Writing at a time of intense controversy and division within Reformed ranks, the English Puritan Richard Sibbes wrote, “Factions breed factions.” We are called to the peace and purity of the church, but when is the concern for peace a crutch for compromise and when does our appeal to the church’s purity become a cloak for own pride and dogmatism?

Of course, we all say that we should find our unity around primary truth, but I know of no historical debate in which a partisan advocated schism in the name of “secondary matters.” Repeatedly these days I hear church leaders dismiss important age-old debates because they are not “gospel issues,” as if we had not been commanded by our Lord to “teach them everything I have commanded you.” At the same time, some of the most divisive issues in our churches today concern matters that are not even addressed clearly in God’s Word.

One issue that is clearly addressed in Scripture is sanctification: the work of the Spirit through his Word in uniting us to Christ and giving us the grace to grow up into Christ, bearing the fruit of the Spirit. Given the centrality of justification to the Reformation debate, it is not surprising that Reformed, Lutheran and other evangelical bodies are crystal-clear in their confessions and catechisms on this point. In some circles, though, it is at least assumed in practice that our confessions aren’t quite as clear or as emphatic on sanctification. Reformation theology is great in defining the gospel, but when it comes to the Christian life, we need to supplement it with healthy doses of Thomas a Kempis, Spener, Wesley, and their contemporary voices.

In my view, this would be a tragic conclusion to draw. However, before I make that case, it’s important to define antinomianism. After all, it’s one of those labels that is often thrown around carelessly today, as in previous eras. This is the first of a 4-part series of posts on antinomianism. After defining it, I’ll offer a very brief history of the debates in church history. Then, I’ll offer some contemporary reflections by drawing on the rich summary of Reformed teaching on sanctification in the Reformed and Lutheran confessions. Finally, I will discuss sanctification and its relationship with the gospel.

Defining Antinomianism(s)

Literally “against law,” antinomianism is the view that the moral law summarized in the Ten Commandments is no longer binding on Christians. More generally, antinomianism may be seen as a characteristic of human rebellion against any external authority. In this sense, ironically, we are by nature antinomians and legalists since the fall: rejecting God’s command, while seeking to justify ourselves by our own criteria. The modern age is especially identified by the demand for freedom from all constraints. “Be true to yourself” is the modern creed. The rejection of any authority above the self, including obvious biblical norms, is as evident in some denominations as in the wider culture.

In technical terms, however, antinomianism has referred historically more to theory than to practice. For the most part, few of those suspected of this heresy have been charged with dissolute lives, although the concern is that an error in doctrine will inevitably work itself out practically.

One of the best summaries of the different varities of antinomianism is offered by J. I. Packer in his Concise Theology (Tyndale House, 2001), pages 178-80: (1) “Dualistic Antinomainism,” associated with Gnosticism, which treats the body (and its actions) as insignificant; (2) “Spirit-centered Antinomianism,” which views the inner promptings of the Spirit as sufficient apart from the external Word; (3) “Christ-centered Antinomianism,” which “argues that God sees no sin in believers, because they are in Christ, who kept the law for them, and therefore what they actually do makes no difference, provided that they keep believing”; (4) “Dispensational Antinomianism,” which denies that in the “church age” believers are obligated to the moral law; (5) “Situationist Antinomianism,” which teaches that love is the only rule and that duties (not just their application) will therefore vary according to circumstance.

In my next post, I’ll explore some of the examples of these varieties of antinomianism—and false charges of antinomianism—as they have played out in church history.