What About Antinomianism?

The second appendix to our Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) book […]

Mockingbird / 10.21.15

The second appendix to our Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) book addresses a popular (religious) objection to its contents:

There’s an accusation which sometimes gets leveled against those who stress Christian freedom and forgiveness in lieu of behavior-modification, and who downplay ‘spiritual progress’ as a burdensome distraction from the indiscriminate compassion of grace. The charge is that such people denigrate God’s law, or cast it as ‘bad.’ The formal name for this charge is ‘antinomianism’ (anti=against, nomos=law). The common picture of the antinomian is someone who thinks that, because of Christ’s forgiveness, they can (and will) do whatever they want: self-indulgence, sexual deviancy, substance abuse, lewd music, and the like. A few points to make:


1. If you’re not being accused of antinomianism occasionally, you’re probably not preaching the Gospel. St. Paul himself had to answer criticism on precisely this point.

2. Paul evidently thought a lot about the antinomian gripe, and responded in no uncertain terms: “Should we continue in sin that grace may abound?,” he imagines a satire of his message going. “By no means!” he replies. “How can we who have died to sin go on living in it?” (Rm 6:1-2). To the extent that we have died to sin, it’s simply impossible to go on living in it. Of course, none of us have died to sin entirely, or even mostly.

3. Which is why antinomians (in the hedonistic sense) don’t really exist. The specter of a depraved hedonist sustained by a fervent belief in the Gospel is just that, a specter—there aren’t real people who live that way. There may be real people who use forgiveness as an excuse to keep on doing bad stuff—but if there are, it’s not as though the gospel of behavior-modification would’ve gotten them in the church’s door instead. In fact, their self-indulgence itself is often a response to the law rather than a (fictional) disregard of it, rebellion and conformity being flip sides of the same coin (see also: Fight, Flight and Appeasement). As John D. Koch and Simeon Zahl wrote:

“Martin Luther once made a remarkable comment about antinomianism. He called it a drama put on in an empty theater. What he meant essentially was that antinomianism doesn’t really exist. That is, sure you can say you are an antinomian, and you can have behavior to match, but no one can ever really be free of the Law like that. It is built into the world, built into our lives. No one can outrun every ‘ought,’ however much they might like to, not even the most libertine of us all. This is why antinomianism has been called an ‘impossible heresy.’”

4. The true antinomian is the one who tries to distort the Law. The one who reads “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48) as “Do your best, that’s all anyone can ask.” Or who read “Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor” as “Tithe ten percent” or “Contribute what you reasonably can.” The very people who accuse others of antinomianism are usually the ones who are themselves denigrating the Law. Because if you want measurable spiritual progress or spiritual accomplishment, you’re going to have lower God’s standard quite a bit.

5. The antidote to antinomianism, therefore, is not to sell people on linear, measurable sanctification, but to preach the Law in all its fullness. The condemning voice of conscience should not be smoothed over by developing good habits, but should be echoed in the pulpit and taken to its extreme, as Christ does in Matthew 5. The only genuine way to relate to the Law is to be utterly condemned by it. Anything less—including using it for exhortation—risks real antinomianism.

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