Adapted from A. Strong's Systematic Theology
Antinomianism holds that, since Christ’s obedience and sufferings have satisfied the demands of the Law, the believer is free from obligation to observe it.
It seems that more evangelical Protestant churches are coming under an ancient and popular false teaching called antinomianism. Both the apostles John and James addressed it. Paul was vehement in denying that he was teaching this easy form of the faith (Rom. 3:8; 6:1ff.; Gal 5). Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, and the Puritans also had to firmly address this heresy in their times.
Augustus Strong, a 19th century professor of theology at Rochester Theological Seminary, challenged antinomianism as well. His Systematic Theology is still widely used by seminarians at orthodox seminaries around the world. Here are his thoughts on it with a few notes of my own which follow.
We're living in an unparalleled time of antinomianism where it's sweeping through the church, including evangelical truth. You don't need to think in terms of obeying the commandments of God. We're free from all that now. You know, Christ has taken care of everything like that. And so, there are no more imperatives, there are no more responsibilities, no more duty or obligation imposed upon a Christian. - R. C. Sproul
In a nutshell, as Johannes Agricola wrote, “Moses should be hanged!” Agricola was opposed by Martin Luther and charged as being an antinomian. It is a misunderstanding and
perversion of the truth that “...you are not under law but under grace.” (Romans 6:14)
Correctly understood, the Law is (1) a testimony to God’s holiness, (2) a mirror of our own sinfulness, (3) our tutor that leads us to the Gospel of Christ, and (4) to be observed by the believer (per the Moral Law). The first three points may be believed by the antinomian but he wrongly rejects the 4th point that believers are obliged to observe the Law. In theological terms, antinomians have a flawed view of sanctification. They have become so frightened of justification by works that they dispense with teaching an obligation to obey the moral law. In severe forms of antinomianism, carnal sin is gratuitously indulged or permitted.
The process of sanctification establishes the union between Christ and the believer. This brings him into communion with Christ’s work and leads him to ratify it in his own experience – more and more so as the believer grows in Christ. This is the prayer of the Apostle:
For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God. Colossians 1:9-10
Christ, therefore, does not free us from the Law as a rule of life. Instead, He graciously frees us:
1.) From the Law as a system of curse and penalty. This He does by bearing the curse and penalty Himself.
2.) From the Law with its claims as a method of salvation. This He does by making His obedience and merits ours.
3.) From the Law as an outward and foreign compulsion. This He does by giving us the Spirit of obedience and son ship by which the Law is progressively realized within us as believers.
In putting an end to legalism, He provides against license. The freedom of the Christian is freedom in the Law, such as the musician experiences when the scales and exercises have become easy, and work has turned to play. The freedom from the Law of which the Scriptures speak is therefore simply that freedom from the constraint and bondage of the Law, which freedom characterizes those who have become one with Christ by faith.
It is not “rattling chains” as one local pastor in El Paso, TX recently stated to suggest
that we must observe the Law, even erecting spiritual fences around it. It is also a perversion to say how much we love God's (moral) Law without saying – in the same breath – that we must do
what it says. Such a thing is easy-believism or gospel hypocrisy.
It is a life-long process that is never completed. The call to holy living is found throughout Scripture and is the evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit in the regenerated sinner.
The rabbinical idea of spiritual fences is neither legalism nor is it imprudent. An example given in Scripture is that a man must guard his eyes, e.g. Pro. 4:25. A mature believer should have many fences such as not being alone with a woman not his own. Joseph of Egypt knew his weakness and had a good fence erected about him called "run-for-your-life." Should he have stayed in Mrs. Potiphar’s presence and attempted explanations? A Christian who has no fences, including checklists (and berated by the pastor above), is foolish and naive about the influence of his own sin nature.
The great confessions condemn the antinomian heresy.
The Old Testament is not contrary to the New...no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral. – Article VII of The Anglican Articles of Religion
"...the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God, pressing after an heavenly life, in evangelical obedience to all the commands which Christ as Head and King, in His Word hath prescribed them." – Chapter XIII, par. 3 of The Baptist General Confession of 1689
"They who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, do practice any sin, or cherish any lust, do thereby destroy the end of Christian liberty, which is, that, being delivered out of the hands of our enemies, we might serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life." – Chapter XX, par. 3 Westminster Confession of Faith
These confessions are clear that being under grace is not a license to set aside diligence in obeying the Moral Law.
Many antinomians incorrectly believe that we suffer from an abundance of people within the Church striving to justify themselves by observing the Law. This, unfortunately, is the opposite of what we find. The average Protestant evangelical church overflows with the unrepentant who engage in every sort of sin and vice. One former pastor of one of the larger evangelical churches in the region stated that he thought no more than 20% of the attendees were actually converted men who had repented and, in so far as they were able, made good for their past sins. If Nazi Germany is any example, it is more likely just 10% or less. It begs the question, has the number of truly converted men ever been more than 10% of a people? If this is true then it would apply to the entire Reformation period. That is, the Christians at the time were a part of the church for all kinds of reasons but they were not converted men.
Galatians is often used by the antinomian to promote his false doctrine. He accuses those who exhort God's elect to obedience as being Pharisees who are attempting to justify themselves by keeping "thousands of rules and checklists", to quote the pastor above. For the orthodox to respond to the antinomian that God's elect can never justify themselves by works of any kind – sound doctrine – is useless in the face of the antinomian. For him, exhortations to holy living are the same as calls to legalism; such is his extent in confusing the doctrines of justification and sanctification.
Thankfully, the Spirit knew what was ahead and the apostle penned Galatians 5:13 - 6:10 so that a tendency towards antinomianism would be halted: "Do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature...(5:13)."
Christians who hold to the Scripture’s standards for Church leadership are often accused of being unforgiving and legalistic by antinomians. David Key of Emory University’s Candler School of Theology sums up this popular evangelical view:
My own position is that since God is forgiving, we should be forgiving. To put a litmus test on divorce, to put a scarlet letter on people, is a mistake. God doesn't do it, so we shouldn't.
He is mistaken: in 1Tim. 3 God does indeed put a scarlet letter on some men. It cannot only include just the "A" but also the "R" – a man's reputation with outsiders. The Holy Spirit, speaking to His people (and not to the heathen), said that He will particularly judge the adulterer and any who defile the holiness of the marriage bed (Heb 13:4).
Key misunderstands the difference between qualifications for leadership in the Church with the extent of God’s forgiveness for repentant sinners. There are consequences for sin. A man guilty
of murder, for example, can be completely forgiven but he may have to face execution at the hands of the Civil Power, just the same.
Both Key, Hawthorne, and too many in the church culture today do not have a Biblical view of sin.
The 15th century churches of Asia Minor did not heed Christ's warnings in Revelation concerning sound doctrine and moral purity. They were eventually judged by Him and violently expelled from the land by the Muslim hordes. But who pays any attention to this?
If the people of the United States knew how dangerous sexual immorality is to the stability of civilization, especially adultery and homosexuality, they would take steps to suppress it. On the other hand, the people here celebrate vice without thought or care. It is spreading like wildfire and shattering our political and cultural foundations. It is particularly evident in typical black culture found in the inner cities. Our future peace is being sacrificed for carnal pleasure.
However, the minimizing of capital sin by those who mix religious humanism with the Christian faith is not the subject of this essay. Nonetheless, recognizing adultery, for example, for what it truly is makes those who have had the blood of Christ applied to such sin all the more thankful for the extent and power of His grace and forgiveness. However, the Scriptures make a significant issue of this particular sin because it strikes at the very heart of God's covenant with His people.
Chris Craig of El Paso, Texas, noted that the truly unforgiving among evangelical Protestants are not that tiny minority who hold to the scriptural qualifications for leadership but the divorced who refuse to forgive their adulterous spouses and, instead, abandon them to seek new partners. This has, for Protestants, become the unforgiveable sin contradicting Jesus’ words: (1) to forgive the repentant without limit (Mt 18:21) and (2) to divorce for any reason and then marry another is adulterous (Mk 10:11; Lk 16:18). If someone puts away spouse #1 and becomes polygamous by marrying spouse #2, forgiveness of a repentant spouse #1 is impossible as the two can never be reconciled again in the marriage. This is why remarriage after divorce is a grievous sin, a doctrine that has existed since the earliest days of the Church.
Key’s charge is an example of those who attack the orthodox view which teaches that (1) Christians must be obedient to Scripture and (2) there are consequences in this life for sin. For Key, qualification for Church leadership is about forgiveness, not about being “above reproach, the husband of but one wife…”, etc. For him, the LORD’s qualifications for Church leadership fall into the black hole of relativism. If it is appropriate for a man to serve in church leadership who has divorced his first wife and then remarried another, why not a man who has done this twice? Three times? What is the limit for the number of women a man has married, if any? If it is appropriate for a divorced and remarried man to serve as a deacon, why not as a pastor? A bishop? An archbishop? Does it even matter? To the majority in the Protestant church, it does not matter at all.
The apostle Paul disagrees with many today when he states,
“Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.” 2Tim.2:19.
There is nothing ambiguous about this statement – unless you are an American evangelical Protestant.
We should not be deceived by the claim of the antinomians but also reject it for being another gospel. Paul states, “We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path…” 2Cor 6:3. The stumbling block of the antinomian is license and is something we must carefully guard against, as Peter says:
…be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position.” – 2Peter 3:17
The Spirit is warning us against antinomianism and the "error of lawless men". As described earlier, our secure position is not just our eternal salvation but the results of our “every
effort” to be found “…spotless, blameless, and at peace with him.” Thankfully, He gives us the discipline and desire to follow His beautiful and wonderful Law. By it we, His servants, are
warned and kept safe (Ps. 19:11; 2Tim 1:7).
Just the same, faith without works is dead faith:
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” James 1:22
When we do what it says, we are obedient Christians and we please Christ, sinful men that we are, as His Spirit so powerfully works in us.
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” 2Corinthians 5:10
Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. – 1Ti 4:16
What does it mean to "watch your life and doctrine closely?" Firstly, it means to give close attention to how we are living – does our way of living measure up to the Gospel? Secondly, we
acknowledge that our doctrine must be subject to careful self-scrutiny – does it measure up to all of Scripture? Thirdly, we do not assume a passive role in our sanctification. Paul refutes
this notion here:
The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace. Romans 6:10-14
"Do not let sin reign" – this is faith in action.
We are to hate sin in our life and we are equipped by the Spirit to put it to death so it will no longer be our master. James also echoes the Spirit's exhortation, "...I will show you my faith by what I do." (James 1:18) Faith must be accompanied by righteous deeds.
Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for [Gk: fear of] God. 2 Cor. 7:1
The New Man in Christ, therefore, longs to be cleansed of the power of sin, keeping in mind the delight of God's fellowship with him, even calling him His son.
Like all of the heresies throughout the ages, there are flavors of antinomianism, Agricola being an extreme example. While others might not want Moses hanged, the teachers of this doctrine functionally hang him just the same. They may not actively call us to license but they functionally do so by failing to teach the whole Gospel.
Some antinomians are hard to discover as they cloak themselves with Christian language and symbols. For example, they may go on about how much they love God's Law and how we must be obedient Christians. It all sounds good until it is discovered what the actual content of the word "obedient" happens to be.
One has to ask this person, "We are to be obedient to what?" It could be anything – except being obedient to the Moral Law. Even then, one has to dig: which or what moral law? If there is not the unqualified response that we are not to ever be sexually immoral, at the least, we are dealing with a closet antinomian. Being obedient means being obedient as particularly defined in Scripture and addressed to the Christian (Ephesians 5, 1Corinthians 5, etc.) There are consequences for disobedience including excommunication and deliverance into the hands of the Devil (1 Cor. 5:5).
In sum, antinomians suppress or reject the sound doctrine that (1) we are called to holy living and (2) there are consequences for the rebellious believer both in this life and the next (1Cor 3:12-15; 5:1 ff.; 11:32; 2Cor 5:10; 1Ti 3:6; Heb 13:4; Jas 5:9). The antinomian, like Hawthorne, is more a public relations agent for sin. But this is the age of "love" and self-will – the consequences be hanged....
One antinomian pastor recently said, "Rules are like waving a red flag in front of a bull." He failed, however, to note that this is only true of the unconverted, the rebellious (vis-à-vis John 3:20), and the old sin nature within us that still strains to dominate (Ro 7:21 ff). The book of Proverbs is a large collection of rules and checklists – every one of which will prosper the reader if he heeds and practices them, regardless if he is a converted man.
The ordinances of the LORD are sure and altogether righteous.
They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb.
By them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. – Psalm 19:9-11
Looking forward to the day when He would lavish His grace on the Gentiles, the LORD said,
Oh, that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always, so that it might go well with them and their children forever! Dt 5:29
The heart of the believer is empowered and inclined to obey the Law of God. For him, God's Law is a pointer to the holiness he, the believer, so earnestly desires – and has through Christ.
He recognizes the intractable sin of his own heart and, like an Olympic athlete, works diligently with joy to excel in obedience rather than make excuses and quit. As the Apostle states, we
run in such a way as to get the prize (1 Cor. 9:24ff). He never recoils at the commands of Scripture even though he cannot ever fully obey them.
I am still shocked from hearing a woman who claimed to be a Christian celebrate her divorce from her husband for no other reason than some vague incompatibility. This was using the faith as an excuse for her adulteries. I had the opportunity to rebuke this person when I heard it. I am sorry that I did not. I must have been thinking of John the Baptist and did not want to lose my head....
Though we may feel condemned at times by God's Law because of our seemingly inability to keep it, we can still delight in it. His Law made the psalmist exclaim,
Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. Your commands make me wiser than my enemies, for they are ever with me. Psalm 119:97-98
Jesus replied, "If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. He who does not love me will not obey my teaching. John 14:23,24