Publishing is an odd thing. Some topics are flooded with titles and other topics are almost impossible to find. When a book like Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? is published you have to take notice because books on this subject are exceedingly rare in this day and age. Think perhaps for any other title on this subject published in the last 50 years? You can think of plenty on the subject of legalism, but its mirror image antinomianism is quite rare.
Mark Jones doesn’t quite lay out the book as some people might hope. That can breed some minor frustration. For instance, he really doesn’t try to define antinomianism, or better the types of antinomianism until the end of the book.
“Antinomianism must not be confused with the etymological meaning of antinomian (i.e., “against the law”). There is some overlap, of course, but the historical debates focused on more specific areas of the Christian life.”
This is not a systematic theology, but a volume on historical theology. The primary focus on his research is the antinomian movements in Puritan England and in 1640’s New England. The reason is two-fold. First, these were disputes among people laying claim to the Reformed heritage. Second, there is a revived dispute among those laying claim to the Reformed heritage in our day. Most people I would consider to have an antinomian theology deny having such a view, usually based on the etymological meaning of the term. But when you look at the strains of antinomianism you can begin to see more clearly that some who claim they aren’t really are.
Jones works through a variety of topics in which historically antinomians have departed from mainline Reformed thinking and formulations. Jones’ main point though is not that antinomians’ error comes primarily with regard to the law but their Christology. This is similar to how Sinclair Ferguson addressed these twin errors of legalism & antinomianism in lecturing on the Marrow Controversy. The answer to both errors is the gospel in its fulness.
“Discussions and writings on holiness often lack a strong Christological basis and center.”
Part of me is tempted to expand more fully on some of the topics that Jones works through. I may “think” through a few here. But for now I will be content to lay them out very briefly.
Jones begins with the imitation of Christ. Peter notes that Christ, in addition to being our Savior, is an example to us. Much of what is written in the gospels is there for our imitation. Jesus models for us how to live by faith as fully human. Jesus lived in the power of the Spirit as an example to us as well (here Jones is similar to Sinclair Ferguson in his series Who is the Holy Spirit?). The way of holiness, Jones notes, is that is pursued by faith and in the power of the Spirit. Many of the antinomians, as Jones and Packer in his brief but excellent forward assert, limited our activity in sanctification. They essentially make sanctification monergistic like justification is. As a result they talk about Christ not only obeying for us, but in us. They sound like some hyper-Calvinists I’ve talked with who limit the use of our will. Both groups don’t have much room for Philippians 2:12-13 in their theology. There we see God works so I will will and work resulting in obedience. Both God and I will and work: synergism! In other words, Christ does not act immediately but mediately. Jones is careful to guard the difference between Christ’s impretration (redemption accomplished) and impartation (redemption applied). We see here, and elsewhere that antinomians tend to conflate justification and sanctification.
The second major topic is the law and its role in the Christian life. Both groups agreed on the first uses of the law with regard to the unbeliever- to expose sin and drive sinners to Christ. The paths divide when we are asked how a Christian knows what pleases God. Historically Reformed Theology has talked about the 3rd use of the law. Others conflate our relationship with the law with regard to justification and sanctification. Historically Reformed Theology has taught that by faith the Spirit leads Christians into obedience to the moral law. The law shows what pleases God but only the Spirit can empower us by grace thru faith to obey. We do not obey to gain or keep the Spirit, but we have the Spirit to (in part) obey. Some teachers would agree with this in theory, but in practice tend to so downplay the law that they are practical antinomians.
“Though we are justified, we are not therefore completely wise and inherently holy through and through. Christians need specific moral exhortations because our hearts have the remnant of sin and we have darkened minds.”
Related to this is the relationship of law and gospel. Many Reformed people have a more Lutheran formulation of the law-gospel distinction than a Reformed one. Michael Horton comes to my mind as one who has popularized this view. Jones notes that the law is not the only thing that threatens- there are gospel threatenings as well. The Synod of Dort speaks of God preserving the justified by the preaching of the gospel “through exhortations, threats, promises, and the use of holy sacraments.” Why such threats? He quotes Owen that “believers are subject to sloth and security, to wax dead, dull, cold and formal in their course…” God seeks to awaken us. Antinomians either overestimate regeneration such that we have no such need, or so expand justification that they lapse into an easy believism in which there is preservation but no perseverance.
“The law is friendly to the Christian only because of Christ’s mediation, which makes us friends of God.”
He then moves on to good works and rewards. Typically there is no place in antinomian theology for them though the Bible says plenty about them. Titus 3 instructs us that by His grace Christ makes His people, a people zealous for good works. They are the necessary evidence (ordinarily) of saving faith. The New Testament speaks often of rewards, recognizing they do not merit salvation but that as a Father God holds out promises to encourage His children. Contrary to Michael Horton’s admonition, the Father thinks this is not a “disastrous pattern” but a holy, wise, just and righteous way of thinking.
“In light of the incarnation, while the Son, regarding his divinity, cannot have his glory increased or diminished, as the God-man there is a sense in which Christ’s glory may be said to increase the more his church is sanctified.”
He then talks about love. This is a section I will have to dig into deeper later. To be brief, antinomians usually follow Reformed theology in distinguishing between God’s general love for creation and people, and God’s salvific love for the elect. Reformed theology has also distinguished between God’s love of benevolence (seen in election & justification) and his love of delight or friendship (complacency) and rewards us according to our holiness. RT developed this distinction on the basis of texts like John 14:21. So there is an aspect of God’s love for us that grows as we are sanctified, that is pleased with our maturity in Christ. This antinomians tend to reject, recognizing only God’s electing love. While RT often makes distinctions, antinomian theologians tend to flatten everything so they lose their distinctions.
“God’s love of benevolence is the fountain of election and all the blessings the elect receive. The love of complacency delights in the good that is in his elect- but that good is only there because of his benevolent love.”
Lastly he looks at assurance. While RT has historically looked at saving faith primarily and growth in Christ secondarily as providing assurance, antinomians only admit faith in Christ. Here, as in other places, Jones notes they fall into the either-or fallacy instead of being able to recognize both-and within Scripture. Many separate Christ from His benefits which is improper. Assurance should look to both Christ (gospel promises & our faith in them) and His benefits (our progressive sanctification for instance) for assurance.
Jones ends with two shorter chapters. The first is on rhetoric. Often both sides have committed sins of the tongue (or pen) by not speaking truthfully and charitably to those opposed to them. He warns us about falling into the same trap in the midst of disputing this topic with others. He specifically only mentions one living person whom he considers susceptible to allegations of antinomianism. This is already a polarizing figure, Tullian Tchvidjian (he book rooted in Colossians does not maintain Paul’s balance between justification and sanctification found there). Those who argue he is antinomian, and those who want to defend him, both need to be careful of their rhetoric.
The last chapter is about defining antinomianism and a solution. There are a few different strains of antinomianism. Generally, they give such priority to justiifcation that “it not only dominates sanctification, but at times even seems to threaten to displace the person of Christ from center stage.” (quoting Sinclair Ferguson’s response to Gerhard Forde). Often they argue that the Spirit or Christ displaces our will so that we need not talk of being conformed to Christ. They also typically reject the use of the law, accompanied by the Spirit, as a means of sanctification.
In terms of a solution, he advocates a more robust Christology and I would say a more robust understanding of union with Christ. Christ is the pattern and source for the Christian life.
This is by no means an easy book to read. Many of the terms and topics are not often heard in our day. He relies on many quotes by Puritans and antinomians past. This book requires that we think through some issues instead of settling for knee jerk responses. I found it to be a very helpful book and one I would recommend to pastors and lay leaders. The idea is not to equip for a witch hunt, but to be able to articulate the shortcomings with the advocates, often unsuspecting, of antinomianism.