Antinomianism: Reformed Theology's Unwelcome Guest? by Mark Jones

Mark Jones’ new book, Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest?, provides a careful response to antinomianism, which is on the rise in some Reformed circles. Jones is an expert in Puritan theology and did his research doctoral work on the Christology of Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680). Jones is a pastor at Faith Vancouver Presbyterian Church in Canada, a research associate at University of the Free State in South Africa, and a lecturer in systematic theology at John Wycliffe Theological College in cooperation with North-West University in South Africa. He is, therefore, well-qualified to write this book from an historical and theological perspective.

The thesis of the book is that antinomianism can’t simply be defined as a system that is “against the law” as the etymology of the word may suggest. Rather, antinomianism must be understood in terms of the serious Christological error that lies at its very heart. Antinomianism fails to grasp and apply all of Christ. Therefore, since antinomianism’s fundamental problem is Christological, the solution to antinomianism is also Christological. One of the great values of this book is that it points to the doctrine of Christ as the only adequate correction to the antinomian error.

In chapter 1, “Lessons from History,” Jones briefly surveys the history of antinomianism. He argues that Adam was the first antinomian who rebelled against God’s law. The Pharisees of the New Testament are often reputed to be legalists, but at a more fundamental level, they were antinomians because they didn’t keep God’s law from the heart. Jones goes on to discuss various figures reputed to be antinomians, including Johann Agricola, John Eaton, Tobias Crisp, John Saltmarsh, John Traske, John Cotton and Anne Hutchinson, while acknowledging that antinomians are not easy to identify because they’re found on a continuum of belief and differ among themselves at various points. Jones is careful not to apply the “antinomian” label without appropriate qualifications.

In chapter 2, “The Imitation of Christ,” Jones argues that Christ isn’t merely our substitute in justification, but He’s also our example, or pattern, in sanctification. Antinomians fail to grasp the concept of the imitatio Christi (imitation of Christ), teaching instead that the believer should should grow in grace simply by believing the gospel more and more. But Jones shows that Christians will only grow in holiness as they look to Christ’s example and strive to be conformed to His likeness in the power of the Holy Spirit. Jones writes, “Just as Christ lived by faith and depended upon the grace of the Holy Spirit to work on his human nature, so we are likewise to live by faith and depend on the Holy Spirit to enable us to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.”

In chapter 3, “The Law,” Jones shows that antinomians minimized the role of God’s law as the rule of life for the believer (Calvin’s third, or didactic, use of the law). Antinomians believed that we should preach the law primarily to remind believers that they’re free from it. But Jones shows that the gospel in no way diminishes the believer’s duty to keep the law. Instead, the great indicatives of the gospel, which are the purchase of Christ, strengthen the believer’s obligation to keep the law. Christ’s love for believers in no way decreases the importance of keeping the moral law, but increases it. Christ’s people need the moral law as an instrument, or means, in their sanctification to identify sin and to guide them in holiness.

Chapter 4, “The Law and the Gospel,” is one of the most important chapters of this book in my estimation. Jones explains that antinomians and the Reformed orthodox both agreed on a sharp law/gospel contrast in justification. Believers are justified solely by the instrumentality of faith on the ground of Christ’s righteousness alone and not by their own works of faithful obedience to the law. The believer’s law keeping in no way contributes to justification. Antinomians, however, tended to think of the law as a bad thing because they only thought about the law in reference to justification.

Anthony Burgess taught that the law/gospel distinction can be understood both narrowly and largely. Narrowly speaking, the law is equivalent to biblical imperatives (commands), and the gospel is equivalent to biblical indicatives (promises). The antinomians and the Reformed orthodox agreed on this narrow way of speaking of the law and the gospel in justification. The antinomians disagreed, however, that it is appropriate to speak of the law and the gospel in the larger sense. The Reformed orthodox taught that largely speaking, the law is the covenant of works, which includes the command of perfect obedience and the promise of eternal life. In this larger sense, the law includes both commands and promises. In a similar way, largely speaking, the gospel is the covenant of grace, which includes the promise of life together with gospel commands (repentance, faith, the moral law). In this larger sense, the gospel also includes commands and promises and the gospel threatens and warns true believers. Jones argues that what’s at stake in this discussion is how we preach the gospel. We should not limit our gospel preaching to indicatives alone, but must include gospel imperatives and gospel threatenings.

In chapter 5, “Good Works and Rewards,” Jones discusses the role of good works in the life of the believer. He argues that good works are not merely a way of life for the believer, but that they are the way to life, though good works are neither the ground nor means of justification. Justification is only by faith on the basis of Christ alone. Good works, therefore, do not give believers a title to eternal life, but they are a means of entering into the possession and experience of eternal life, which was purchased by Christ and His work alone. This means that good works are not simply evidences of salvation as some say, but that they are also necessary for salvation (see Mk 13:13; Rom 6:22; Gal 6:8-9; Heb 12:14). In Scripture and Reformed theology, each stage of salvation is a gift of God’s free grace, but God’s saving gifts come in a certain order: regeneration, conversion, justification, good works, and then glorification. Good works follow conversion, but they are also a means of glorification. Thus, good works are a consequent means of final salvation. Jones also provides a helpful discussion of the role of rewards as a motive in the Christian life. It’s not slavish for Christians to be motivated by the hope of future rewards in heaven.

In a section of chapter 5 that was particularly memorable to me, Jones says that God doesn’t need our good works, but Christ does need them. He writes, “To say that God does not need our good works misses the point of Christian theology. Christ requires our good works, not simply as thanksgiving, but out of a necessity that has principally in view his glory as the Mediator who comes to see the fulness of his work as the church is conformed to his image. . . . To be clear, God does not need our good works, but Christ does, and so he not only requires them but also desires them.” Jones says, “Christ’s [mediatorial] glory may be said to increase the more his church is sanctified.”

Chapter 6, “Amor, Amor,” deals with the question of whether God loves all of the elect equally. Antinomian theologians teach that God sees no sin in believers and that He loves them all the same, regardless of their obedience or disobedience. Antinomians also teach that God is never angry with any of his children in any sense. The chapter includes two critical distinctions that correct these antinomian errors.

First, there is a difference between God’s benevolent love and His complacent love. God’s benevolent love for His people is constant and unchangeable. It includes election, predestination, and His will to redeem His people. It is eternal, immutable, and unconditional. But God’s complacent love for His people varies from person to person.  It increases or decreases based on the believer’s obedience or disobedience. God’s love of complacency depends on the communion and delight that He has in His people. He has more complacent love for some than others because some of God’s people are more conformed to Christ than others. This distinction helps makes sense of texts like John 14:21, “Whoever has may commandments and keeps them, he is is who loves me, and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him” and John 15:10, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.” This distinction also explains how it is possible to please God.  There is no way to please God to increase His love of benevolence.  That is unconditional. But the more faithful, loving, and obedient God’s children are, the more lovely they are to God, and the more they delight Him. Jones writes, “To speak only of God’s benevolent love is dangerous because it ignores the important truth that God loves and delights in the goodness that is in his people.”

Second, there is a difference between God’s judicial anger and His fatherly anger.  Antinomians deny that God is ever angry with His child.  But God is displeased and angry with His children when they sin.  His displeasure and anger are rooted in His fatherly love, not His judicial anger.  Christ’s sufferings have completely satisfied God’s judicial anger.  But Christians need to be warned that when they sin, they risk displeasing and angering God their Father.

Chapter 7, “Assurance,” describes the differences between the antinomians and the Reformed orthodox on the question of assurance of salvation. The antinomians only affirmed the objective ground of assurance. They taught that assurance is obtained only by looking to Christ for justification and that if a person lacks assurance, he simply needs to go deeper into his justification and rest more in Christ. The Reformed orthodox agreed with the antinomians that justification is the objective ground of assurance, but they disagreed that it is the only ground.  Scripture teaches that good works are a secondary subjective ground of assurance.  Only as believers grow in holiness and obedience to God’s good commandments can they have full assurance that God has graced them with salvation.

In chapter 8, “Rhetoric,” Jones discusses how antinomians tend to express themselves. The antinomians always emphasize believing more grace, never doing anything, or exerting effort, but only learning how to rest more and more, and depend more and more on grace. Tullian Tchividjian, according to Jones, speaks with antinomian rhetoric. Tchividjian teaches that “sanctification is the daily hard work of going back to the reality of our justification.” He says the work we have to do is never doing more, praying more, etc., but only “coming to a greater understanding of [Christ’s] work.” Of course, this doesn’t fit with Paul’s exhortation to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12).

Mark Jones warns about an emphasis on grace that actually ends up distracting us from Christ: “There is a great deal of talk today about ‘grace.’ It is described as scandalous, liberating, shocking, counterintuitive, unpredictable, dangerous, etc. But when an emphasis on grace eclipses a focus on Christ, as it sometimes does, then grace is not being preached; rather, a sort of cheerleading experience takes place, in which very little is actually said about grace because it is divorced from the richness of Christ’s person and work.”

Chapter 9, “Toward a Definition and Solution,” brings the threads of the book together. Jones concludes that the solution to antinomianism is a thoroughgoing understanding of the person and work of Jesus Christ. We must understand Christ as the pattern of the Christian life, that He obeyed, prayed, learned, and trusted, not just in our stead for justification, but as our example for sanctification. We must also understand that Christ is the source of the Christian life. “Christ dwells in His people, empowering them, assuring and comforting them, convicting them, and transforming them.”

Strengths

This book has many strengths, which far outweigh any potential weaknesses in my judgment.  Here are just a couple of them.

First, without a doubt, the book’s greatest strength is that its analysis is intensely Christ-centered. As much as the antinomians want to be viewed as exalting Christ and His work, Jones has argued persuasively that they’re only exalting part of Christ. Antinomians only emphasize Christ’s work for us, but the Scriptures hold out Christ’s work for us along with Christ’s example to us, prayers for us, instructions to us, warnings to us, and work in us.

Second, the book provides a vocabulary for distinctions that preserve the whole teaching of Scripture on important theological truths. Some of these distinctions include benevolent love and complacent love, judicial anger and fatherly anger, the law and the gospel both largely and narrowly speaking, and the historia salutis and ordo salutis.

Weaknesses

I’m reluctant to mention any weakness because the book is so good.  One can always critique a book for what it doesn’t say; so, the second two weaknesses on this short list are really more about continuing the conversation than a direct critique of what the book actually says.

First, Jones makes much of “gospel threatenings” and says “Antinomians, past and present, do not hold to the view that the gospel threatens.” I don’t necessarily disagree with Jones that largely speaking, the gospel threatens, but is the denial of gospel threatenings necessarily linked to antinomianism?  Isn’t the real issue that the antinomians either deny that threats of hell are useful for faith or that believers are ever warned or threatened?  I don’t see why a person should be said to have antinomian tendencies because he denies that the gospel threatens believers (perhaps based on texts such as Rom 8:1 and Gal 3:13), if he also affirms that the law’s threatenings should be preached to unbelievers and to believers who persist unrepentantly in sin.

Second, I would like to have seen Jones address the tension between the believer’s ability to obey Christ and the doctrine of remaining sin (Rom 7:15-25; Gal 5:17).  We need to avoid overly optimistic and triumphalistic views of sanctification as much as we need to avoid passive and quietistic ones.  An overly optimistic view of our capacities as believers could lead to as much discouragement, and potentially to as much antinomianism, as overly negative views of the believer’s abilities.

Third, in my view, Jones didn’t adequately emphasize one important application of Christ to antinomianism. Personal and corporate communion with God in Christ are central powers of holiness after the doctrine of Christ is properly understood. All of the theology Jones articulated must be thoroughly deployed in communion with Christ, both in corporate worship and personal piety. When the believer is living in communion with Christ, loved by Christ and loving Christ, known by Christ and knowing Christ, the choice to sin or not to sin becomes intensely personal. The decision to sin against or obey Christ is a decision about whether to betray Christ personally or to express faithfulness and love to Christ in order to commune with Him more.  We can have a pristine theology of Christ, but if our theology fails to be deployed in communion with, love for, and worship of Christ on the basis of His person and work, we will all remain antinomians. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15); “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jn 17:3).