Antinomianism and the Modern Church

by Logan Bennett April 3, 2019

“The simplest way to think of antinomianism is that it denies the role of the law in the Christian life.”

Antinomianism may be an unfamiliar term in most 21st century churches, but antinomianism as reality is as present today as it was during the Marrow Controversy of the 1700s. The church has grappled with antinomianism throughout all of church history dating back to the early church when the apostle Paul was accused (falsely) of it himself. From personal experience, modern antinomianism seems to primarily manifest itself in three ways. My intention is to identify these three ways and dissect the mindset behind them. This is a popular list, not an exhaustive one. The following mindsets appear to me to be the three types of antinomians the church is most commonly confronted with today.

The Classic Antinomian

The classic antinomian is about as close to the textbook definition as you can get. The classic antinomian is often heard saying things like, “I’m forgiven anyway” or “God is loving and gracious - He won’t judge me” in retaliation to their sin being exposed. A distinguishing factor between the classic antinomian and the other two in this list is that the classic mindset pertains to all of the commands of God. The classic antinomian sees no reason to forsake sin because in Christ all sin is forgiven. The grace of Christ in his substitutionary death is not a motivation to flee from sin but as a license unto it. This comes as a result of a partial view of the cross. The antinomian does not see the message of the cross as a beacon of what sin brings communicating “Sin killed the Jesus. Turn and flee,” but primarily, and sometimes only, as a safety net that says, “Go ahead and jump in. Don’t worry, you’ll be caught.” 

The Why Not Now? Antinomian

The “Why Not Now? Antinomian” is unique in that it only applies to a specific category of sin. Sexual activity between males and females is sinful outside of marriage,[1] but within marriage, it is not. There is no other sin that becomes explicitly not sin in this same way.[2] Perhaps this uniqueness is what makes this mindset as common as it is. Antinomians who think this way often try and justify their sexual immorality by arguing, “We are in love, and we are going to get married anyway, so why does it matter?” The scriptural command that sexual acts belong between one husband and one wife is rejected and in its place the idea that “sexual acts belong between one man and one woman.” is accepted. The “why not now antinomian” thinks to himself, “if it is going to be okay one day, it can’t be all that wrong now.”

The Justifying Antinomian

The justifying antinomian is probably the most prevalent antinomian facing the church today. The justifying antinomian justifies certain sins on the grounds that committing “lesser” sins keep them from committing “greater” sins. Conversations confronting gossip and malicious speech, for example, are often combatted with, “I know I probably shouldn’t say this kind of thing about him/her, but it keeps me from public rage or physical violence.” On multiple occasions, I have sat down with young men who thought this way as well confessing to me that they found no reason to stop watching pornography as long as it kept them from having premarital sex. The justifying antinomian is like the “why not now antinomian,” in that they are both driven by the desire to keep grasping specific sin(s). They have frequent conversations with themselves like, “if this is the only real sin I commit, I must be good. In fact probably better than most.” – Which ironically sounds a lot like legalism. The justifying antinomian claims to use sin to kill sin; which is like having a home infested with poisonous spiders, so you release snakes into the house to kill them. Sure, you may not have to worry about spiders at the moment, but you aren’t any safer.

The Remedy

At the root, all forms of antinomianism are the same. The symptoms may vary to some degree, but the diagnosis is clear. The diagnosis is; a misunderstanding of the relationship between the grace of God and the law of God. In some capacity, all antinomians believe that upholding some part of God’s law – if not the whole of it – is not a binding requirement in the Christian life. Consequently, this means that the law can be transgressed. Sin is made acceptable because the grace that covers sin is believed then also to grant permission unto it.

The antidote is the understanding that, “…grace, not law, produces what the law requires; yet at the same time, it is what the law requires that grace produces.”[3] The law is God’s righteous standard. Sin is failing to uphold God’s righteous law. The law reveals sin and the need for righteousness.[4] Grace is Christ living a life fully upholding God’s righteous law and dying a substitutionary death in the place of His people. Christ takes all of our law-breaking and gives us all of His law-keeping, placing the Christian completely under Himself, grace. What is the proper biblical response to all of this? The apostle Paul answers this exact question in Romans 6.

So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

This is the biblical relationship between the law and grace. The law shows the need for grace, and what the law requires grace produces. These lyrics by Ralph Erskine beautifully capture how the role of law and grace coexist in the life of a Christian:

Thus gospel-grace and law commands

Both bind and loose each other’s hands;

They can’t agree on any terms,

Yet hug each other in their arms.

Those that divide them cannot be

The Friends of truth and verity;

Yet those that dare confound the two

Destroy them both, and gender woe.

To run, to work, the law commands,

The gospel gives me feet and hands.

The one requires that I obey,

The other does the power convey.

Notes

  1. ^ 1 Cor. 6:9, 15-18, 7:2; Eph. 5:3; Col. 3:5; Heb. 13:4.
  2. ^ There is an argument to be made for “murder” in times of war and self-defense. Is that taking of life considered “murder” or something else? Regardless, it is a different scenario requiring lengthier discussion elsewhere. 
  3. ^ Ferguson, Sinclair B. The Whole Christ: legalism, antinomianism, and gospel assurance: why the Marrow controversy still matters. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016. 160.
  4. ^ Rom. 3:20