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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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.