The Charge of Antinomianism (1): A False Charge

Rev. Nathan J. Langerak is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois.

The RFPA welcomes Rev. Langerak as the newest writer for the RFPA blog. 

__________________

Antinomian means against law. Antinomianism is the heresy that denies the necessity of good works in the life of the justified believer and that excuses sin in the life of the professing Christian by appeals to grace. Its blatant form is the teaching that the child of God has been delivered by grace to sin freely. The reasoning of the antinomian is that since God saves sinners by grace alone, let us sin that grace may abound. Its subtle form is the denial that the justified believer must do good works and that he must be exhorted to do good works. The reasoning of the antinomian is that the believer need not be told that he must do good works, regardless of the explanation of this must. An antinomian regards any language of “must” or “necessity” in connection with the believer and good works to be legalism and a threat to the graciousness of salvation.

This heresy was present in the Old Testament in Jeremiah 7. It was present in the New Testament in Revelation 2 among the “Nicolaitans” and in “Thyatira” in “that woman Jezebel” (vv. 15, 18, 20). It troubled Luther in John Agricola and Calvin in Geneva with the so-called Libertines. It remains a real threat today. It is a damnable heresy.

Throughout New Testament church history, the enemies of the gospel of grace have also raised the charge of antinomianism against the doctrines of grace. This disreputable tactic was even used against Christ. While his enemies excused their unbelief in the preaching of John the Baptist by saying that he had a devil, they also slandered the Lord as a gluttonous man and a wine bibber (Matt. 11:18–19; Luke 7:33–34) and implied that his preaching led to those sins among the people.

The false brethren raised the charge of antinomianism against the apostle Paul. In Romans 3:8 he relates that the apostles were “slanderously reported” and that some men affirmed that the apostles said, “Let us do evil, that good may come.” In Romans 6:1 Paul raises his enemies’ objection against the doctrine of gracious justification: “shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?” In Galatians 2:17 he raises the matter again: “is therefore Christ the minister of sin?” No doubt this charge of antinomianism was also involved in the persistent attempts mentioned in the book of Acts to characterize Paul as a destroyer of the law of Moses.

Opponents of the gospel also charged Luther with antinomianism. In the preface to his Treatise against Antinomians he responded to those charges:

And truly, I wonder exceedingly, how it came to be imputed to me, that I should reject the Law or ten Commandments, there being extant so many of my own expositions (and those of several sorts) upon the Commandments, which also are daily expounded, and used in our Churches, to say nothing of the Confession and Apology, and other books of ours.

Roland Bainton in his definitive biography of Martin Luther, Here I Stand, wrote, “The same retort was given to Luther as to Paul. If we are saved not by merits but by mercy, ‘let us then sin that grace may abound.’ Both Paul and Luther answered, ‘God forbid.’”[1]

The Reformed creeds also mention these insinuations of antinomianism against their doctrine by the enemies of the truth. In question 64 the Heidelberg Catechism asks, “But doth not this doctrine [gracious justification by faith alone without works] make men careless and profane?” Article 24 of the Belgic Confession says, “Therefore 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 to God, only out of self-love or fear of damnation.” The conclusion of the Canons of Dordt addresses the charge that the Arminians hurled against the truth:

That the doctrine of the Reformed churches concerning predestination, and the points annexed to it, by its own genius and necessary tendency, leads off the minds of men from all piety and religion…that it renders men carnally secure, since they are persuaded by it that nothing can hinder the salvation of the elect, let them live as they please, and therefore, that they may safely perpetuate every species of the most atrocious crimes.

The Reformed may well say with Luther that they too “wonder exceedingly how it came to be imputed” to them that they reject the law, since the creeds contain expositions of the ten commandments, require the discipline of spiritual transgressors by use of the keys of the kingdom, and emphasize the necessity of good works in the life of the justified believer.

The reason the charge of antinomianism comes against the Reformed doctrines of grace is not merely that those who make the charge have an interest in the law, which is lacking in the Reformed and in their creeds, since the Reformed also preach the law. Indeed, the Heidelberg Catechism requires the Reformed preacher to do so “strictly” (Q 115). Rather, the reason is that those who raise the charge against the Reformed and their doctrines of grace hold to entirely different doctrines of salvation, of grace, and ultimately of the law itself. The Pharisees accused Christ of antinomianism because they wanted salvation by works, and likewise the Roman Catholics accused Luther, the Judaizers accused Paul, and the Arminians accused the Reformed.

Thus the issue in the false charge of antinomianism against the Reformed doctrines of grace is not first about the law, but about the nature of divine grace. Does grace enable the believer to fulfill conditions unto salvation, conditions that include obedience to the divine law, or is grace the power of God to save the believer from his sins by justifying him wholly without his works and then also working in him to walk in all the good works that God ordained for him from before the foundation of the world in thankfulness for that salvation and for the glory of God? Does God accept the sinner into his fellowship, grace, and life by faith only, or does God accept the sinner into his fellowship, grace, and life because of what the sinner does—even partly—by grace? Is grace truly grace, or is grace mingled with works in the salvation of the sinner, so that grace is no more grace?

Those who raise the false charge of antinomianism object to salvation by grace, salvation that is wholly by grace and mercy. They object to the doctrine of the salvation of the sinner, beginning in gracious election as the only source, continuing through the atoning cross as the only ground and foundation of that salvation, coming to a dead sinner to regenerate him, granting to him the gift of faith, justifying him without his works by faith only, and sanctifying him, which is manifested in a life of thankful obedience. They object to the doctrine that makes the entire salvation of the elect child of God, including his works, God’s gracious gift to him. These objectors charge that if salvation, fellowship with God, and eternal life do not in some sense depend on what a man does, the most powerful motivation for good works is removed.

The false charge of antinomianism raised against the doctrines of grace is that they are inherently antinomian, so that preaching them makes men careless and profane. In the bold language of the Arminian opponents of grace: the doctrines of grace from their “own genius and necessary tendency lead off the minds of men from all piety” (Conclusion to the Canons). This false charge of antinomianism maintains that the unholy and careless lives of church members are exactly the result of teaching the doctrines of grace, so that the doctrines themselves are at fault, and teaching them is the cause of that wickedness. The doctrines of divine predestination, of the perfect atoning death of Christ, of justification by faith alone without any works, of faith as a gift of God, and of the preservation of saints are to blame for the wicked lives of those who believe them and for wickedness in churches that maintain them, because these doctrines make men “carnally secure,” exactly because their salvation does not depend on their works. The fault lies in the doctrine of the Reformed. It must be changed to ward off its antinomian tendencies, and it must be changed by making the salvation of man contingent in some sense on his works.

The issue also involves the nature of God’s work of grace in renewing the believer. Who is the believer by God’s grace? Those who raise the false charge of antinomianism against the doctrines of grace imply, if they do not explicitly teach, that the believer is one who, if he is told that his salvation is all of grace and without his works, will seize on that doctrine and use it to live carnally. Thus the believer in essence remains a worldly person who will take every opportunity, including the preaching of grace, to rush into wickedness.

Those who raise the false charge of antinomianism do not merely recognize the constant threat to the holiness of the church from the believer’s own flesh, which must be mortified daily, and the abuse of the doctrines of grace by unbelievers—careless and profane men who have never known the grace of the forgiveness of sins—who evilly seize on the doctrine of salvation by grace and use it as a cloak for their wicked lives and evil hearts. But in reality those who raise the charge of antinomianism deny the work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers and the effect that the Holy Spirit works by the preaching of the believer’s gracious salvation in their hearts and maintains also by the proper preaching of the law.

Behind this evil attack on the doctrines of grace stands the inveterate opponent of the truth, the great rebel, slanderer, accuser, and lawless one, who, transforming himself into an angel of light, puts himself and his ministers out as the great upholders of the law of God in order to destroy the truth and the law and the churches with them.

This false charge is now being leveled again by means of a novel definition of antinomianism.

To that I will turn next time.

_________________________

[1] Roland Bainton, Here I Stand (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2017), 225.

_________________________

Next article in series: A Novel Definition

On Twitter

Follow @reformedfreepub