The Problem Of Antinomianism

Repeatedly in the history of Christianity there have been two competing, damaging impulses regarding the moral law of God. One of those impulses is known as “antinomianism.” This view denies the abiding validity of the moral law for the Christian. It argues that because Christ fulfilled the moral law for the Christian it can no longer norm the Christian life. Proponents of this view emphasize the the fact that the Ten Commandments (Ex 20; Deus 5) were given under the Mosaic or Old Covenant. They note that they Old or Mosaic Covenant has expired with the death of Christ and that we are in the New Covenant now. They point to biblical contrast between being “under the law” versus being under “the law of Christ” (e.g., 1 Cor 9:20–21). It is assumed that the moral law entered history at Sinai and has expired with that covenant. Then there is practical antinomianism, where the moral law is formally affirmed but practically ignored. Often in such contexts the moral law is not distinguished from the Old Covenant judicial laws and ceremonial or religious laws. Since the ceremonial and judicial laws are abrogated in the New Testament (e.g., Mark 7:19; Acts 10:15; 11:9). Evangelical Christians often take the attitude, “that [the moral law] was then, this is now.” As a practical matter few Christians are willing to say that Christians are free to commit idolatry, adultery, theft, murder, etc but it manifests itself most frequently in the denial of what the Reformed number as the fourth commandment:

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy (Ex 20:8–11; ESV).

Whether formally or informally the abiding validity of the fourth commandment is widely rejected.

There are those, however, who will argue that anyone who makes a profession of faith of any sort, i.e., who walks the aisle in response to an evangelistic invitation, who prays a prayer during an evangelistic conversation, or who perhaps responds to a television preacher is a Christian simply by virtue of that response. This version of antinomianism argues that no matter what that person says or does after responding, they must be regarded as a Christian and that sanctification, i.e., being conformed to Christ, the gracious, gradual work of the Spirit in putting to death of the old man and making alive the man in the believer, is a second blessing. This view argues that those who have responded thus to the gospel, even if they are impenitent for their sins, must be regarded as Christians is a form of antinomianism.

These denials of the abiding validity of the moral law are serious errors. First, they do not understand that the moral law was not first given at Sinai. The Ten Commandments are simply another expression of the moral law given in the garden to Adam and Eve encapsulated in the one command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17). In that one command was embedded the two tables of the moral law: love God and neighbor. Our Lord Jesus summarized the entire moral law thus:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 22:37–40; ESV)

The moral law was expressed in the “ten words” (Decalogue) at Sinai and throughout the Old Testament Scriptures and it is repeated throughout the New Testament. The Apostle Paul quotes the Decalogue in his epistles as he explains what is expected of those who profess faith in Christ. To be sure, and this gets us to the second point (nomism): Christians do not keep the law in order to be saved  but because they have been saved. The book of Romans is in three parts: Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude. We obey out of gratitude not in order to win God’s favor or to keep what we have been given.

My Other Brother Darryl

Antinomianism has a twin brother: Nomism. The Nomist does not understand that the law has three functions:

  1. To teach us the greatness of our sin and misery (the pedagogical function)
  2. To serve as a norm for civil life (to suppress murder theft, adultery etc)
  3. To serve as the moral norm for the Christian

Just as the antinomian denies the third use of the law (and the second), the nomist changes the 1st use by replacement: to be the way (i.e., the instrument and/or ground) of salvation. The nomist denies that the law teaches us our sin because he does not think that we are that sinful. He thinks that just as Jesus trusted and obeyed, so too we can trust and obey if only we will. The nomist is a big fan of the second use, the civil use of the law, but he is dissatisfied with the third use (the normative use) of the law. He is also dissatisfied with the Guilt, Grace, Gratitude scheme. To him, obeying the Lord out of gratitude is insufficient. He fears that if we leave it to the Spirit to work gratitude in Christ’s people to produce willing, thankful obedience to God’s holy law, we will not get the desired results. So, he truly believes that the Christian needs to be under the law as a covenant of works whereby the law says: “do this and live” (Lev 18:5; Luke 10:28). Ironically, most nomists deny that there is a covenant of works but they turn the covenant of grace into a covenant of works, even as they deny the covenant of works exists.

Strangely, though they seem poles apart, the antinomian and the nomist are twins. Neither group understands the law for what it is: God’s holy, unyeilding moral standard, an expression of the divine nature. The nomist downplays the holiness and righteousness of the law by teaching that sinners can keep it sufficiently to salvation. The antinomian denies it by disconnecting it from the divine nature, by making it arbitrary or temporary. No, the law is holy, good, and just. God’s nature does not change and neither does his moral law.

The Reformation Alternative

This brings us to the renewed recent discussion of the so-called “Lordship Salvation” debate. For background on this debate take a listen to this discussion of the issues with Mike Horton. The debate did not arise, at least in the 20th century, in historic Reformed or Lutheran circles. It arose in the context of American Dispensational theology, which struggles to account for the abiding validity of the moral law because of the way they understand the history of salvation. Dispensationalism is not a good account of what we understand to the unity of the covenant of grace. So, not surprisingly, some of them adopted a form of antinomianism. In response, some of them articulated what is known as “the Lordship Salvation” view.

Now, to be sure, different people mean different things by this expression. This is one of the difficulties in this debate. Whereas the Reformed and Lutheran churches have confessions that articulate their official, churchly understanding of God’s Word, the Dispensational tradition tends to be suspicious of confessions or publish statements in parachurch organizations.

Nevertheless, the original articulation of the Lordship Salvation view argued that saving faith is “the total complete surrender of your life to Christ.” It is coming “to the place of total surrender of your life and supreme allegiance and supreme loyalty to Christ.” Only when one has reached this place of total and complete surrender will you “have the weight of sin lifted off of you and you will now have the yoke of Christ.” The forgiveness of sins is conditioned upon “the total commitment of your life to Him.”

In some cases, anyway, people react to this presentation of the doctrine of salvation by embracing antinomianism. The good news is that this is not the good news. The good news is that Jesus obeyed on behalf of sinners, that he died in their place, that he was raised for their justification (Rom 4:25). He freely accepts sinners. All who will may come. Sinners are not saved because they met conditions. They are saved by the righteousness of Jesus for them. They are justified by the imputation of that righteousness to their account. They receive Christ and his righteousness by grace alone, through faith alone.

Both the antinomian and the nomist are confused about conditions. Against the antinomian and the nomist we should say that we are saved unconditionally but those who have been saved recognize the greatness of their sin and misery, they are sorry for their sins, they confess them and struggle against them and seek to obey God’s holy law out of gratitude to Jesus for al that he has done. They do so in union with Christ. They do so out of love for the Savior and a desire to glorify his name. Anyone who refuses to acknowledge his sins and to seek to turn from them, should come under church discipline (Matt 18). Should he continue in impenitence he must be declared by the church to be an unbeliever. For more see this essay.

We may speak of the moral necessity of obedience as a consequence of our salvation but not as a condition unto salvation. With these distinctions we have avoided both the errors of the nomist and the antinomian and set ourselves on a path toward the Christian life as understood by the Reformation churches and, we dare say, our Lord and his apostles.

For more on conditions in the covenant of grace see these resources.

R. Scott Clark
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