Correct definitions are very important, especially in the realm of theology. Far too often we tend to polarize our differences and cast people into one heretical camp or another, just because we disagree with one point of someone’s theology. This is a very dangerous thing. On the other hand, sometimes we don’t have our definitions formulated nearly enough, and so we tend to oversimplify the definition. This is what has happened with the term “Antinomianism,” and to the same extent, “legalism.”
In his new book, Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest?, Mark Jones seeks to help readers formulate a correct understanding of what antinomianism is, and what it is not, so that we may better identify unorthodox and erroneous strains of theology when confronted with them. If defining antinomianism strictly etymologically, it simply means “against the law.” In this sense, then, Adam was the first antinomian (Rom 5). So, then is Antinomianism the only heresy, for all sin, including heresy, is “against God’s law” (1). However, understanding the theological concept and movement of Antinomianism is more difficult than just understanding the word’s etymology. Jones says: “The theological concept of antinomianism is a lot more complex than simply being against God’s law, either doctrinally or practically” (1-2).
After giving a brief look at Antinomianism throughout history, particularly in the Reformed and Puritan centuries, Jones proceeds in the rest of the book, to show the various questions and debates that arose (and continually arise) from the error of Antinomianism. These following questions are all interrelated and connected to Antinomianism, many of which take up an entire chapter in the remainder of the book:
- Are there any conditions for salvation?
- Is the moral law still binding on Christians? (Chapter 3)
- What is the precise nature of, and relationship between, the law and the gospel? (Chapter 4)
- Are good works necessary for salvation? (Chapter 5)
- Does God love all Christians the same, irrespective of their obedience or lack thereof? (Chapter 6)
- Who is the subject of spiritual activity, the believer or Christ?
- May our assurance of justification be discerned by our sanctification? (Chapter 7)
- Does God see sin in believers? (Chapter 6)
- Is a person justified at birth or upon believing?
To dive into each of these questions and give a summary would take far too much space, but the questions above give you a taste of what sorts of things are at stake in this debate of antinomianism. I will admit, as I started this book, I had a very shallow and naive understanding of Antinomianism. I tended to think it was just, as its etymology suggests, being “against God’s law,” and the only real Antinomians were those that so stressed the freedom found in Christ that they were in no way bound to follow the imperative commands found in the Bible. What Mark Jones so wonderfully shows, however, is that there is far more at stake here, and that understanding of antinomianism is far too simplistic. He says: “If antinomianism is understood simply as all indicatives without imperatives, and legalism simply as all imperatives without indicatives, then there have been very few true antinomians or true legalists in the Christian tradition” (123-124).
What fascinated me as I was reading this book, in conjunction with the robust historical perspective that Jones gave time and time again, was how much our modern Evangelical teaching and preaching today is actually far more influenced by 16th and 17th century antinomianism than it is by 16th century Reformed theology. For example, the popular Evangelical teaching that because of Christ’s work, God sees absolutely no sin in the believer was actually a hallmark of antinomian thinking in 17th-century England (82). Further, Jones goes on to identify one particular popular Evangelical preacher and teacher today, Tullian Tchividjian, and shows that he actually “commits the same errors as many seventeenth-century antinomians” (116). After quoting some of his thesis arguments from Jesus + Nothing = Everything, Jones comments:
Tchividjian’s theology is not the solution to the problem of moralism. Swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction has never effectively combated error. True, for a time, people may feel refreshed, but eventually the initial boost of the ‘Pepsi’ begins to cause damage if that is the sum total of the preaching diet they are under! Sanctification is not ‘simply’ the art of getting used to our justification, however appealing that dictum may sound” (116).
I could go on and on, with quote after quote, of how insightful and helpful this book was to my own understanding of the Gospel, antinomianism, legalism, the law and how it relates to the Gospel, etc. But that would ruin the fun of you going and reading this excellent book for yourself. I walked away from reading this book with an incredibly important reminder for myself to remember to preach and teach both the indicatives of what Christ has done, and the imperatives of what Christ calls us to do. When we separate the two, pitting them against one another, that is where error creeps in. That is where antinomianism crept in in the 17th century, and where it continues to do so today. With this in mind, I found the following quote to be quite helpful as Jones comes to the end of the book and begins to conclude with many helpful pastoral applications. He says,
What is in fact important is not whether preachers say things from time to time, as they make use of rhetorical devices like hyperbole, that sound ‘antinomian’ or ‘legalistic,’ but whether, during a sustained course of ministry, they give the impression that they preach Christ and preach the imperatives that God, in his wisdom, thinks his people need to hear. It is hardly fair to anyone to take one sermon and criticize a preacher for not focusing enough on this or that, but when the preacher consistently fails to exhort his people or consistently fails to preach sermons that display the glories of Christ, there is a problem” (121).
In accordance with FTC regulations, I would like to thank P&R publishers for providing me with a review copy in exchange for a fair and honest review.