Antinomianism: Rhetoric, Extremes, and Safety
Theology becomes a dangerous weapon when its terms become rhetorical arrows with which to shoot adversaries instead of tools that are supposed to lend clarity to whatever topic is under discussion. Antinomianism is perhaps one of the most abused terms in theological discourse. It is meant to be a characterization of a theological position, but it often becomes a word employed to call in question one’s ethical or spiritual condition as well.
Sadly, those who often use the term “antinomian” do so to cast a suspicious shadow over those who hold theological positions regarding ethics and holy living differing from their own. Where such an expression as “antinomian” is accurate, then no harm is done, but where it is inaccurate, one has not only misleadingly described an opponent’s theological position but what is worse has slandered the position’s bearer. Whatever else can be said in favor of the use of the term antinomian, it must be insisted upon that it is never a term to be thrown around casually. For unlike other theological labels such as antitrinitarian or Arminian, the term “antinomian” is intentionally or unintentionally calculated to create a false perception of an individual’s character who may hold that believers under the New Testament dispensation are not under the law. To be clear, no Christian who takes Scripture’s constant injunctions to holy living seriously has much credibility if he insists that those who belong to Christ are exempt from living a holy life because they have been saved by the grace of God.
With any aspect of Christianity under discussion, participants have an obligation to be as rhetorically varied in their approach as Jesus was when He taught. Observing the different ways in which Jesus approached people is one of the most instructive lessons we can glean from the Gospels. He reserved His most inflexible statements of judgment and condemnation for the self-righteous and not for those who knew that they needed a physician. Rhetorical sensitivity might serve the Church well if more of her teachers exercised it with the caution required for properly shepherding those under her care. Such is surely the case with the important topic of antinomianism.
Antinomian literally means against the law. In a Christian context, someone is an antinomian if he believes that the claims of God’s law, as summarized in the Ten Commandments for example, are no longer binding on him as a Christian.
“Christ has kept the law for me, so I therefore have no further obligation to obey it.” John of course in his first letter warns anyone who makes such a profession that a self-conscious exemption from keeping the commandments of God excludes one from being able to say truthfully that one knows God (1 John 2:3-4).
James tells his readers that those who claim to have faith apart from works have a dead faith (James 2). John and James take it for granted that Christian faith is faith that produces action, tangible action in fact. James writes: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lack in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (2:16). This is just one example, but it illustrates the high premium placed on treating human beings well, in this context, fellow Christians, if one’s faith is to pass muster as the genuine article and not to be reduced to mere prattling.
Lest anyone thinks that James is unique in his emphasis on works as a necessary evidence of genuine faith in Christ, Paul reiterates the point in Romans 6. Paul outlines justification more fully than any writer of the New Testament. We are justified, made right with God through faith in Christ alone. Such justifying faith places us in a state of peace with God (Romans 5:1). Such faith is the gift of God; we do not earn it, and nor are we saved (justified) on the basis of how good or bad we have been (Ephesians 2:8-9).
In light of this great truth, Paul anticipates a question that thoughtful people with inclinations to sin still ask: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Romans 6:1). Before condemning the character of the person who asks such a question, it is important to see how logical it is from a sinful perspective to raise such a question. After all, if my standing before God is based completely on what He has done for me, and if it is true that I can contribute nothing to my relationship to God in terms of being justified, then why not sin? Why not live it up? There is pleasure in sin, and anyone who says there is not is clearly doing it wrong.
How does Paul respond? “By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (6:2).
For Paul, the idea that a Christian would still want to live in sin is paradoxical. Our very justification has given sin a death blow. There is a real sense in which as a Christian, I am no longer enslaved to sin. God has through the blood of Jesus redeemed me and has given me an identity as a righteous and perfect person. In this sense, no real Christian is an antinomian.
However, there are two extremes that must be avoided as we unpack the teaching of the New Testament concerning faith and works. The first extreme is to insist that if I am a Christian, my obedience will automatically measure up to what is expected of me. Sometimes, Christians can act as if reading a commandment in Scripture is the same as keeping it. Often when Christians talk down other people’s sin, one gets the impression that they have very little self-awareness of their own remaining tendencies to sin.
The second extreme is to live as if the change God has begun in the believer has not really taken place at all. So insistent that Christians still struggle with sin, many believers live life more in light of the struggle than in light of victory. To be sure, to the extent that Christians struggle with sin, then to that extent they are antinomian as it has been defined. Antinomians are simply those who are against the law of God. To paraphrase John Owen’s words in his classic work on the mortification of sin: What Christian ever had any work to do for God in which sin did not pop up in his heart to distract him from it? How often has the phrase “the glory of God” appeared on the lips of sincere believers only to be followed by hidden wishes that we might receive the glory for whatever it is we are doing? Paul himself complained that though he delighted in God’s law on the one hand, he found on the other hand that he fought against it, that he didn’t like it. Yes, sometimes the battle against sin for the believer can be so intense that the believer does not always know which part of him is genuine. To that extent then, every believer is an antinomian more or less. Unfortunately, this real struggle can become paralyzing to believers; they don’t forget to mourn, but they forget to be comforted. They don’t forget to be poor in spirit, but they forget that the kingdom of God is promised to just such poverty-stricken people. This extreme can only be countered by a living faith in the finished work of Jesus.
So what are some things believers can do to combat the two extremes mentioned? First, to combat the extreme of thinking that our obedience is solid merely because we have read about it is to try under God to put into practice what we read in Scripture. God did not give us His grace merely to enjoy it but to use it as the means by which we grow to be more like Him.
Secondly, to combat the extreme of self-despair, we must see the Father’s benediction of Christ, “this is my Beloved Son in whom I am well pleased,” (Matthew 3:17) as applying to us. While Christians are expected to grow more and more in their ability to please God (1 Thessalonians 4:2), God’s pleasure in them is never finally dependent on their progress. God’s pleasure in His children is equal to that which He takes in His Son particularly within the context of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.
Until we reach the Celestial City by death or Christ’s return, Christians will occupy a middle position in which they find that they are both antinomians and those who love God’s law. The law will never be a means to justify or condemn the Christian but a guide by which he is to please the Lord day by day. After all, the only people who can be comforted by the Father’s commendation of Christ in Matthew 3:17 as applied to them are those who, though imperfectly, long for holiness and find that they do not have it all yet. When such longing people are told that all is well in Christ, they are truly the only ones for whom it can be comforting since they are the only ones to whom it can be applied with any safety.
Cody Dolinsek is working towards a PhD with Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth TX.
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.