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Antinomianism – The Present Confusion, Part 1

Category Articles
Date February 23, 2005

‘Antinomianism – one of the greatest curses conceivable!’ So asserts D M Lloyd-Jones. But what is ‘antinomianism’? The word itself was first coined, I understand, by Luther. It is derived from the Greek, ‘against law’ or ‘anti law’. By ‘law’, the reference is to the moral law (the ten commandments, or decalogue). And the crux of the matter has to do with ‘the third use of the law’.

The ‘first use’ of the law is to convict of sin and drive the repentant sinner to the Lord Jesus Christ;

The ‘second use’ of the law is to restrain lawlessness in society;

The ‘third use’ of the law is to function as the rule of life for the believer. One of the most famous statements of this comes from the Puritan Samuel Bolton in his The True Bounds of Christian Freedom – ‘The law sends us to the gospel for our justification; the gospel sends us to the law to frame our way of life’.

Is the moral law the rule of life for the believer?

It is this question – Is the moral law the rule of life for the Christian or is it not? – around which antinomianism revolves, and has always done so. Is the moral law (to quote Calvin) ‘the perfect rule of conduct’, or is it not? Are the ten commandments for today, or are they not? And this bears, necessarily, upon the wider question: what is the nature of the continuity/discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments?

To that basic question, as just stated, ‘Is the moral law the rule of life for the believer?’, the antinomian says ‘no’. Antinomians consider themselves to be taking a biblical stance. They do not ordinarily set out deliberately or deceitfully to be unbiblical. But they inevitably end up being just that. They misunderstand and misapply certain key Scripture texts (which we shall consider more closely in the second article). Such texts include: ‘For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ’ (Jn.1:17); ‘for ye are not under law, but under grace’ (Rom.6:14); and Christ’s own words, ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil’ (Mt.5:17).

Types of Antinomianism

There are countless different ‘branches’ of antinomianism, but we are safest and clearest sticking to two basic varieties: ‘practical’ and ‘doctrinal’, to which must be added, in addition, the particular dimension presented by New Covenant Theology.

In brief summary:

‘Practical’ antinomianism holds that since salvation is entirely of grace and cannot be lost once it has been received, then why bother about keeping the commandments? So you have the cycle of sin, forgiveness; sin, forgiveness, and so on. This is the classic heresy Paul was dealing with in Romans 6, from those who urged continuance in sin so that grace may abound. In our own day, this is not unrelated to the false teaching that it is possible to separate the acceptance of Jesus as Saviour from the acceptance of Him as Lord.

‘Doctrinal’ antinomianism wants nothing to do with that, but argues that the way to growth in grace, promotion of sanctification and holiness of life is not by keeping the commandments. It is the work of the Holy Spirit; we must walk in the Spirit.

New Covenant Theology drives a wedge between the Old and New Testaments, insisting that we are ‘New Testament Christians’, our relationship with codes of law is over and done with, and what we need is to follow ‘the law of Christ’. In other words, we must go straight to the New Testament.

Seeds of Antinomianism

Let it be understood straight away: it will be found that the major casualties of antinomianism are the honour of God (most important of all), and then, following on from that, holiness of life and the fourth commandment. John Murray has written: ‘In the denial of the permanent authority and sanctity of the moral law there is a direct thrust at the very centre of our holy faith, for it is a thrust at the veracity and authority of our Lord himself’. That is why the matter is so serious.

The ‘seeds’ of antinomianism are found in biblical times, indeed right from the very start. If anything is as old as the hills, this is. There was an incipient antinomianism even in the garden of Eden. Why? Because the devil is an antinomian. Remember what he said to Eve: ‘Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?’; and again, ‘Ye shall not surely die’ (Gen.3:1,4). It was there in Exodus 32:7-8, in the business of the golden calf. The book of Judges is characterised by it, as, one generation after another, ‘every man did that which was right in his own eyes’ (Judg.21 :25). It surfaced in Jeremiah’s day (Jer.7:9-1O). There is a hint of it in John 12:34. And several of the New Testament epistles testify to the early church being riddled with the curse of antinomianism in various ways (see, for example, Romans 6:1, Philippians 3:19. 1 Corinthians 5:2 and various statements in 2 Peter and Jude).

Following these beginnings, it took off through the years, all of which is well documented, but cannot detain us here. Our concern is with the contemporary debate of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Some of the leading contributors

In order to have as clear a view as we can of the present confusion, it is important to let some of the leading contributors to it be ‘heard’ in their own words. This the remaining part of the first article, will seek to do. In the further article a compact scriptural answer will be provided to the antinomians.

John Reisinger. He is one of the major exponents of New Covenant Theology. One of the chapter headings in his book Tablets of Stone is this: ‘The Tablets of Stone, or Ten Commandments, as a Covenant Document, Had a Historical Beginning and a Historical End’. He writes: ‘The Bible always considers the Tablets of Stone [i.e., ten commandments] as the specific covenant document that established the nation of Israel as a body politic at Mount Sinai’. ‘The Scripture nowhere states or infers that we are to think of the Tablets of Stone as “God’s eternal unchanging moral law”. We are always to think “Old Covenant”.

Michael Eaton. ‘Christians are in no way under this tyrannical figure, the law’ (Westminster Record). ‘If you walk in the Spirit deliberately you will fulfil the Mosaic law accidentally’ (How to Live a Godly Life).

R T Kendall. ‘The moral law is not the Christian’s code of conduct, for true godliness is never to be achieved by being under the moral law. It will make you a legalist – long-faced, grouchy, without joy or peace’ (sermon preached at Westminster Chapel). He claims that the Law of Christ is ‘a much higher law than the moral law, far more demanding. It presents a far greater challenge than the moral law, which is really the easy way out. It’s just so easy to keep the moral law and hate the Law of Christ’ (Westminster Record).

Gerald Coates. ‘When the believer properly fulfils the royal law of love for God and neighbour, he renders the law obsolete’ (What on Earth is this Kingdom).

Peter Meney. The editor of New Focus strenuously refutes any accusation of antinomianism, in the light of some editions of the magazine having ‘questioned the emphasis in some quarters on the ten commandments and their role in the life of a believer’. He writes: ‘… despite rumours to the contrary we regard the law of God to be holy, just and good’. He urges ‘that Christians are not duty bound to the ten commandments’ but that ‘it does not follow that there are no objective laws, or rules for Christian living. There are. For these we enlist all of Scripture as our final authority and inerrant guide, interpreted and displayed in the life and teaching of our precious Lord Jesus and his apostles’. ‘We believe in the unconditional acceptance of a sinner with God on the sole basis of Jesus Christ’s blood and righteousness without reference to works and acts of obedience on the part of the believer. We believe that this assurance, personally received, is the only effective motive for holy living’.

Don Fortner. ‘Those who tell us that believers are under the law as a rule of life have a hard time proving their position from the New Testament. This is because every statement about the believer and the law in the entire New Testament asserts exactly what Paul says in Romans 6:14 – “ye are not under the law”!’

‘If you are a believer, if you trust Christ, you are not under the law for justification, for sanctification, for holiness, or for any other reason. This is the teaching of the New Testament. It is simply wrong for Christian ministers and teachers to bind believers to the law as a rule of life and conduct’.

‘The believer’s rule of life is not one section of Scripture but the whole revealed will of God in holy Scripture’. (Taken from items on the New Focus website).

‘The law of God is holy and just and good. But it becomes a very great evil when it is perverted and used for something other than its divine purpose … The law of God has but one singular purpose. It exposes man’s guilt before God, shutting him up to faith in Christ alone for salvation … To use the law for any other purpose is to pervert and abuse the law … When true love reigns in the heart there is no need for law’.

‘Not only is it unwise, it is a sinful practice, contrary to the faith of the gospel, for a believer to make the law a basis for his life before God’. (Grace for Today).

Edgar Andrews. ‘As regards sanctification, the law can be accorded no special place today in the life of the believer, that is, no place over and above [his emphasis] the rest of Scripture. To suggest that the ten commandments are in some special way the Christian’s rule of life does an injustice to the whole body of New Testament teaching on Christian conduct’. Commenting on Galatians 5:18, he writes: ‘Had Paul intended to teach that the law, or any part of it, should be the Christian’s rule of life, here was his opportunity to do so. What does he say? He tells us that those led by the Spirit are not beholden to the law with respect to righteous living. Indeed, he seems to go further; being led by the Spirit and being ruled by the law are mutually exclusive in the area of Christian conduct’, (Welwyn Commentary on Galatians).

Christopher Bennett. ‘The Mosaic law was an expression of God’s holiness in terms of Israel, one nation long ago, and in terms of the people of God in their immature state before Christ came. It is fulfilled by Jesus, both in his life and death, and in his teaching and that of the apostles’. ‘The law of Moses, including the ten commandments, is not the direct set of regulations for the Christian – we are not under it any more. Instead we are obliged to obey Jesus’ commands, the “law of Christ”. (Article in Foundations: Not under law, but not without God’s law).

These flavours should be sufficient to show us which way the wind is blowing in some ‘evangelical’ quarters. It does not make attractive reading. So with the foregoing in mind, we shall seek in the second article to bring a response.

Richard Brooks is the Pastor of Stanton Lees Evangelical Church, Derbyshire, England

With permission from The Free Church Witness January 2005, http://www.fcontinuing.org

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