A Primer on Antinomianism

Article by Phil Johnson (original source here)

Antinomianism is one of those theological terms that is notoriously hard to pin down. It has an admittedly sinister sound, and when many people hear the term, they think it speaks of wantonly advocating sin (“Why not do evil that good may come?”—Romans 3:8). Indeed that kind of extreme antinomianism exists. It was the doctrine of Rasputin, for example.

But in normal theological discourse the term antinomianism usually refers to theoretical antinomianism. Theoretical antinomians don’t necessarily advocate extreme libertinism (or practical antinomianism). In fact, a great many theoretical antinomians are known for their advocacy of holiness. (And conversely, many who adhere to “Holiness doctrine” and various other perfectionist schemes are also theoretical antinomians.)

In totally non-technical terms, antinomianism is simply the view that Christians are not bound by any of the precepts of Moses’ law—moral, civil, ceremonial, or otherwise.

The Reformers saw three proper uses of the moral precepts of Moses’ law. Here’s a summary from Article VI of the Lutheran Formula of Concord (the “Epitome,” or short form):

“The Law has been given to men for three reasons: 1) to maintain external discipline against unruly and disobedient men, 2) to lead men to a knowledge of their sin, 3) after they are reborn, and although the flesh still inheres in them, to give them on that account a definite rule according to which they should pattern and regulate their entire life.”

In other words, the “third use of the law” makes the law’s moral standards the rule by which the faithful must order their conduct. In this sense, the moral strictures of the law remain binding on Christians, even though we are “not under the law” in the Pauline sense—i.e., not dependent on our own obedience for any part of our justification. (By the way, the entire Formula of Concord’s Article VI is a brilliant refutation of antinomianism, and well worth reading.)

Calvin said the third use of the law is “the principle use.” He wrote,

The third use of the Law (being also the principal use, and more closely connected with its proper end) has respect to believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already flourishes and reigns. For although the Law is written and engraven on their hearts by the finger of God, that is, although they are so influenced and actuated by the Spirit, Meaty stuff that they desire to obey God, there are two ways in which they still profit in the Law. For it is the best instrument for enabling them daily to learn with greater truth and certainty what that will of the Lord is which they aspire to follow, and to confirm them in this knowledge; just as a servant who desires with all his soul to approve himself to his master, must still observe, and be careful to ascertain his master’s dispositions, that he may comport himself in accommodation to them. Let none of us deem ourselves exempt from this necessity, for none have as yet attained to such a degree of wisdom, as that they may not, by the daily instruction of the Law, advance to a purer knowledge of the Divine will. Then, because we need not doctrine merely, but exhortation also, the servant of God will derive this further advantage from the Law: by frequently meditating upon it, he will be excited to obedience, and confirmed in it, and so drawn away from the slippery paths of sin. In this way must the saints press onward . . .

Antinomianism, in essence, is a denial of the third use of the law, claiming that the moral law is not binding on Christians.

There are at least three major strains of theoretical antinomianism:

1. Hyper-Calvinistic antinomianism: Advocates of this view and variations thereof include Tobias Crisp and William Huntington, both 18th-century English preachers. (Some would dispute whether Crisp really fits in this category; I think he does.) They insisted that grace eliminates the moral law as a rule of life.

Hyper-Calvinism places emphasis on God’s decretive will at the expense of His preceptive will. Hyper-Calvinists suggest that God’s real character is to be discerned from His secret decrees, rather than from actual His commandments and precepts. If God really wanted people to obey this or that commandment, He is sovereign and could have brought it about by His sovereign decree. Since He didn’t, it cannot be what He really desires. So the seriousness of the law as an expression of God’s will is naturally downplayed by hyper-Calvinism, making most hyper-Calvinists susceptible to antinomianism.

Thus hyper-Calvinistic antinomians deny that the moral law applies in any way to believers, because grace (in their view) is totally incompatible with any law. Furthermore, they deny that the moral law applies to unregenerate people, too—because the unregenerate are not able to obey it.

Nineteenth-century British hypers were notoriously prone to theoretical antinomianism (see Iain Murray, Spurgeon & Hyper-Calvinism, p. 68, n. 1). They concluded that since sinners are unable to obey the moral law, it is wrong to preach that they are obligated to do so. Obviously, if moral inability excuses a sinner from the duty to believe, then on the same grounds he or she can be under no obligation to obey the Ten Commandments, either.

(Iain Murray’s excellent book includes an appendix titled “The Injury Done by Hyper-Calvinism and Antinomianism—Words of Witness from Spurgeon”—taken from one of Spurgeon’s New Park Street sermons. I happen to have that very sermon on line as part of The Spurgeon Archive. It’s “The Minister’s Farewell,” and to read the bit Murray quotes, do a search for the words “the true minister of Christ”—and start reading at that point.)

This hyper-Calvinistic brand of antinomianism is far more common in England than in the US, but it is not unknown among the “Gospel Standard” people on this side of the Atlantic.

2. Dispensationalist Antinomianism: The idea here is that the relevance of the law was confined entirely to the Mosaic dispensation. The whole law has been abrogated in this dispensation of grace. All passages with a legal emphasis, such as the Sermon on the Mount, are assigned to other dispensations.

This type of antinomianism is found in differing degrees. Lewis Sperry Chafer’s book Grace is the classic statement of the view. Charles Ryrie advocates a modified (softened) version of Chafer’s view, but he still would fall in the dispensational antinomian category. Zane Hodges, on the other hand, went miles further than Chafer, and he devised a novel, radical antinomianism that deserves a category of its own:

3. No-lordship antinomianism: Those who hold this view make sanctification an optional aspect of the believer’s experience. This view (like the other two) makes a hard-line dichotomy between law and grace, treating the two as utterly incompatible. (It is closely related to dispensationalist antinomianism, using the same fundamental rationale—but pushing antinomianism to much further extremes.)

This version of antinomianism suggests that if salvation is by grace through faith, then nothing can possibly be viewed as essential to salvation if it involves the believer’s obedience, or surrender, or submission to Christ’s lordship—or anything more than a notional “assent.” In this view, sanctification itself is seen as legal in character and is therefore regarded as an optional, purely elective, aspect of the Christian experience.

This is what the “lordship salvation” controversy was about a few years ago. Zane Hodges would be the most extreme advocate of this brand of antinomianism. Jody Dillow has tried (in vain, I think) to give this view some academic respectability with his book Reign of the Servant Kings.

Here’s a classic sample of modern antinomianism from Bob George’s booklet “A Closer Look at Law & Grace.” Bob George has combined dispensationalist antinomianism and deeper-life passivity into his own designer variety of antinomianism. But note how plainly he states the antinomian agenda:

The purpose of the law is to show us our need for salvation and then point us to Christ. Once it has done this, the law serves no other purpose.

That’s about as blatant a statement of antinomianism as you’ll find anywhere. It is a straightforward denial of the third use of the law. It is also a significant departure from the historic evangelical perspective.

Someone will no doubt ask, “Doesn’t Scripture itself set grace and law against one another? Doesn’t the biblical idea of grace eliminate law?”

While it is true that Scripture never mingles grace and works as grounds for justification, it is not the case that grace rules out law altogether, or vice versa. Paul’s whole point in Galatians is that the proper uses of the Law are all compatible with grace. In fact, the true purposes of the law are all gracious. Law only impinges on grace when the sinners own legal works are seen as means of salvation or as instruments of justification.

And when Paul says we are “not under law,” he’s speaking about our relationship to the law with regard to our justification (cf. Galatians 5:4).

Finally, here are some definitions of antinomianism from some standard theological dictionaries:

1. From Walter A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), p. 57:

[Antinomianism] refers to the doctrine that it is not necessary for Christians to preach and/or obey the moral law of the OT.

2. From Baker’s Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1960), 48:

ANTINOMIANISM. The word comes from the Greek anti, against, and nomos, law, and signifies opposition to law. It refers to the doctrine that the moral law is not binding upon Christians as a rule of life.

And here’s a bonus, from John MacArthur’s Faith Works (p. 95):

In short, antinomianism is the belief that allows for justification without sanctification.

Antinomianism makes obedience [to the moral law] elective. While most antinomians strongly counsel Christians to obey (and even urge them to obey), they do not believe obedience is a necessary consequence of true faith . . .. And that is what makes no-lordship theology antinomian.