Antinomianism: Reformed Theology's Unwelcome Guest?

David B. Garner
"You Just Might Be an Antinomian" 

A review of Mark Jones' Antinomianism: Reformed Theology's Unwelcome Guest? Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2013, 176pp, $15.00/£11.00
It's refreshing to read a book whose author has done his homework. Antinomianism is such a book, characterized both by theological discernment and incisive clarity. There are no wasted sentences, no feel-good fluff only to amuse but freely to ignore. Though a small work, it is a full work. Though a short read, it is a savory read. Having studied broadly and thought deeply, Mark Jones packs a punch in every paragraph. Skillfully navigating historic, Reformed theology concerning core gospel themes, Jones implicitly and explicitly - yet always effectively - weds historic debates to the contemporary scene. 

In some ways, this book is a plea. It's a cry in the wilderness. It begs us who live in an age of cheap grace sound bites and Reformed Twitter tweets to think biblically, carefully, and self-critically. It implores us to abandon slothful, would-be versions of the gospel. And because Jones rehearses and summarizes mainstream Reformed thought chiefly from the seventeenth century, the book's illumining freshness to our theological reflection is itself a rebuke to contemporary theological laziness. The gap between Rutherford17 and Reformation21 stretches well beyond the temporal.

Antinomian is an ugly word. No one would willingly own it. Any uninformed postmodernist would reject it outrightly: "Anti- what? I'm not anti-anything!" The more informed might deflect antinomian culpability with ready theological indignation: "Hey, I believe in sanctification. I believe in the third use of the law. I believe in God's call to holiness. It's patently clear: I'm no antinomian!" 

Antinomianism may (convincingly!) persuade you otherwise. With his comprehensive analysis and nuanced reflections, Jones calls the reader to beware the "golden white devil" of antinomianism by revisiting core questions in the theologically sophisticated ways of our forefathers. The goal, of course, is not merely an historical survey of past corrections to passé theological aberrations. Rather, the purpose is to expose and correct antinomian errors of past ages that have again reared their stubborn heads. Those heads, as Jones infers, may well rest on our own shoulders (p.xv).

Jones does not conceal his concern for current perpetrators, though he only names one advocate of contemporary antinomian theology - Tullian Tchividjian (pp.90-91, 116, 128). His restraint is commendable: "The charge of antinomianism should only be made carefully, and for that reason I have refrained from implicating certain individuals who have leanings in that direction." (p.128) Rather than providing a checklist of felons, Jones simply lays out the data and pleads, if the shoe fits, wear it. Yet he does it with the gravitas of expert historical analysis combined with the grace of marked deference. Criticisms land deftly yet never unkindly. He argues as a pastor, rather than an armchair polemicist, whose criticisms flail wildly but rarely make contact with reality. Some might wish Jones had taken more contemporary theologians to task, but it is arguably the case that limiting referents more effectively forces the pressing question: "Is it I, Lord?" Further naming could prevent an unlisted culprit from honestly confronting his antinomianism.

Antinomianism isn't new. It's not even just old. It's original, Adamic, and pandemic - it was the first sin and its spirit characterizes all sin. It was Adam's sin and it is our sin. Sin is opposition to the will of God attitudinally and practically, intentionally and deceptively, overtly and subtly, and always guiltily. Without nuance or caveat, the Apostle John calls sin, "lawlessness." Short. Bitter. Damning. Sin is violation of the law of God. Sin opposes God's law and therefore the God of the law. Sin is antinomianism.

Indeed the corollary is Jones' concern. In all its pressing forms, antinomianism is sin. There exists no legitimate, defensible form of antinomianism. Whether I am antinomian in motive, intent or act, whether expressly or blindly, or whether I frame my antinomianism in the garb of shallow grace, all forms of lawlessness operate antithetically to the Spirit of Christ. 
Antinomianism is slippery. It is a con artist, a shyster, a double agent. It deceptively dons the Ritz of a slick version of grace, persuades of its authenticity, and lassos the unwitting soul to embrace a less-than-chaste gospel as the pure gospel.

"Don't you know? You are free. The gospel is free. Do you feel obligated, responsible, duty-bound? That's not grace. Don't you know any sense of obligation, desire for reward, or fear of disappointing God is evidence that legalism still holds you captive? Let go and let God. Celebrate your justification and reject the compulsion!" 

And so it goes. Purest grace, the antinomian insists, is evidenced by purest gratitude. Purest gratitude is evidenced by purest passivity. Purest passivity is evidenced by an abandonment of any sense of compulsion. The sanctification process, so configured, elevates moral indifference. Celebrate justification by faith, and voilà! Good stuff (aka sanctification) may well just happen. We mustn't believe for a moment that sanctification is a must! Any such must is a stubborn carry over from the law.

Such thinking, some continue to allege - and popularly so, is gospel grace. Such thinking, Jones asserts, demonstrates, and defends is actually antinomianism

Drawing from key themes addressed in Jones' book, we delineate certain antinomian signposts in Jeff Foxworthy fashion: 

If you believe that sanctification is getting used to your justification or reveling more fully in your reliance upon Jesus' righteousness, you just might be an antinomian.
If you believe that sanctification grows only from gratitude for your justification, you just might be an antinomian.
If you believe that God loves you and that your ongoing sin or your incremental obedience does not in any way affect God's love for you, you just might be an antinomian.
If you think that assurance of your Christian faith comes without consideration of personal holiness, you just might be an antinomian.
If you believe works are not necessary for salvation, you just might be an antinomian.
If you believe that the gospel brings no obligation and that any sense of obligation is antithetical to the gospel, you just might be an antinomian.
If you believe that preaching must avoid imperatives and only celebrate the indicative of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection and/or the declarative of Jesus' forgiveness, you just might be an antinomian.

Engaging complex questions of the hermeneutical and theological relationship between law and gospel, Jones explores their sweet complicity (cf. WCF 19.7), nimbly avoids neonomian error, and cogently explains the indicative/imperative relationship: "... the gospel is an indicative that has imperatives embedded in it." (p.54) He distinguishes the "broad sense" of the gospel from the narrow, where the narrow is the indicative (what Christ has done), and the broader sense involves the imperative for obedience implanted in the indicative of Christ's work (p.57). 

The gospel delivers gracious provision, gracious obligation, and gracious enablement. Jones summarizes Puritan Thomas Shepard, "the gospel requires believers to be holy and perfect... The law and the gospel each require as much perfection as the other in the matter of holiness." (p.51) The difference is the way in which the law and the gospel get to the imperative. One demands. The other demands and provides. 

At the heart of it all, contends Jones, is Jesus Christ.  "Antinomianism is fundamentally a Christological problem." (p.18) In response, Jones rightly delivers a substantive Christo-centricity for holiness, and builds out the inextricability of believers' holiness from the covenantal holiness of Jesus Christ: "the one who is perfect was made perfect." (p.19) Jesus relied on the Holy Spirit (p.24), he truly advanced in his human nature (p.22), and he lived by faith, not by sight (p.23). All of these matters of Jesus' holiness are necessary for redemption accomplished -- by Christ, and redemption applied -- by Spirit-wrought union with Christ. 

To divorce the believer's faith walk from the actual benefits accrued by Jesus Christ is to generate theological abstraction. By stark contrast, Jones shows how holiness of believers depends on the actual holiness of Christ Jesus worked out in us. Faith is a gift of God in Christ, but the Spirit of Christ does not believe for us. Obedience is a Spirit-given grace, but the Spirit does not obey for us.

The Spirit infuses grace within us, whereby he motivates and empowers the believer unto Christ-like faith and obedience.  (Cf. p. 26) Yes, complementing the grace of imputation, infused grace for necessary good works is a biblical and Reformed doctrine! "Good works are not only the believer's way of giving thanks to God, but also his duty on the way to salvation." (p.66) We must do good works. That too is the gospel of grace.

In other words, "reformed theologians during the post-Reformation era were clear that good works (i.e., evangelical obedience) were not only the way of life, but also the way to life." (p.67, my emphasis) Understood properly in their covenantal context, good works are consequentially necessary, and because of the real power of the Holy Spirit are actually good. Noting the classic text in Isaiah concerning the works of men as "filthy rags" (Is 64:6), Jones follows historic Reformed exegesis in noting that these worthless works are those of the unregenerate. 

To be sure, our works contribute nothing to our justification, but the presence of the Holy Spirit is real and his enabling, compelling power is real. Good works of believers are really good - not because of the inherent goodness of man, but because of the power of the God. Grace is astounding not just because God forgives our sin, but because he enables us to do good works which he ordained (Eph 2:10). "It is actually an affront to God to suggest that Spirit-wrought works in believers are 'filthy rags.'" (p.71)

Thus, our union with Christ does not free us from obligation to the law, but from its curse. This union does not free us from the weight of the imperatives, but by the power of the indicative (Christ's life, death, resurrection) frees us for the imperatives. Gospel freedom is holy freedom, and the Spirit of Christ is the Holy Spirit. It is no wonder that Calvin viewed the third use of the law as primary. Union with Christ, the Great Law-Keeper, could make it no less. "To eradicate the moral law from the conscience of the Christian is to attempt to eradicate Christ himself. Christ was a walking transcript of the law while on earth; therefore, failing to love the law of God is failing to love Christ himself." (p.115)

Jones bemoans the troublesome irony of antinomian versions of great and pure grace; they are neither great nor pure. Preserving the beauty of forgiveness is not accomplished by denying the power of the Spirit to bring about obedience. Grace in forgiveness does not suffer by the celebration of the grace of God in good works. Put otherwise, celebrating Jesus' obedience for imputed righteousness will never be advanced by denying, marginalizing, or neglecting the efficacy of Jesus' work for our sanctification. Justification is not better appreciated because we eclipse sanctification.

The opposite is, in fact, true. By failing to appreciate the real sanctifying power of God in the heart of the believer, antinomians reduce the efficacy of Jesus' work and, though unintentionally so, deplete the meaning and power of his life, death, and resurrection. Antinomian theology, as Jones properly asserts, not only misses faithful soteriology, but does so because it corrupts faithful Christology. When the forensic (justification) exhausts our doctrine of salvation, Jesus gets buried beneath a version of grace that is impotent to transform, a so-called grace that surely is not that which he himself proffers. Jesus' salvation is frankly more than justification.

To boot, antinomianism makes justification do what it cannot do. "Justification, as an applied benefit, does not cause sanctification." (p.58). Surely justification motivates obedience, but obedience is not just a human-driven response to God. It is a God-enabled response to God in Christ, by the power of the Spirit in us. "God justifies the wicked. That is good news." (p.59) Yes, and God sanctifies the wicked. That too is good news. Distinct features of union with Christ, legal and transformative benefits are inseparable because they come from the one Mediator. "Union with Christ is the ground of both justification and sanctification, and Christ is the meritorious cause of both." (p.101) Jones makes this point sing: the Christological heart of soteriology is not an attitude or an ethos, but the substance and source of a faithful soteriology. With precision, Jones successfully expresses this vital tethering of historia salutis and ordo salutis, of the life experience of Jesus and the life experience of his disciples. 

However, to qualify as an acceptable review, I must complain about something. So here it goes. My primary criticism, if I would offer one about this well-written book, is organizational. Jones rightly insists on faithful Christology as the center of all soteriology and the key to addressing the antinomian errors: "Reformed understanding of Christ's person and work--not necessarily more imperatives, though they belong in our preaching--is the true solution to the problem of antinomianism." (p.vxi) To be sure, from the very beginning the insistence on the Christological principle permeates. But after its paradigmatic expression in chapter 2, its reappearance at the end of particular chapters seems backwards. Instead, starting each chapter's subject with the Christological core and developing from that core explicitly would make the theological argument and the structural flow cohere more effectively.

By way of analogy, I point to an oft-expressed criticism of John Murray's classic Redemption Accomplished and Applied. Murray does not arrive at his treatment of union with Christ until late in the work, yet he argues that such union is the source of all redemptive benefit. Murray's faithful theological argumentation is weakened by the organization of the material. Similarly, while Jones constantly brings us back to Jesus Christ and properly so, I would have found the book more helpful if the Christological primacy would have received priority in the flow of each chapter's argument. I would prefer moving from Christ to the antinomian correction rather than from the antinomian correction to Christ. Enough said.

Antinomianism will make you think. It may change you. It surely won't let you consider holiness, sin, sanctification, God's love and evangelical assurance casually. Jones does not pad us with indulgent theological cushions, but instead prods us to relish the full counsel of God concerning the full gospel of Jesus Christ. He avoids a Salem-like trial of antinomians while vividly painting a portrait of full-orbed biblical grace. With precise strokes, he illustrates careful theological honesty in the face of antinomian lures. 

As sons of Adam, the sway of antinomianism is never more than the slightest consideration away. Slippery, evasive, and downright stubborn, antinomianism is the "golden white devil." It is "truly difficult to pinpoint an antinomian--difficult, but not impossible." (p.115) Taking the challenge on himself, Jones has led us a long way toward countering this difficulty. And yes, you too just might be an antinomian. Read Antinomianism and find out.

David B. Garner is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary.