Monday, August 12, 2002


Martin Luther had a student named Johann Agricola, who, to Luther’s dismay, became a proponent of not “just” an erroneous doctrine, but a full-fledged heresy: antinomianism. This term, apparently coined by Luther, means anti-lawism. It arises, either from an honest misunderstanding of what the New Testament teaches about grace and the law or from a darker motivation: as a justification for a license to sin.

There is a happy ending, at least for Mr. Agricola: he eventually recanted his antinomianism.

The antinomianism manifesto is largely based on a misreading the book of Romans (which actually contains some of the strongest refutations of antinomianism). In chapter 6, we read:
For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace. (Rom. 6:14, NASB)
Antinomians take this to mean that the moral law of God is not applicable, not binding, and not relevant for Christians who, after all, are saved by grace and grace alone.

A bona-fide antinomian believes that you are actually free to sin because, after all, you are not under the law. This conclusion is so pathological that one must wonder if anyone actually believes it is what the Bible teaches. It is much easier to suspect that such a person is just looking for a justification of his sinful lifestyle.

The position opposite to antinomianism is legalism, which teaches that we must obey God’s moral law perfectly or nearly perfectly to obtain our salvation.

Both antinomianism and legalism misunderstand the relationship between grace and the law. I posted about the law recently and will try not to repeat myself. Except that I will borrow a few sentences from that post that summarize the purpose of the law to those under grace.

The law teaches us what sin is. And that we are sin. And so, being the antithesis of what we must be, we are hopelessly lost. We need a savior who can fulfill the law and then die, under no condemnation, and endure our punishment. We need Christ.

The fact that we are no longer under the law means that our salvation is no longer dependent on our hopeless attempts to obey it perfectly. Christ has done that on our behalf, but not so that we would then be free to revel in our lawlessness.

In this post I will just point out a few verses that are aimed squarely at antinomianism. Although Luther may have invented the term, antinomianism was already found in the early church.

In the book of Romans, Paul writes:
Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law. (Rom. 3:31, NASB)
If Paul, in Romans, writes as if anticipating the heresy, other New Testament passages attack actual early occurrences. In Jude, we read:
For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (Jude 4, NASB).
And Paul, writing to the Galatians:
For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. (Gal. 5:13, NASB)
There are many other passages warning us about antinomianism including the writings of John, Peter, and James. Clearly, God, understanding our depravity, knew that man would attempt to debase even such an amazing gift: which is God’s grace through Christ Jesus.

As a Calvinist and a firm believer in Justification by Faith Alone (Sola Fide), I am sensitive to the cavalier use of the accusation of antinomianism. It is a charge sometimes leveled against Reformed Christians by both Roman Catholics and non-reformed Protestants. Indeed, many people, upon hearing the basic ideas of Calvinism for the first time, reflexively equate it to antinomianism. A common initial response (usually spoken as if they are the first person clever enough to come up with the argument) is “I might as well do whatever I want, because I am either of the elect or not—let’s eat, drink, and be merry.”

Calvinism understands the purpose of the law in the life of the Christian. The Holy Spirit will give the elect the desire to obey the law and the ability not to sin. If you are willfully disregarding God’s moral law don’t take false comfort that Calvinism teaches you might be of the elect. You are lost and in need of repentance.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. I was raised catholic but went into a lutheran church not knowing that I was unconsciously antinomian. I was greatly disappointed to find out my mistake, since the means of grace didn't work on me, so I looked for a more liberal church. Because of extensive bible reading, I grew to believe salvation is impossible, or at least unlikely for me. I still keep looking, like a bad habit. 20 years of this garbage, and I still can't stand on my 2 feet.