Tolle Lege: Christ and the Law
February 26, 2019
A number of years ago, a young man who had been trained at a Reformed seminary that subscribes to the Westminster Standards was being examined for licensure on the floor of Presbytery. He was asked, "Is the covenant of grace conditional? If so, what is or are the conditions?" Without hesitation, the young man confidently said that it was unconditional. There were no conditions on our part in the covenant of grace. If I remember correctly, the young man also referenced Thomas Boston and the Marrow Men. The problem, however, was that the young man’s response was in direct violation of the teaching of the Westminster Standards! Westminster Confession of Faith 7.3 says that the Lord requires man to have faith in order to be saved. Similarly, Westminster Larger Catechism 32 says that faith is required as “the condition to interest them [sinners] in him [the Mediator].”
This anecdote highlights the importance of Whitney G. Gamble’s book, Christ and the Law: Antinomianism at the Westminster Assembly,” which has been recently published by Reformation Heritage Books. In the final paragraph of her book, she wrote,
Antinomianism as a religious sect only grew after 1650; among other things, it embodied an extremely influential approach to interpreting Scripture that continues to be seen and heard in sermons and commentaries today (157).
I believe she is absolutely correct. English Antinomian teachings, to one degree or another, have influenced and continue to influence the Reformed world to the point that we espouse similar doctrines in contradiction to the Westminster Standards (as was the case in the opening story) or even to the point that we interpret the Westminster Standards in light of them. There is a good deal of irony in this since Gamble shows in her book, as Ryan McGraw pointed out in his recent review of it, that the Westminster divines as a whole were deeply concerned about Antinomian teachings, and wrote their documents in light of them. In particular, the “specter of antinomianism created in the divines an urgency to explain clearly and carefully the doctrine of justification, the place of faith and works in salvation, the nature of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, and the role of Christ’s work in redemption” (84).
The role of faith in salvation, which is connected to covenant conditions, is an example of the influence of Antinomian teaching in the Reformed world. The Antinomians believed that faith was not a condition for justification at all, not even an instrumental condition. If faith was necessary in any sense for or unto justification then it would be a legalistic work (143). Faith, therefore, followed justification and declared to the believer’s conscience that one is justified in Christ (51). The divines “were keen to combat” this view of faith in justification (109). And yet, it is one that we find in Reformed circles, including in such stalwarts as Herman Bavinck and Louis Berkhof.
In order to protect the gospel from nomism, Bavinck argued that faith is “not an instrument…by which a person accepts Christ but is a sure knowledge and firm confidence that the Holy Spirit works in one’s heart and by which he [the Spirit] persuades and assures people that, despite all their sins they share in Christ and all his benefits (RD, 4:222).” This is a classic English Antinomian position that was rejected by the Westminster Assembly. But that didn’t keep Bavinck from citing chapter 14 of the Westminster Confession of Faith to support his view! Contrary to Bavinck, WCF 14.2 says “the principal acts of saving faith are accepting...Christ alone for justification,” and WLC 73 says, “Faith justifies a sinner in the sight of God...as it is an instrument by which he receives and applies Christ...” Berkhof, who tends to follow Bavinck, essentially says the same thing (see this post). Since Bavinck and Berkhof are rightly held in high esteem, their influence will be great and will no doubt extend to their errors on justification.
This brings us back to the usefulness of Gamble’s book. Her book will help you understand the antinomian context in which the Westminster Standards were written. This in turn will help you properly interpret the Standards as well as to discern contemporary views that are contrary to them.