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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