Mark Jones On Antinomianism

From the pen of Mark Jones in his new book Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest?:

Perhaps the defining issue between the orthodox and the antinomians was not whether the moral law plays a role in justification coram Deo, but whether the moral law has any positive role in the salvation of believers. Or so the argument goes. Writing against the antinomians, Henry Burton (1578–1648) claims that they deny any use at all of the moral law: “They allow the law no further use, than as to be a School-master to bring us to Christ, and then farewell law.”85 They not only commit sins of omission, but heighten the problem by railing against ministers who “press the duties of sanctification.”86 Interestingly, Burton adds: “I should not have believed there had been such mouths of blasphemy in the world, had not mine ears been witnesses of them.” Como agrees that, from this perspective, the use of the law, while still of some value to the believer, is “primarily negative.”88 For the antinomians, the law “served, in short, to remind them how lucky they were to be free of it.”89

As is often the case in debates of this nature, the orthodox faced an almost insuperable problem, namely, that the antinomians spoke out of both sides of their mouths. A close reading of antinomian writings from the seventeenth century shows that they were not always clear. Ambiguity was a hallmark of their utterances on the law, and they lacked the sophistication found in the writings of men like Sibbes, Goodwin, and Owen. In fact, Ernest Kevan castigates the antinomian Robert Towne for speaking with “two voices” and notes how “exasperating” his arguments are.90 So when pressed on the issue, many antinomian theologians did not utterly reject any use of the moral law. But the accent in their preaching and writing was decidedly negative when speaking about the law’s role in the life of the believer. As Bozeman observes, “If they did not reject outright law’s claim to rule the saints, they did largely ignore it.”91 Como likewise suggests that what “was important was not so much what Eaton, Towne and other imputative antinomians said, but what they left unsaid, or rather, what they communicated through subtle and implicit cues and hints.”92

If believers keep the law, the antinomians said, it is simply because they are so enamored with their free justification. In their view, a true apprehension of free justification causes believers to do good works without any coercion from the law itself. So, in the words of John Eaton (1574/5–1630/31), believers who truly understand their free justification will walk in the steps of Abraham, “whereby like Abraham without the Law of the ten Commandments, we walk holily, soberly, and righteously in all God’s Commandments declaratively to man-ward, being zealous of good works.”93 Eaton does not deny that Christians will live “righteously,” but he goes against the orthodox when he claims that the commandments are unnecessary for holy living. Moreover, Eaton, like many of his antinomian contemporaries, speaks of keeping the law only in reference to mankind, not to God. Law keeping for the antinomians has a horizontal focus, and not also a vertical focus in terms of our duty toward God. The notion that “God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does” was taken in an absolute sense by the antinomians, who typically missed the obvious Christological point about Christ’s ever-increasing glorification as the God-man.94 In the end, Como’s analysis of the antinomians is correct when he suggests that “despite their occasional suggestions that believers were to continue to make use of the Law, their deeply negative portrayal of the Decalogue . . . in fact invited listeners to reject the Commandments more decisively.”95 Thus, the use of the written law in sanctification was typically rejected by antinomian theologians, and their own rhetoric concerning the law was typically negative.*

Law as Law

What role, if any, does the law play in sanctification? Again, this question needs to be clarified. It does little good to claim, as many antinomians did, that the law does not give “ability” to perform the commands. This misses the point of the debate, for no one would have said that the law acted as “the wind behind the sails.” At stake is the question of how precisely the law does or does not aid the sanctification of the believer. The differences between the antinomians and the orthodox on this question are addressed in the minutes of Session 699 of the Westminster Assembly:

Resolved upon the Q.: ‘neither is it an evidence that a man is under the law and not under grace, when he refrains from evil and does good, because the law encourages to the one and deters from the other.’ Resolved upon the Q.: ‘but rather a signe of the power of God’s grace in him, when the heart is subdued conscientiously to live according to the rule, though in things contrary to the dictate of corrupt nature, from the consideration of God’s goodness in rewarding freely those that do well, and of his justice in punishing them that do ill.’96

These words are clearly behind WCF 19.6, where it is said: “So as, a man’s doing good, and refraining from evil, because the law encourageth to the one, and deterreth from the other, is no evidence of his being under the law; and not under grace.”97 Most antinomians were of the view that Christians obey the law out of gratitude for all that the triune God has done for them. But Reformed theologians, while agreeing that gratitude is a motive for obedience, insisted on the necessity of law keeping because of the Creator-creature distinction (WCF 19.5). Not only can man not escape the obligation to keep God’s law, but man’s decision to keep God’s law because it is God’s law is in fact a sign of grace, not a sign of being unconverted or having a legalistic spirit, as the antinomians argued. Attached to God’s law are threatenings and promises, which are legitimate reasons why a Christian should keep the moral law.*

*Jones, Mark (2013-11-10). Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? (Kindle Locations 739-746, 746-767, 767-772, 772-791). P&R Publishing. Kindle Edition.

About lalvin1517

I'm married with two children and pastor McCall Baptist Church in McCall, Idaho.
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