The "A" Word

71GcQA+-5lL._SL1500_Mark Jones went and did it. He dropped the “A” word, turned it inside out, and left the contemporary Reformed world a little exposed. Antinomianism. Go ahead and say it, it’s kind of a fun word. But no one wants to be called an antinomian. When you first hear the word you may immediately think, “Oh yeah, this applies to those people who are anti-law.” But Jones makes the case that “’antinomianism’ is a lot more complex than its etymology might suggest” (18). I’m not exaggerating when I say that he turns the word inside out. At the beginning of the book, Jones suggests that maybe even the legalists have much in common with antinomians. Echoing Oliver O’Donovan, he elaborates, “Legalism and antinomianism are in fact two sides of the same coin because they are ‘fleshly’ ways of living life” (2). This is very perceptive, and Jones is setting the reader up to see that the solution isn’t to find a middle ground between the two, because they are “fundamentally the same error.”  Instead, Jones’s book sets out to show that “The grace of God in the person of Jesus Christ, properly understood, is the only solution to these twin heresies. In essence, the mistakes of legalism and antinomianism are Christological errors” (3). This is what I appreciate the most about the book. The author teaches the relationship of both Christ’s person and work to our sanctification. He also gives us quite a history lesson. The first chapter chronicles some of the more impressionable antinomian debates covering everything from Luther, the Puritans, and the Marrow Men. With that helpful context, Jones moves on to a chapter on The Imitation of Christ. He helpfully indicates that while it is good that we emphasize Christ’s impetration, that is, “Christ’s meritorious work,” we must not focus on it to the neglect of application, that is, “the enjoyment of Christ’s purchase of redemption. The two concepts are distinct but not separate. So to be holy is both to look to Christ’s work of reconciliation (i.e. impetration) and to labor after conformity to his image (Eph. 1:4; Rom. 8:29)” (22). I love how Jones points out the relationship between Jesus’s life of faith and our own, both dependent on his Holy Spirit. But back to the whole antinomian debate, does the law have a role in our sanctification? If so, what exactly is it? Jones exhorts, “Because of the greater indicatives of the new covenant, the imperatives are not relaxed, but in fact are strengthened” (37). How can this be if we are now under the reign of grace under the new covenant? Well, there is a whole chapter dedicated to the law, and another on the relationship between the law and the gospel. Jones breaks down the command to believers to love as Christ has loved us, explaining how after the incarnation, Christ demonstrates an even greater model of love than is commanded in the Decalogue. Since Christ has filled this perfectly on our behalf, we now have a new relationship with the law. We can pursue holiness, holding on to the promise of God, knowing that Christ is interceding on our behalf, and confident that he will accept our worship and obedience even as it is now imperfect. The believer’s relationship with the law is very different than it was as an unbeliever, but there is still a relationship there. “The gospel, largely understood, involves the work of the Spirit in applying Christ’s work of impetration. Thus, the law is changed by the Spirit into something effectual, so that we may accurately claim…that the law is an instrument in progressive sanctification” (56). I appreciate how thorough Jones is in this chapter on law and grace. He is able to maintain the impetration of Christ as the key message in the gospel, while getting into the implications of how this is worked out in our sanctification. He does all this not my lessening Christ’s work and putting a false burden on the believer to be left in despair, but highlighting how the mediatorial work of Christ actually makes the law friendly to us, as well as the Spirit’s application in leading us to gospel obedience. Not only does Jones turn the “A” word inside out, he pulls out all the pockets. There is a chapter on Good Works and Rewards, as well as a chapter distinguishing between God’s benevolent love and his complacent love. I confess, this is where I wrestled the most. He explains God’s benevolent love as his primary love for all believers in his election and generosity that accompanies all those who are blessed in Christ. But Jones evidences how the tradition of the Reformed also taught on God’s special delight and friendship in response to “the good that is in the elect.” On one hand, I understand. All our goodness is in Christ, dependent on the Spirit; and so as we do good, we are in a sense closer to God. But at the same time, I think of the parable of the Prodigal Son. God’s benevolent love is a passionate love that strongly pursues us, and the good that is celebrated there is a broken heart. We often focus on the good that is more visible and rewarded even by our own church peers, but we need to be reminded that God knows our thoughts and our hearts. So I would maybe have liked to see the author spend some time distinguishing between performing good with the wrong heart motives, verses the good we do in Christ that doesn’t always look to outsiders as a great spiritual accomplishment. I circled a footnote that articulated what was floating in my head as I read that chapter: “Of course, keeping with the idea that our good works are prepared in advance by God, we could also look at the issue in terms of whether those who do more good works than others have been recipients of God’s love and grace on a greater level” (82). Is your brain twisted yet? I am amazed by how much ground is covered in a mere 130 page book. Jones opens in the preface saying every sentence must count in a book about antinomianism. He certainly succeeded in writing a succinct history, explanation, and interaction with some of the warning signs he sees in contemporary Christian language. The author ends the book working toward a solution. I appreciate the pastoral advice and tone in this chapter. I found this excerpt particularly helpful:
In the context of the Christian life, the Spirit so works in believers that they have not been deprived of their wills, but rather in such a way that our obedience is truly our obedience. The faith that is a gift of God is nevertheless our faith. The power comes from God; the act belongs to man. (125)
One thing I do fear is that readers will want to start calling out all sorts of people as antinomian, just like we like to label people as legalists. I like how Jones teaches these are two sides of the same coin. We all have tendencies to fall on one side or the other. But then again, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t operate with some sort of law—-as Jones put it, if we keep “beating the grace horse,” that too can become a law. That’s why it is so important to have the right understanding of both law and grace, as well as a solid doctrine of Christ’s person and work. This is the greatest benefit of the book. You may not agree with Jones on some of the lingo that he tags as antinomian, but you will certainly learn from him and be challenged. You will also be edified by his Christological focus, and encouraged to continue in the race that is the Christian life.