WHI, all in the spirit of brotherly concern. We appreciate the time that Frank took to write his six page letter, the 300 comments that it generated, and the interest that you are taking in the ongoing dialogue. But none of the WHI hosts has ever said that the Bible only has indicatives and imperatives.  And none of us has said that once you’ve said “Law & Gospel,” you’ve done your exegesis. Nor are we responsible for antinomian statements from people who listen to WHI (any more than Frank Turk is responsible for all the comments made after his blog post). We’re simply saying, with the Reformers and the confessional Reformed as well as Lutheran theologians through the ages, that Law and Gospel summarize the “two words” of that one Word that God has revealed to us.  There is narrative, poetry, wisdom, instruction, dialogue, parable, and other genres, but the most basic distinction to make when reading and proclaiming God’s Word is the one between Law and Gospel.  This is not only Luther, but Calvin, Bullinger, Ursinus, Perkins, Owen, Bavinck, Berkhof, Hodge and Murray.  Just as preaching “Christ crucified” doesn’t mean simply repeating the phrase, “Christ crucified,” but interpreting the whole of Scripture in the light of Christ, bearing in mind the distinction between command and promise is not just a matter of parroting the words, but of making sure that we don’t turn promises into commands and commands into promises.  There is a lot more that we have to bring to our study of Scripture, but when we get that wrong, everything is confused.