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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