Results tagged “antinomianism” from Reformation21 Blog

Thomas Boston is one of my favorite authors. Through his sermons, memoirs, and other writings, the prolific theologian and humble pastor of a small rural church in the Scottish border country has become one of the pastors of my soul.

I admire Boston for his spiritual devotion--what Boston himself would have termed "a heart exercised unto godliness." I admire him for his dedication to his calling as a good shepherd. Riding on horseback, he ranged the more than one hundred square miles of his parish to visit each family or individually twice annually for spiritual conference and catechetical instruction. I also admire Thomas Boston for his perseverance. Despite struggling with depression and suffering from chronic physical weakness, he never missed a single Sunday in the pulpit during the course of more than three decades of pastoral ministry. True to form, his final sermons were preached from his deathbed, with the members of his congregation gathered outside the window of the manse. And so, like Jonathan Edwards, I consider Thomas Boston "a truly great divine."

Yet when Edwards said this, he was not thinking of Boston's work as a pastor, primarily, but of his international influence as a biblical and systematic theologian. Though he served his whole ministry in an obscure parish, Thomas Boston became the most frequently published Scottish author of the eighteenth-century. His books were widely recommended during the Great Awakening in England and America. We know from contemporary accounts that in addition to helping people grow in the Christian faith, these books were instrumental in leading people to Christ--everyone from slaveholders to their slaves.

Like most prolific writers, Thomas Boston was also a prodigious reader. As a man of limited means, his personal library was small--little more than a single shelf of books. Yet he read whatever he could find, and in his Memoirs he lovingly describes new theological books arriving by post.

Boston's favorite book was The Marrow of Modern Divinity, which he discovered early on in his ministry. He spied the book one day in the cottage of a parishioner, who was only too happy to share it with the book-starved pastor. Much later Boston produced his own edition, complete with detailed theological notes. Publishing this edition was a labor of love, because the dialogues he read in The Marrow of Modern Divinity saved Boston's ministry by teaching him "the gospel of free grace."

The story of The Marrow of Modern Divinity-of its original publication and later influence on the Church of Scotland - is more thoroughly told in the essay that follows, by the church historian William VanDoodewaard. My purpose in this introduction is to answer to a simple question: Why is this old theological book still good and useful to read today?

Perhaps the best way to begin to answer this question is by mentioning two equal but opposite errors that have plagued the church since the days of the New Testament. On the one hand, some congregations tend to be overly legalistic.  They have a performance-based approach to the Christian life, in which Christianity is reduced to a list of rules. A good Christian is someone who does certain things and avoids doing certain other things. The only way to gain favor with God is by leading a good life. Somehow churches like this never manage to outgrow their "inner Pharisee."

Yet there is an equal error in the opposite direction, the sin of lawlessness, or what theologians like Thomas Boston would call "antinomianism" (which simply means to be "against the law"). Churches like this tend to be overly permissive. They take the question that the apostle Paul asked in Romans 6:1 ("Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?), and answer in the affirmative rather than the negative. They use their Christian liberty as an excuse for license. They may even use the grace of God to legitimize bad behavior.

Both legalism and antinomianism are perennial dangers for the church and for individual Christians. When we begin to think of the Christian life primarily as a list of "dos" and "don'ts," we are under the sway of legalism. When we begin to think that it is okay for us to go ahead and sin, because God will forgive us anyway, we are feeling the temptation of antinomianism.

The Marrow of Modern Divinity proclaims a gospel that can rescue us from both of these dangers. Filled with quotations from the great reformer Martin Luther and from the worthy Puritans, The Marrow emphasizes biblical, evangelical doctrines such as the sovereignty of God in the covenant of grace, the free offer of the gospel, assurance in Christ as the essence of faith, and sanctification by grace rather than by the law. Thomas Boston loved these grace-filled doctrines and discovered that they strengthened his hold on the precious gospel that he lived and preached. He also perceived, correctly, that these doctrines were necessary to preserve Calvinism from degenerating into either legalism or antinomianism.

Boston was inspired by The Marrow's description of what God has done in giving us the gospel of his Son. To quote from "Evangelist," who is the book's normative theologian: "I beseech you, consider, that God the Father, as he is in his Son Jesus Christ, moved with nothing but with his free love to mankind lost, hath made a deed of gift and grant unto them all, that whosoever of them all shall believe in this his Son, shall not perish, but have eternal life."

Many of Boston's contemporaries objected to the language of "deed of gift and grant" on the grounds that salvation was only for the elect. To describe the gospel as a gift or grant for unbelievers, they said, amounted to universalism. Yet Boston understood The Marrow's "deed of gift and grant" as an open offer of salvation, which needed to be received by faith. To call the gospel a "deed of gift and grant," therefore, was fully in keeping with the Bible's own generous and indiscriminate invitations to salvation.

Boston loved to quote the opening verses of Isaiah 55, which offered water without money and bread without price to hungry, thirsty sinners.  He also loved to quote John 3:16, which extended the offer of eternal life to the whole world. "This is the good old way of discovering to sinners their warrant to believe in Christ," he said, "and it doth indeed bear the sufficiency of the sacrifice of Christ for all, and that Christ crucified is the ordinance of God for salvation unto all mankind, in the use-making of which only can they be saved; but not an universal atonement or redemption." Stated more simply, the death that Jesus died on the cross is sufficient to atone for the sins of anyone who comes to him in repentance and faith. This does not mean that everyone will be saved; people still have to make use of the cross by trusting in Jesus. But it does mean that salvation through the cross really and truly can be offered to everyone.

This free offer of the gospel is liberating for ministry. For Boston, it meant that as a preacher he never needed to be restrained in giving people the gospel. Even the most hardened sinners and most improbable candidates for salvation could be called to faith and told that Christ was available to them. As The Marrow said, in a quotation from the famous Puritan preacher John Preston: "Jesus Christ himself said unto his disciples, Mark 16:15: 'Go and preach the gospel to every creature under heaven:' that is, Go and tell every man without exception, that here is good news for him; Christ is dead for him; and if he will take him, and accept of his righteousness, he shall have him."

The announcement of this good news will be needed from now until the end of the world. Every sinner needs the grace of God. Lawless and unrighteous sinners need it. Self-righteous Pharisees need it. Even people who are trusting in Christ still need the gospel, and need to hear it again. The Marrow of Modern Divinity reminds us of the grace of that gospel. Both the book itself and the explanatory notes by Thomas Boston reassure us that God loves us and has a fullness of grace for us in Jesus Christ.


*This post is a reposting of the introduction of an edition of The Marrow of Modern Divinity, first published at Reformation21 in August of 2009.

Ecclesiastical Antinomianism

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Antinomianism has certainly received its fair share of just criticism in recent years--predominantly on account of its pernicious presence in the pulpits across our land. While the doctrinal forms of Antinomianism are quite pernicious, its practical forms are sometimes even more dangerous; after all, "bad company corrupts good morals." Yet, for all the attention that theologians have given to battling Antinomianism in the realm of individual Christian belief and experience, there is a widespread form of Antinomianism that requires more attention, namely, ecclesiastical Antinomianism. 

Far too many who live within the pale of the church, have little to no respect for the authority of God in the church. Men and women leave local churches over the smallest and seemingly most insignificant of matters (e.g. the music is not what they wanted it to be, the children's ministry is not as fully developed as they would have it, the people in the church do not measure up to their particular standard of social compatibility, the pastor has a conviction about Christian liberty on one point of minutiae with which they differ, the elders will not allow them to oversee a particular ministry, etc). 

The heart of ecclesiastical Antinomianism is that people act as though the Scriptures have nothing to say about church government or about the responsibility of men, women, boys and girls in the church to submit to the authority of the pastor(s)/elders. 

The author of Hebrews, at the end of a letter in which he calls his readers to give heed to the warnings not to depart from Christ, gives the following two admonitions about those whom God has given the church to keep the members of a local congregation close to Christ: 

"Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follows" (Heb. 13:7). 

"Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you" (Heb. 13:17). 

Here are two very clear admonitions for members of local congregations to recognize that God has placed men as shepherds to rule over and to watch out for their souls. There is an important imperative for the people of God attached to the explanation about what elders are to do, namely, obey

This does not mean that congregants are blindly to obey their elders or to submit to them on any matter upon which they may speak. What it does mean is that insofar as ministers are living lives of faith in accord with God's word, and are faithfully ministering God's word, local church members are to obey and be submissive to them as they are to God--in accord with God's word. After all, they are the under-shepherds of the Great Shepherd of the sheep. 

In many cases, when individuals or families leave a church, they do not go to the pastor/elders in humility and seek to work through issues in order to come to a happy resolution. The better part make the decision to leave a local congregation and then inform the pastor(s)/elders that they have done so. Certainly, there are cases in which men and women have biblical grounds to leave a church, have spoken with the elders and have seen no progress. In those cases, it is understandable that a decision to leave a local congregation has been made apart from the advice of the elders. However, deferring to the wisdom of the elders in a biblically sound church is part of what it means to obey those who rule over you. If a church is defunct in doctrinal faithfulness or is promoting wicked practices, people should leave the church after prayer and an attempt to see if change could occur. 

To church hop every time you find something with which you are unhappy is a form of ecclesiastical Antinomianism. It shows a lack of unwillingness to submit to those whom God has put in authority over you--as well as to the brethren in that particular congregation. When men and women leave a congregation because they have rubbed shoulders with the leadership over adiaphora in worship or congregational life, they often think that they can keep their friendships with those in that congregation without inflicting any harm or incurring any loss. However, when an individual or family leaves a church because of their discontent with leadership, they are also walking away from the congregation that they may have vowed to love and support. They can no longer fulfill the "one another" imperatives of the New Testament in that particular local congregation. The body suffers as it loses one of its necessary members (Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12-14; Eph. 4). 

There is, however, another form of ecclesiastical Antinomianism--namely, that which has to do with congregants and ministers who have fled to another church or denomination while under discipline. A congregant under discipline usually gains the sympathetic ear of a pastor in a nearby congregation. Most pastors are susceptible to believe the first defense of someone who is coming with interest in joining the congregation they pastor. Here, the best course of action is for ministers in a geographical area to pick up the phone and have a conversation with the minister of the congregation from which a former member is seeking to make a change. Much spiritual damage would be avoided if we viewed the church in its Catholic (i.e. universal) nature here. 

In addition to members fleeing from discipline, the number of times that ministers have fled the discipline of the church or denomination of which they were a part is far more than one could wish. Rather than submitting to the brothers to whom they took vows to submit, certain men have acted as "fugitives of discipline" in order to move somewhere that they can continue holding office. The North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPRC)--of which the PCA, ARP, OPC, URCNA et al are a part--has an "Agreement on Transfer of Members and Congregations" from one denomination to another. NAPRC denominations agree upon the following: 

"That a 'fugitive from discipline' who no longer is a member of a church or who is no longer on the roll of a presbytery shall not be received until the former judicatory/assembly has been contacted to determine if proper restitution has been made and/or reconciliation has been attempted."1 

On rare occasions, small denominations have been established to serve as places of ecclesiastical refuge for "fugitives of discipline"--i.e. for ministers who have fled the jurisdiction of their Presbyteries or denominations. This is an ecclesiastical Antinomianism of the worst kind. Instead of submitting to the courts of the church, these men make themselves a renegade denomination. 

Church discipline is essential to the governance of the Kingdom of Christ. John Calvin, reflecting on the important role that discipline plays in the preservation of the true church, wrote: 

"Because some persons, in their hatred of discipline, recoil from its very name, let them understand this: if no society, indeed, no house which has even a small family, can be kept in proper condition without discipline, it is much more necessary in the church, whose condition should be as ordered as possible. Accordingly, as the saving doctrine of Christ is the soul of the church, so does discipline serve as its sinews, through which the members of the body hold together, each in its own place. Therefore, all who desire to remove discipline or to hinder its restoration--whether they do this deliberately or out of ignorance--are surely contributing to the ultimate dissolution of the church."2 

In a day when the court of public opinion is viewed as the highest civil and ecclesiastical court by many in our land and in our churches, we must be on guard against embracing an ecclesiastical Antinomianism. We all have the enemy of self within telling us to do what we want, when we want and in whatever way we want. When we come to Christ we surrender our imagined right to do so. We, who have died with Christ and have been raised with Him, are to live as slaves of righteousness and members of His body (Rom. 6:5-11; Eph. 5:30), submitting to His rule through His ministers in His church. May God give us grace to do so for His glory, our joy and the well-being of His church in the world. 

1. An excerpt from the PCA Handbook for Presbyteries Clerks, under the section on the "Agreement on Transfer of Members and Congregations." p. 013 

2. John Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.12.1

Weak on Holiness

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A recent post on Reformation21 was removed by the author. But thanks be to the Aquila "Report" (quotes mine), republication is truly well and alive

The author on the Aquila "Report" takes issue with a certain Ref21 blogger for undermining good works in the Christian life. This Ref21 blogger allegedly denies WCF 16.2-3 for saying:

"My sanctification is more imagined than real. But my justification is more real than imagined."

Who is this blogger? He is pictured below - without a mask this time - and he is weak on the necessity of good works.

Now where's that famous Lloyd-Jones quote when I need it....

Got Antinomianism (2) new.jpg

Pastor Mark Jones is re-reading chapter 5 of Antinomianism in order to try and rectify his theology of good works before his lecture on Antinomianism at the Westminster Conference in London on Dec. 3.

Concerning current controversy

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As the brouhaha concerning antinomianism continues to develop, with fallout in various spheres, it is sad to see the vagueness, brutality and confusion that seems to spring up in its wake, more or less prevalent and evident depending on the medium employed.

Vagueness, because lots of people seem to have something to say (or to think that they do), but not all of them are making plain that they are saying it. Twitter lends itself to this portentous cloudiness, in which momentous 140 character statements having to do with law and grace, with righteous dealing and integrity, and so on and so forth, roll off a thousand keyboards and screens. Taking into account the limitations of that medium, surely the ideal is a clear and direct communication? Whatever platform is employed, it would do us well to make plain what and who we are dealing with. If there are issues to engage or charges to be made, it is helpful to all to make clear that we are speaking of certain men and situations. Anything else seems a little churlish and quite unhelpful. Internet debate is a nonesuch for distractions and ephemerality, for making mountains of molehills and molehills of mountains. If there is nothing to be said, at least by us, then let us hold our tongues. If there is something to be said, let it be said pointedly and plainly, for the sake of us all, so that we can know what is going on and why.

Brutality, because the relish with which some Christians take up their verbal weapons and charge into such conflicts is always tragic. In a fallen world, such controversy is a necessary evil, never a gleeful melée. This kind of public dispute takes place when the honour of God demands it, and I have had no qualms about raising the issue myself in electronic and physical print, because I think what I described as incipient antinomianism, now sadly breaking out more substantially, is a matter of real and weighty concern. At the same time, we must guard against a vicious spirit which all too easily rises to the surface in the heat of battle. Our words must cut, but they need not rip. Cruel humour, sullen indictment, snide criticism, aggressive speech, wild accusation, imputed evil, and glee over those who stumble or fall ought to have no place in these engagements. Indeed, because of how easily we go astray here, and remembering that we cannot hear the tone of voice in which men write, we ought to pursue a scrupulous graciousness in such matters, so that while people might disagree violently with what we say, they might not be able to argue with the way in which we say it. As in so much, we must strive to ensure that the disagreements are a matter of substance and not of style. Edged weapons are necessary; barbed weapons should be laid aside. Our aim must be to win men, not to destroy them. Let those who are saints engage as such.

Confusion, because the key issues seem so easily to be lost sight of. I appreciate that the key issues are broad issues, overarching concerns. Given the nature of this beast, I trust that we will not lose sight of the wood for the trees. So, there is continued and often proper concern for relational integrity, justice and fairness, reasonable openness, holy speech, and so on. But the great issue is not - and should not be made to be - which man is rising or falling, whether or not this public statement or that ought to have been made, who is aligning with whom, or anything else of this order. These are largely incidental matters. This is not and must not become a matter of mere personalities. I trust that I am not adding to the problem by suggesting that what is at stake here is the distinctive holiness of God's people, its form and substance, its grounds and pattern, its establishment and progress. If the Lord has commanded us that "as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, 'Be holy, for I am holy'" (1Pt 1:15-16) then our great concern should be to reflect and cultivate that holiness without which no man shall see the Lord. What is this holiness? What does it look like? On what basis is it pursued? By what means shall we pursue it? Holiness is to adorn the church of Christ for God's glory and for our good, and we must not let this get clouded, or have our attention drawn away from what is at stake, or compromise this holiness in our defence of it. You might think my martial language is overblown, but - make no mistake - there is something of vital moment at stake, and it will be clear before long, if it is not already, that this is indeed a battle, and a battle for the very definition and reality of godliness.

So, for what it is worth, let us please cultivate clarity and charity as we engage. If engagements fought long ago on this matter are anything to go by, this is just the beginning, and there will be tragedies before the dust settles. If nothing else, let us be determined that we shall honour Christ in the ways, means and ends we embrace. I know that all sides will say that, but the tree will be known by its fruit. I am utterly persuaded of the rightness of this cause, but it would be a sad thing to win the day and yet to see the banner of truth sullied by the way in which and the people by whom it has been carried into the battles that must be fought.

Book bites

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A couple of bits and pieces to recommend, either of which you might already have sampled, I hope to your edification.

First, Antinomianism by Mark Jones (Amazon.com/Amazon.co.uk/Westminster). We are not lacking expressions of the blunter forms of antinomianism in our day, but the phenomenon is actually far more subtle than a rejection or amelioration of the abiding relevance of the Ten Commandments as a binding code on the conviction and behaviour of regenerate men and women. Jones plunges into the seventeenth century to bring out some of the very fine distinctions and seemingly slight but vital shifts of emphasis that expose antinomianism as a system both in its older and more modern forms. Here you will find something of the breadth of the heterodoxy involved, and also the breadth of the orthodox response (in which there were also some differences of opinion). Particularly helpful are Jones' pastoral concern for those exposed to this kind of ministry and his determination to offer a thoroughly Christological corrective. This is a cracking little volume, though if you cannot even spell the word newance you are likely to have some issues with it. You might yourself wish to massage a few of his conclusions but the book is a timely reminder of what Jones suggests is "Reformed theology's unwelcome guest." As a historical and theological frame of reference for issues that we are facing again today, this slim but thoughtful work should prove extremely useful.

Second, The Shallows by Nicholas Carr (Amazon.com/Amazon.co.uk). This is the gent who wrote the famous essay asking whether or not Google is making us stupid. This is not a Christian book, nor is it a diatribe against technology. Thoroughly naturalistic in its approach, with no real room for the spiritual or supernatural, it is nevertheless a penetrating volume. Carr considers the potent effect of the interweb on our brains, its effective training of us into certain patterns of thought, its profound and even deliberate impact on our assimilation and assessment and retention of data. Stimulating in style, broad in scope, balanced in approach, pointed in warning, I think that Christians who act and interact in large measure online would do well to read this book, put it in the context of their Scriptural convictions, and carefully examine the extent to which we are being formed and influenced by the media through which we now access and receive so much of our information, let alone our theological instruction.