Dear readers, before we begin this review, I need to teach you a little bit of theology. All will become apparent once we have made a bit of theological and historical progress, so gird your loins, pick up your Bibles and let’s learn all about antinomianism.
“Anti-what”, I hear you say? “My mother hasn’t got a sister called Nomi and I certainly wouldn’t base a philosophy around her thank you very much”, I hear you say. Calm down dears, it’s only a book review. Antinomianism is the ism of Antinomians and that word comes from the words “Anti” (meaning against) and “Nomis” (meaning Law). Antinomian = Against the Law. As Wikipedia (the fount of all knowledge) puts it,
Antinomianism in Christianity is the belief that under the gospel dispensation of grace, moral law is of no use or obligation because faith alone is necessary to salvation.
Antinomianism has a long pedigree. It first pops up with a lovely chap called Marcion who taught that you could basically tear out of your Bible most of the Old Testament because it was really all about a nasty God who we didn’t have to deal with. Marcion taught that because we are saved by grace, it doesn’t matter what you do afterwards – you could live a life of absolute depravity and it really wouldn’t affect your final heavenly destination. He was followed by the Carpoeratians who taught that Christians didn’t even have to obey human laws, let alone the moral laws of the Old Testament. During the Reformation when Luther “rediscovered” the truth of salvation by grace, antinomianism was taught by men like (the unfortunately named) Schitter, Johannes Agricola and others who preached that Christians were freed from any obligation to obey the moral laws laid out in the Bible. Luther was so troubled by this that he wrote six dissertations against Agricola (if you want to imagine Luther writing responding to false teaching imagine Robert Gagnon in one of his essay writing modes, but on steroids) in which he famously penned the sentence,
“the law gives man the consciousness of sin, and that the fear of the law is both wholesome and necessary for the preservation of morality and of divine, as well as human, institutions”
What Luther meant was this – God reveals his moral law and expects us to abide by it. We are not saved by obeying the law, but obeying the law reveals that we are saved. Crucial to Luther’s understanding of salvation was not just the forensic act of God in declaring us righteous, but God then sending us the Holy Spirit to regenerate our very being. This means that those who are saved are changed creatures who not only recognise what sin is (as opposed to having been rebels with scales over their eyes who rejected the notion of sin in the first place) but also hear and respond to a Divinely originated call from beyond themselves (but placed deep within their being) to walk away from sinful practice, and to crucify the broken and fallen self. Luther argues that the evidence of salvation is a changed life – trying to reject sin and walk in holiness does not earn salvation, it demonstrates that salvation has been given, because those who consistently walk in sinful practices (and the rebellion of heart which rejects the sinfulness of those actions) are by their very nature unsaved.
So you see then why antinomianism is such a big and dangerous heresy. It crucially misses a number of key aspects of classical discipleship which are shared across the main Christian traditions.
- It confuses justification and sanctification. Justification is the forensic act entirely of God’s free will whereby he regenerates through his mercy the rebellious sinner. Sanctification is the process by which that regenerated sinner responds in conjunction with the empowerment of the Holy Spirit to that salvation in offering day by day more and more of his fallen self to God and sees in return for that sacrifice a transformation of his desires and actions. As the writer to the Hebrews proclaims,
Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices,which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.
- It minimises the struggle of countless Christians down the years to conform their lives to the will of God. Antinomianism ends up telling those who have fought day by day to surrender their broken sinful desires to the transforming work of the Spirit that they didn’t need to bother. Antinomianism ultimately ends up teaching Christians that they don’t need to seek to glorify God in their lives by crucifying the flesh because those actions have no eternal consequences. And whilst many antinomians might claim that they don’t tell people not to struggle against the desires of the flesh, in practice this is the logical consequence of their theology.
- Very often antinomianism, in declaring that the sin of the believer is unimportant, teaches that confession in the life of the believe is not important. But as I have argued clearly before (see the extract below), this is an unBiblical concept. As I wrote in my dissertation at Oxford, the concept of coming in front of God and agreeing with him about both our sinfulness and his holiness is crucial to the growth of our relationship with him. Without private confession (and public liturgical confession is merely the corporate act of that private discipline) we begin to recreate that very spiritual wall between us and God that first cast us out of his presence.
- Antinomianism undermines evangelism. If believers do not need to transform their behaviour, what possible alternative choice will they be offering to unbelievers? By contrast, often people are drawn to Christ because they see in the community of believers evidence that lives can be changed and transformed by the power of God. The problem with the antinomian community is that there is no need to transform life and so why should an unbeliever see the need to change?
- Perhaps most crucially of all, antinomianism can lead some to believe they are saved when they are not. Because there is no need to demonstrate any form of transformation, and because the notion that a believer regardless of what they do cannot lose salvation, antinomianism provides no encouragement for transformation. If God loves me just as I am, why do I need to change? This can encourage people to carry on in their sinful behaviour in open rebellion against God and show no evidence of being saved and regenerated. But the problem is that those who behave like the unregenerate are the unregenerate. This is why Paul so often exhorts his readers to live like Christians should – this is the thrust for example of 1 Cor 6 where Paul states very clearly that believers are not free to do what they want but rather their lives should evidence the rejection of sin.
Antinomianism is cheap grace, the idea that one can be saved and then do nothing at all. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote,
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession.
Let me add to that. Cheap grace is the calling on the name of Jesus without ever evidencing that that calling was efficacious. By contrast, true saving grace, evidences the fruit of the transforming regeneration of God in the witness of a life that daily grows to acknowledge and confess sin and to be a living example of increase in holiness. Ultimately antinomians teach that nothing a Christian can do is unrighteous or unholy. By contrast, Biblical Christianity teaches that believers live a day to day struggle against temptation and sin and that the journey of discipleship involves recognising our sin, confessing it and letting God transform it. At the heart of the antinomian is a false assurity that he can do whatever he wants now he is saved. By contrast, the heart of the Biblical doctrine of justification and sanctification is that I, as a wretched sinner, have been redeemed by Christ’s merits and not my own and my response is to offer myself as a living sacrifice, recognising and laying down my sinful nature each day as God sanctifies me to his glorious purposes.
And so to our book review. Are you sitting comfortably? I’ll begin.
Pure Grace by Clark Whitten is a book that teaches antinomianism. It teaches that it is not necessary for Christians to evidence a transformed life, to seek purgation of the fallen self, that God doesn’t care at all if believers sin and even that Christians shouldn’t confess their sins to God.
Really, words fail me. Even at just fifty pages in I lost all theological will to live.
Do Buy if… you fancy corrupting your journey of discipleship with some majorly erroneous concepts
Don’t Buy if… you know what’s good for you
0 out of 10 (and that’s being generous)