Antinomianism: Reformed Theology's Unwelcome Guest? by Mark Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
One of the hardest things for Christians, and Christian theologians, to balance is our justification by God’s free grace alone, and our duty to obey God’s Word. If we are more eager to defend faith alone, we might skip too lightly over our duty to God’s law. If we get excited about applying the law to every aspect of our lives, we might lead others to think wrongly that the law justifies us.
Mark Jones aims to guard against the first danger. Interacting mainly with Tullian Tchividjian’s recent writings, and also with the Sonship movement, our author takes up the old debate over the law between the Lutheran and Reformed, ably defending the Reformed view.
The Lutheran view opposes law and gospel, even into the Christian life, while the Reformed see them as friends, in Christ. “The antithesis between the law and the gospel ends the moment someone becomes a Christian” (Ch. 4, “Sweetly Comply” section, para. 2). “With the gospel and in Christ, united to him by faith, the law is no longer my enemy but my friend” (same). Notice that outside of Christ all agree that law and gospel are at odds: law condemns; gospel holds out rescue. But “As Richard Muller notes, ‘The law, for Lutheranism, can never become the ultimate norm for Christian living but, instead, must always lead to Christ who alone is righteous” (Ch. 4, “Sweetly Comply” section, para. 3).
This works out in our “street level” piety in this way: to avoid giving any glory to ourselves, average-Joe Reformed-guy will say that everything he does, even the most obedient, is as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:4). We cannot keep the law and never will, so we turn away from it, to the Gospel and accept grace, never to look back to the law. But this is misguided.
“It is actually an affront to God to suggest that Spirit-wrought works in believers are ‘filthy rags,’ for these are works that God has prepared in advance for us to do in order to magnify his grace and glorify the name of Christ (1 Cor. 15:10; John 15:5)” (Ch. 5, “Good or Filthy” section, para. 3).
See the problem? Do we have to turn away from the law to accept grace? Yes, in the sense that we have to give up trying to keep it for ourselves. No, in the sense that we should still strive to obey God. But it is so easy to turn back to the law, once we have become believers, and fall back into legalism, trying to earn or keep our status with God. So easy, that many believers resist it at all. Any talk of duty or obedience must lead to legalism. No! No! Jones shines at this point, showing all the Scriptures that take us back to obedience, with nary a hint of legalism.
When we say God is pleased with us in Christ, is there no sense in which His pleasure changes based on our obedience? The antinomian, eager to defend God’s electing and unchanging love, will quickly say no, there is no aspect of God’s love toward us that changes, whether we sin or not, if we are in Christ. But the Bible speaks of our pleasing God or not, as Christians (2 Sam. 11:27; Col 1:10). This does not mean our obedience determines our salvation, but our obedience (or lack thereof) does affect our relationship with God. The antinomian, on the other hand, will oppose preachers who “warn their people that they can displease God and Christ or that God can be angry with his people, as he often has been (Ezra 9; 2 Kings 17:18)” (Ch. 6, “Displeasing God and Christ” section, para. 4).
Much of this debate revolves around our view of sanctification. The antinomian is prone to say that sanctification is little more than getting used to and living out our justification. The better view is to exhort us as Peter did to work out our salvation. “The sanctification of the church is an important part of Christ’s glory. It would be incorrect to affirm that we can add to or diminish God’s essential glory. But, again, we may or may not bring glory to the God-man, depending on our obedience or sin” (Ch. 6, “Pleasing God and Christ” section, para. 3).
May we look to our sanctification at all for assurance that we are in Christ? The antinomian would say no, that will lead to works-righteousness. But the classic Reformer said yes, our obedience is a secondary source of assurance (Ch. 7). The antinomian sees himself as a Christian as still totally depraved, ignoring the work of the Spirit moving him to obedience which pleases God. He assumes he isn’t much different from unbelievers as far as his heart goes. Looking within will only result in despair. The authors of the Westminster Confession of Faith saw it differently when they wrote that assurance is founded in part upon “the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises [of salvation] are made” (WCF 18:2). In other words, God is working something new in you, that will be evident in some ways. This doesn’t mean we are justified in thinking ourselves better morally than unbelievers, generally. But God is doing a work of sanctification in us that He is not doing in unbelievers.
Jones has a difficult PR battle with his thesis. No one who wants to be known as a defender of Reformed doctrines of grace and the five solas wants to imply what sound like caveats to our justification by faith alone. Who wants to appear to demote the importance of justification, the hallmark of the Reformation? And yet, if we are to do justice to all of Scripture, we must be careful not to wave our pet doctrine so loudly that it drowns out other important truths in the Bible. “The antinomians gave a priority to justification that went far beyond what Scripture teaches” (Ch 7. “Antinomian Assurance” section, para. 6). This is an audacious statement when writing to a Reformed audience! But I believe it to be an important caution. We have not exhaustively described the Gospel when we have explained justification. While justification is the capstone of Reformed theology, it is not all of it. It is the hinge on which our salvation turns, but it is not the whole door.
Where you stand in this debate as a pastor will dramatically shape your preaching. Jones critiques the antinomian: “The same repetitive mantras are preached week after week, to the point that if you have heard one sermon, you have heard them all. These are not overstatements. It is very difficult for some preachers to deliver messages each week when they have a sort of ‘systematic theology’ that they need to declare every Lord’s Day” (Ch. 8, “Different Types” section, para. 10).
Jones’ main point is that if we understand the person and work of Christ in His fullness, the apparent tension between law and gospel will resolve itself. Jesus justifies and sanctifies us for His glory.
This book may be especially useful for “cage stage” Calvinists who have just discovered the doctrines of grace, and for elders and pastors considering how to preach (and evaluate preaching on) the whole counsel of God. It isn’t an “entry-level” theology book – you ought to know a little about the Reformed doctrinal landscape before diving in. And he quotes old-language Puritans frequently. But I highly commend this work to you.
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