I am thankful for the renewed focus on "the gospel" in so many of our churches and ministries today. We are once again seeking to plumb the depths of the gospel to see all the ways the work of Christ is our hope and salvation. Yet in the midst of all things "gospel centered" there has been some online debate between popular preachers concerning the gospel and the Christian life. Many of us have continued to have this discussion on and offline ourselves. At stake in these conversations are the relationship between the law and the gospel, the use of the law in the life of the Christian, the relationship between justification and sanctification, and the nature of assurance, to name a few.
To date my favorite book on this is Mark Jones' new work, Antinomianism: Reformed Theology's Unwelcome Guest?
Jones' Antinomianism addresses these central issues by walking the reader through the seventeenth century antinomian debates and providing careful biblical and theological teaching that cuts through much of the fog that has developed in the online discussions. Mark was kind enough to answer a few questions about his book. If you are unfamiliar with Pastor Mark he pastors at Faith Vancouver (PCA) and co-authored A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life with Dr. Joel Beeke. Puritan Theology was my favorite book of 2012, though I didn't finish it until late in 2013. Here's the interview.
Defining antinomianism is, as you explain in your book, a difficult task. Can you point out one or two aspects of antinomianism that you believe are dangerous to a healthy gospel and Christian life?
Like neonomianism, antinomianism is a complex theological phenomenon that has an important historical context. The dangers of antinomianism are many and varied, all inextricably intertwined, as is the case with all theological systems of thought. Two issues, in particular, perplex me:
1) Antinomian preachers have a certain hermeneutical grid in their theologizing. In their zeal to protect the doctrine of justification – a noble zeal in many respects – they end up making justification do all sorts of crazy things. So there are many passages (Matt. 5:20) where believers are wrongly told, “We can’t do that, but thanks be to Christ for fulfilling the law for us.” Moreover, contrary to “their principles,” Romans 8:4 refers to sanctification, not justification.
In a strange irony, I actually believe that antinomian preachers do more harm than good to the doctrine of justification, just as “neonomians” can do more harm than good to the doctrine of sanctification. Therein lies the danger to a healthy gospel.
2) Antinomianism is the acceptable sin. After all, the Apostle Paul was allegedly accused of antinomianism. Incidentally, I think that is an over-simplistic reading of Paul’s ministry, opponents, and redemptive-historical context. Nonetheless, it is not easy to critique preachers for “majoring” on grace too much. Personally, I don’t even want to attribute to others (of the antinomian tribe) the term “hyper-grace,” because I think classical Reformed theology is “hyper-grace” (e.g., Eph. 1) – though, I must confess that the phrase “200 proof undiluted grace” is rather unintelligible to me. Antinomianism steals the grace label from those who are classically Reformed, and they pervert grace to the point that they think they are the only ones who truly get the gospel. This is a clever rhetorical trick; but we don’t need to be fooled by it!
Can you explain what you mean when you wrote that the law of God is a means of sanctification?
We need the specific direction of the law. Paul makes that pretty clear in all of his writings, but a cursory glance at Colossians 3, for example, will prove that believers need specifics! As Anthony Burgess noted, God’s commands not only inform us of our duty, but are also “practical and operative means appointed by God, to work, at least in some degree, that which is commanded.” That is a striking statement.
Thus the preaching of the law is a means – not an exclusive means – of sanctification, just as the Lord’s Supper, for example, is a means of sanctification. One of Samuel Rutherford’s greatest complaints against the antinomians was their denial that the law is a true means of sanctification. There appears to be a modern rehearsal of the same error.
Do we really want to decry the need to be generous (8th commandment) or the duty to treasure our wife (7th commandment)? As Dick Gaffin states: the law to a Christian is our friend, not our enemy because God is our friend, not our enemy. Thus, we are not sanctified by faith alone. Rather, we are sanctified by faith, and that includes a number of means that God uses for the life of faith.
You argue that Christology is at the heart of the issues connected with antinomianism. Can you explain that a bit?
Warfield said something to the effect that after “Christ our Redeemer”, “Christ our Example” are the most precious words to a Christian. Every doctrine – not just some – must have a Christological basis. I try to spell this out in various chapters on rewards, good works, assurance, etc.
But having a “Christological basis” isn’t simply about recovering the “imitatio Christi.” What we find in the life of Christ is the example of the true religious life, par excellence. To what degree does our doctrine of salvation, particularly sanctification, reflect the life of Christ? In short, whatever is true of Christ becomes true of his people – the ordo salutis is actually first in Christ before it is in us!
So, on the thorny matter of assurance, I ask the question: “How was Christ assured of his Messianic calling?” (The answers to that question alone help us to understand how multifaceted the doctrine of assurance is). On the question of rewards, it is not enough to say that God does not need our good works. We need to ask what influence our good works have on Christ’s mediatorial glory, considered as God-man. Or, on the matter of God’s love towards Christians, can we please God more and more (and also displease him)? If Christ was able to please God more and more (Lk. 2:52 Jesus “grew in favor with God…”), then surely we are able to do so because of our union with him. This gets to the heart of the love of benevolence versus love of complacency distinction, which I discuss in the book.
In fact, recently, a well-regarded philosopher informed me that he’d never seen the distinction between the love of complacency and the love of benevolence applied in the way that I did in the book. Some trace its origin to Jonathan Edwards, but that is an area where, I’m afraid, Edwards was quite unoriginal.
Is there a popular level book that addresses this issue? Your book hits a lot of history and is technical (out of necessity), is there anything in print that might serve as a primer on the issue?
I tried to write a popular level book on this topic, but it ended up a little technical, I admit. The classic (popular) treatment that has been so influential upon me is Ryle’s book, Holiness. More recently, Kevin DeYoung’s book, The Hole in our Holiness, is a worthwhile read on this issue. But for every good book out there right now, there seems to be a plethora hopelessly confusing ones.
I highly recommend this book and hope you will pick up a copy. Read it with some friends and enrich those gospel conversations.