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Holiness Wars: What Is Antinomianism?

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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.

Tagged in: antinomianism Holiness

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  • [...] Mar.23, 2012 by Michael Horton in General Chris Jager asked a good question in response to the first post in this series and I thought it was important enough to explore in more than a couple of lines. He asks: Also, is [...]

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  • [...] Part 1: Holiness Wars: What Is Antinomianism? Part 2: Holiness Wars: Antinomianism in Church History Part 3: Antinomianism and Reformed Confessions Part 4: Sanctified by Grace [...]

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  • [...] What is antinomianism? [...]

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  • I've listened to the WHI series on Antinomianism and read this blog as well. Both are extremely helpful in my struggles as a Southern Baptist pastor who is also "young-restless-and-reformed". This discussion has led me to ask the question, "Is the Decisional Evangelism that is so prevalent in Evangelicalism simply a form of Neonomianism?" I have a personal history with this question, as I have struggled in how to lead my congregation out of a mentality that "walking the isle" is equivalent with being saved. In fact, just yesterday one of my parishioners texted me to ask for scriptures pertaining to "what to do to accept Jesus as savior." He was trying to lead his wife to confess faith in Christ, and he wanted to know what steps she must go through to properly accept Jesus. This is seems to be just another work, a new law. And, as good Southern Baptists who have had our categories thoroughly confused over the years as we have moved from Calvinism to Arminianism, we maintain that once someone walks that isle or "decides for Christ", he is always saved. But, because of our decisional theology, many pastors (even some that I meet with regularly) are questioning "once saved always saved" because they can't reconcile it with their "new work". They ask, "If someone decides to follow Jesus, can they not also decide not to follow him anymore?"

    In this environment, communicating the fact that salvation is by faith alone - and that faith is a gift of God - is difficult. Scripture plainly teaches that believing the Gospel, not deciding for it, is where salvation is found. No one "decides" to believe something. Either you do or you don't believe it. One is led to believe (John 6:37,44), and this leading is a work of the Spirit (John 3:1-8), not a work of the man (John 1:12-13).

    So, I guess I pose this as a question for further discussion. Is "Decisionalism" a form of neonomianism? It seems to have that smell, since it is actually a form of teaching, not just what we do in practice.

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  • Guest - PAUL

    Chris asked: Isn’t true sanctification produced through the hearing of the gospel?

    I know your question was asked over a year ago but I hope responses are tied to your email. If any teacher, leader , pastor or what ever answers your question with any thought of how they may be viewed by the “we need to do our part” world then there is room for debate. If there is any part of the Christian life that is active by us, then the debate will rage on about how much is enough, are we doing enough, and then crescendos to maybe your really not a true Christian. Oh Boy, does satan have a field day with that one. My wife and I listened to a sermon from Tullian T just last night that answers your question perfectly. You can find it at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale FL. Go to sermons and find the sermon Glorious Impossibilities #9.
    Listen, I financially and prayerfully support both White Horse and Pastor Tullian’s Liberate ministries but even that is not active. Those works are simply organic fruit that come from being overwhelmed by the Gospel.

    Romans 8:30
    Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.

    Romans 1:17
    For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed--a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: "The righteous will live by faith."

    If any of this Christian Life depends on us, then the debate of how much is enough will rage on. But if we rely solely on Christ’s passive and active obedience, then we can just be branches that enjoy the fruit that grows organically and effortlessly.

    Yours truly,

    Paul, a riff raff that got off scot free.

    God Bless

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  • Guest - PAUL

    Notify Me.

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  • [...] duties (not just their application) will therefore vary according to circumstance. - See more at: Holiness Wars: What Is Antinomianism? - White Horse Inn Blog Soli Deo Gloria "After all, there is a Protestantism still worth contending for, [...]

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  • Guest - Jack

    The Etymological root of the Antinomian

    Consider this Hebraic term used by Jesus in the Epistles as his condemnation. (Matthew. 7:23) "I never knew you; depart from me you that work‚ (Greek Strong # 458) ANTINOMIAN."

    Let us peel off the theological bark and shine the spot light on this dogma to learn the bare truth of what ANTINOMISM in the Greek Epistles really means. In Greek one can use a singular “A” letter to abbreviate for “ANTI.” The two things exhibit in the meaning this word: [1] Those who accept antinomian are Against IE Opposing God’s Law in (Greek Strong's # 3551 NOMOS.)

    (Lev. 4:2) to express “Against the Commandments of Yahweh.” or Anti-commandments. Along with the (Hebrew Strong's # 8451) Torah IE Law, is the equable of the (Greek Strong's # 3551 NOMOS.) As the Hebraic term used in (Hosea. 8:1) “They transgressed My covenant and transgressed against My law.” Against the Yahweh Covenant and Torah,” or AntiTorah IE Antinnomian. The word coin for against the scripture Lawgiver and His Law is “Antinomian” from the Hebraic term in the Epistles {Greek Strong # 458 Antanomia i.e. Anomia.} (Heb. 1:9) “Love righteousness and HATE ANTINOMIAN.”

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  • [...] In the course of a discussion with some awesome guys on Facebook, this article by Michael Horton was referenced: http://www.whitehorseinn.org/blog/2012/03/20/holiness-wars-what-is-antinomianism/ [...]

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  • Guest - Donald

    The laws of "God" are truly, "Love Laws." True love is an outgoing concern & caring for other people AND "God." This is summed up in the 10 Commandments. "God" hates ALL workers of iniquity, so it is written in, Psalm 5:5. Since "God" hates ALL workers of iniquity, I don't believe we are instructed to love THOSE kind of people. Pray for them, yes indeed, but to love workers of iniquity does not make sense. These "workers" will always use the Bible to allegedly prove we are commanded to love sinners, aka workers of iniquity. "God" does love "repentant" sinners, but not sinners who refuse to repent, aka workers of iniquity. Why does Yeshua/ Jesus, SAY, DEPART from ME all you workers of iniquity, I NEVER knew you? I tell them the SAME thing except I say, I don't want to know anymore about you,I know enough. People who love God's Laws understand this. The abolished law advocates disagree. So if YOU disagree with this message, YOU are a antinomian & practice & promote antinomianism.

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