Antinomianism has referred historically more to theory than to practice. For the most part, few of those suspected of this heresy have been charged with dissolute lives, although the concern is that an error in doctrine will inevitably work itself out practically.
During a time of intense controversy and division within Reformed ranks, the English Puritan Richard Sibbes said that “factions breed factions.” We are called to the peace and purity of the church, but when is the concern for peace a crutch for compromise, and when does our appeal to the church’s purity become a cloak for own pride and dogmatism?
Of course, we all say that we should find our unity around primary truth, but I know of no historical debate in which a partisan advocated schism in the name of “secondary matters.” Repeatedly these days, I hear church leaders dismiss important age-old debates because they are not “gospel issues,” as if we had not been commanded by our Lord to “teach them everything I have commanded you.” At the same time, some of the most divisive issues in our churches today concern matters not addressed clearly in God’s Word.
One issue, however, that is clearly addressed in Scripture is sanctification: the work of the Spirit through his Word in uniting us to Christ and giving us the grace to grow up into Christ, bearing the fruit of the Spirit. Given the centrality of justification to the Reformation debate, it is not surprising that Reformed, Lutheran, and other evangelical bodies are crystal clear on this point in their confessions and catechisms. In some circles, though, it is wrongly assumed in practice that our confessions aren’t quite as clear or as emphatic on sanctification. Reformation theology is great at defining the gospel, but when it comes to the Christian life, we need to supplement it with healthy doses of more “spiritual” or “practical” writers such as Thomas à Kempis, the Pietist Philipp Jacob Spener, John Wesley, or their contemporary voices.
In my view, this would be a tragic conclusion to draw. Before I make that case, however, it’s important to define the elephant in the room: antinomianism. After all, it’s one of those labels often thrown around carelessly today, as in previous eras. After defining it, I’ll offer some contemporary reflections by drawing on the rich summary of Reformed teaching on sanctification in the Reformed and Lutheran confessions. In conclusion, I will discuss sanctification and its relationship to the gospel.
Literally “against law,” antinomianism is the view that the moral law summarized in the Ten Commandments is no longer binding on Christians. More generally, antinomianism may be seen as characteristic of human rebellion against any external authority. In this sense, ironically, we are by nature antinomians and legalists since the Fall: rejecting God’s command, while seeking to justify ourselves by our own criteria. The modern age is especially identified by the demand for freedom from all constraints. “Be true to yourself” is the modern creed. The rejection of any authority above the self, including obvious biblical norms, is as evident in some denominations as in the wider culture. Antinomianism may also be understood in relation to its opposite, neonomianism, which is the view that the gospel is basically just a new law presenting new requirements for the Christian life, even necessary to win God’s favor.
In technical terms, however, antinomianism has referred historically more to theory than to practice. For the most part, few of those suspected of this heresy have been charged with dissolute lives, although the concern is that an error in doctrine will inevitably work itself out practically.
Antinomianism and Reformation Confessions
While there have been some true-blue antinomians in church history, the charge is often made by those tilting in a more neonomian direction against faithful, apostolic, evangelical preaching. For example, despite the fact that Lutheran and Reformed churches have gone on record against antinomianism in no uncertain terms, that has not kept them from being accused of holding at least implicitly to antinomian tenets. It is therefore important to appeal directly to the Reformation confessions of faith.
The Lutheran Confession
In his Small Catechism, Luther begins with the Ten Commandments, concluding, “God threatens to punish all that transgress these commandments. Therefore we should dread His wrath and not act contrary to these commandments. But He promises grace and every blessing to all that keep these commandments. Therefore we should also love and trust in Him, and gladly do [zealously and diligently order our whole life] according to His commandments.” Settling the controversies in its own circles, the Lutherans confess in the Formula of Concord (1577):
For especially in these last times it is no less needful to admonish men to Christian discipline [to the way of living aright and godly] and good works, and remind them how necessary it is that they exercise themselves in good works as a declaration of their faith and gratitude to God, than that the works be not mingled in the article of justification; because men may be damned by an Epicurean delusion concerning faith, as well as by papistic and Pharisaic confidence in their own works and merits. (IV.2)
After affirming the civil use of the law that curbs public vice, and the “elenctic” use of the law (viz., the law that drives sinners to Christ), Lutherans confessing the Formula of Concord defend the “third use”: Even after regeneration, Christians are not left to themselves but have the law as a fixed rule to regulate and direct their lives (VI.1). The following conclusions are worth quoting at length:
We believe, teach, and confess that, although men truly believing [in Christ] and truly converted to God have been freed and exempted from the curse and coercion of the Law, they nevertheless are not on this account without Law, but have been redeemed by the Son of God in order that they should exercise themselves in it day and night [that they should meditate upon God’s Law day and night, and constantly exercise themselves in its observance, Ps. 1:2], Ps. 119. . . . We believe, teach, and confess that the preaching of the Law is to be urged with diligence, not only upon the unbelieving and impenitent, but also upon true believers, who are truly converted, regenerate, and justified by faith (VI.2–3).
For although they are regenerate and renewed in the spirit of their mind, yet in the present life this regeneration and renewal is not complete, but only begun, and . . . [on account of this] it is needful that the Law of the Lord always shine before them, in order that they may not from human devotion institute wanton and self-elected cults [that they may frame nothing in a matter of religion from the desire of private devotion, and may not choose divine services not instituted by God’s Word]; likewise, that the old Adam also may not employ his own will, but may be subdued against his will, not only by the admonition and threatening of the Law, but also by punishments and blows, so that he may follow and surrender himself captive to the Spirit, 1 Cor. 9:27; Rom. 6:12; Gal. 6:14; Ps. 119:1ff ; Heb. 13:21 (Heb. 12:1) (VI.4).
Therefore, though it is sometimes alleged in evangelical circles that Lutherans do not believe in the “third use” of the law to guide the Christian life, the formula that shapes Lutheran theology and preaching rejects as an “error injurious to, and conflicting with, Christian discipline and true godliness” the view that this law is “not to be urged upon Christians and true believers” (VI.8).
The Reformed Confession
In the earlier Reformed confessions, the primary goal is to clear the evangelical doctrine of justification from the Roman Catholic (and Anabaptist) charge that it rejects any place for good works, rather than any direct threat of antinomianism within the ranks.
The Heidelberg Catechism begins its “Gratitude” section by asking why we should still do good works if we are justified by grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone. We do so “because Christ by his Spirit is also renewing us to be like himself, so that in all our living we may show that we are thankful to God for all he has done for us, and so that he may be praised through us. And we do good so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits, and so that by our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ” (Q. 86). Conversion involves repentance as well as faith: dying to the old self and living to Christ (Q. 87–90). What, then, defines a “good work”? “Only that which arises out of true faith, conforms to God’s law, and is done for his glory; and not that which is based on what we think is right or on established human tradition” (Q. 91).
This sets the stage for the catechism’s treatment of the Ten Commandments (Q. 92–113). “In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience. Nevertheless, with all seriousness of purpose, they do begin to live according to all, not only some, of God’s commandments” (Q. 114). The law must still be preached in the church for two reasons: “First, so that the longer we live the more we may come to know our sinfulness and the more eagerly look to Christ for forgiveness of sins and righteousness. Second, so that, while praying to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, we may never stop striving to be renewed more and more after God’s image, until after this life we reach our goal: perfection” (Q. 115).
The same view is found in articles 15–18 of the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles. However, the debates of subsequent decades brought refinement to the Reformed confession and finally appeared in sophisticated form in the Westminster Standards of Faith in 1647.
In the Westminster Confession we find the most mature reflection of Reformed churches on these questions. After a remarkably clear statement of justification, the confession treats sanctification, faith, repentance, and good works in chapters 13–16. Again, the Pauline emphasis on sanctification arising necessarily from election, effectual calling, justification, and adoption is evident.
Christ, “by his Word and Spirit,” destroys the dominion of sin, weakening and mortifying its desires while quickening and strengthening the new creature in “the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” (13.1). Though “imperfect in this life,” there arises “a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh.” Nevertheless, by God’s grace the saints will prevail (13.2–3).
Good works are those done according to God’s law, not human authority, zeal, or pious intention (16.1). They are “the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith” (16.2). Yet believers’ good works are by grace in Christ, through his Word and Spirit, “not at all of themselves” (16.3).
We cannot by our best works merit pardon or sin, or eternal life at the hand of God… [since even the best works of believers are still] defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment. Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works are also accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreprovable in God’s sight; but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections. (16.5–7)
Chapter 19, “Of the Law of God,” distinguishes clearly between the way the law functions in a covenant of works (promising life for obedience and threatening death for disobedience) and in the covenant of grace.
Although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned; yet it is of great use to them, as well as to others; in that, as a rule of life informing them of the will of God, and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly; discovering also the sinful pollution of their nature, hearts, and lives; so as, examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against sin, together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and the perfection of his obedience. (19.6)
Expanding on the law/gospel distinction that grounds it, the federal scheme (covenant of works/covenant of grace) is crucial for avoiding legalism as well as antinomianism.
Confessional Wisdom for Contemporary Debates
I have quoted Lutheran and Reformed confessions at length on this question, at least in part because I sense that in some circles today there is a dangerous tendency to rally around people, forming tribes around particular flags. Unchecked, this leads—as church history teaches us—to slander and schism.
There are several dangers to point out regarding this temptation to follow persons rather than to confess the faith together with saints across various times and places. There are personal idiosyncrasies attached to individuals, no matter how great their insight into God’s Word. With a clear conscience, Paul could tell the Ephesian elders that he had fulfilled his office, declaring to them “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). This is our goal, too. Paul’s message came directly from the ascended Christ, and yet his letters reflect the particular controversies, strengths, and weaknesses of the churches he served. His personality and emphases differed at times from those of other apostles, even Peter and James—sometimes to the point of sharp confrontations. Nevertheless, the Spirit brought a sweet unity to the apostolic church as it gathered in a representative synod of “apostles and elders.” In solemn assembly in Jerusalem, the whole church received its marching orders for the proper view and treatment of Gentile believers.
How much more, after the death of the apostles, is our Lord’s wisdom evident in the representative assemblies of his body? It’s interesting that at the Council of Jerusalem not even Peter was given precedence over the body. Not even Athanasius’s writings were made binding at Nicaea, and Reformed churches do not subscribe to anything written by Calvin. Jonathan Edwards did not sit at the Westminster Assembly. We are not obliged today to these confessions because of great persons, but because they are great summaries of God’s Word.
It can be as difficult for their followers as for prominent preachers and theologians themselves to submit to the consensus of a whole body rather than to promote their own distinctive teachings, emphases, and corrections. Those who were raised in more legalistic and Arminian backgrounds may be prone to confuse every call to obedience as a threat to newly discovered doctrines of grace. The zeal of those who are converted from a life of debauchery or perhaps from a liberal denomination may boil over into legalistic fervor. As at the Jerusalem Council, representatives came to Nicaea, Chalcedon, Torgau, Dort, and Westminster with idiosyncrasies. Yet they had to make their case, participate in restrained debate, and talk to each other in a deliberative assembly, rather than about each other on blogs and in conversations with their circle of followers. Muting personal idiosyncrasies in favor of a consensus on the teaching of God’s Word, these assemblies give us an enduring testimony for our own time. Nothing has changed with respect to how sinners are justified and sanctified. There has been no alteration of God’s covenantal law or gospel.
If the growing charges and countercharges of antinomianism and legalism continue to mount in our own circles, may God give us good and godly sense to recover the wisdom of our confessions as faithful summaries of biblical faith and practice. And may the Spirit direct us to the fraternal fellowship of the church’s representative assemblies for mutual encouragement and correction.
Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of the White Horse Inn, national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, The Christian Faith, and For Calvinism.
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