Book Review: Antinomianism, by Mark Jones
Mark Jones, Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? P&R, 2013. 176 pages. $14.48.
Would you recognize antinomian theology if you heard it? How about if you preached it? Almost anyone who moves in Reformed Christian circles, whether traditional or young and restless, knows that antinomianism is supposed to be a bad thing. Yet judging by the little attention paid to it, many don’t seem to view it as a major threat.
I suspect that most of us would consider legalism a much weightier accusation than antinomianism. Indeed, we might even wear the charge of antinomianism as a badge of honor. After all, didn’t people hurl this same accusation at the apostle Paul (Rom. 3:8; 6:1)?
It seems that for many contemporary pastors, antinomianism is like smallpox: extremely dangerous, but thankfully rare in our day. After all, how many people really teach that Christians don’t have to obey Jesus?
In his book Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest?, Mark Jones seeks to persuade you that antinomianism is more prevalent than you think. As Reformed theology’s unwelcome guest, it springs up like tares wherever sovereign grace is rediscovered and proclaimed. And according to Jones, the contemporary Reformed resurgence is no exception to this pattern. As a historical theologian, Jones wants you to recognize antinomianism when you hear it—whether in podcasts, blog posts, or in your own sermons. By the time you’re done, you may realize that you’re more antinomian than you think.
In case you are skeptical about that last sentence, let me give you a rapid-fire summary of the errors that characterize antinomians. Remember, these are what Jones considers errors, which he proceeds to critique.
Antinomians downplay Christ’s role as our example for godliness (ch. 2). They “insist that true sanctification is nothing but believing the gospel more and more” (27). They teach that Christians obey the Law “only because they are so enamored with their free justification” (34). They effectively deny the need for specific moral exhortation in the Christian life—though when pressed, they will usually concede key points, only to revert to their imbalance once the pressure is lifted (128). They believe that the gospel is synonymous with justification (40). They posit an absolute distinction between law and gospel, in which the law does nothing but threaten and the gospel does nothing but promise (50).
Antinomians also struggle with the idea of God rewarding good works, viewing rewards as a poor motivation for obedience (72). They argue that our obedience or disobedience does not affect God’s love for us in any way (84). They base assurance solely on justification, and deny that believers should ever draw assurance from their spiritual fruit (98). They often speak as though they are the only ones who understand grace, and disparage as legalists those who criticize them (ch. 8). Their sermons tend to all sound the same, because they have a “sort of ‘systematic theology’ that they need to declare every Lord’s Day” (118).
Feeling antinomian yet?
For preachers, one of the attractions of antinomianism is its simplicity. Yet Jones highlights that this simplicity owes to reductionism. Whether the question is “Does my disobedience affect God’s love for me?” or “Should I look within for assurance of my salvation?” antinomians tend to give overly simplistic answers that leave gobs of Scripture unaccounted for.
God’s love gets reduced to his unconditional regard, to the eclipse of his Fatherly displeasure. Sanctification is reduced to getting used to your justification at the expense of Spirit-driven obedience to God’s commands. Like Unitarianism, antinomianism is much less complicated than orthodoxy, but it fails to do justice to all the biblical data.
A key example of this is the antinomian focus on justification. Jones remarks, “In their yearning to give assurance of salvation to their people, they stripped away a number of biblical truths and attempted to give justification by faith an all-controlling place in the life of the Christian” (127).
We must reckon with the pastoral implications of this issue. An antinomian-style focus on justification will undercut biblical self-examination. Believing that “gospel = justification” will lead you to look upon any kind of fruit inspection as a form of “grace-plus” legalism.
We must also reckon with the exegetical implications. Antinomians tend to make justification their “only or governing hermeneutical principle” (41). This will lead us to take texts dealing with practical holiness and force them into a forensic mold.
Test yourself here with Psalm 24:3-4. Question: who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? Answer: he who has clean hands and pure heart. Is your first instinct to exclude everyone but Jesus from this description? That’s not what the psalmist does (v. 6)! Try Matthew 5:20 and Hebrews 12:14 as well. The problem with antinomians is not their belief in justification through imputed righteousness, but their propensity to read it into texts where it isn’t found.
OVERSIMPLIFYING GOD’S LOVE
Few questions are as pressing for Christians as “Does God’s love for me change when I disobey?” The antinomians’ answer to this sensitive question is another instance of well-intentioned reductionism.
Antinomians argue that our behavior has no effect on God’s love. But Jones demonstrates that the biblical teaching isn’t that simple. It’s true that, at one level, God’s love for his people is unconditional—it doesn’t depend on anything we do. Theologians have referred to this as God’s love of benevolence. Nevertheless, at another level, Scripture clearly affirms that God’s love for his people (including Jesus!) is affected by their behavior (see especially John 14:21-23, 15:10; Jude 21; cf. Luke 2:52; John 10:17). Theologians have referred to this as God’s love of complacence.
Here Jones takes aim at the only contemporary writer whom he explicitly charges with antinomianism: Tullian Tchividjian. Commenting on Tchividjian’s approach to this question, Jones states:
Tullian Tchividjian’s book Jesus + Nothing = Everything lacks the theological framework to deal with Christ’s words in John 14:21, 23 (and 15:10)….His book fails to distinguish between God’s love of benevolence and his love of complacence. Moreover, he often states things as either-or, when in fact, the doctrine in question is more both-and….Of course, one hyperbolic statement here or there…should not evoke harsh criticism…But his whole book is one lengthy antinomian diatribe, and it bears a striking resemblance to the content and rhetoric of 17th century antinomian writings.” (90-91; cf. 116, 128).
Some may think this last sentence constitutes guilt by association. But the association only brings guilt if the 17th century antinomians were wrong. Tchividjian’s readers must compare his theology with that of Tobias Crisp, John Eaton, and the like to see if he shares their emphases. And we must compare them all with Scripture to see if their emphases are healthy. More than that, we need to ask, “Does my theology have a place for John 14:21-23 and 15:10?”
JESUS, THE WHOLE JESUS, AND NOTHING BUT JESUS
What solution does Jones offer us to this antinomian reductionism?
Jones argues that instead of making justification or assurance or even grace central to salvation, Scripture makes Christ central. When Christ is made central, salvation can be rightly seen not primarily as justification, but as union with the whole Christ. Union with Christ in his life, death, resurrection, and session offers a more robust view of salvation than antinomianism ever could. In Christ, God both justifies and transforms us.
What is the solution to antinomianism? Not more imperatives, but a “Reformed understanding of Christ’s person and work” (xvi). Jesus is not only a priest to be trusted, but also a prophet be heeded and a king to be obeyed. Jesus not only demands a righteousness surpassing that of the scribes and Pharisees, but gives what he demands—not only by imputing it to us, but by putting his Spirit within us, and causing us to walk in his statutes (Ezek. 36:27; Rom. 8:4). This, too, is the work of Christ, and the cure for antinomianism.