Antinomianism

My friend Mark Jones has just written a very important book on antinomianism. The term “antinomianism” means “against the law” etymologically. However, as Jones points out, that may not always be a helpful way of describing the theological positions (which are not always very uniform). Jones carefully delineates the historical positions that were around at the time of the Westminster Assembly. It is very important to note here that antinomianism was one of the most important bogeymen of the Westminster divines. Jones ably shows this through the primary sources of the time (something of which Jones shows quite the mastery). Much of the book is taken up with this historical debate. Rightly so, for that debate in the 17th century has an enormous impact on how we define terms and categorize beliefs today.

Several other things are highly commendable about this book. Jones is an extremely careful, irenic author, always acknowledging where antinomians have said something that is true. I have noticed, and Jones agrees, that most of the time we and they (the antinomians) would agree about much of what they say concerning justification. Sanctification, of course, is where we would disagree.

His insights concerning Christology are worth the price of admission. I had connected antinomianism with a truncated view of grace, but I had not taken it back one further step to Christology, as Jones does. Antinomians do have a truncated view of grace. God’s grace is saving me not only from sin’s guilt in justification (here the antinomians would agree), but also from sin’s power in sanctification, and the latter grace is an enabling grace, unlike the former grace. But Jones takes it back to Christology: what about Christ’s ongoing work as our Mediator in heaven? Does He not view the sinner with great pity and compassion? Jones says that we should never confuse Christ’s procurement of saving benefits (redemption accomplished, also called “impetration”) with the application of those saving benefits.

The distinction Jones makes between the beneficent love of God and the complacent love of God is a vital distinction. The former means basically how God sees us in Christ in justification. The latter is how God sees sanctification progressing in us. The former admits of no degrees, but the latter does. The flip side of the coin is how God sees our sin. God can be displeased with our sin, not as a judge, but as a Father. This displeasure admits of degrees, while never attaining to the level of a judging condemnation for the Christian. The distinction Jones makes here, which is based on the Reformed fathers and, more importantly, Scripture, helps us to make sense of the biblical data.

Only a few very small things would I mention by way of criticism. They are mostly in the category of things that Jones mentions but doesn’t develop, and are therefore things about which I wish he had said more. One of them is something I heard Rick Phillips say at the Gospel Reformation Network conference two years ago, and which really shocked me when I first heard it, but which made a lot of sense after I thought about it for a while. Jones mentions it but doesn’t develop it, and it is this: a Christian is no longer totally depraved. If God has given that person a new heart and mind, giving them new life, then they are not just declared righteous in justification, but have the beginnings of a new way of life in sanctification. There is still indwelling sin, yes. There is still a lifelong battle, yes. But isn’t it such an encouragement to know that the Triune God has taken up residence in us? That place where God dwells in us in no longer totally depraved. Jones mentions it on page 129, but I would have enjoyed some development of that theme, especially in the historical theology.

The other thing that I wish he had done is to engage Westminster West’s theology a bit more directly. Jones has shown that he is very irenic, and is very concerned to be fair. This decision not to engage Westminster West feels like an intentional decision on his part. He talks about Michael Horton a bit. But we need writing on this subject that casts light and not heat on the subject. And when it comes to Westminster West, there has all too often been heat and not much light.

One tiny disagreement I have is with regard to the Horton/Garcia exchange in the Confessional Presbyterian Journal last year. Horton’s article was designed to address the hermeneutical issue of the law/gospel distinction in relation to reading Scripture. It was never designed to address the issues that are but tangentially related vis-a-vis legalism and antinomianism.

All in all, this is an extremely important and helpful book, and one cannot but agree with Carl Trueman’s assessment of this book as timely. In Jones’s effort to be irenic, he did not say that antinomianism is rife in the Reformed and evangelical world right now, but of course it is. This book is a very important corrective, and needs to be read, particularly by pastors. Pastors need to be very careful to avoid antinomianism and legalism. This book helps us to do that.

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