Review - Pure Grace

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.

Pure Grace - Let's just gloss over sinAntinomianism 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.

  1. 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.
    Hebrew 10:11-14

  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. 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.

Pure AntinomianismAnd 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)

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  • http://twitter.com/RichardHearing Richard hearing

    thank you Peter for your thoughts your mind echo’s mine. May God bless you

  • Joe_R6

    I think the problem is when the ‘evidence’ for a changed life is assessed by other equally sinful Christians (or when we reflect on our own sinful nature). We all mess up and Antinomianism has its appeal in the moments when we realise we can never convince anyone else in this life that we have had a change of heart.

  • http://profiles.google.com/thewrightoknow Tim Wright

    Brilliant!

  • shirlzb

    “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.”

    That summaries it well.

  • Jeff Buchanan

    Peter, thanks for such an accurate and concise synopsis. (I have personally had to deal with the aftermath and consequences of this book’s teaching.) Unfortunately, the charge of antinomianism is often interpreted as a label of validation. They will often quote D. Martin Lloyd Jones statement that if you are preaching free grace and it does not invoke some charge of antinomianism, then you are not preaching the gospel. Of course this is usually grossly taken out of context of his teaching. Jones also stated:

    “The heretics were never dishonest men; they were mistaken men. They should not be thought of as men who were deliberately setting out to go wrong and to teach something that is wrong; they have been some of the most sincere men that the Church has ever known. What was the matter with them? Their trouble was this: they evolved a theory and they were rather pleased with it; then they went back with this theory to the Bible, and they seemed to find it everywhere.”
    ― D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount

    Thanks again for an excellent review.

  • sonia b

    I appreciate this review, and the introduction to the requisite theological concept of antinomianism is both entertaining and helpful. The one deficiency I notice is that after focusing the vast majority of the essay on countering antinomianism, no explicit connection is actually made between that position and the subject book, which receives a scant paragraph and no quotes or page numbers to establish the connection between the erroneous antinomian teaching and the content of the book being reviewed. A followup in this regard would be valuable.

    • http://www.peter-ould.net Peter Ould

      Hi Sonia,

      I guess I was taking a different approach which was to outline what the problems with antinomianism were and then to give just four quick examples of how “Pure Grace” is antinomian. If you wanted I could give you the four pages numbers, but really that would just confirm what I’ve already written.

      I do review other books in greater detail, but my purpose this time was to help readers understand what the issues were and then to deliver a punchy finish.

      • sonia b

        Thank you Peter. The review did very well in delivering the ideas of concern and the conclusion with humour that, you may rest assured, traversed unscathed the massive body of water between us. However, as mentioned previously, it was the absence of page references or quotes that made the connection less verifiable between the issues described so well and the actual content of the book.

  • sheppied007

    I don’t mean to be contentious, but it’s important to be precise.

    ‘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.’

    Justification is indeed a forensic act (i.e. God acting as judge) whereby sinners are granted God’s declaration of amnesty from all sins by means of Christ’s offering on their behalf. The ground of this offering is the extent by which God’s generosity exceeds His indignation and offense, i.e. grace.

    Without this freely granted amnesty provided through the Father’s etenal intention to permit His Son to suffer the fate of the cross, there is no *just* basis for His bestowed blessing of regeneration. Without justification sanctioned through the terrifying price of Christ’s blood, divine forgiveness becomes no more that an unworthy connivance at human guilt.

    Sanctification is also by faith: ‘You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard?’ (Gal. 3:3)

    You say: ‘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.’

    I would suggest that such a statement makes sanctification a form of partial self-effort. That’s fine as long as we’re clear that those efforts, by themselves, cannot achieve the wholeness of devotion desired by God. We may yield our members to God, but the propensity to sin (or flesh) is not the same thing as our physical parts (or members, as the KJV translates).

    As Paul states of the fallen self: ‘For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.’ (Rom. 7:18) This dim view of partial fallen self-effort might also be viewed as minimising the struggle of countless Christians. Yet, it concurs with Christ, who said: It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life’ (John 6:63).

    As Christians, we can yield our earthly bodies, our limbs and members, to Christ. Sanctification is the process of supernatural empowerment (also exploiting the events of life, its tragedies, joys and hardships) by which God through his Holy Spirit conforms the believer to a life patterned on Christ’s perfect devotion to God. Through success and hardship, God is actually empowering believers to do the impossible: to yield obedience in all circumstances, whether provident or adverse.

    Paul uses the miraculous as the pattern by which sanctification is accomplished: ‘So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or
    by your believing what you heard?’ (Gal. 3:5) In Romans, Paul harks back to the time of captivity during which

    The best gospel example that demonstrates the nature of divinely empowered human action is the story of Christ healing the man with the shriveled hand. Our souls are no less shriveled with moral ineptitude. Yet Christ tells him to stretch out his hand and the impossible restoration to wholeness is accomplished. The act of holding his shriveled hand outwards was the only response that he could muster, it was the Holy Spirit who reciprocated his gesture of faith with the provision of restored wholeness. In much the same way, we hold forth our shriveled, inept responses to God’s word. The Christian faith is based on a belief that the gestures of faith (whether repentance, confession or church discipline) are our sanctification. If the gesture of faith is genuine, it is an expression of our committed life-purpose (what the scripture calls the heart). If we are as genuine as Zacchaeus in his purposeful commitment (heart) to restore stolen property fourfold and share half of his wealth with the poor, Christ will testify of our amnesty (justification) to every human consciences: ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.’ (Luke 19:9)

    Zacchaeus’ actions could in no way be termed a work of the law. They amounted to a spontaneous joyful surrender to God that went far beyond compliance with mere written standards of justice. It was a gesture of love to give as much as he could, rather than as much as was demanded.

    I know I could learn a lot from that ex-tax collector.

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