by Richard Brooks
The Present Confusion
‘Antinomianism - one of the greatest curses conceivable!’ So asserts D M Lloyd-Jones. But what is ‘antinomianism’? The word itself was first coined, I understand, by Luther. It is derived from the Greek, ‘against law’ or ‘anti law’. By ‘law’, the reference is to the moral law (the ten commandments, or Decalogue). And the crux of the matter has to do with ‘the third use of the law’.
The ‘first use’ of the law is to convict of sin and drive the repentant sinner to the Lord Jesus Christ;
The ‘second use’ of the law is to restrain lawlessness in society;
The ‘third use’ of the law is to function as the rule of life for the believer. One of the most famous statements of this comes from the Puritan Samuel Bolton in his The True Bounds of Christian Freedom — ‘The law sends us to the gospel for our justification; the gospel sends us to the law to frame our way of life’.
Is the moral law the rule of life for the believer?
It is this question — Is the moral law the rule of life for the Christian or is it not? — around which antinomianism revolves, and has always done so. Is the moral law (to quote Calvin) ‘the perfect rule of conduct’, or is it not? Are the ten commandments for today, or are they not? And this bears, necessarily, upon the wider question: what is the nature of the continuity/discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments?
To that basic question, as just stated, ‘Is the moral law the rule of life for the believer?’, the antinomian says ‘no’. Antinomians consider themselves to be taking a biblical stance. They do not ordinarily set out deliberately or deceitfully to be unbiblical. But they inevitably end up being just that. They misunderstand and misapply certain key Scripture texts (which we shall consider more closely in the second article). Such texts include: ‘For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ’ (Jn. 1:17); ‘for ye are not under law, but under grace’ (Rom. 6:14); and Christ’s own words, ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil’ (Mt. 5:17).
Types of Antinomianism
There are countless different ‘branches’ of antinomianism, but we are safest and clearest sticking to two basic varieties: ‘practical’ and ‘doctrinal’, to which must be added, in addition, the particular dimension presented by New Covenant Theology.
In brief summary:
Practical antinomianism holds that since salvation is entirely of grace and cannot be lost once it has been received, then why bother about keeping the commandments? So you have the cycle of sin, forgiveness; sin, forgiveness, and so on. This is the classic heresy Paul was dealing with in Romans 6, from those who urged continuance in sin so that grace may abound. In our own day, this is not unrelated to the false teaching that it is possible to separate the acceptance of Jesus as Saviour from the acceptance of Him as Lord.
Doctrinal’ antinomianism wants nothing to do with that, but argues that the way to growth in grace, promotion of sanctification and holiness of life is not by keeping the commandments. It is the work of the Holy Spirit; we must walk in the Spirit.
New Covenant Theology drives a wedge between the Old and New Testaments, insisting that we are ‘New Testament Christians’, our relationship with codes of law is over and done with, and what we need is to follow ‘the law of Christ’. In other words, we must go straight to the New Testament.
Seeds of Antinomianism
Let it be understood straight away: it will be found that the major casualties of antinomianism are the honour of God (most important of all), and then, following on from that, holiness of life and the fourth commandment. John Murray has written: ‘In the denial of the permanent authority and sanctity of the moral law there is a direct thrust at the very centre of our holy faith, for it is a thrust at the veracity and authority of our Lord himself’. That is why the matter is so serious.
The ‘seeds’ of antinomianism are found in biblical times, indeed right from the very start. If anything is as old as the hills, this is. There was an incipient antinomianism even in the garden of Eden. Why? Because the devil is an antinomian. Remember what he said to Eve: ‘Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?’; and again, ‘Ye shall not surely die’ (Gen.3:1,4). It was there in Exodus 32:7-8, in the business of the golden calf. The book of Judges is characterised by it, as, one generation after another, ‘every man did that which was right in his own eyes’ (Judg. 21:25). It surfaced in Jeremiah’s day (Jer. 7:9-10). There is a hint of it in John 12:34. And several of the New Testament epistles testify to the early church being riddled with the curse of antinomianism in various ways (see, for example, Romans 6:1, Philippians 3:19; 1 Corinthians 5:2 and various statements in 2 Peter and Jude).
Following these beginnings, it took off through the years, all of which is well documented, but cannot detain us here. Our concern is with the contemporary debate of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Some of the leading contributors
In order to have as clear a view as we can of the present confusion, it is important to let some of the leading contributors to it be ‘heard’ in their own words. This the remaining part of the first article, will seek to do. In the further article a compact scriptural answer will be provided to the antinomians.
John Reisinger. He is one of the major exponents of New Covenant Theology. One of the chapter headings in his book Tablets of Stone is this: ‘The Tablets of Stone, or Ten Commandments, as a Covenant Document, Had a Historical Beginning and a Historical End’. He writes: ‘The Bible always considers the Tablets of Stone [i.e., ten commandments] as the specific covenant document that established the nation of Israel as a body politic at Mount Sinai’. ‘The Scripture nowhere states or infers that we are to think of the Tablets of Stone as “God’s eternal unchanging moral law”. We are always to think “Old Covenant”.
Michael Eaton. ‘Christians are in no way under this tyrannical figure, the law’ (Westminster Record). ‘If you walk in the Spirit deliberately you will fulfil the Mosaic law accidentally’ (How to Live a Godly Life).
R.T. Kendall. ‘The moral law is not the Christian’s code of conduct, for true godliness is never to be achieved by being under the moral law. It will make you a legalist — long-faced, grouchy, without joy or peace’ (sermon preached at Westminster Chapel). He claims that the Law of Christ is ‘a much higher law than the moral law, far more demanding. It presents a far greater challenge than the moral law, which is really the easy way out. It’s just so easy to keep the moral law and hate the Law of Christ’ (Westminster Record).
Gerald Coates. ‘When the believer properly fulfils the royal law of love for God and neighbour, he renders the law obsolete’ (What on Earth is this Kingdom).
Peter Meney. The editor of New Focus strenuously refutes any accusation of antinomianism, in the light of some editions of the magazine having ‘questioned the emphasis in some quarters on the ten commandments and their role in the life of a believer’. He writes: ‘... despite rumours to the contrary we regard the law of God to be holy, just and good’. He urges ‘that Christians are not duty bound to the ten commandments’ but that ‘it does not follow that there are no objective laws, or rules for Christian living. There are. For these we enlist all of Scripture as our final authority and inerrant guide, interpreted and displayed in the life and teaching of our precious Lord Jesus and his apostles’. ‘We believe in the unconditional acceptance of a sinner with God on the sole basis of Jesus Christ’s blood and righteousness without reference to works and acts of obedience on the part of the believer. We believe that this assurance, personally received, is the only effective motive for holy living’.
Don Fortner. ‘Those who tell us that believers are under the law as a rule of life have a hard time proving their position from the New Testament. This is because every statement about the believer and the law in the entire New Testament asserts exactly what Paul says in Romans 6:14 — “ye are not under the law”!’
‘If you are a believer, if you trust Christ, you are not under the law for justification, for sanctification, for holiness, or for any other reason. This is the teaching of the New Testament. It is simply wrong for Christian ministers and teachers to bind believers to the law as a rule of life and conduct’.
‘The believer’s rule of life is not one section of Scripture but the whole revealed will of God in holy Scripture’. (Taken from items on the New Focus website).
‘The law of God is holy and just and good. But it becomes a very great evil when it is perverted and used for something other than its divine purpose ... The law of God has but one singular purpose. It exposes man’s guilt before God, shutting him up to faith in Christ alone for salvation ... To use the law for any other purpose is to pervert and abuse the law ... When true love reigns in the heart there is no need for law’.
‘Not only is it unwise, it is a sinful practice, contrary to the faith of the gospel, for a believer to make the law a basis for his life before God’. (Grace for Today).
Edgar Andrews. ‘As regards sanctification, the law can be accorded no special place today in the life of the believer, that is, no place over and above [his emphasis] the rest of Scripture. To suggest that the ten commandments are in some special way the Christian’s rule of life does an injustice to the whole body of New Testament teaching on Christian conduct’. Commenting on Galatians 5:18, he writes: ‘Had Paul intended to teach that the law, or any part of it, should be the Christian’s rule of life, here was his opportunity to do so. What does he say? He tells us that those led by the Spirit are not beholden to the law with respect to righteous living. Indeed, he seems to go further; being led by the Spirit and being ruled by the law are mutually exclusive in the area of Christian conduct’, (Welwyn Commentary on Galatians).
Christopher Bennett. ‘The Mosaic law was an expression of God’s holiness in terms of Israel, one nation long ago, and in terms of the people of God in their immature state before Christ came. It is fulfilled by Jesus, both in his life and death, and in his teaching and that of the apostles’. ‘The law of Moses, including the ten commandments, is not the direct set of regulations for the Christian — we are not under it any more. Instead we are obliged to obey Jesus’ commands, the “law of Christ”. (Article in Foundations: Not under law, but not without God’s law).
These flavours should be sufficient to show us which way the wind is blowing in some ‘evangelical’ quarters. It does not make attractive reading. So with the foregoing in mind, we shall seek to bring a response.
A Biblical Response
It is necessary now to make a biblical response, touching upon certain key texts that are essential to our subject. This we shall do by giving attention to five important areas.
The famous passage in question is Jeremiah 31:31-34. For our purposes the question is this: when God says in verse 33, ‘I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts’, to what ‘law’ does He refer? To the moral law i.e., the Ten Commandments (Decalogue)? And if not, to what?
This is where New Covenant Theology has lots to say. It proceeds along these lines. Along with the new covenant comes a new law which is higher and more spiritual than the law of Moses. This equates to ‘the law of Christ’ which is mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:21 and Galatians 6:2. So the law written on the heart (Jeremiah 31) is not the same as the law of Moses. Consequently, the Decalogue cannot function as a unit under the new covenant, for, it is argued, ‘ten commandments’ equals ‘old covenant’.
What do we say in response to this? We agree with Richard C. Barcellos (In Defense of the Decalogue), who writes: ‘The law under the new covenant is God’s law ... This promised blessing of the new covenant of the law written on the heart is to be enjoyed by the whole new covenant community . . . God is both the author of the law itself and the one who writes it on the heart’. He concludes: ‘The text of Jeremiah clearly assumes that the law of God under the new covenant is referring to a law that was already written at the time of writing of Jeremiah . . . Jeremiah clearly teaches that the law of God under the new covenant is a law that was written on stone by God and that will be written on hearts by God’. In other words: identical law. The law was first written upon tables of stone, whereas the great work of the Holy Spirit is to write it upon the table of the heart.
We must insist, moreover, that the Decalogue does function as a unit in the New Testament. Very instructively, Barcellos, in his extended treatment of 1 Timothy 1:8-11 (which begins with the apostle’s statement, ‘But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully’) shows how the Decalogue as a whole is reflected there, and quotes Patrick Fairbairn that all the vices of verses 9-10 ‘admit of being ranged under the precepts of the two tables’. The point is this: the moral law is the fundamental law for all mankind in every generation, not just for some in a limited historical season.
2. Christ’s fulfilling of the law in Matthew 5
The familiar passage is 5:17-20; in particular Jesus’ claim about having come to ‘fulfil’ the law. By ‘the law’ and ‘the prophets’ taken together we are to understand the entire Old Testament.
The antinomian position here is to assert that Jesus is declaring the law null and void for his people. They will have nothing more to do with it, for He will fulfil it for them. It is a thing of the past, since He has come.
However, this forgets certain vital things, or ‘conveniently’ puts them on one side. Things such as these:
i) The classic distinction that is often (and rightly) made between the moral, civil and ceremonial law. The ceremonial law had to do with the religious worship of Israel (and was filled abundantly with types and shadows pointing forward to Christ, types and shadows which he indeed fulfilled in His life, death, resurrection and so forth). The civil law was given to Israel as a theocracy (and while many of its principles still apply, the civil law as such no longer does). Yet, in contrast, the moral law (ten commandments) is laid down for all ages. It is (observes John Thackway) ‘for Christians the perfect summary of all the truth of God for our life and conduct — a miraculous compression of everything that God wants of us and gives us grace to fulfil’. He adds, ‘the moral law remains the only standard of righteousness acceptable to God — it is the transcript of His moral nature’.
ii) The fact that the Lord Jesus Christ actually states that he has not come to ‘destroy’ (abrogate, do away with, declare obsolete) the law. He upholds it rigorously, and speaks in very solemn tones of any ‘who shall break one of the least of these commandments’; they ‘shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven’. In contrast, ‘whosoever shall do and teach them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven’.
iii) The Lord Jesus Christ (whose law, after all, this is here, for there is no distinction between ‘the law of God’ and ‘the law of Christ’: they are the same thing) asserts the unchanging and abiding status of the Decalogue: ‘For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled’. In other words, it remains authoritative until the age to come; it has a permanent and honoured place under Christ’s Lordship until His second coming.
iv) His repeated ‘For I say unto you’, as His exposition of the divine law proceeds in Matthew 5, gives His corrections of the false position of the religious teachers, His returning of His hearers to the original intent of the law, and His opening up of the spiritual heights, lengths, breadths and depths of the law (concerning, for example, murder/hatred, adultery/lust and so on) that is, the spirituality of the law, not some supposed correcting, adjusting or abandoning of that law itself.
Bringing together the teaching of Jeremiah 31 and Matthew 5, it is worth quoting Thomas Manton: ‘If the law might be disannulled as to new creatures, then why doth the Spirit of God write it with such legible characters in their hearts? . . . Now that which the Spirit engraves upon the heart, would Christ come to deface and abolish?’
3. Paul’s teaching in Romans 6
One of the most crucial texts in our interaction with antinomianism must be Romans 6:14: ‘For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace’. The moment some folk spot ‘not under the law’ and ‘but under grace’ they become very excited. ‘There it is’, they cry; ‘What more is there to be said? We’re finished with the law. It’s redundant. We’re Christians now — we’re under grace. Being under the law would be a backward step and take us into legalism’.
But not so fast! Is that what Paul is actually saying? Not at all! Often it is only the second part of the verse that is quoted. But there is a whole Romans 6:14, and each of the two parts begins with a ‘for’: Verse 14a: ‘For sin shall not have dominion over you’. That is a statement of fact, not an exhortation. On account of our justification we have been brought out gloriously from the dominion of sin. Not that we are without sin (we know our own hearts); but we are no longer under sin’s dominion, curse, bondage or thumb.
Verse 14b: ‘for ye are not under the law, but under grace’. John Thackway again: ‘not under law as a covenant of works like Adam was; keeping the law cannot now justify us; we won’t be condemned for falling short of it; we’re now under grace, the covenant of grace, for our hope and eternal life’. Yet does that make us lawless? Absolutely not! We have been freed to love and to obey the divine law. As Christians we remain under solemn obligation to keep the law of God. Yet a vital difference applies. We now have the power of Christ by the Holy Spirit within us to do so.
In the light of Romans 6:14, compare ‘delivered from the law’ (Rom. 7:6), ‘dead to the law’ (Gal.2:19) and ‘free from the law’ (Rom. 8:2)
4. Christ and Moses in John 1
A further important text is John 1:17: ‘For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ’. People get up to all sorts of mischief and confusion with this and come out with things like: Moses didn’t teach truth, only Jesus did; Moses didn’t know anything about grace, only Jesus did; Moses/Christ, law/grace, law/Gospel are in conflict with one another, enemies not friends, and have no mutual relationship. All erroneous assertions! Concerning Moses and Christ, Ernest Reisinger comments: ‘It is impossible to tarnish the glory of the one without dulling the lustre of the other’. Concerning law and grace, and law and Gospel, those living in the ‘New Testament age’ can see deeper into the law and deeper into the grace of God in the Gospel than could many of the Old Testament saints. Let let us never forget that many of them (not least Abraham, Moses himself, David and Isaiah) could see a very long way!
John 1:17 expresses not a conflict but a comparison. The law established grace and serves the Gospel, rather than opposing it. Certainly many contrasts between Moses/ Christ, law/grace and law/Gospel can quite properly be drawn. But remember Paul in Romans 3:31: ‘Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid; yea, we establish the law’.
5. The status of the fourth commandment
A tendency of both antinomianism and New Covenant Theology is, quite arbitrarily, to remove the fourth commandment from its nine other companions and argue that it no longer applies. As a result, ‘Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy’ (Ex. 20:8) comes in for its own separate treatment.
They urge that the Sabbath was an essentially Jewish institution, that in the New Testament the keeping of special days is looked upon negatively, and that the Lord’s Day is mentioned only once (Rev. 1:10 — unconnected to the fourth commandment and without any specific directions as to how the day should be observed). It will be seen that they do not accept the principle of ‘the day changed but the Sabbath preserved’ and reject an Old Testament Sabbath/New Testament Lord’s Day tie-up.
Once again, how do we respond? We do so by making points such as the following:
So then: are the Ten Commandments for Christians today? Indeed they are. As Jonathan Bayes puts it: ‘They sum up the life of holiness to which we are called. They are the channel for the Spirit’s sanctifying power.
Let the Lord Jesus Christ himself have the last word. ‘If ye love me, keep my commandments’ (Jn. 14:15).
Richard Brooks is the Pastor of Stanton Lees Evangelical Church, Derbyshire, England
With permission from “The Free Church Witness”, January 2005.
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