You might be an Antinomian, if…

Strive for…the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. ~Hebrews 12:14

panne-hutchinson
Anne Hutchinson

This list has been published in a few blogs, notably by Kevin DeYoung at The Gospel Coalition. But it is worth another publishing. Mark Jones brought the list to our attention with his important book Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest. Below is a set of propositions that the New England Synod of Elders (1637), responding to the Antinomian controversy, considered “unsafe.”

1. To say we are justified by faith is an unsafe speech; we must say we are justified by Christ.

2. To evidence justification by sanctification or graces savours of Rome.

3. If I be holy, I am never the better accepted by God; if I be unholy, I am never the worse.

4. If Christ will let me sin, let him look to it; upon his honour be it.

5. Here is a great stir about graces and looking to hearts; but give me Christ; I seek not for graces, but for Christ. . . .I seek not for sanctification, but for Christ; tell me not of meditation and duties, but tell me of Christ.

6. I may know I am Christ’s, not because I do crucify the lusts of the flesh, but because I do not crucify them, but believe in Christ that crucified my lusts for me.

7. If Christ be my sanctification, what need I look to anything in myself, to evidence my justification.

“These statements,” according to Mark Jones, “get to the heart of the issues involved in the antinomian debates during the 1630s in New England—and indeed in England.”[1]

If you believe any of these, you might be an Antinomian.

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I submit that antinomianism is rife in today’s Reformed Christianity. Barbara Duguid has written what is perhaps the most explicit expression of modern antinomianism. Her popular book Extravagant Grace has recommendations from Tullian Tchividjian, Elyse Fitzpatrick, Michael Horton, and, surprisingly, Carl R. Trueman.

Tchividjian said the following concerning the book:

Thank you, thank you for writing such a great book! The way many Christians think about sanctification is, well, not very sanctified. In fact, it’s downright narcissistic. We think way too much about how we’re doing, if we’re growing, whether we’re doing it right or not. We spend too much time brooding over our failures and reflecting on our successes. What I’ve discovered is that the more I focus on my need to get better, the worse I actually get. I become self-absorbed which is the exact opposite of how the Bible describes what it means to be sanctified. This is why I was shouting ‘yes, yes’ again and again as I read Barbara’s excellent book. Mining the treasures of John Newton’s letters, Barbara writes, ‘God thinks that you will actually come to know and love him better as a desperate and weak sinner in continual need of grace than you would as a triumphant Christian warrior who wins each and every battle against sin.’ Amen! Over and over again Barbara reminds us that spiritual growth is realizing how utterly dependent we are on Christ’s cross and mercy. It’s not arriving at some point where we need Jesus less and less because we’re getting better and better. I cannot commend this book enough. We need more and more books like this which remind us that the focus of the Christian faith is not the life of the Christian, but Christ.

The following are quotes from the book.

If sanctification is all about us sinning less and less, then we would have to conclude that the Holy Spirit isn’t doing his job very well (18).

True sanctification is all about growing in humility, dependence, and gratitude. Joy blossoms in our hearts not as we try harder and harder to grow, but as we see more clearly the depths of our sin and understand more fully our utter helplessness (32).

At this very moment, you are exactly as holy and mature in your faith as God wants you to be. He cannot be disappointed in you or surprised by your sin if he is the one controlling the entire process of growth from start to finish. Furthermore, all the people whom you love and wish were more mature are also exactly where God wants them to be right now. He always gets his way and you cannot stop him!… Contrary to popular belief, our spiritual growth is not up to us, nor is the spiritual growth of the people around us (48).

What if growing in grace is more about humility, dependence, and exalting Christ than it is about defeating sin? (18).

[Baby Christians] cannot yet imagine that their heavenly Father could always be pleased with them because of Christ’s obedience in their place (41).

God is not captivated by our attempts to please him (88).

Obeying [God] is far beyond our ability [after becoming a Christian] (79)

If the story of redemption is about us gradually becoming more and more sinless, then Paul’s boasting in his weakness makes no sense whatsoever. But, if the story of redemption is about Jesus and his righteousness, then our continuing weakness actually shines the spotlight on Jesus all the more brightly (81).

And there are many more antinomian quotes I could present from her book. This is not Reformed orthodoxy.

Reformed Orthodoxy

For example, read James Buchanan in The Doctrine of Justification, pg. 362-3:

The charge against those who maintain the doctrine of a free Justification by grace through faith only, that they deny either the reality of good works, or their necessity to salvation, is a mere calumny; for while the Reformers rejected many works which were considered ‘good’ in the Romish Church…they never denied the intrinsic excellence either of those inherent graces which are ‘the fruits of the Spirit,’ or of those external actions which flowed from them in conformity with the requirements of God’s Law; and so far from teaching that they were not necessary to salvation…they represented the sanctification of the believer as an indispensable, a constituent, element of his salvation,—since Christ came to deliver His people, not only from the punishment, but also from the power, of sin.

When the doctrine of the Reformers began to be abused by the Antinomians, the Puritans were raised up, in the good providence of God, to give the same prominence to Sanctification as Luther had given to Justification; to insist as strenuously on the work of the Spirit in applying salvation as he had done on the work of Christ in procuring it…. Such writers as Owen, and Goodwin, and Charnock, and Howe, and Trail adhered firmly to the doctrine of Justification as proclaimed by Luther and Calvin, while they checked every tendency to Antinomian licence by the firm assertion of the indispensable necessity of personal holiness as one of the essential parts of the great salvation, and by the full and masterly exposition which they were honoured to give of the office and work of the Holy Spirit.

And John Owen (each from a different source):

“He that thinks to please God, and to come to the enjoyment of him without holiness, makes him an unholy God, putting the highest indignity and dishonor imaginable upon him. God deliver poor sinners from this deceit! There is no remedy, you must leave your sins or your God.

“[There is, through grace,] kept up in believers a constant and ordinarily prevailing will of doing good, notwithstanding the power and efficacy of indwelling sin to the contrary… In believers there is a will of doing good, an habitual disposition and inclination in their wills unto that which is spiritually good.

“If any such there are, or ever were, who maintain such an imputation of the righteousness of Christ unto us as should render our own personal obedience unnecessary, they do overthrow the truth and holiness of the gospel. And to say that we have such supplies of internal strength as to render the imputation of the righteousness of Christ unto our justification unnecessary, is to overthrow the grace of the gospel and the new covenant itself. But this alone we say, There is grace administered by the promises of the gospel, enabling us to perform the obedience of it in that way and manner which God will accept.

“Let not men deceive themselves. Sanctification is a qualification indispensably necessary unto those who will be under the conduct of the Lord Christ unto salvation. He leads none to heaven but whom He sanctifies on the earth. The living Head will not admit of dead members.”

“It is true, our interest in God is not built upon our holiness; but it is as true that we have none without it.”

And John Davenant:

Good works are necessary to the salvation of the justified by a necessity of order, not of causality; or more plainly, as the way appointed to eternal life, not as the meritorious cause of eternal life.

And John Flavel:

I will further grant, That the eye of a Christian may be too intently fixed upon his own gracious qualifications; and being wholly taken up in the reflex acts of faith, may too much neglect the direct acts of faith upon Christ, to the great detriment of his soul. But all this notwithstanding, The examination of our justification by our sanctification, is not only a lawful, and possible, but a very excellent and necessary work of duty. It is the course that Christians have taken in all ages, and that which God has abundantly blessed to the joy and encouragement of their souls.

And Stephen Charnock

If God loves holiness in a lower measure, much more will he love it in a higher degree, because then his image is more illustrious and beautiful, and comes nearer to the lively lineaments of his own infinite purity….He loves a holy man for some resemblance to him in his nature; but when there is an abounding in sanctified dispositions suitable to it, there is an increase of favor; the more we resemble the original, the more shall we enjoy the blessedness of that original: as any partake more of the Divine likeness, they partake more of the Divine happiness.

Melchior Leydekker distinguishing God’s benevolent love and his complacent love:

God’s love is either of benevolence or of complacency. The first is the love by which God shall do well to the elect, before there is anything in them that could give Him complacency, John 3:16, Rom. 5:8. And therefore, it can be regarded either as predetermining in God’s decrees, or as actually effecting in time. The second, the love complacency, is the case where God approves the good which is in the elect, especially as being commanded by him and caused, Heb. 11:5-6, John 14:21; 16:26-27.

And Theodore Beza:

[The preaching of the law] begins to change the effect in us (after our disposition is changed) in such a way that instead of making us afraid, it comforts us (1 John 2:17; 2 Peter 1:11-12); instead of where it showed us our condemnation already prepared, it serves us now as a guide to show us good works (Jer. 21:33; Rom. 7:22) in which we are prepared to walk (Eph. 2:10). Instead of being an unpleasant and unbearable yoke, now it is agreeable to us, easy and light (Matt. 11:30).

Q: How does a person know if he has faith, or not?
A: By good works.

And Zacharias Ursinus:

The law alone, without the gospel, is the letter [that kills]…But when it is joined with the gospel, which is the Spirit, it also commences to become the Spirit, which is effectual in the godly, inasmuch as those who are regenerated commence willingly and cheerfully to yield obedience to the law.

Samuel Rutherford:

Holy walking is a way to heaven.

The way that crieth down duties and sanctification is not the way of grace… Believing and doing are blood-friends.”

Herman Witsius:

Practice of Christian piety is the way to life, because thereby we go to the possession of the right obtained by Christ.

And Robert Traill argued that,

1) Sanctification is a necessary condition for possessing eternal life.
2) Sanctification involves the infusion of holiness to one’s soul.

And John Calvin (Institutes 3.14.21)

Those whom the Lord has destined by his mercy for the inheritance of eternal life he leads into possession of it, according to his ordinary dispensation, by means of good works.

What should be clear is that there is the Reformed tradition and the Antinomian tradition. Much of what passes today as being part of the former is really part of the latter. As the Reformed denominations lose their minds over Federal Vision, perhaps they should also follow their tradition and deal with the rife antinomianism among them.

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[1] Mark Jones Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest, 11. Many of the quotes in this post come from this book. References can be provided by request.

3 thoughts on “You might be an Antinomian, if…

  1. Stephen,

    Thanks for this post. I think that you are right to point out that many of the statements from the Duguid book are problematic.

    Just this for example: “What if growing in grace is more about humility, dependence, and exalting Christ than it is about defeating sin? (18).”

    False dichotomy. We defeat sin precisely as grace makes us more humble, and dependent, and prone to exalting Christ.

    Pastor Tchividjian said:

    “….spiritual growth is realizing how utterly dependent we are on Christ’s cross and mercy…..”

    I would say “yes” to this….

    “….It’s not arriving at some point where we need Jesus less and less because we’re getting better and better.”

    ….but this, I think, is a big straw man. Who actually says this?

    As my [confessional Lutheran] pastor said: “Just because we grow in sanctification does not mean we become less and less dependent upon Christ, nor not justified completely through Him. Just because our sanctification can both increase and decrease does not mean we do not wish it to increase, nor strive for it to increase.

    And questions: What ultimately is an increase of faith if not a growth in sanctification? How can the “breaking out” of the new man not be considered a growth in sanctification? How can the Christian be a “completely new creature” and yet die?”

    That last series of questions there applies specifically to the view of sanctification espoused by some of the LC-MS theologians that Pastor Tchividjian has read and commended. That does not mean, of course, that he necessarily embraces their views.

    Of course, Luther also could say things about grace that might makes us uncomfortable from time to time. On Rom. 10:4, for example, he said: “The law says: You have sin. If I say Yes, I am lost. If I say No, I must have a firm foundation on which to stand, so that I can disprove the law’s verdict and maintain my No. Yet how can I say it, as it is true, and as also Scripture testifies that I am born in sin? Where do I get the No? Certainly, I will not find it in my heart, but in Christ, that’s where I must fetch it, throw it before the law and say: Look, he can say No against every law. He also has his foundation. For he is pure and without sin. He also gives this No to me: Even though I would have to say that I am a sinner when I look at me and that I am unable to argue with you but feel that there is nothing pure in me and see God’s wrath, I have additionally also this: His righteousness is mine. Now I am no more in sins. (Vol. I, Wittenberg ed., on 1 Timothy 1)”

    In fact, it is precisely because of the reality of the terrified conscience in believers – *even mature believers* – that the Lutheran Confessions said that we should say “good works are necessary” but not say “good works are necessary for salvation” (we can say “good works are necessary *to* salvation). Don’t misread that (remember I agree with you that those quotes above were problematic). Of course no one who has not began to be sanctified will be saved. But there is a concern to safeguard the absolution that can be given to the terrified believer.

    We Lutherans have our own antinomian tendencies. In a recent blog post, (https://infanttheology.wordpress.com/2014/12/31/does-god-have-a-concrete-plan-for-your-life-goals-of-the-gospel-part-ii/), I asked the following rhetorical questions of the Lutherans who I think lean in this direction:

    -If I want to be better than what I am – to hurt those around me less and actually love them more and more – is that only my old man craving love and acceptance – and trying to earn my salvation before God?

    -If I desire strongly for my “kids to turn out OK” does that mean I should necessarily conclude that I am only focused on myself (my own need for validation) rather than their good (as well as their neighbors whom they will affect?)

    -Is it really always the old man and only the old man who wants to strive for holiness (yes, we know the Pharisees “strove for holiness” to, but is there any distinction to be made here at all?) attempting to “bring God down to earth”, to our level, ultimately insisting He submit to us and our self-righteousness? (i.e. we do not necessarily believe in justification by works theologically, but we, seemingly without any new man to speak of, must do so functionally)

    -Again, is it only our old man, always seeking to justify himself, who wants to be urged on to do good works?

    -Is the Christian life more than feeling guilty about not feeling guilty enough so that one can really appreciate the Gospel and be transformed as one ought to be? In other words, if I cannot seem to feel guilty the way that I should, does that mean that I am cursed to never really begin to know the Gospel that compels true love?

    -As I mature in Christ, does this mean that my realization of my self and individual identity is in some sense completely lost?

    I would guess that there are many pastors who simply want to emphasize how good grace is and how it really is amazing and surprising and shocking (again: what we really need is to more deeply realize the depths of our sin and to more deeply realize the depths of God’s love in the Gospel – indeed!) – but this truth, unfortunately, leads them into careless and unreflective statements like the ones you list above.

    +Nathan

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  2. Hi Nathan, thank you for your comments.

    Many of these modern antinomians use false dilemmas and straw man arguments.

    Tchividjian quoted above: “We need more and more books like this which remind us that the focus of the Christian faith is not the life of the Christian, but Christ.”

    This is a false dilemma. Focusing on our personal holiness is focusing on Christ because being united to Christ breaks the power of sin enabling us (as Owen says above) to pursue holiness. Buchanan wrote, “Christ came to deliver His people, not only from the punishment, but also from the power, of sin.” And all of this is dependent on grace, but not in the sense that we wait for a special prompting to pursue holiness. Christ came to impute righteousness and deposit holiness in the soul. The former is the ultimate ground of our salvation and latter is a necessary condition of it.

    They also seem to confuse categories. As you asked, “Is it really always the old man and only the old man who wants to strive for holiness?” They will say that trying to do “better” is attempting to justify oneself by works. But this isn’t what anyone is saying. Christ did what we cannot do: he fulfilled the legal demands of the law in our place. Pursuing holiness is not trying to fulfill the legal demands of the law. I like how Robert Traill puts it:

    “There is a work required of us—to be perfecting holiness in the fear of God (2 Cor. vii. 1). But we are nowhere required to be perfecting righteousness in the sight of God; for God hath brought in a perfect righteousness, in which we stand; but we are to take care, and to give diligence to perfect holiness in the fear of God. A saint in glory is more sanctified than ever he was, for he is perfectly so; but he is not more justified than he was.”

    Striving to “perfect holiness” can only be done when already knowing that the legal demands of God have been met by Christ. Otherwise, all striving is pointless. Since we are united to Christ we receive both his satisfaction of the law and a deposit of his sanctification, the power to kill sin. It “enables” us to “kill sin” as Owen says. In this sense, holiness is a necessary condition of eternal life. I like how Davenant puts it:

    “Good works are necessary to the salvation of the justified by a necessity of order, not of causality; or more plainly, as the way appointed to eternal life, not as the meritorious cause of eternal life.”

    Again, thanks for commenting. It is nice to know that Lutherans and Calvinists can generally agree on this.

    Stephen

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  3. I’m about halfway through John Owen’s : “Overcoming Sin & Temptation”. This particular part below seemed apropos. I think that many who might sound antinomian in soundbytes could possibly be overstating a case against the kind of moralistic preaching that puts the sanctification before the justification.

    “The mind and soul is taken up about that which is not the man’s proper business, and so he is diverted from that which is so.
    God lays hold by his word and judgments on some sin in him, galls his conscience, disquiets his heart, deprives him of his rest; now other diversions will not serve his turn; he must apply himself to the work before him.
    The business in hand being to awaken the whole man unto a consideration of the state and condition wherein he is, that he might be brought home to God, instead hereof he sets himself to mortify the sin that galls him—which is a pure issue of self-love, to be freed from his trouble, and not at all to the work he is called unto—and so is diverted from it.
    Thus God tells us of Ephraim, when he “spread his net upon them, and brought them down as the fowls of heaven, and chastised them” (Hos. 7:12), caught them, entangled them, convinced them that they could not escape; says he of them, “They return, but not to the Most High” [Hos. 7:16]—they set themselves to a relinquishment of sin, but not in that manner, by universal conversion, as God called for it. Thus are men diverted from coming unto God by the most glorious ways that they can fix upon to come to him by. And this is one of the most common deceits whereby men ruin their own souls.”

    It is easy to try to think linearly or causally, but the way it seems to me is that this is more of a nested concept. The sanctification comes from within the justification – that is where it is possible, and it is impossible outside of it. Additionally, is impossible to wear the righteousness of Christ without also becoming sanctified. It is as if there is no room within the robes to only be justified.

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