Gospel Grace, the Pursuit of Holiness, and the Charge of Antinomianism

By Justin Taylor

Last week there were a number of posts in the Reformed blogosphere about the charge of antinomianism (literally, that which is anti-nomos, against law).

Here is an exchange worth highlighting:

Jason Hood started it off with a CT online article entitled “Heresy is Heresy, Not the Litmus Test of Gospel Preaching.”

He describes the problem he is addressing:

Antinomianism is lawlessness, believing and teaching an obligation-free version of Christianity. In certain quarters of the evangelical world, being accused of antinomianism is increasingly considered to be a symptom of a healthy ministry. This belief has a long pedigree; no less an authority than Martyn Lloyd-Jones believed there was “no better test” of gospel fidelity than the accusation of antinomianism.

And his conclusion summarizes his argument in response:

We should strive to avoid the charge of antinomianism. And if Paul is our model, if such charges ever do come they must be refuted with the strongest language and clearest corrections possible. They should not be met by a nod and a checkmark on our fidelity chart.

Brief responses were written by Michael Horton (excerpt: “What’s striking is that Paul answers antinomianism not with the law but with more gospel!  In other words, antinomians are not people who believe the gospel too much, but too little!  They restrict the power of the gospel to the problem of sin’s guilt, while Paul tells us that the gospel is the power for sanctification as well as justification.”) and Tullian Tchividjian (excerpt: “The issue is not whether obedience, the pursuit of holiness, and the practice of godliness is important. Of course it is. The issue is how do we keep God’s commands?”).

Dane Ortlund gave a more direct response. Agreeing with Hood that antinomianism is antithetical to biblical Christianity, Ortlund focuses on two ways to avoid it:

One way is to balance gospel grace with exhortations to holiness, as if both need equal air time lest we fall into legalism on one side (neglecting grace) or antinomianism on the other (neglecting holiness).

The other way, which I believe is the right and biblical way, is so to startle this restraint-free culture with the gospel of free justification that the functional justifications of human approval, moral performance, sexual indulgence, or big bank accounts begin to lose their vice-like grip on human hearts and their emptiness is exposed in all its fraudulence. It sounds backward, but the path to holiness is through (not beyond) the grace of the gospel, because only undeserved grace can truly melt and transform the heart. The solution to restraint-free immorality is not morality. The solution to immorality is the free grace of God—grace so free that it will be (mis)heard by some as a license to sin with impunity. The route by which the New Testament exhorts radical obedience is not by tempering grace but by driving it home all the more deeply.

Let’s pursue holiness. (Without it we won’t see God: Matt 5:8; Heb 12:14.) And let’s pursue it centrally through enjoying the gospel, the same gospel that got us in and the same gospel that liberates us afresh each day (1 Cor 15:1–2; Gal 2:14; Col 1:23; 2:6). As G. C. Berkouwer wisely remarked, “The heart of sanctification is the life which feeds on justification.”

Jason, if we are accused of antinomianism and our response is a nod and a glib smile, then Paul has something scathing to say to us (Rom 3:8b). There is such a thing as antinomianism. And it is a tragic underestimation, not overestimation, of grace. And, with you, I want nothing to do with it. But if we are accused of antinomianism and our response is Romans 6—which does not retract Romans 1–5 but presses it home even further—then we may be comforted that we are following in the footsteps of the apostle, and that our ministry is “adequately pressurized by grace.”

In his surrejoinder, Hood zeroes in on the model of sanctification required to refute antinomianism:

There’s certainly some truth to what Ortlund says. Joyfully remembering our justification and forgiveness are important tools in holiness. But it’s not the approach to sanctification modeled by Paul, which is why it is hard to be consistent with that model. (Admittedly he only lays his version out briefly.) Shouldn’t that tip us off that the approach of “sanctification by justification” Ortlund holds out as the only biblical approach to sanctification does not fully reflect Paul’s approach to sanctification?

If so, aren’t effort and action central to sanctification? Isn’t exhortation to holiness vital? Why are these things—for new creation believers with new life and new ability—not all gracious gifts from God?

Some of my Reformed brothers and sisters do not know that they can please the Lord (1 Thes. 4:1; Rom. 8:8-9), or be holy (2 Cor. 7:1; or as Ortlund notes, that we will not see God without being holy and pure), or that religious acts are acceptable to God, not something to repent of (Jas. 1:27, Acts 10:4). In both his Romans and Ephesians expositions, James Montgomery Boice calls this “The New Humanity.” But too many Reformed people I meet think that they are no different from unbelievers. They sadly do not know what Murray, Packer, and Ferguson taught us, and what broader evangelicalism celebrates: regeneration and the power of the Holy Spirit in believers.

Ortlund gets the last word in the exchange, and he begins by summarizing the many ways in which they agree, and focuses on what appears to be the heart of their disagreement:

You want to call people to holiness, as the new creatures they are, and bring them into a deep awareness the gospel of grace. I want to call people to holiness, as the new creatures they are, by bringing them into deeper and deeper awareness of the gospel of grace. You believe “effort and action [are] central to sanctification.” I believe the gospel is central to sanctification, and that effort and action are neither central nor optional (optional = antinomianism) but integral.

The rhythm of the New Testament is “walk in love as a response to how deeply you are loved in Christ.” “Be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Eph 5:1). In a nutshell: if the imperatives of Scripture are extracted in preaching without being self-consciously placed within their (heart-transforming) indicative framework, then such bald imperatives will invariably devolve into a counterproductive reinforcement of the Pharisee lurking in every human heart—even the regenerate human heart.

For the regenerate, holiness has taken on a strangely attractive hue, for God is now our loving Father, not our wrathful judge. We now delight in the law in a way we never did (never could) before. But the law itself remains impotent to generate this holiness. The law can guide us, but not propel us. It is a steering wheel, not an engine.

I wish all online debates could be this thoughtful, respectful, and productive. Click on their names above if you want to read the full posts.

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