Avoiding Extremes

Westminster divine Anthony Burgess addressed Antinomianism in his book Vindiciae Legis: A Vindication of the Moral Law and the Covenants. In a passing comment, Burgess noted that God may have allowed “Antinomian errour” to grow in popularity in order rebuke Protestant ministers. He claimed that “in many Sermons, in many a mans ministery, the drift and end of all his preaching is not, that Christ may be advanced.” Burgess was appalled by this and said that it is “a farre greater sin” for Protestant ministers than it is for “Papists” because they should know better. God, therefore, may have allowed antinomian errors to flourish in order to humble preachers who had “not set forth Christ and grace in all the glory of it.” Richard Baxter made a similar comment regarding the rise of Antinomianism. He said that it was due in part to “many godly Protestants” who rarely and unskillfully preached on the “Mystery of Redemption and Grace” and whose messages were “almost all for Humiliation, and too little of the wonderful Love of God, revealed in Jesus Christ.”

Regardless of the accuracy of their observations, it is certainly the case that overreacting to error is a real and present danger. In our zeal to avoid legalism, we may easily slide into antinomianism and vice versa. Ministers aren’t exceptions to this common phenomenon. John Willison (1680-1750), a godly evangelical Scottish minister, observed that preachers may fall into antinomianism or legalism when they only preach part of the story or even when they botch the part that they do preach. His comments are worth quoting in full:

It is possible that some who preach the gospel may pick out some of the glorious truths thereof, such as, The freedom of grace in the salvation of sinners, our justification by the righteousness of Jesus Christ as our surety, the excellency of faith in Christ, the privileges of the covenant and blessings of Christ’s purchase, and may make these truths almost the only subject of their preaching; and yet perhaps manage them so unhappily, as not to lead people to study regeneration of heart, holiness of life, abhorrence of sin, tenderness of walk, and the conscientious practice of all commanded duties. And surely in this way of doing, they in a great measure miss the design of our Saviour’s incarnation, and the end of the doctrine of grace, which is, to destroy the works of the devil, and to teach men to live soberly, righteously and godly in this present world.

On the other hand, it is as possible that others may insist very much in enforcing morality, and make very fine rational harangues of its excellency: and yet make little use of gospel-motives to press it, and be at little pains to shew the gospel-principles from whence it must proceed. Likeways they may preach much against vice and immorality, and warn people of the evil of it; and yet take up but little time to teach them concerning the root and spring of vice, (viz. our fall in Adam, and the corruption of our natures) and the necessity of an inward change by a work of regeneration, for the healing of the inward disease and plague of the heart. Also they may press holy duties very much, and yet make little mention of the true fountain and source of holiness, (viz. our union with Christ by faith, and the renewing of the Holy Ghost) and speak little of the necessity of Christ’s blood to wash our performances. Now, both these extremes in the way of preaching are equally to be avoided.

Since both extremes need to be avoided in preaching, Willison goes on to say that all churches need to make sure that “the obligation of Christians to holiness and good works” are not weakened in the least “by preachers of the gospel, under the specious pretext of exalting free grace; seeing free grace and strict holiness do nobly consist together.”The churches also need to make sure that they prevent “the preaching of morality, and the practice of duties, in a legal strain; that is, in a way tending to the neglect of Christ and his righteousness, or to the disparagement of the doctrine of free grace.”

How do we avoid either extreme in our preaching? First, we need to be aware of our own propensities, which are in part shaped by our past experiences. People who come out of a fundamentalist or legalistic background will tend to lean towards antinomianism, focusing on comfort to the exclusion of duty. And people who come from a licentious lifestyle or upbringing will tend to lean towards legalism, focusing on duty to the exclusion of comfort. As Robert Traill (1642-1716) insightfully pointed out, people have a “greater kindness for that extreme they go half-way to, than for that which they go half-way from.” Knowing the extreme position that we are most likely to embrace is at least a start in being able to avoid it.

Second, we need to be well-grounded and instructed in the whole counsel of God. The Westminster Standards are a great help in this regard, as they were formulated during a time when both extremes were plaguing the English church.

Third, we need to preach the whole counsel of God. One practical help in this regard that is at least worth perusing is the Act concerning Preaching that was passed by the 1736 general assembly of the Church of Scotland.

D. Patrick Ramsey (@DPatrickRamsey) is pastor of Nashua Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Edinburg, Pennsylvania. He is a co-author (with Joel Beeke) of An Analysis of Herman Witsius's The Economy of the Covenants and author of A Portrait of Christ.

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