Avoid Antinomianism: Emphasize the Gospel
[Editor’s note: This post is the counterpart to Avoid Legalism: Emphasize the Law.]
I am grateful for the renewed emphasis on the gospel in the past decade or so, but some expressions of “gospel-centeredness” seem to be slipping into a kind of antinomianism (lawlessness). Some speak as though gospel proclamation is limited to the objective work of Christ and the promise of free justification by faith alone, apart from any works. But this inevitably gives people the impression that God forgives sinners, and graciously gives them a new righteous identity, while leaving them in their sin. But that is not the gospel of the Bible. True gospel preaching never leads sinners to think that they may remain lawless. Consider four things the Bible teaches about the true gospel.
First, the gospel includes the promise of Christ’s work “in us,” not merely of Christ’s work “for us.” The gospel isn’t merely that Christ promises to accomplish the redemption of His people. It’s also that He promises to apply it. Another way of putting this is to say that the gospel isn’t only the proclamation of Christ’s work in the historical outworking of the covenant of redemption, but also of His work in the covenant of grace. In the new covenant (which many historic Baptists believed is the established covenant of grace), God graciously promises, not only to work for us, but also in us. He says, “I will put my laws into their minds, and will write them on their hearts” (Hebrews 8:10). It’s nothing short of very good news that Jesus mercifully works in our hearts to make us holy and lawful. Christ is a whole Savior! The Rock of Ages not only saves us from wrath, but He also makes us pure by working lawfulness in us. Only a paltry half-Savior would merely save us from condemnation. Christ certainly saves us from condemnation, but He also saves us from the foul pollution of our sins.
Second, the gospel includes the declaration that Christ redeems us from actual lawlessness. That is, when we preach the gospel, we should preach that Christ’s life of obedience to God’s law and atoning death doesn’t only purchase our justification. It also purchases the work of the Holy Spirit to sanctify us. Because of what Christ did to fulfill the law of God, satisfy divine justice and merit life for us, not only has God bound Himself to justify us (the verdict of life), but He has also bound Himself to free us from deadness of heart and to work actual life within our souls, which includes giving us a spirit of holiness that grows in grateful, loving, faithful obedience to the law of God. Titus 2:14 says that Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” That’s the gospel! Jesus died, not only to forgive our sins, but also to buy us out of bondage to lawlessness and free us to keep His law, more and more. The message that Christ died to conform us to a better more joyful way of life, a way of love to God and love to men, is very good news. The 1689 Second London Baptist Confession 19.7 says:
“Neither are the aforementioned uses of the law contrary to the grace of the Gospel, but do sweetly comply with it, the Spirit of Christ subduing and enabling the will of man to do that freely and cheerfully which the will of God, revealed in the law, requires to be done.”
Third, the gospel, largely speaking, includes a call to keep all of Christ’s commands. John Colquhoun, who wrote the wonderful classic, A Treatise on the Law and the Gospel, which stands in the great tradition of the Marrow Men of Scotland, taught that we must distinguish between the gospel “strictly speaking” and the gospel “largely speaking.” That was a common distinction among the Puritans. “Strictly speaking,” the gospel is a pure promise of redemption in Jesus Christ. It includes the declaration of Christ’s obedient life, atoning death, and resurrection, along with the promise that He will completely save His people from their guilt and sinfulness. “Strictly speaking,” the gospel issues no commands of the law to sinners. But the gospel “largely speaking” includes a summons to keep the law of God, not for the right to eternal life, but from the right to eternal life. It calls justified believers to keep Christ’s commands from gratitude, love, and joy in Him. In several places, the Bible teaches that we are to “obey the gospel of God” (Rom 10:16; 2 Thess 1:8; 1 Pet 4:17). The gospel isn’t merely to be proclaimed, but also to be heard and obeyed. The gospel, largely speaking, issues the commands to believe and repent. Mark 1:14-15 says, “Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe.’” That is the gospel, largely speaking. In its broadest sense, the gospel includes the call to repent of our sins (transgressions of the law), to hate and forsake them, because they are displeasing to God. The 1689 Second London Baptist Confession 32.2 rightly warns:
“The wicked, who know not God, and obey not the gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast aside into everlasting torments, and punished with everlasting destruction, from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power.”
Fourth, most importantly, the gospel is the proclamation of Christ’s work in all of His offices. The gospel proclaims Christ as the promised Messiah, the long awaited King, who comes to usher in a great kingdom, where according to Vaughn Roberts in God’s Big Picture, God’s people will live in His presence, in His place, and under His authority and good rule. The gospel, therefore, not only proclaims Christ’s person and work in His prophetic and priestly offices, but it also proclaims Christ’s commands or laws in His kingly office. As King, Jesus graciously rules His subjects for their good by giving them wise commandments. When Jesus preached the gospel, He said, “Come to Me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28). There, Jesus is calling sinners to find rest in Him from the guilt of their sins. It’s Christ’s call for sinners to believe in Him alone for their justification. But Christ is not finished preaching the gospel. He goes on to declare, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Here Jesus is calling sinners who have come to Him for justification by faith alone to receive His “yoke,” which is His law, as an instrument of sanctification. Come to Jesus and take His law upon you and learn from Him how to live faithfully. If you do, your soul will find rest from your miserable practices of sin. Jesus is a humble and gentle teacher, and His law is not a burden to anyone who comes to Him in faith.
Gospel preaching can only imply antinomianism when preachers fail to preach the whole gospel, which sets forth the whole Christ and promises a whole redemption, not only from the condemnation of sin, but also from its power and pollution. When the biblical gospel is faithfully proclaimed, sinners are summoned to Jesus to find rest from both the guilt and corruption of lawlessness.