Posted March 30, 2020
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.” 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.” He speaks later of “how similar antinomian theology is to hyper-Calvinism.”
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.”
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.
 Jones, Antinomianism, 29.
 Ibid., 29.
 Ibid., 84.
 Beeke and Jones, A Puritan Theology, 963.
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.
Last time we ended intending to take up the matter of assurance of justification. To doubt whether one is justified is to doubt whether one is saved. In the name of a “quest for full assurance,” reputedly Reformed theologians promote a doctrine of doubt.[i] These reputedly Reformed theologians promote the Puritan and nadere reformatie (further reformation) theology of doubt. They deny that faith is, essentially, assurance.
I quote again from Mark Jones' book, Antinomianism: Reformed Theology's Unwelcome Guest, on the topic of assurance. He writes,
Following the outline of questions provided by Joel Beeke, there are a number of areas in the doctrine of assurance where the Puritans recognized the need to be specific. The first question considers whether the seed of assurance is embedded in faith. Faith and full assurance of faith are not strictly synonymous. Our faith does not save; only Christ saves, who is the object of faith. Of course, there is always some degree of assurance in faith, but the main issue is whether full assurance is of the essence of faith. As Beeke notes, “They differentiate between the faith of adherence to Christ and the faith of assurance (or evidence) in Christ, whereby the believer knows that Christ has died specifically for him.”[ii]
Mark Jones is a disciple of influential Puritan theologian Dr. Joel R. Beeke.[iii] Beeke is a proponent of the Puritan—not Reformed—doctrine of assurance, that is, assurance by quest. The word “quest” in the title of Beeke's book on assurance, The Quest for Full Assurance, is telling. A quest, according to the dictionary, is a “long or arduous search for something.” To embark on a quest for assurance, is to work for assurance, making the Puritan doctrine of assurance a form of salvation by works.
Both Beeke and Jones appeal to a conditional covenant in defense of their doctrine of assurance. Writes Jones in his chapter on assurance, “The antinomians could not give a role to good works in assurance, other than to say that they are frequently dangerous signs, because of their denial of conditions in the covenant of grace, their view that Christ repented, believed, etc., for his people, and their view that God sees no sin in his people” (emphasis mine, AJC).[iv]
From the believer's side, however, there is in Puritan thought also a conditional dimension of the covenant which plays a critical role in assurance. “The absolute promises are laid before us as the foundation of our salvation....and the conditional as the foundation of our assurance.” The conditional promises are inseparable from the believer's daily renewal of the covenant by means of prayer, meditation, and worship. Particularly the sacraments serve as important seasons for covenant-renewal. “To gather up assurance from the conditions of the covenant,” wrote Thomas Blake, “is the highest pitch of Christianity.”[v]
In the Beeke-Jones schema of assurance, flowing from a belief in a conditional covenant, the decisive factor in the believer obtaining assurance is the working (questing) of the believer to gather up assurance.
In comforting contrast to the Puritan doctrine of assurance is chapter twelve, Assurance of Justification, in David Engelsma's Gospel Truth of Justification. In the first paragraph of that chapter, he writes,
An aspect of justification that is often overlooked is the assurance of its righteousness and therefore of salvation. The reality of justification includes that the Spirit of the justifying Father of Jesus Christ assures everyone whom the Spirit justifies that he is justified. This assurance is an essential element of the act of justification itself. Not only is the elect, believing sinner justified, but he also knows that he is justified. In fact, the conjunction “but” in the preceding sentence is misleading. It can leave the impression that justification is one thing and assurance of justification another. The truth is that justification is, essentially is, the assurance of justification by faith alone. If the believing sinner is not sure of his righteousness with God, he has not been justified by faith.
Throughout this chapter the author, in response to the “Puritan theology of doubt” (p. 213), demonstrates how the “Reformed confessions....plainly teach justification as the assurance—the personal assurance—of forgiveness and righteousness” (p. 217). Answer 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism, for example, in defining faith, “the faith by which one is justified, makes the personal assurance of justification an element of faith's essence” (p. 217). In part Answer 21 states, “True faith is....an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel in my heart; 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.” Engelsma also brings Q&A 59 and A 60 of the Heidelberg Catechism along with Article 23 of the Belgic Confession to bear on the topic of assurance.
At the end of the chapter Engelsma issues a sharp warning.
Whoever charges Calvin and the Reformation with error on this doctrine [that justification by faith alone is assurance of righteousness with God, p. 222], taking his stand with Puritanism and the further reformation, finds himself in agreement with Rome on one of the most fundamental issues of the sixteenth-century Reformation of the church, as this issue is authoritatively settled in all the Reformed, indeed Protestant, creeds. His error is nothing less than a denial of justification by faith alone, the very heart of the gospel of grace (p. 223).
Not only in the chapter about assurance of justification, but throughout the book, the doctrine of justification by faith alone is defended by examining the Reformed confessions. This is important because the fiercest opponents of justification by faith alone arise from within Reformed and Presbyterian churches. And these opponents are Reformed officebearers who are bound to the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism and Canons of Dordt by virtue of signing the Formula of Subscription, just as Presbyterian churches have a similar document binding their officebearers to the Westminster standards.
Engelsma copiously uses the Reformed confessions, in fact he begins with the confessions, in defense of justification by faith alone, in chapters 5-7 especially. This is commendable. Constantly, the Reformed believer must be reminded of the contents and value of these confessions. And, “with the confessions, the Reformed laity are able to discern and withstand heretical teachings” (p. 71).
Next time, Lord willing, I hope to look at the instructive value of the book.
[i] Jones, Mark. Antinomianism: Reformed Theology's Unwelcome Guest? (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Company, 2013), 106.
[ii] Ibid., 101, 102.
[iii] Dr. Joel R. Beeke is pastor of the Heritage Reformed Congregation of Grand Rapids, MI, founder and president of the Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids and author of The Quest for Full Assurance: The Legacy of Calvin and His Successors (Banner of Truth, 1999). In that book Beeke argues that "full assurance of personal salvation constitutes the well-being or fruit of faith rather than the essence of faith" (p. 276).
[iv] Jones, 109.
[v] Joel Beeke, in an address entitled "Assurance of Faith," given to the Student Society and found on the website of the Free Reformed Churches of North America. http://frcna.org/resources/student-society-speeches.
This article was written by Aaron Cleveland, a member of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. If you have a question or comment for Aaron, please do so in the comment section.