The Charge of Antinomianism (7): A Dangerous Distinction

Distinctions must sometimes be made in theology. They are good and useful to understand and explain theological terms. For instance, the distinction between the will of God’s decree and the will of his command explains how God summons all men everywhere to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and promises to all who do that they will be saved, and at the same time God wills eternally the damnation of the reprobate who hear that preaching of Christ. The distinction explains the Reformed faith’s rejection of the well-meant gospel offer, which teaches that God offers salvation to all who hear the gospel and sincerely intends and desires the salvation of all who hear. The Reformed faith charges that this teaches two entirely contradictory wills in God.

Some distinctions are bad and are used to undermine the truth; for instance, the distinction between the image of God in the broader and narrower sense. In the broader sense the image of God is defined as man’s rationality and will, and in the narrower sense the image is defined as knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. This distinction is bad because the theologians that use it teach that man lost the image in the narrower sense and retains the image in the broader sense. The result is that all men retain the image of God. Because the image of God is good, all men have some spark of good in them. Thus the Reformed doctrine of total depravity is denied. Because of this denial the distinction must be jettisoned.

Mark Jones introduces another such bad distinction in his book: “the distinction between God’s benevolent love and his complacent love has a rich Reformed pedigree.” “Benevolent love” refers to God’s love whereby his chose his people from eternity. “Complacent love” refers to his delight in the good in his people. The questions the distinction was supposedly intended to answer are, “Does God love us more because of our obedience or less because of our disobedience…[does]…the holiness of saints ha[ve] any influence on God’s love for them…and [is] God pleased or displeased with his saints when they obey or disobey his law?”

The problem with the distinction is that while it has a Reformed pedigree in the sense that many Reformed divines taught the distinction, it is equally true that there is almost no agreement on the actual definition, as Jones admits: “Reformed divines have not always expressed these distinctions in the same way.”[1] Besides the ones who made them were not content with only those distinctions, but distinguished and distinguished until there were so many distinctions that the love of God was sliced like a pie. Theologians have not only made many distinctions in the love of God, but also have made outright erroneous uses of these distinctions. For instance, they were used to teach a universal love of God for all men and as a ground for the universal offer of salvation: “so, too, the love of God for all humanity is seen in the death of his Son for our redemption. And finally, the general love of God for humanity is manifest in the universal calling of the gospel.”[2]

Furthermore, respected theologians have denied the distinction between God’s benevolent and complacent love, for instance John Gill. Herman Bavinck never mentioned it, and neither did Louis Berkhof. Heinrich Heppe, who gives the Reformed consensus, does not deal with it.

Among those who used the distinction, and whatever their other disagreements about it may have been, there was a universal consensus: “nonetheless, neither the distinction of categories nor the last category in itself indicates a change in God: for the amor complacentiae [love of complacence] follows creaturely actuality, not as an effect follows a cause, but as a consequence follows its antecedent—simply put, God delights in what he has made.”[3] What this means is that those who taught the distinction insisted that God does not change in his love nor do the deeds of man affect the love of God, but what is in man is the work of the love of God, and in that work God delights not as it is the work of man, but as his own work.

Although Mark Jones appeals to the distinction and insists upon its usefulness, he does with it what the Reformed theologians who taught it denied, that is, man’s works affect a change in God and in his love. Jones says, “We are surely correct also to understand that God’s complacent love for us has a direct correlation to our godliness.” And to make that emphatic he says, “In other words, God cannot help but love us more and more if we become more and more like him. Christians will receive ‘an increase of favor,’ the more we become like Christ.”[4]

To back up his doctrine with scripture, he turns John 14:21, 23 on its head and takes a word of great comfort and makes it the ground for the oppressive doctrine that man’s works are the ground of his deeper communion with God. He does that without any attempt at explaining the text, but only asserting that “Christ’s teaching in John 14:21, 23 confirms the point about varying degrees of communion,” that is, God loves and communes with some more and some less based on their works.

The text he cites as such clear proof of the distinction between the love of God’s benevolence and complacence has nothing to do with the distinction at all, and it was not in Christ’s mind when he spoke. In verse 21 Christ spoke of a mark whereby believers may be confirmed in the reality of their faith, namely, that they love Christ. Faith—that saves without love—loves Christ and out of that love keeps his word against all the wretched persecution, slander, and false doctrine of the ungodly world and apostate church to the loss of name, standing, job, friends, family, and life.

About these verses Luther said, “Therefore, says Christ, I will give you a sure sign by which the true Christians, who are in me and in whom I am, can be recognized, namely, the observance of my commandments…if you preach and profess freely and intrepidly; if you hazard property and honor, life and limb, for this; and if you love one another as heartily as I have taught and commanded you. This will be the test and proof of true faith in me.” About verse 23 Luther said, “Therefore Christ always contends against this [the devil’s tactic to have believers despair of God’s love] and arms us with the weapons of defense by assuring us that he himself vouches for the Father’s love. If we believe in him and are in his love, there is no longer any anger in heaven or on earth; there is nothing but fatherly love and all goodness.” He called this “a beautiful and charming message. It costs us no hard labor, and no one need go on distant pilgrimages in search of it or torment himself with arduous works. It costs no more than what we have already in ourselves, namely, that our hearts adhere firmly to it in faith, that our lips make public confession of it, and that we show forth and prove our faith with love toward our neighbor.”[5] That is indeed a charming message. It contrasts sharply with the oppressive doctrine of works taught by Jones, who teaches men to work for the love, favor, and approval of God.

The way to deal with this distinction in the love of God is to dismiss it despite whatever pedigree it might have among Reformed theologians. It is unhelpful, unneeded, unscriptural, and dangerous. God does not change but is the same from eternity to eternity in his word and in all his perfections. With this truth he comforted sinning Jacob: I change not! (Mal. 3:6). Furthermore, God is not dependent on man, but is independent. Man does not affect God, but God affects man with his love, changes him, and moves him from misery to salvation. Salvation from beginning to end is one massive triumph of the unchanging love of God. The one legitimate question that the distinction sought to solve, namely, is God pleased or displeased with our sins? is easily solved without the distinction. God is displeased with the sins of his people exactly because he loves them; and exactly because he loves them with an unmerited and wholly gracious love, he overcomes their sins and brings them to repentance. He also delights in the good that he works in them and sanctifies their works with his grace.

Because Jones makes God’s love of men, especially in their experience and conscience, dependent on man’s works, this doctrine must necessarily affect his doctrine of assurance.

To that I will turn next time.

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[1] Jones, Antinomianism, 84.

[2] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 2:564.

[3] Ibid., 568

[4] Ibid., 86–87.

[5] Martin Luther, Sermons on the Gospel of John, in Luther’s Works (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1961), 24:146, 157.

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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.

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