Antinomianism: A Better View of the Father
Luther once said, “Whoever knows well this art of distinguishing between the Law and the gospel, him place at the head and call him a doctor of Holy Scripture.” John Newton wrote something similar, “The correct understanding of the harmony between law and grace is to preserve oneself from being entangled by errors on the right hand and on the left.” When the leading soldier of the reformation and one of the wisest pastors of the 19th century speak on the difficulty of understanding the relationship between law and gospel we know that we have a real task ahead. How do we understand the relationship between them? How do we walk the narrow way without falling into antinomianism on the one side and legalism on the other?
For the pastor the problem does not often manifest itself in theological text books, though it does if he is doing his reading. However, the problem often emerges in real time situations. Let me give you two scenarios. Early in my ministry a woman in the church where I was pastor asked if she could talk with me. She seemed very earnest about her faith but she was troubled and I soon discovered why. She did not believe that God forgave sins after conversion; she believed that she would be judged for those sins. This woman had been living under an unbearable yoke that made me think of the Shepherd of Hermas! However, unlike the Shepherd, she didn’t believe that she could lose her salvation. The result? To her way of thinking God was perpetually angry for her lack of obedience and he was just waiting for her to come into the judgment. The solution? Offer perfect obedience. Only her perfect obedience would please her perpetually angry heavenly Father. What a burden!
Now the other scenario.
In my first year as a church planter I went to an apartment complex just outside the city to hopefully discuss the gospel with those whom I crossed paths. On arrival I encountered a young woman who looked to be in her early twenties and we struck up a conversation. It felt disjointed.
Upon discovering that I was a minister she told me that she was saved. The tone had a “don’t press me” ring to it. In fact, almost mantra-like she kept affirming her salvation. So, I finally asked a simple question to move the conversation forward. “Saved from what?”
I gently pressed a bit more only to discover that she did not attend a church, read her Bible, or participate in the simplest of Christian disciplines. So, I asked the inevitable, “If it doesn’t look like a duck, walk like a duck, or quack like a duck then why call it a duck?” type question. She was frank. Some Christian people had come through her apartment complex not long ago and they asked her to pray “the salvation prayer” and voila, she was saved! They assured her of it. So, of course she said, “I’m saved.” They had even given her a card with her spiritual birth date on it.
Can you imagine the Apostle Paul and James, the brother of the Lord and author of the letter named after him, standing back about five feet listening in on these discussions? They surely would be fidgeting – itching to enter the fray! What would James have said to the girl at the apartment complex? Perhaps with no little emotion he might have said, “What use it to claim to have faith when you have no obvious fruit?” Can a claim to faith without any visible evidence save anyone?” (cf. James 2:14-26)
And then after allowing James ample time to explain how a person who has received the implanted word must bear fruit Paul would have approached the first woman, the one who didn’t believe that her sins after conversion had been forgiven. He might have said in a more gentle tone, “Haven’t you ever read brother James’s letter wherein he says that ‘whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, has become guilty of all.’ Dear woman, grace is essential for the whole of the Christian life.” To which the woman might have replied, “Yes, but I always thought that James had the unbeliever in mind in that verse. But after conversion I thought I had to keep the law without stumbling. How miserable I am!” To which Paul might have replied, “Foolish woman, who has bewitched you? Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by the hearing of faith? Are you so foolish, having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (cf. Galatians 3:1-6)
Paul and James are good pastors. They each believe the same thing. For example, in the very first chapter of his letter, James says that believers are saved by the Word of God implanted in them (James 1:21). He might have gone on to say, “I’m no different from Paul who commended the Thessalonians for having received the Word of God not as the word of men, but for what it really is the Word of God (I Thess. 2:13). And I am no different from Peter who told the exiles that they had been born again through the living and enduring Word of God (I Peter 1:23). In other words, salvation is by grace alone! No one can earn it! But grace always bears fruit!” But because they are good pastors they also know how to apply the needed ointment. Their letters are good pastoral medicines.
So, why do people get so tripped up on how to think about grace and obedience to the law in the Christian life? Why do people always seem to edge either toward antinomianism or legalism? I think more often than not they have an inadequate view of God as Father. Think about this simple exchange between a father and son we’ll call Johnny. Prior to leaving for work the Father tells Johnny to clean his room in the afternoon. Think about three possible scenarios.
First, Johnny might offer an antinomian response. In other words, Johnny might reason that his father loves him because he is a son and not for any other reason. Therefore, Johnny decides not to clean his room because the father will love him no matter what he does. Second, Johnny might offer a legalistic response. He might think that his father’s love is based upon his performance. Thus, if he wants to continue in his father’s love he must clean his room. So, he cleans for fear that if he does not clean he may not abide in his father’s love. As we have already seen, professing Christians often seem to fall into one of these two mindsets when it comes to thinking about the law in the Christian life.
However, there is a third possibility, which is the only Biblical one. Johnny would do well to reason that he is a son not by any work or virtue of his own and therefore he cannot lose his sonship based on performance. His father loves him because he is a son. However, Johnny’s father did give him a clear directive before leaving for work. Johnny was told to clean his room. What is the lad to do?
First, he ought to realize that a directive from the father is of the nature of the parent child relationship. What is more, he is under obligation as a son to obey his father. But more than that, Johnny is not a slave but a son. He loves his father. Therefore, his desire is to please his father by keeping his father’s directives. Johnny knows that his father loves him because he is a son. But Johnny also knows what it means to offer respect as a son. And respect is not an option for a son. His obedience is not servile but filial which is precisely why Johnny obeys. Therefore, Johnny cleans his room because he wants to honor the father who loves and cares for him. The difference between this option and the first two is palpable.
Many brothers and sisters have too much in common with the women in this article. They are either like the woman who prayed the prayer and so was satisfied that all is spiritually well or they are like the woman in the latter story, unsure of whether or not the Father really loves them and always basing their assessment on performance. I have a sneaking suspicion that the problem between antinomianism and legalism is not so much about keeping a balance between grace and law, but instead it has much more to do with a person’s view of God as father. So, let me close with this. As long as we view God the father apart from our Spirit wrought faith union with the Son, Jesus Christ, in whom we enjoy both forensic and renovative benefits we will always stumble off of the path to either legalism or antinomianism. But if we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus we will stay the course.
Jeffrey A. Stivason has been serving the Lord as a minister of the gospel since 1995. He was church planter and now pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.
Editor's Note: The above article is meant to augment material in the associated "Theology on the Go" podcast with Jonathan Master. It considers facets of the theological topic that may have been briefly touched upon in the podcast or passed over in the discussion. We hope you find these ruminations a blessing.