In Response to 'What Must I Do?' Editorial in the Standard Bearer

The following letter was sent to the editorial office of the Standard Bearer with the request that they publish it. The editors refused to publish the letter. I publish it here on the RFPA blog as I sent it to them. I believe these issues are of utmost importance for our churches and for the readers of the blog.

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Letter to the Standard Bearer about What must I do?

Dear Editors of the Standard Bearer,

I am writing about the most recent editorial, What must I do?, by Rev. Koole (October 1, 2018 Volume 95, Issue 1). I find the editorial deeply disturbing for the connection that it makes with doctrinal dispute in our churches, specifically the editor’s, “fear that we tend to underestimate,” the truth of irresistible grace, and the editor’s connecting this to the “issues being discussed in the PRC of late, namely, grace and godliness—the life of good works—in the life of the child of God.”

The editor’s reference is to the doctrinal dispute in the Protestant Reformed Churches over sermons preached at Hope Protestant Reformed Church. I take issue with the editor’s characterization of this as “a discussion.” Rather, there were multiple protests and appeals filed, discipline carried out, a man deposed from office, many meetings were held, many decisions were made, some decisions overturned, and the last decision was made by Synod 2018, part of which involved a formula of subscription examination of a preacher. It is hardly “a discussion.” To describe it as such is an affront to all involved.

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The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (9): Clear Explanations

Because the proper answer to the question of the necessity of good works is so closely connected with the church’s confession of the truth of the believers’ gracious salvation, and because wrong answers to this question end up denying this truth, there is no room for ambiguous language in answering this question. Especially is this ambiguous language to be deplored in a misguided and ill-informed attempt to impress upon the people of God the necessity of doing good works. This necessity, a real and compelling necessity, must be pressed, pressed urgently and diligently, on the church as it is explained in the Reformed creeds, especially in Lord’s Day 32 of the Heidelberg Catechism, in which the minister has an opportunity every year to explain this to his congregation. Works are necessary because of God’s renewing work by which he intends a testimony of gratitude and praise to himself for his grace, and also for the other reasons given by the Catechism. In all of his teaching regarding this the minister makes plain that works are not necessary to obtain salvation or the experience of salvation, because God’s people receive the Spirit by the hearing of faith and not by the works of the law (Gal. 3:2). By the Spirit so received they have salvation and the experience of salvation.

This truth may not be obscured by ambiguous language. The language that works are necessary for salvation, for some benefit of salvation, for covenantal fellowship with God, for the experience of the covenant, or for eternal life is ambiguous language. To say that works are necessary in order to have salvation, in order to have some benefit of salvation, or in order to have fellowship with God is equally ambiguous and amounts to the same thing. To say that an obedient faith is necessary to have fellowship with God is also, at the very least, ambiguous because it leaves open the question of whether faith alone obtains that fellowship because of Christ, or whether faith and faith’s works obtain that fellowship, which is nothing different than what the federal vision intends to express by the term obedient faith: faith and the obedience of faith are necessary in order to have fellowship with God, so that faith and the obedience of faith obtain that fellowship.

Such language powerfully implies, if it does not explicitly teach, that works are the instrument and thus the condition of the kingdom, the covenant, the experience of the covenant, and eternal life in the covenant. Whatever is necessary for or in order to have does not belong to the end or goal to which it is necessary. If works are necessary in order to have fellowship with God, they do not belong to that gift of his fellowship, but fellowship follows on and is obtained by those works.

Such language that the sinner performs works in order to have fellowship with God denies the purpose of good works as taught in Lord’s Day 32 of the Heidelberg Catechism. The Catechism teaches that we do good works, so that God is thanked and glorified by us. So that intends to express the purpose of God’s renewal and thus the purpose for which the believer performs his good works. It is a renewal in order that we are thankful and praise him. The believer also, then, performs his good works to give that God-glorifying testimony of gratitude.

The believer who performs the work in order to have a fellowship with God that he otherwise does not have without that work and which he obtains by means of that work does not perform good works in order to thank God and to praise him with that testimony of gratitude. The believer who performs good works in order to have fellowship with God, does not perform good works because he has fellowship with God, for which he is thankful and in which he lives with his God in all good works, but to attain fellowship with God, which he does not have without the works and upon which that fellowship depends. To say that good works are necessary in order to have fellowship with God, then, gives to the work of the sinner the power to obtain the fellowship.

God is not glorified and thanked by a work that is done in order to have his fellowship. He hates such works because such works are a denial of the work of Christ at the cross that God worked, in order that the elect sinner may have fellowship with God and on the basis of which he does have fellowship with God.

The cross of Christ obtained the fellowship. That fellowship is realized in the gracious operation of God to justify the sinner, so that he has a right to that fellowship and actually has peace with God in his own conscience. That fellowship is also realized in the gracious operation of God to renew the sinner and to consecrate the justified sinner to God in love. That fellowship is lived in by the sinner in a life of good works as the certain effect of the gracious renewal of the sinner by the Holy Spirit. The justified sinner performs his good works to thank his God and to praise his God for his gift. The fellowship—the experience of the fellowship—is a gracious gift.

Recognizing that the believer experiences fellowship with God along the way of works is wholly different than giving to those works the power to obtain the experience of the fellowship, which is nothing different than the federal vision’s conception of an obedient faith with its language that works are necessary for or in order to have salvation, righteousness, and eternal life.

The life of good works, the good works themselves, are not necessary in order to have, but are the effects of God’s gracious work to realize his covenant with the sinner whom he chose. Works are the manifestation of what the justified believer already possesses by faith and through grace. Works are the testimony of gratitude for and the enjoyment of that gift.

The concept that an obedient faith obtains—with its language that works are necessary in order to have fellowship with God and for fellowship with God—so that faith and the obedience of faith are instruments to obtain and to maintain fellowship with God is not equivalent and may not be taught as though it were equivalent to what has become accepted language about works performed by the sinner: in the way of.

It is certainly truth and Reformed that in the covenant the justified sinner receives blessings from God in the way of works. Whenever that language is used it must be explained in such a way that makes crystal clear to every hearer that the blessing does not depend upon that act of the sinner. However important the truth is that works are the God-ordained way of fellowship in the covenant and that the sinner enjoys God and Christ in that way, however important it is that the minister urges this on the congregation; it is equally true that those works never obtain from God, and those works may never be taught in such a way that implies or teaches that they obtain something from God.

The question is always, are the works of faith necessary as instruments to obtain or as that upon which salvation, the covenant, the experience of fellowship, or some benefit of salvation depends? The answer of the doctrine of justification by faith alone is that this is impossible. It is impossible because by faith alone we rely on Christ and his perfect righteousness and all his holy works as that which obtains all of salvation, gives access to God, and brings the sinner who relies on Christ by faith into blessed fellowship with God. We receive the Spirit by faith not by the works of the law (Gal. 3:2). The Spirit—and with him salvation, fellowship with God, and the experience of fellowship with God—is received by the hearing of faith. This faith that justifies also sanctifies, but that sanctification of the believer does not obtain with God.

A denial of the erroneous explanation of the necessity of good works in the covenant cannot be smeared with the term antinomian. The Reformed faith with its doctrine of the covenant teaches the necessity of good works. It is the believers’ part in God’s covenant. But never does the covenant, fellowship in the covenant, or the experience of that fellowship depend on the works.

If teaching that is antinomianism, the Heidelberg Catechism can be smeared with that charge when it insists that the deliverance of the sinner, which certainly includes fellowship with the living God, is without the merit of works. We are delivered from sin, both legally and really, and delivered into covenantal fellowship with God, legally and really, without the merit of works. The works do not obtain any aspect of salvation. Those works are not necessary in order to have any part of salvation. They are the fruits of God’s saving work in his people. More specifically they are the fruits of faith, fruits of election, fruits of grace. They are the inevitable and infallible fruit of God’s gracious renewal and the cross of Christ. They are the manifestations and fruits of what the believer already has—fellowship and the experience of fellowship with the living God—and not that by which he obtains from God.

Maintaining the truth regarding the necessity of the works in the covenant of grace is necessary in order that the truth of the covenant of grace as an unconditional covenant—unconditional in its establishment, maintenance, perfection, and experience—be maintained. Maintaining this truth maintains the Reformed confession of the graciousness of the sinner’s salvation.

It is not enough, however, merely to repeat ad nauseam, that the phrase in the way of is different from in order to, or for, and that it is intended to deny that some aspect of salvation and the covenant is not a condition of or a prerequisite to salvation and the covenant. It has become evident that this phrase must be more thoroughly explained. What does it mean, for instance, that repentance is not a condition of the covenant, but that the believer does have the covenant and the experience of the covenant in the way of repentance?

To this I will turn next time.

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This article was written by Rev. Nathan J. Langerak, pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois. If you have a question or comment about this blog article for Rev. Langerak, please do so in the comment section.

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Previous articles in this series:

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (1): A Proper Starting Point

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (2): Justification by Faith Alone

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (3): A Real Necessity

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (4): The Renewal of the Sinner

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (5): Testimony of Gratitude

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (6): Fruits of Faith

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (7): Losing the Sense of God's Favor

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (8): Uniquely Reformed Heresy

 

Next article in series: The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (10): In The Way of Repentance

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The Charge of Antinomianism (9): Dismissing it

The charge of antinomianism coming from the quarters of the federal vision and its supporters must be rejected and dismissed, but also countered.

It should hearten the Reformed church and believer that they have even drawn the charge. If men like Mark Jones, Richard Gaffin, and the rest of the federal vision men charge the truth with antinomianism and try to dismiss the truth with a name, they do to us Reformed believers nothing more than what the opponents of Christ did to him when they called him a Nazarene, a glutton, a winebibber, and a blasphemer. Such a charge from such men is a glorious mark of distinction.

Reformed preachers, consistories, and congregations must not be afraid of the charge from these quarters. They must not play into the hand of these opponents of the truth by supposing that in the preaching of the truth of the unconditional covenant, justification by faith alone, and the rest of the doctrines of grace there lurks antinomianism, so that when this truth is preached the congregation and people of God will conclude that they now can live as they please. This is to be ashamed of the gospel, to distrust the work of the Spirit with that gospel, to doubt the power of God to make his people holy as the fruit and effect of his work to justify them, and to question the promise that those whom he justifies he also glorifies.

Having drawn the charge, the Reformed church, preacher, and believer must also dismiss it. The charge is nothing else but gross slander. The doctrine of the unconditional covenant and all the other doctrines of grace are no profane doctrines. They are not responsible for any worldliness, ungodliness of life, or wickedness in the church. When they are preached, preached emphatically, and often, there is not an incipient antinomianism that lurks beneath them, as though the believer when he hears these things preached says in his soul, “Thank God, now I can live however I please.” This is simply not the reaction of the believer and church of God to these doctrines. They induce thankfulness of life, holiness, and good works in believers. These doctrines do not make men careless and profane, even if careless and profane men may abuse them as excuses for their wickedness. I will grant that the believer’s careless and profane old man will take the doctrines and use them as excuses to sin. But that is not the fault of the doctrines, but of the old man. That is not the reaction of the believer, but of sin in him in the form of the old man of sin, and he must be crucified daily.

These doctrines are not the cause of ungodliness, and neither is antinomianism lurking within them. On the contrary, these doctrines are according to godliness, so that where they are taught and believed, holiness of life is the inevitable fruit. The faith that justifies without its works is the faith whereby the believer is implanted into Christ. It is impossible that this faith be unfruitful any more than Christ, the root, can be unfruitful. It is really a charge against Christ, the root of faith, that if he justifies the believer without works, he is so impotent that he is unable so to move the believer to good works and that he is only half a Christ. This the Heidelberg Catechism denies in its teaching about the necessity of good works in the life of the believer. The necessity is not that good works are the way to salvation, that the believer must labor for his salvation, or that he must be scared for his hide. The necessity is Christ and the renewing work of the Spirit. The one he justifies and saves wholly without his works, he also makes a new creature. He is not a careless and profane Christ, so that those who are implanted into him by faith are no careless and profane Christians. He uses all kinds of means for this, including the preaching of this reality and the real and right preaching of the law of God.

Rather, it is the doctrine of the conditional covenant—and general grace—that not only is wicked because it makes salvation dependent on a sinner’s works, but also leads to wickedness. The doctrine of the conditional covenant, especially in the form taught by the federal vision, is a wicked doctrine. It is the wickedness of works’ righteousness about which the apostle proclaims that its teachers are anathema and fallen from Christ.

The doctrine of a conditional covenant also leads to wickedness. It is no surprise that the Pharisees, who were scrupulous about how many steps one took on the Sabbath, whether someone ate corn out of a field, or hypocritically were incensed when Jesus healed on the Sabbath, while they would pull their ox out of ditch, were also overrun with divorce and remarriage, so that Jesus repeatedly taught about this matter and accused them of covetousness. It is not surprising that Rome, who was loud in its charge of antinomianism against the reformers, was an Augean stable of every sort of vice and wickedness.

The reality is that a sinner cannot be saved by his works—or any condition—and there is no assurance of salvation in that way. One who attempts to be righteous by works cannot escape the condemning word of God, “Cursed is everyone who continues not in all things that are written in the law to do them.” God will see to it that those who despise the righteousness of Christ as the only ground of salvation and eternal life and who despise faith, faith alone in Jesus Christ, as the only way to salvation and fellowship with the Father have no peace. Being justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ and introduction into his grace wherein we stand. Apart from this justifying faith there is no peace or salvation. The only way to escape that cursing word of God is by faith in Jesus Christ and shelter in him who was cursed for us. Either Christ was cursed for us, or a man must bear that curse himself. The end result of this condemning word of God is that man tries to escape the law by illegitimate means. All who try must deny the law. They must teach that the law is in fact doable by a man through the Spirit and for salvation. In order to teach that, one of two things must be done: either the law must be made a mere outward code that man is capable of doing while his heart remains wicked, or they must teach that the law is not to be performed perfectly but only requires that a man do what is in him, which God will graciously accept. Legalism destroys the law and the doctrines of grace. As Paul repeatedly pointed out about the doctrine of grace, “We establish the law.”

Either that or the teaching of works leads to despair of salvation. A man cannot be righteous before God by his works. In his great parable on righteousness, Jesus sent the Pharisee home unjustified, and so are all those who trust in their works, no matter how little. They are unjustified. They are unjustified because God will only justify the ungodly, that is, the man who by faith confesses that he is utterly without righteousness, indeed incapable of righteousness, and that he has no works on which he will rely. That man alone is justified. The man who trusts in his works is unjustified. That must lead to despair. As scripture teaches, despair is the great motive of wickedness: let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

In the face of the federal vision’s gross denial of justification by faith alone, its slander of the unconditional covenant, and its attempts to make works the ground of the believer’s salvation, the Reformed minister, believer, and church must all be willing to draw the charge of antinomianism and be able to point out how it is false and evil. The law and the works of the law, including the works of faith, have absolutely no place as either a part or as the whole of the believer’s righteousness before God, as the ground of his communion with God, or as the way to his salvation, life, or the covenant. Works are not the way to life, salvation, communion, or fellowship with God. The believer has communion with God by faith only because by that faith and without any works, and indeed as an ungodly man, God justifies him for Christ’s sake, forgives his sins, imputes Christ’s righteousness to him, declares him worthy of eternal life, and on that basis actually takes that man into his fellowship. God also sanctifies that man, separating him from the world and consecrating him to God in all good works as the way of life in his fellowship.

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Previous posts in this series:

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This article was written by Rev. Nathan J. Langerak, pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois. If you have a question or comment for Rev. Langerak, please do so in the comment section on the RFPA blog.

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The Charge of Antinomianism (8): Assurance by Works

The book by Mark Jones, purporting to be a tool to discover antinomianism in the preaching and teaching of ministers and in the faith of believers, turns out to be a full-blown attack on the doctrines of grace. This attack continues with his assault on the precious Reformed doctrine of assurance.

Because the Reformed faith teaches that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone and not by works, it gives assurance and comfort to the child of God. Such is the close and necessary connection between the truth and assurance, that the Heidelberg Catechism treats all of Reformed doctrine from the viewpoint of the subjective, experiential comfort the believer has in that doctrine. Belonging to that comfort is the truth that while he is renewed by the Spirit of Christ and lives unto God in all good works, those works are not the ground of his salvation. They are the fruits of faith. So essential is assurance to the child of God that without it there is no Christian life. The very concern that Mark Jones purportedly has with his book is holiness. But true holiness is the fruit of assurance. The Canons of Dordt say in 5.12, “This certainty of perseverance…is the real source of humility, filial reverence, true piety, patience in every tribulation, fervent prayers, constancy in suffering and in confessing the truth, and of a solid rejoicing in God.”

The faith that produces fruits from the living root, Jesus Christ, is assurance. Assurance is of the essence of faith. That assurance belongs to the essence of faith is a fact that is so clear in the Reformed creeds that a man who contradicts it cannot be taken seriously as a student and adherent to the Reformed creeds. The Heidelberg Catechism says, “True faith is not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed in his Word, but also an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel in my heart” (A 21). Twice the creed says faith is assurance. It is assured knowledge, and it is assured confidence. A man who denies that assurance is of the essence of faith is left with no faith. The Canons say nothing different in head 5. Assurance is obtained “according to the measure of their [true believers] faith.” It “springs from faith in God’s promises.” The Canons call it “the full assurance of faith” (9–11), which does not mean that faith sometimes has less and sometimes more assurance, or the obnoxious notion that believers must go on a quest for the full assurance of faith, but it means that faith itself, according to its very nature, is fully assured and has no doubt.

That the creeds also connect works with faith is unsurprising, because the man who believes also performs good works. According to the Heidelberg Catechism, good works are the fruits of faith that a man observes in himself (A 86) and that proceed from a “serious and holy desire to preserve a good conscience and to perform good works” (Canons 5.10). What is that but faith in a man and what else in a man except faith can even perceive these things? The creeds do not lodge assurance in works or make assurance dependent on those works, but faith is assurance worked in believers by the Holy Ghost, and the creeds make that assurance the essence of faith to which works are a kind of assistant.

This clear fact Mark Jones is bold to deny. He favorably quotes Joel Beeke’s view of assurance, which is based on his study of the Puritan theology of doubt: “Scholars who assert that assurance is essential to faith in Christ and that sanctification cannot forward assurance in any way are guilty…of separating Christ and his benefits.”[1] This statement is not altogether straightforward. It is not a matter of asserting that assurance is essential to faith AND saying that sanctification cannot forward assurance. Rather, one who denies that assurance is of the essence of faith must necessarily find assurance elsewhere. If assurance is not in faith, the issue is not whether sanctification can forward assurance; but since assurance is not in faith, must it necessarily be found in works? Jones says therefore that “faith and the full assurance of faith are not strictly synonymous.”

He tries to find support for this fiction, too, in the creeds. He says, “The Westminster divines, by noting that infallible assurance does not belong to the essence of faith (18.3), affirm the distinction between adherence and assurance.” This distinction between adherence and assurance is an invention by the theologians of doubt. By means of it these theologians “differentiate between the faith of adherence to Christ and the faith of assurance (evidence) in Christ, whereby the believer knows that Christ has died specifically for him.”

The distinction is a bald contradiction of the description of faith in the Heidelberg Catechism as “assured confidence….that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness, and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits” (A 21). This is not one aspect of faith that one might arrive at after years of doubt, but it is faith, the faith that a small child has and that every believer has.

The distinction between adherence and assurance and the blatant denial that assurance does not belong to the essence of faith also do not find any support in the Westminster Confession of Faith 18.3, which Mark Jones cites to prop up this distinction. That part of the creed reads: “This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith, that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties before he be a partaker thereof.” Contra Mark Jones the article does not flatly say that infallible assurance does not belong to the essence of faith. Rather, the article affirms that infallible assurance belongs to the essence of faith. It says that infallible assurance, however, does not “so belong” to the essence of faith, thereby noting an exception that “may” be the case, such as when the miserable preacher of the poor believer constantly tells him that it is pious to doubt, that “mere faith” is not enough, that he could not possibly be assured yet, and that to suppose so is spiritual pride. The exception noted is nothing different from what the Canons affirm in 5.11: “the scripture moreover testifies that believers in this life have to struggle with various carnal doubts, and that under grievous temptation they are not always sensible of this full assurance of faith.” The problem is not faith or the fact that faith is not “full assurance.” That problem is the believer and his carnal doubts. The Reformed creeds testify that faith is assurance. They do that in harmony with scripture: what else could the scriptures mean when they say in Romans 5:1, “being justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”? Assurance is by faith, specifically being justified by faith, that gives peace—real, total, subjective peace—with the living God in the conscience of the believer.

Denying that assurance is of the essence of faith, it is disingenuous of Jones to defend his doctrine by saying that “a focus on good works as a ground for assurance of faith does not necessarily turn the believer away from Christ” or that “that God is gracious and has given his people many means by which they may have this infallible assurance of salvation.”[2] He makes it seem as though he is only presenting works as one of the grounds of assurance. Along with all the theologians of doubt, though, he denies the essential thing, that faith is assurance. Faith as to its very nature is full assurance. Because he denies this, he and the rest of the theologians of doubt have to concoct a whole other ground of assurance. If faith is not assurance—faith as such, faith as to its nature—assurance must come from works. Indeed, faith itself becomes a work upon which assurance is based. He sees both faith and works as conditions, or acts of man, upon which man’s salvation depends, so that even when he says “faith,” he makes it a work. Faith as a work is the means of assurance, not faith as such is assurance.

To deny that assurance is of the essence of faith also removes from assurance its essential and first part, namely, that the believer’s sins are forgiven by faith only. Without the truth of justification by faith alone the assurance of salvation is impossible, because being justified by faith alone the believer has peace with God. That assured peace with God by faith alone includes the knowledge that Christ died for me to forgive my sins, that all my sins are forgiven for his sake, that God loves me, and that he loved me from all eternity. Only on this basis can the believer even consider his works, which are also polluted and defiled by sin. If assurance is not of the essence of faith, one must necessarily be assured of his forgiveness by his works too. It is necessary in order to speak of works in connection with assurance that the first part, assurance as belonging to the essence of faith, be established.

This theology of doubt and assurance by works, then, are one with the rest of Jones’ theology. One who espouses justification by works, or is friendly with those who do, of necessity must deny that assurance is of the essence of faith in order to lodge assurance in works. But assurance by works is no assurance at all.

Such a teacher of works, and foe of grace, has no business telling Reformed believers who the antinomians are. His charge of antinomianism is false and can safely be dismissed.

To that I will turn next time.

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[1] Jones, Antinomianism, 99.

[2] Ibid., 108.

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Previous posts in this series:

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This article was written by Rev. Nathan J. Langerak, pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois. If you have a question or comment for Rev. Langerak, please do so in the comment section on the RFPA blog.

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Next article in series: The Charge of Antinomianism (9): Dismissing it

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The Charge of Antinomianism (7): A Dangerous Distinction

Distinctions must sometimes be made in theology. They are good and useful to understand and explain theological terms. For instance, the distinction between the will of God’s decree and the will of his command explains how God summons all men everywhere to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and promises to all who do that they will be saved, and at the same time God wills eternally the damnation of the reprobate who hear that preaching of Christ. The distinction explains the Reformed faith’s rejection of the well-meant gospel offer, which teaches that God offers salvation to all who hear the gospel and sincerely intends and desires the salvation of all who hear. The Reformed faith charges that this teaches two entirely contradictory wills in God.

Some distinctions are bad and are used to undermine the truth; for instance, the distinction between the image of God in the broader and narrower sense. In the broader sense the image of God is defined as man’s rationality and will, and in the narrower sense the image is defined as knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. This distinction is bad because the theologians that use it teach that man lost the image in the narrower sense and retains the image in the broader sense. The result is that all men retain the image of God. Because the image of God is good, all men have some spark of good in them. Thus the Reformed doctrine of total depravity is denied. Because of this denial the distinction must be jettisoned.

Mark Jones introduces another such bad distinction in his book: “the distinction between God’s benevolent love and his complacent love has a rich Reformed pedigree.” “Benevolent love” refers to God’s love whereby his chose his people from eternity. “Complacent love” refers to his delight in the good in his people. The questions the distinction was supposedly intended to answer are, “Does God love us more because of our obedience or less because of our disobedience…[does]…the holiness of saints ha[ve] any influence on God’s love for them…and [is] God pleased or displeased with his saints when they obey or disobey his law?”

The problem with the distinction is that while it has a Reformed pedigree in the sense that many Reformed divines taught the distinction, it is equally true that there is almost no agreement on the actual definition, as Jones admits: “Reformed divines have not always expressed these distinctions in the same way.”[1] Besides the ones who made them were not content with only those distinctions, but distinguished and distinguished until there were so many distinctions that the love of God was sliced like a pie. Theologians have not only made many distinctions in the love of God, but also have made outright erroneous uses of these distinctions. For instance, they were used to teach a universal love of God for all men and as a ground for the universal offer of salvation: “so, too, the love of God for all humanity is seen in the death of his Son for our redemption. And finally, the general love of God for humanity is manifest in the universal calling of the gospel.”[2]

Furthermore, respected theologians have denied the distinction between God’s benevolent and complacent love, for instance John Gill. Herman Bavinck never mentioned it, and neither did Louis Berkhof. Heinrich Heppe, who gives the Reformed consensus, does not deal with it.

Among those who used the distinction, and whatever their other disagreements about it may have been, there was a universal consensus: “nonetheless, neither the distinction of categories nor the last category in itself indicates a change in God: for the amor complacentiae [love of complacence] follows creaturely actuality, not as an effect follows a cause, but as a consequence follows its antecedent—simply put, God delights in what he has made.”[3] What this means is that those who taught the distinction insisted that God does not change in his love nor do the deeds of man affect the love of God, but what is in man is the work of the love of God, and in that work God delights not as it is the work of man, but as his own work.

Although Mark Jones appeals to the distinction and insists upon its usefulness, he does with it what the Reformed theologians who taught it denied, that is, man’s works affect a change in God and in his love. Jones says, “We are surely correct also to understand that God’s complacent love for us has a direct correlation to our godliness.” And to make that emphatic he says, “In other words, God cannot help but love us more and more if we become more and more like him. Christians will receive ‘an increase of favor,’ the more we become like Christ.”[4]

To back up his doctrine with scripture, he turns John 14:21, 23 on its head and takes a word of great comfort and makes it the ground for the oppressive doctrine that man’s works are the ground of his deeper communion with God. He does that without any attempt at explaining the text, but only asserting that “Christ’s teaching in John 14:21, 23 confirms the point about varying degrees of communion,” that is, God loves and communes with some more and some less based on their works.

The text he cites as such clear proof of the distinction between the love of God’s benevolence and complacence has nothing to do with the distinction at all, and it was not in Christ’s mind when he spoke. In verse 21 Christ spoke of a mark whereby believers may be confirmed in the reality of their faith, namely, that they love Christ. Faith—that saves without love—loves Christ and out of that love keeps his word against all the wretched persecution, slander, and false doctrine of the ungodly world and apostate church to the loss of name, standing, job, friends, family, and life.

About these verses Luther said, “Therefore, says Christ, I will give you a sure sign by which the true Christians, who are in me and in whom I am, can be recognized, namely, the observance of my commandments…if you preach and profess freely and intrepidly; if you hazard property and honor, life and limb, for this; and if you love one another as heartily as I have taught and commanded you. This will be the test and proof of true faith in me.” About verse 23 Luther said, “Therefore Christ always contends against this [the devil’s tactic to have believers despair of God’s love] and arms us with the weapons of defense by assuring us that he himself vouches for the Father’s love. If we believe in him and are in his love, there is no longer any anger in heaven or on earth; there is nothing but fatherly love and all goodness.” He called this “a beautiful and charming message. It costs us no hard labor, and no one need go on distant pilgrimages in search of it or torment himself with arduous works. It costs no more than what we have already in ourselves, namely, that our hearts adhere firmly to it in faith, that our lips make public confession of it, and that we show forth and prove our faith with love toward our neighbor.”[5] That is indeed a charming message. It contrasts sharply with the oppressive doctrine of works taught by Jones, who teaches men to work for the love, favor, and approval of God.

The way to deal with this distinction in the love of God is to dismiss it despite whatever pedigree it might have among Reformed theologians. It is unhelpful, unneeded, unscriptural, and dangerous. God does not change but is the same from eternity to eternity in his word and in all his perfections. With this truth he comforted sinning Jacob: I change not! (Mal. 3:6). Furthermore, God is not dependent on man, but is independent. Man does not affect God, but God affects man with his love, changes him, and moves him from misery to salvation. Salvation from beginning to end is one massive triumph of the unchanging love of God. The one legitimate question that the distinction sought to solve, namely, is God pleased or displeased with our sins? is easily solved without the distinction. God is displeased with the sins of his people exactly because he loves them; and exactly because he loves them with an unmerited and wholly gracious love, he overcomes their sins and brings them to repentance. He also delights in the good that he works in them and sanctifies their works with his grace.

Because Jones makes God’s love of men, especially in their experience and conscience, dependent on man’s works, this doctrine must necessarily affect his doctrine of assurance.

To that I will turn next time.

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[1] Jones, Antinomianism, 84.

[2] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 2:564.

[3] Ibid., 568

[4] Ibid., 86–87.

[5] Martin Luther, Sermons on the Gospel of John, in Luther’s Works (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1961), 24:146, 157.

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This article was written by Rev. Nathan J. Langerak, pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois. If you have a question or comment for Rev. Langerak, please do so in the comment section on the RFPA blog.

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The Charge of Antinomianism (6): Works, the Way to Salvation

Belonging to the effort to smear the truth of grace with the charge of antinomianism is the concerted effort to redefine the place of works in salvation. This begins with criticism of the centrality of justification in the salvation of sinners, as though emphasizing the doctrine will take away from the equal importance of preaching sanctification. This is a ploy. In reality sanctification cannot be preached properly apart from the right doctrine of justification. The one who will do good works must first understand that they are of no account for his righteousness and salvation before God. The Reformed creeds make this clear: “it is so far from being true that this justifying faith makes men remiss in a pious and holy life, that, on the contrary, without it they would never do anything out of love of God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation” (Belgic Confession, article 24). The faith that works by love is first the faith that justifies without its works. Add to this the thought that any work that is performed to merit with God, earn with God, or achieve with God is mortal sin.

In his effort to teach a federal vision understanding of works, Mark Jones goes to great lengths to show how Reformed theologians taught the necessity of good works. Over against a real antinomian this is necessary. The Heidelberg Catechism uses such language in question 86: “why must we still do good works?” The issue is not the necessity of good works. The issue is how Jones describes that necessity of good works.

In his endorsement of Richard Gaffin’s book, Jones, more clearly than the book itself, summarizes the position espoused in it: “Spirit-wrought good works are not only the way of life, but also the way to life-salvation.”[1] He also uses the same language in his book Antinomianism: “Reformed theologians during the post-Reformation era were clear that good works (i.e., evangelical obedience) were not only the way of life, but also the way to life.”[2] His doctrine is that works are necessary as the way to life-salvation. He does not seem to realize that the two terms “way of life” and “way to life” are mutually exclusive. If works are the way of life, they are not the way to life, and if they are the way to life, they are not the way of life.

Part of Jones’ doctrine of works is also his ridicule of the idea that works are evidences of faith. After a long section in which he seeks to prove that works are necessary to salvation, he says, “So much, then, for good works merely evidencing faith.” He uses the term “merely” so that he does not have to condemn the position outright. But if works are necessary to salvation, this obviates the role of works as the evidence of faith and the fruits of faith and salvation. He contrasts the idea that works are evidence of faith with the idea that they are “necessary,” so as to make them virtually mutually exclusive. He also criticizes the idea that good works are fruits of thankfulness: “To insist that believers perform good works only as their thankful response to the triune God for all that he has done for them may give the impression that they are not actually necessary for salvation.”[3]

He must be aware that he is criticizing the entire approach to good works in the Heidelberg Catechism and its first answer to the question of why believers must do good works: “so we may testify by the whole of our conduct our gratitude to God for his blessing and that he may be praised by us” (A 86). He must be aware that James demands that the believer justify his confession to have faith by his works, which James says is to “shew thee my faith by my works,” or to evidence faith (2:18). It is exactly the point of the Catechism and scripture by teaching that works are fruits of thankfulness that they are NOT necessary for salvation in the sense that they are “the way to life-salvation.” They are part of the gift of salvation to the believer, specifically the fruit of the sanctifying work of the Spirit in him by which the Spirit renews him and makes him active.

In support of his doctrine that works are necessary as the way to salvation, Jones erroneously appeals to answer 32 of the Westminster Larger Catechism: “to work in them faith, with all other saving graces; and to enable them unto all holy obedience, as the evidence of the truth of their faith and thankfulness, and as the way which he hath appointed them to salvation” (the emphasis is Jones’). Ignoring that the Westminster here fully agrees with the Heidelberg Catechism that works are evidences of faith and of thankfulness, he twists the last phrase to his own purposes that works are the way to salvation.

The creed does not teach that at all, and the language does not support Jones’ conclusion. The creed says clearly that good works are evidences of faith and thankfulness. The words “to salvation” refer to God’s appointment of his elect. He appointed them to salvation, and that appointment included all their works that they perform as the way they live as saved believers. This is no different from Ephesians 2:10 that all the good works believers perform are appointed to them.

The Canons of Dordt also use this language in 1.8: “according to which he hath chosen us from eternity, both to grace and glory, to salvation and the way of salvation, which he hath ordained that we should walk therein.” The creeds teach that works are the way of salvation, to which God appointed his elect people. Those works were appointed to them by God, purchased for them by the cross of Christ, and worked in them by the Spirit of grace. The gift of salvation includes the very works in which the saved believer walks. They are fruits and effects of salvation given.

The justified believer possesses salvation, which means the covenant and fellowship with the living God. The life of the covenant and of fellowship with the living God is constituted in a life of holiness and good works. The justified believer possesses that life, covenant, and fellowship with the living God by faith only, because by faith all his sins are forgiven and the righteousness of Christ is imputed to him. On that ground alone and by faith alone, the justified believer is at peace with God, as Romans 5:1 says. Through Christ, on the basis of his perfect righteousness alone, the justified believer is introduced into the favor of God, life, and fellowship with the living God, consciously and in his own experience, as Romans 5:2 says.

As Jesus made clear: “I am the way, the truth, and the life and no man comes unto the Father but by me” (John 14:6). The way to come to the Father, to be received into his fellowship and friendship, is by faith only without any works. To come to the Father and to be received by the Father in favor and grace is impossible by works, any works, because all the works the believer performs are polluted with sin. Once I am received into God’s fellowship by faith alone, on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone, the life that the Father requires of me, and also actually works in me, is a life of obedience. In that sense, works are the way of salvation because they are the way of life that is required of the saved believer. However, at no point and in no sense are those works ever the ground of that fellowship or the way to that fellowship, for the ground is Christ’s righteousness, and the way to that fellowship is faith alone.

Furthermore, works are the fruits and effects of God’s sanctification of the believer. He does good works because of the saving benefit of sanctification. He is not sanctified by his works, but he does works because he is sanctified. Here also works are fruits of his salvation.

Indeed, since I pollute and defile even the best of my works, they must be justified by faith only on the ground of the perfect righteousness of Christ. This is the testimony of the Reformed creeds about the good works—genuinely, Spirit-wrought good works—of the believer. Article 24 of the Belgic Confession says, “Moreover, though we do good works, we do not found our salvation upon them; for we do no work but what is polluted by our flesh, and also punishable.” The Heidelberg Catechism says the same thing: “our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin” (A 62).

The idea that Spirit-wrought works are defiled by the believer Mark Jones criticizes and rejects: “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.” He continues, “It is a vain imagination to suppose that we exalt the grace of God by suggesting that the only righteousness pleasing to God is Christ’s righteousness.” Here he shows what he is after. The Spirit-wrought works constitute not the believers thankfulness to God, but his righteousness before God.

Adding folly to his wicked doctrine he goes on to assert, “To be clear, God does not need our good works, but Christ does, and so he not only requires them, but also desires them.”[4] This is complete theological nonsense that turns the Reformed doctrine of works on its head. Christ does not need our works anymore than God does. This is like saying the fountain of water needs the river that flows out of it. The fountain produces the river. It is not in need of the river. So Christ as the inexhaustible fountain of grace produces great rivers of water out of us that flow to the neighbor and redound to the praise of his wonderful grace.

Then, Jones adds to his false doctrine and folly a crass mercantilism: “To put it rather bluntly, there are some Christians who are godlier than others…For this reason, those who do more good works than others will receive greater rewards in heaven.”[5] What about the thief on the cross whose only work was to confess Christ, but who did so when the whole world, including Christ’s own apostles, was denying him? Does the thief sit lowest in the kingdom because he had but one good work? What about the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, some of whom endured the heat of the day and some of whom wrought but one hour, and who all received a penny, which action the lord of the vineyard defended on the ground that it was lawful for him to do what he willed with his own. Christ, the lord of the vineyard, also accuses Mark Jones’ crass mercantilism in salvation as coming from “an evil eye,” that objects to his “goodness” (Matt. 20:1–15). There are rewards in salvation, but those rewards are gracious and as such are not distributed like hourly wages to laborers, but sovereignly by God according to his good pleasure. Who knows whether the thief on the cross with his one work will not sit at the right hand of Jesus Christ?

It is heretical to teach that works are necessary as the way to salvation. Scripture and the creeds do not speak this language. The difference between truth and lie is a single word. The truth is that works are the way of life. Mark Jones turns this on its head and insists that good works are the way to life and implies that without them there will not be life, but damnation. That works are the way of salvation maintains the doctrines of grace. That works are the way to salvation overthrows salvation by grace, denies Christ as the only way of salvation, and makes salvation and communion with God now and in eternity dependent on the believer’s works as the way to life. The fact that Jones is a fan of the federal vision only makes clearer what he is after when he insists that works are the way to salvation: justification by faith and works.

The proper way to explain the necessity of works is done by the Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 32. They are not necessary as the ground of salvation or as the way to salvation, life, or fellowship with God, which is rank Roman works’ righteousness. It teaches that the necessity is the work of Christ in us, whom he has saved without our works. The Catechism says that Christ saved us without our works. To say that works are necessary to salvation denies that. Rather, works are necessary because the one who saves us without our works, also works in us by his Spirit. This Spirit-wrought obedience is not and never becomes the ground of salvation. It is the fruit and effect of salvation. The one who is not converted simply gives evidence that he does not have the Spirit because he does not have Christ.

In his pursuit of antinomians—falsely so-called—and to impress the necessity of works for the experience of fellowship with God, Mark Jones also brings up a distinction in the love of God.

To that I will turn next time.

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[1] Jones, in Gaffin, By Faith, Not by Sight, xi.

[2] Jones, Antinomianism, 67.

[3] Ibid., 64.

[4] Ibid., 78.

[5] Ibid., 76.

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This article was written by Rev. Nathan J. Langerak, pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois. If you have a question or comment for Rev. Langerak, please do so in the comment section on the RFPA blog.

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The Charge of Antinomianism (5): Denying Justification by Faith Alone

The present-day attack on the truth of the unconditional covenant and salvation, consisting in the slanderous smear of that doctrine as antinomian, has a definite source. That source is the current ascendency and near total victory of the federal vision heresy in virtually every Reformed and Presbyterian denomination and seminary in the United States and elsewhere in the world. This heresy teaches that the covenant of God is made and union with Christ is established with every baptized child. Salvation in that covenant and union with Christ are conditioned on the child’s faith and obedience of faith. The single greatest threat to Reformed churches is this pestilential heresy of the federal vision. This false doctrine is a threat to their very existence as churches of Christ in the world. This is because as part of its doctrine of the conditional covenant, the federal vision denies the doctrine of justification by faith alone, which is the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Justification by faith alone is the truth that God forgives the sins of all those who believe in Jesus Christ and imputes to them Christ’s righteousness by faith alone and declares the believing sinner worthy of eternal life. To corrupt this doctrine is to corrupt the heart of the gospel. The false teacher that corrupts this doctrine is anathema. The church that corrupts this doctrine has become false.

The federal vision denies that the justification of the sinner is by faith only without any works. It teaches that the sinner’s justification in the final judgment will be by works. The way the men of the federal vision promote this is devilishly clever. While paying lip-service to justification by faith, even justification by faith alone, they teach that the faith that justifies is a working faith that justifies with its works. Men like Norman Shepherd, Richard Lusk, Peter Leithart, Douglas Wilson, and James Jordan have introduced this false doctrine into Reformed and Presbyterian churches. This doctrine has overwhelmed these churches. It is the current, popular understanding of salvation.

It is crucial to understand and to be convinced of the fact that the federal vision’s starting point for its denial of justification by faith alone is the doctrine of the conditional covenant. The conditional covenant has had widespread—almost universal—acceptance in Reformed churches. The federal vision has aggressively developed this idea. The covenant is made with both elect and reprobate alike—with Jacob and Esau—so that God promises to be the God of Jacob as well as of Esau. In the covenant, God gives grace to everyone. The continuation of this covenant on earth and perfection of this covenant in heaven depend on the faith and faithful obedience of the covenant-member. For this reason the federal vision teaches that the covenant-member can, and often does, fall out of the covenant and perish. Furthermore, the final judgment will be based partly on the work of Christ and partly on the covenant-member’s faith and obedience by grace: what one does in the covenant by grace will be part of the basis for his salvation. For the federal vision, salvation must be based on the covenant-member’s works by grace, because the covenant is conditional.

In the face of this heresy, there has been no acknowledgment of the cause of the heresy in the doctrine of the conditional covenant, but only a deaf and stubborn defense of the conditional covenant, even while many impotently wring their hands about the federal vision’s denial of justification by faith alone.

The widespread acceptance of this false doctrine, chiefly its doctrinal foundation of the conditional covenant, is the source of the false charge of antinomianism raised against the unconditional covenant and unconditional salvation. The proponents of the federal vision are busy redefining the term antinomian. Not content to introduce false doctrine, they must also damn the truth as antinomian.

Mark Jones’ book Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? is playing its part in this deadly conflict. His attack is couched as a question, but he makes clear in his book that he does not believe it is an open question whether antinomians, defined as he has defined them, are unwelcome guests. By suspect theology and by associating it with the names of some reputed antinomians from former ages, Jones seeks to render the whole doctrine suspect and therefore its teaching and those who teach it dangerous to the church and the church’s holiness as insipient antinomianism.

Mark Jones has written a glowing foreward to the book By Faith, Not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation, written by federal vision defender and theologian Richard Gaffin. Jones approvingly quotes from this book in his book Antinomianism. In his book Richard Gaffin vigorously defends the idea that justification is by faith and works. He does so in typical federal vision fashion, insisting that the faith that justifies, in that justification is never alone, is a faith that works. He does not merely insist that faith is never alone, so that the Abraham of Romans 4, “ungodly” in his justification, is also the Abraham of James 2, who shows his faith by his works, but rather that the Abraham of Romans 4 is the Abraham of James 2 who works for his justification. In Gaffin’s words:

In this regard, it is hardly gratuitous to suggest that the Abraham of James 2:21–24, as well as anyone, exemplifies the response of Romans 1:5 to the gospel promise of the covenant that was eventually fulfilled in Christ (vv. 2–4), the response of “the obedience of faith.” This Abraham, the Abraham of the obedience of faith, implicitly brackets and so qualifies everything Paul says about him and his faith elsewhere in Romans. In fact we may say, in Romans we in effect meet the Abraham of James both in [Romans] 1:5, before Abraham is introduced explicitly in chapter 4, and also after that in [Romans] 16:26. These two are not somehow different persons, nor does each function as a theological construct in tension with the other. They are one and the same, and we can never properly understand one without the other.[1]

Thus for Gaffin, Rome was right. James and Paul speak of justification in the same sense. The faith by which Abraham was justified in Romans 4 was the obedient faith of the Abraham of James 2, and he was justified by that obedient faith. Justification is after all by faith and the works of faith, because the faith that justifies is never alone in that justification, but works. For Gaffin, it not that faith, being justified, also works, but that in the matter of justification faith works.

Gaffin’s reference to Abraham is preposterous on the plainest reading of the Bible. The Abraham of Romans 4 and the Abraham of James 2 are indeed very different according to the doctrine under consideration in each passage. In Romans 4 the doctrine of justification is under consideration, as Gaffin readily admits, and there the apostle does not call Abraham obedient, but “ungodly.” The Abraham of Romans 4 was an “ungodly” Abraham. There is not a more thorough way to exclude the works of the believer from his justification than to call him “ungodly” in his justification. So far are his works excluded that in his justification he has only evil works, not only because he sinned but also because he corrupted all the good works that God gave him. Abraham was that because that is who God justifies, and that is what Abraham confessed about himself by faith before the judgment seat of God. God will not justify the righteous or the good. He will only justify the ungodly. He justifies and by that justification takes into his fellowship ungodly people, not obedient people. In James 2 the inevitability and necessity of works as the fruits and justification of faith are under discussion. The Abraham of James 2 is obedient, because that is what the justified believer is by faith, because the faith that justifies without its works is also a faith that works by love.

Defending his obvious corruption of the texts, Gaffin says further,

Paul does not teach a “faith alone” position, as I have sometimes heard it put. Rather, his is a “by faith alone” position. This is not just a verbal quibble; the “by” is all-important here. The faith by which sinners are justified, as it unites them to Christ and so secures for them all the benefits of salvation that there are in him, perseveres to the end and in persevering is never alone.[2]

Gaffin puts himself out here as one who is scrupulous about grammar, but he uses his grammatical point to deny the truth. His point would be well taken if he were speaking merely about all the benefits that come to a believer in Christ. By faith the believer receives both Christ’s righteousness by imputation and his holiness worked in the believer by the Spirit. After all, according to 1 Corinthians 1:30, Christ is made both righteousness and sanctification to us. But Gaffin speaks about justification, which he indicates when he refers to the Reformation’s classic phrase about justification, “by faith alone.”

When the Reformation theologians said faith alone, they spoke about justification. Their position was, and that of the entire scripture and all the Reformed creeds is, that the believer is justified by faith alone, faith all by itself, so that without any of its works faith justifies. The Reformed creeds are crystal clear. For instance, article 24 of the Belgic Confession says, “It is by faith in Christ that we are justified, even before we do good works.” “Howbeit [these works] are of no account towards our justification.”

They said that on the basis of scripture. Paul’s position regarding justification—and that of the Holy Ghost and the creeds—is exactly a “faith alone” position. Faith alone justifies, that is, believers are justified by faith alone without any of faith’s works. This position Gaffin is intent on overthrowing by his grammatical quibble, so that with the word “by” he can still make faith the only instrument of justification and appear orthodox, all the while including in faith all of faith’s obedience and perseverance as part of the faith that justifies, the ground of justification, and without which faith cannot justify.

In the foreward to Gaffin’s book, Mark Jones endorsed the book as “deeply influential” for his own theology.[3] By his endorsement of By Faith, Not by Sight as “deeply influential” for his own theology, Jones shows that he dwells comfortably among the men of the federal vision camp.

Gaffin’s book Jones also connects with his own views on antinomianism. Jones views By Faith, Not by Sight as important and necessary as an “implicit critique of a sort of antinomianism current in the church today, whereby the gospel (or salvation) is understood—practically, if not theoretically—almost exclusively in terms of justification.”[4]

This minimization of justification is also present throughout Jones’ book Antinomianism, when he says repeatedly about antinomians, “The gospel was, in their view, synonymous with justification.” He criticizes as indicative of such a view the statement, “Yea let us know for certainty, that free justification is the very head, heart, and soul of all Christian religion and true worship of God.”[5] If saying this is indicative of antinomian tendencies, both Luther and Calvin had antinomian leanings, because Luther called justification the article of the standing church and Calvin called it the main hinge on which all religion turns.

Such a denigration of justification and a minimization of the reality that it is salvation and that the whole doctrine of the sinner’s gracious salvation turns on it as on a hinge are not Reformed at all. The Belgic Confession teaches in article 23: “We believe that our salvation consists in the remission of sins for Jesus Christ’s sake, and that therein our righteousness before God is implied.” The Reformed have no problem equating salvation and justification and summarizing the whole doctrine of salvation by that single truth. The problem with real antinomians is not that they view salvation in terms of justification, but that they do not have a clue what justification is because they are careless and profane men and not believers at all. It is impossible that this doctrine, preached and emphasized to the hilt in the churches, will ever make any believer careless or profane.

By his endorsement of Gaffin’s book and its heretical theology of justification, Mark Jones shows himself no friend, but an enemy, of the Reformed doctrines of grace. He pays lip-service to the doctrine that by association and words he denies. It also shows that his book on antinomianism stands in the service of that false doctrine by taking up the old tactic of the enemies of the doctrines of grace against the truth. The Reformed faith, churches, and believers do not need a proponent of works’ righteousness telling them who their enemies are or what constitutes an antinomian, any more than Paul needed the Judaizers to teach him about works.

In his war on the truth, specifically justification by faith alone, Jones also speaks about the role of works in the believer’s salvation.

To that I will turn next time.

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[1] Richard B. Gaffin, By Faith, Not By Sight, 2nd ed. (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013), 118–19.

[2] Ibid., 119.

[3] Jones, in ibid., vii.

[4] Ibid., xii.

[5] Jones, Antinomianism, 40.

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This article was written by Rev. Nathan J. Langerak, pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois. If you have a question or comment for Rev. Langerak, please do so in the comment section.

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The Charge of Antinomianism (1): A False Charge

The Charge of Antinomianism (2): A Novel Definition

The Charge of Antinomianism (3): Against an Unconditional Covenant

The Charge of Antinomianism (4): Hyper-Calvinism?

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Next article in the series: Works, the Way to Salvation

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The Charge of Antinomianism (4): Hyper-Calvinism?

Antinomianism is a real heresy that denies the necessity of good works in the life of the justified Christian. It is also a false and slanderous charge against the gospel of grace raised by those who hate that doctrine. Practically ignoring real antinomianism in the church world and its real root in the idea of God’s universal grace, Mark Jones in his book Antinomianism attempts to list certain theological characteristics of antinomians by means of which they can be sniffed out. This list is problematic. It involves the condemnation as antinomian the doctrine of the unconditional covenant of grace taught in the Reformed creeds. While making this charge against the doctrines of grace, he also compares antinomianism and hyper-Calvinism. Understanding this comparison goes miles to understanding his charge of antinomianism and reveals that charge and the whole book in which it is made as a thinly veiled attack on the truth of grace.

Mark Jones characterizes antinomians as those who “make Christ totally responsible, not only for our imputed righteousness, but also for our imparted righteousness.”[1] He is criticizing the thought trumpeted by all the great reformers, including Luther and Calvin, that Christ is our justification (imputed righteousness) and our sanctification (imparted righteousness). He is criticizing the thought included in Lord’s Day 6 on the basis of scripture that the Mediator is “our Lord Jesus Christ, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.” By faith we are made one with Christ and receive the whole Christ and all his benefits, and he is responsible for our justification and sanctification. How a Reformed man could possibly object to this is mystifying. But Jones will not let such things get in the way of his pursuit of the scabbed antinomian sheep fouling the flock.

Against this Reformed view he makes the supposedly devastating charge: “this view obliterates human responsibility to the point that antinomianism ends us becoming a form of hyper-Calvinism.”[2] He speaks later of “how similar antinomian theology is to hyper-Calvinism.”[3]

What Mark Jones believes to be the dreaded error of hyper-Calvinism he explains in the book, A Puritan Theology. Throughout that book he never misses an opportunity to slander denial of the well-meant gospel offer with the name hyper-Calvinism. He does not actually get around to explaining his understanding of hyper-Calvinism until late in the book. He says that the hyper-Calvinist believes “that God does not sincerely offer grace unconditionally to every hearer of the gospel.”[4]

He should know that this is not historic hyper-Calvinism. Real hyper-Calvinism taught that the church could only preach to the elect. Mark Jones’ version is the loaded redefinition of hyper-Calvinism that is bandied about by proponents of the well-meant gospel offer in order to dismiss with a name a doctrine with which they violently disagree—the particular call of the gospel—namely, that in the promiscuous preaching of the gospel God intends the salvation of only his elect people and does not offer Christ or grace to all hearers of the gospel with a sincere desire that all of them be saved. Who else in the world today except the Protestant Reformed Churches and her sisters denies the well-meant gospel offer? It is well known that this is the standard charge by which all her careful and history-long criticism of the well-meant gospel offer is dismissed without actually engaging in a debate about it. Who else does Jones have in view? And if the Protestant Reformed Churches are hyper-Calvinists for their rejection of the well-meant gospel offer, why might not their faithful maintenance of the truth of grace in the creeds, especially the unconditional covenant, be dismissed as antinomian as well?

Jones’ definition of hyper-Calvinism, though false, is revelatory about his view of antinomianism, since he makes them basically the same. By all his talk about conditions in salvation and by revealing that he believes in a universal offer of grace, he shows what he means by responsibility. When he speaks about man’s responsibility in salvation, he does not mean that in salvation God treats man as a rational creature, so that man is responsible for his rejection of the gospel, even though God reprobated him. By responsibility he does not mean that when God works faith in a man that man actually believes and repents as the fruit and effect of God’s work. When Jones uses responsibility he means man’s response to God’s universally offered grace, upon which response the offer depends as the condition of his salvation.

This understanding of responsibility must also inform everything he says about conditions in salvation and in the covenant, including faith and works. When Mark Jones speaks of faith as a condition in the covenant, he does not mean what so many in the old days meant when they referred to faith as a condition, namely, that God works faith in his elect as the necessary means of their salvation. When he speaks of faith as a condition, he means man’s response in the covenant to universally offered grace, by which man distinguishes himself from others in the covenant who are equally furnished with grace and upon which response the covenant depends. For Jones, faith is man’s contribution to his salvation, without which there is no salvation. The same thing must be said of his view of works as a condition. It is man’s response by grace to grace and that upon which his salvation really depends in some sense.

By these terms he means what the proponents of the well-meant offer mean when they speak about conditions and responsibility: God offers grace to all hearers of the gospel, and man must respond to that offered grace in faith and so distinguish himself from others who are equally furnished with grace in the preaching. For Jones the supposed hyper-Calvinist—who denies the well-meant offer—and the supposed antinomian—who denies conditions in the covenant and salvation—are the same. For him they both deny a universal offer of grace, a grace made effectual by an act of the sinner and without which the grace of God fails to save the sinner. He sees the “antinomianism” of the unconditional covenant and the “hyper-Calvinism” of the particular call of the gospel as one and the same false doctrine.

By these definitions he makes the denial of conditions in the covenant and in salvation the new antinomianism. The definitions are false, as false as the definition of hyper-Calvinism as the denial of a well-meant offer. The charge of antinomianism against the unconditional covenant is false and slanderous, as false as the slander that to deny the well-meant offer is hyper-Calvinism. The charge is nothing more than a naked attempt to make the doctrine of the unconditional covenant and unconditional salvation suspicious in the eyes of the churches. By this charge he would induce the suspicion that where unconditional salvation and the unconditional covenant are taught there lurks the reality of antinomianism.

This attack on the unconditional covenant and salvation has a background.

To that I will turn next time.

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[1] Jones, Antinomianism, 29.

[2] Ibid., 29.

[3] Ibid., 84.

[4] Beeke and Jones, A Puritan Theology, 963.

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This article was written by Rev. Nathan J. Langerak, pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois. If you have a question or comment for Rev. Langerak, please do so in the comment section.

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The Charge of Antinomianism (1): A False Charge

The Charge of Antinomianism (2): A Novel Definition

The Charge of Antinomianism (3): Against an Unconditional Covenant

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The Charge of Antinomianism (3): Against an Unconditional Covenant

Antinomianism is the heresy that denies the necessity of good works in the life of the believer. The outstanding characteristic of the antinomian is lawlessness in life. Antinomianism is also a slanderous charge that throughout history has been leveled against the truth of the gospel to make that doctrine wicked and dangerous to the church.

The doctrine of the unconditional covenant belongs to the gospel of grace taught in sacred scripture and summarized in the Reformed creeds. The doctrine teaches that God makes his covenant with the elect alone, that he makes an unconditional promise of salvation to them alone, gives grace to them alone, and that he surely and infallibly fulfils that promise for their everlasting happiness in heaven. The doctrine of the unconditional covenant faithfully maintains all the Reformed doctrines of grace, including election as the eternal decree controlling membership in the covenant, the cross of Christ as the only meritorious ground of every benefit of the covenant promised to and bestowed on the elect, the gracious regeneration of every elect person, the gift of saving faith incorporating every elect into Christ, justification by faith alone without any works, and the preservation of every covenantal member to eternal salvation in a life of holiness and good works. To attack that doctrine as antinomian is slander and an open attack upon the truth as it is in Christ Jesus.

Mark Jones engages in just such an attack. Throughout the book he brings up the matter of conditions. Among the questions that he says were historically involved in the antinomian debates and were used to expose the antinomian is the question, “are there conditions in salvation?” According to him, the antinomian is one who teaches that there are no conditions in salvation. He further asserts about antinomian theology that “the divine element and human responsibility”—what he calls the “conditional aspect of the covenant of grace”—were not upheld “by the majority of antinomian theologians.”[1] He speaks later of the antinomians’ “denial of conditions in the covenant of grace.”[2]

He further explains his view of conditions in the covenant in the book, A Puritan Theology, which he co-authored with Joel Beeke.

The conditions of the covenant were principally faith in Christ and its fruit of new obedience. The former condition was understood, against the Antinomians, as an antecedent condition, so that no blessing procured by Christ could be applied to the believer until he or she exercised faith in Christ…To maintain that the covenant of grace is not conditional…has no biblical warrant, for that reason, the Reformed orthodox spoke of requirements or conditions demanded of those who would inherit the promise of salvation.[3]

For Mark Jones the covenant is emphatically conditional. No blessing procured by Christ can be applied to the believer until he exercises faith in Christ. He calls faith “an antecedent condition required of sinners in order to receive pardon of sins.” And he makes clear what he means by an “antecedent condition” when he writes, “In the garden of Eden good works were antecedent conditions to the promise of life.” In the same way Adam had the promise of life by what he did, so a man has the promise of forgiveness only by what he does. Faith is what he does to be saved in the same way as Adam had life by what he did. Jones writes about the death of Christ, “The covenant is therefore the context in which man exercises faith in order to receive the saving benefits of Christ’s works of impetration [accomplishing redemption].”[4] He says about good works, “In other words, are good works a necessary part of our perseverance in the faith in order to receive eternal life (i.e. glorification)? This brings up the matter of conditions for salvation. Are good works in any way a condition for salvation?”[5] He concludes that the Reformed teach that “good works are consequent conditions of having been saved.” What he means by “consequent conditions” is that they are new conditions of salvation imposed on the believer because he is saved. Jones goes to great lengths to establish that good works are necessary for salvation, especially by dragging out some quotations in which Reformed theologians spoke about works as necessary for salvation, even though in the same breath they admitted that their language was not at all safe and threatened the consciences of men and gave occasion to the Roman Catholic enemies of the truth. Further, what Jones means by necessary for salvation is different from what Reformed theologians said in the past. He means that good works are necessary as conditions to salvation and without which the believer cannot receive salvation. They are really and genuinely conditions performed by the believer in his strength by the grace of God.

This is not Reformed at all. Faith as a condition? Faith as a condition to receive the benefits procured by Christ? The Reformed speak of faith as a gift earned by the cross of Christ and graciously bestowed on the elect. The Canons say about faith in relation to the death of Christ, “The quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of his son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith.” No benefits applied before faith is exercised? Is not faith itself applied before it is exercised? What about regeneration? What about conversion? Are not these blessings of God applied before faith is exercised? Works as conditions to salvation? Works a “consequent condition?” Use whatever modifying term you choose with “works,” this is not Reformed language at all. It is Arminian language and was condemned by the Synod of Dordt, which said that the Arminians spoke of “new conditions,” which were “faith itself and the obedience of faith, although imperfect” (Canons 2, errors 2–3).

All of this serves his attack on the unconditional covenant. For Mark Jones, to speak of the covenant as unconditional is not Reformed, but antinomian. Ignoring wickedness, even gross wickedness of life, as the mark of the antinomian, he labels and dismisses with the charge of ungodly antinomianism those whose only crime is to deny that God saves sinners conditionally. Only if one teaches that there are conditions in the covenant and in salvation, can he be saved from the dreaded charge of antinomianism.

This is also a new understanding of antinomianism. By means of it, denial of the conditional covenant and the defense of the unconditional covenant of grace are smeared as the gross false doctrine of antinomianism, in a similar way as denial of the well-meant gospel offer and defense of the particularity of the call of the gospel are repeatedly and without proof slandered as hyper-Calvinism.

To that I will turn next time.

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[1] Jones, Antinomianism, 28.

[2] Ibid., 109.

[3] Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 318.

[4] Jones, Antinomianism, 63.

[5] Ibid., 62.

This article was written by Rev. Nathan J. Langerak, pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois. If you have a question or comment for Rev. Langerak, please do so in the comment section.

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The Charge of Antinomianism (1): A False Charge

The Charge of Antinomianism (2): A Novel Definition

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Next article in series: Hyper-Calvinism?

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The Charge of Antinomianism (2): A Novel Definition

Antinomianism is the error that denies the necessity of good works in the life of the justified Christian. It is a real threat to the church and to the holiness of the church. The Bible warns against it. It is gross heresy. Antinomianism is also a false charge raised by the opponents of grace against the truth to slander it and to make it appear wicked in the eyes of the churches. Christ, Paul, and Luther all suffered this false charge. It is being used yet today against the doctrines of grace. The instrument for this attack is a novel and historically inaccurate understanding of what constitutes antinomianism.

This novel definition is found in the recent book Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? written by the well-known, learned, and articulate author Mark Jones. The book has been widely reviewed, and the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. The book is viewed as a correct analysis of antinomianism, is presented as a new tool in the war on antinomianism, and its author is cited as a recognized authority on the subject. The book is being recommended to members of the pew as sound and Reformed and instructive for understanding antinomianism and its threat to the churches today.

The author’s conclusions are being accepted as the new standard for exposing antinomians, and his implied program to root out these “unwelcome guests” is being carried out, beginning with his charges of antinomianism against those who maintain and stubbornly defend the truth of the unconditional covenant and with it all the doctrines of grace. At the very least he has succeeded in raising the suspicion that where the unconditional covenant and the pure gospel of grace are taught antinomianism lurks.

Jones minimizes the classic definition of antinomianism: “we have not understood the debate if we simply identify antinomians as those who flatly reject the use and necessity of the moral law in the life of Christians.”[1] This also comes out in his repeated warnings that antinomianism “must not be confused with the etymological meaning of antinomian (i.e., ‘against the law’).”[2] Again he writes, “Antinomianism is more complex than its etymology might suggest.”[3] He concludes, “If antinomianism is understood simply as all indicatives without imperatives, and legalism simply as all imperatives without indicatives, then there has been very few true antinomians or true legalists in the Christian tradition.”[4]

For him to define an antinomian as one who is literally against the law—that is, one who says, “God saves sinners, so let us sin”—is inadequate. By this he ignores the obvious. By this he also fails to recognize that this is exactly what those real antinomians who appeared in the Bible and in history did: they flatly rejected the law and lived however they pleased. For proof one need only read Jeremiah 7 or Revelation 2 or examine the history of the Anabaptist antinomians during the time of the Reformation.

Flatly rejecting the use and necessity of the moral law is the outstanding characteristic of real antinomians today. They are against law; they reject those who bring the warnings and admonitions of the law and are characterized by lawlessness. For example, where is the law of God about marriage honored today? It is ironic in the extreme that the warnings against antinomianism come from those who by appeals to grace defend or fail to condemn the rank violations of the law of God concerning marriage by pew and clergy. Those who live impenitently in the sin of divorce and remarriage are comforted in that wickedness and given an honorable place in the pew and in the offices. Where is the outrage against this antinomianism of rampant and undisciplined divorce and remarriage? It is troubling in the extreme that from the same quarters as issue glowing reviews, recommendations of, and appeals to the world’s movies and music—evidence of antinomian worldliness—there comes also this shrill cry of antinomianism. What of the patent violations of the Lord’s day by those who do not diligently frequent God’s house and are found instead working, at the beach, at football games, or on boats? Where is the indignation at the ungodliness of labor union membership, lodge membership, and membership in other worldly associations that are rife today in Reformed and Presbyterian churches? What of the antinomianism of the near universal acceptance of the doctrine of common grace that flatly denies the antithesis and encourages unity with the ungodly world? What of the antinomianism of false doctrine that is tolerated by vigorously and viciously defending those who teach it, so that in Mark Jones’ own church, the Presbyterian Church in America, and others, heretics who have the audacity to deny that justification is by faith alone have been exonerated and doctrinal lawlessness against the creeds and in rank violation of the oath of subscription reigns?

Antinomianism is present wherever these evils take place, whoever participates in them is an antinomian, and churches that tolerate such guests undisciplined at their communion tables promote antinomianism. Antinomianism as denial of the law is not as rare today as Mark Jones assumes. However, this all passes him by in his pursuit of a new understanding of antinomianism.

It is a serious fault of a book that purports to teach about antinomianism that the fruits of the antinomian error in the actual ungodliness that characterizes the life of the antinomian are not pointed out, dealt with, and condemned. There is hardly a syllable in the whole book dealing with these very real manifestations of antinomianism today. It is a serious fault of the book that, without a single rebuke from this instructor about the antinomian error, it allows unwelcome guests at many Reformed communion tables to continue in the illusion of their righteousness and allows many Reformed churches and officebearers to tolerate that lawlessness. One would expect, at least in fairness to the Reformed world, which Jones charges with the “real problem” of “practical antinomianism,” that he would point this out for the brethren.

By this neglect he also turns the attention of the church away from real ungodliness of life as the most obvious and dangerous characteristic of real antinomianism that the church can lay its hands on. It is as if a shepherd would tell his sheep dogs to go sniffing about for the wolf in sheep’s clothes while ignoring the huge loafer wolf lying in the middle of the flock chewing on a leg of lamb. Jones sends Reformed sheep dogs on a nearly hopeless and futile quest to ferret out antinomians according to some vaguely defined theological characteristics.

In Jones’ pursuit of antinomians, he never actually defines the antinomian error. Rather, he seeks to give certain theological characteristics of the antinomian and concludes that “when all or at least most of these errors are combined in a preaching ministry, you have an antinomian. And, despite loud protestations to the contrary, antinomian theology leads to practical antinomianism, which is a serious problem in the church today.”[5]

He also accuses the antinomians in his sights of being duplicitous and hypocritical: “They have a habit of saying mutually contradictory things, as well as affirming truths that they deny in practice. That is, their public ministry is not always in accord with what they will tell you when they are, in private, pressed on certain points.”[6] Jones is interested in the theology of antinomianism, and upon this theology he heaps all of the opprobrium for the practical antinomianism that he sees—but does not explain—as a serious problem today.

It is not that his point about the slipperiness of the real antinomian is not well taken. The real antinomian, as any heretic, is as slippery as a snake in the presentation of errors. Rather, the problem is that when the theological characteristics that Jones cites as indicating a real antinomian are examined one finds that he actually indicts the truth as being antinomian. The book ends up casting aspersions upon the truth, so that Christ, the apostle Paul, Luther, and the Reformed creeds are laid under the suspicion of antinomianism.

Part of Jones’ attack on the truth involves the unconditional covenant of grace.

To that I will turn next time.

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[1] Mark Jones, Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013), 124.

[2] Ibid., 124.

[3] Ibid., 18.

[4] Ibid., 124.

[5] Ibid., 128

[6] Ibid.

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This article was written by Rev. Nathan J. Langerak, pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois. If you have a question or comment for Rev. Langerak, please do so in the comment section.

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The Charge of Antinomianism (1): A False Charge

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