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. Continue reading

Between Two Thieves

like its blessed Master, is always crucified between two thieves—legalists of all sorts on the one hand and Antinomians on the other; the former robbing the Savior of the glory of his work for us, and the other robbing him of the glory of his work within us.” – J.H. Thornwell, ‘Antinomianism’ in The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell (Richmond: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1871) p. 386

An Open Letter To Mr. Grace-Loving Antinomian

I read this today and began cheering. Brilliant, simply brilliant!

Tullian Tchividjian is the pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida (the Church formerly led by Dr. D. James Kennedy), a visiting professor of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, and a grandson of Billy and Ruth Graham. He writes:

There seems to be a fear out there that the preaching of radical grace produces serial killers. Or, to put it in more theological terms, too much emphasis on the indicatives of the gospel leads to antinomianism (a lawless version of Christianity that believes the directives and commands of God don’t matter). My problem with this fear is that I’ve never actually met anyone who has been truly gripped by God’s amazing grace in the gospel who then doesn’t care about obeying him. As I have said before: antinomianism happens not when we think too much of grace. Just the opposite, actually. Antinomianism happens when we think too little of grace.

Wondering whether this common fear is valid, my dear friend Elyse Fitzpatrick (in C.S. Lewis fashion) writes an open letter to Mr. Grace-Loving Antinomian–a person she’s heard about for years but never met–asking him to please step forward and identify himself.

Enjoy…

Dear Mr. Antinomian,

Forgive me for writing to you in such an open forum but I’ve been trying to meet you for years and we just never seem to connect. While it’s true that I live in a little corner of the States and while it’s true that I am, well, a woman, I did assume that I would meet you at some point in my decades old counseling practice. But alas, neither you nor any of your (must be) thousands of brothers and sisters have ever shown up for my help…So again, please do pardon my writing in such a public manner but, you see, I’ve got a few things to say to you and I think it’s time I got them off my chest.

I wonder if you know how hard you’re making it for those of us who love to brag about the gospel. You say that you love the gospel and grace too, but I wonder how that can be possible since it’s been continuously reported to me that you live like such a slug. I’ve even heard that you are lazy and don’t work at obeying God at all…Rather you sit around munching on cigars and Twinkies, brewing beer and watching porn on your computer. Mr. A, really! Can this be true?

So many of my friends and acquaintances are simply up in arms about the way you act and they tell me it’s because you talk too much about grace. They suggest (and I’m almost tempted to agree) that what you need is more and more rules to live by. In fact, I’m very tempted to tell you that you need to get up off your lazy chair, pour your beer down the drain, turn off your computer and get about the business of the Kingdom.

I admit that I’m absolutely flummoxed, though, which is why I’m writing as I am. You puzzle me. How can you think about all that Christ has done for you, about your Father’s steadfast, immeasurable, extravagantly generous love and still live the way you do? Have you never considered the incarnation, about the Son leaving ineffable light to be consigned first to the darkness of Mary’s womb and then the darkness of this world? Have you never considered how He labored day-after-day in His home, obeying His parents, loving His brothers and sisters so that you could be counted righteous in the sight of His Father? Have you forgotten the bloody disgrace of the cross you deserve? Don’t you know that in the resurrection He demolished sin’s power over you? Aren’t you moved to loving action knowing that He’s now your ascended Lord Who prays for you and daily bears you on His heart? Has your heart of stone never been warmed and transformed by the Spirit? Does this grace really not impel zealous obedience? Hello…Are you there?

Honestly, even though my friends talk about you as though you were just everywhere in every church, always talking about justification but living like the devil, frankly I wonder if you even exist. I suppose you must because everyone is so afraid that talking about grace will produce more of you. So that’s why I’m writing: Will you please come forward? Will you please stand up in front of all of us and tell us that your heart has been captivated so deeply by grace that it makes you want to watch the Playboy channel?

Again, please do forgive me for calling you out like this. I really would like to meet you. I am,

Trusting in Grace Alone,

Elyse