You Might Be An Antinomian (Or Maybe Not)

marrow-of-modern-divinityIntermittently over the last 30 years we’ve been discussing justification. It began when Norman Shepherd, who taught at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, proposed in class that sinners are justified through faith and works. He used that language. He used it in a required systematics course (on the application of redemption) and in a ThM seminar. Later, he revised his language to “faithfulness.” This debate raged within (and without) the walls of the venerable WTS, where he  was opposed by a minority of the faculty, from 1974 until 1981, when he was finally dismissed by the Board of Trustees (in a very close vote). He was proposing what we now know as the self-described “Federal Vision” theology: one is in the covenant such that he is elect, regenerated, united to Christ, justified, sanctified temporarily and conditionally. If the baptized person fulfills his part of the covenant by cooperating with grace, he retains those benefits.

Outside the walls of WTS most of the Reformed world lined up against Shepherd’s views and the debate went silent until he retired from pastoral ministry and began writing and speaking publicly again in the late 90s, when he resuscitated his positions for public debate. He re-stated them in The Call of Grace and that book helped to spur the formation by others, who had sympathized with his views, of the self-described “Federal Vision” movement, which was composed of thenomists and those influenced by Klaas Schilder (as Shepherd was), who shared his version of postmillennialism and others. The movement was a theological stew.

In the interim, between the Shepherd controversy and the Federal Vision controversy revisions of the Reformed doctrines of the covenant of redemption, the covenant of works, and union with Christ took hold. Distinctions such as that between law and gospel, which Mr Murray had defended heartily, came to be regarded as distinctively Lutheran. At the same time, in many places, the doctrine of justification was either ignored or  forgotten. The controversy between the “Free Grace” (antinomians) and “Lordship” advocates in Dispensationalism was used as a way to understand the same questions in Reformed circles, as if we hadn’t already confessed views on these questions or as if we were as disconnected from the history of the church as the evangelicals. The perceived and real moralism that developed produced, as it always does, an antinomian reaction.

Now, predictably, we have a reaction to antinomianism real and perceived. This is why I’ve been working through the Marrow of Modern Divinity on the Heidelcast. On one recent episode, I borrowed from Jeff Foxworthy, and proposed some indicators of nomism. If you’re not sure what that is, please listen to the series on nomism and antinomianism.

Recently, someone proposed a series of counter-theses, using the Foxworthy-esque rhetoric: “You might be an antinomian…” I agree with most of them, as those who’ve been listening to the series know. I have a little difficulty with a couple and I thought it would be worth considering them in more detail.

If you believe that God loves you and that your ongoing sin or your incremental obedience does not in any way affect God’s love for you, you just might be an antinomian.

This is debatable. The phrase “in any way” is ambiguous. Do we believe that when a Christian sins that God stops loving him? I doubt we want to say that. Does not Hebrews say that God chastens those whom he loves?

Can we say that God is displeased with us when we sin? Sure. This language, quoted above, however, seems like an over reaction to the antinomian notion that God cannot see our sins.

If you believe works are not necessary for salvation, you just might be an antinomian.

Here the term “salvation”needs to be defined. I think that we say as Protestants that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, don’t we?

The other ambiguity here is the preposition “for.” It is the case that believers will produce works. It is the case that good trees produce good fruit. It is the case that good works are a logical and evidentiary necessity. The denial of works as fruit or evidence would be antinomian.

This language, quoted above, however, could be interpreted to imply some sort of causal or even instrumental relation between works and justification. I doubt that is what the author intended but it isn’t very clear.

The word “necessary” is ambiguous. Necessary in what sense, in an instrumental sense or in an evidentiary sense? All Reformed theologians affirm the latter.

Salvation often means justification and sanctification. To be sure, sanctification involves effort and works are the fruit of sanctification. The word salvation, however, is frequently used among Reformed writers to mean simply justification. In that sense it would be quite improper to say salvation is by works or that works are, in that sense, necessary for salvation.

More than a few of our classic Reformed writers have said that salvation is “by grace alone.” I doubt that we want to dismiss those writers as antinomian.

If we consider salvation as deliverance by God from sin and death we still want to say it is by grace alone don’t we? Were the Israelites delivered from death, at the Red Sea, partly by their works?

Surely we want to agree that works are a product of our sanctification, which is wrought by the Spirit. There can be no question that Christians ought to do good works. The question is whether we may ascribe to them some instrumental role. I think we should agree with the Westminster Shorter Catechism:

Q. 35. What is sanctification?

A. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

Is anyone prepared to say that the Shorter Catechism is antinomian? That would be something to see. I don’t see anything here about the instrumental role of works. Further, I see that we confess that we “are renewed” and “are enabled” and that righteousness, that is sanctification, is the consequence of God’s working in us.

In the current discussion the pendulum has swung back toward nomism but in our attempt to respond to antinomianism let us not lose sight of the rest of what we believe. If we would read The Marrow again, we would see that Fisher recognized a difference between those who were accused of antinomianism and those who really were antinomian. We should do the same.

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  1. “He re-stated them in The Call of Grace and that book helped to spur the formation by others, who had sympathized with his views, of the self-described “Federal Vision” movement, which was composed of thenomists and those influenced by Klaas Schilder (as Shepherd was), who shared his version of postmillennialism and others. The movement was a theological stew.”

    Just to clarify..not all thenomists subscribe to FV. It is not a tenant of thenomy. I hate getting painted with a broad brush ( actually a Wagoner Power Sprayer ) :>)

    • I’m don’t think that’s what Dr. Clark meant (or what the language implied). All of those influenced by Schilder are not FV’ers either, as people like Wes Bredenhof in the Canadian Reformed Church can attest. He just meant that those that are FV’ers generally were theonomists and influenced, whether directly or indirectly, by Schilder.

      There is a connection there, but the categories are not coterminous.

    • Hi Ron,

      Agreed. There are theonomists (a whole denomination) that have repudiated the FV but the history of the two are intertwined. All theonomists are not FV but (virtually) all FV are theonomist.

      The connection with Schilder is via Shepherd and others who’ve been influenced by his revision of covenant theology. One of the first people to defend Shepherd was Jelle Faber, who taught at the CanRC seminary. Recently, as Wes has noted, three CanRC congregations spoke up at Synod to say, “We (the CanRCs) should not speak formally against the FV theology because we sympathize.” I think that sympathy has roots in and connection to Schilder’s revisions. He was accused by the Free Reformed theologian in the 40s of being an Arminian—a charge that I don’t think was correct but it does reflect how people heard Schilder’s theology. Schilder’s reaction to the Kuuyperians did help lay the groundwork for the FV, which is why they were attracted to his covenant theology and view o the church.

    • Dr. Clark this may be a bit tangential to the topic at hand, but what do you think of Wes’s attempts at rehabilitating Schilder for those concerned with FV errors? Or Dr. Kloosterman’s attempt to show that Schilder was basically Berkhoffian on the covenant?

      I appreciate that Schilder at least did make a distinction in covenant participation between the elect and non-elect in his vital/legal framework, but it still troubles me how his discomfort with the covenant of works seems to cause him to bring that works principle in the backdoor of the covenant of grace in how he describes what relating to the covenant in only a legal sense means.

      My wife was a member of the CanRC before we moved to Florida and so we’ve run into our share of Schilder fans (and FV sympathizers as well) and I never know quite what to make of him.

  2. Thanks Dr Clark. I find that the language that is often used implies that sanctification is instrumental in our salvation. Is this what is believed by many nomists or is it simply a poor use of language? I also find that certain preachers are targeted with the label “antinomian” because of what they “fail to say”…..I don’t know how you can make the charge unless you read every single thing a writer wrote. Anyway, I think your podcast series on this topic is very important and required listening for those concerned about this controversy.

    • Hey Scott,

      I enjoyed doing the interview. Thanks for having me.

      One way to avoid some of the traps into which we sometimes fall in these discussions is to distinguish between is and because or through.

      It is the case that the justified will be sanctified and the sanctified will produce good works or fruit. That’s not quite the same thing as to speak of salvation through works or salvation because of works.

      To be sure that I’m not confused or making up things I just did an electronic search of 483 English-language works that are classed as Reformed, Puritan, Anglican, Separatist, Presbyterian (i.e., the works are drawn from those categories). I searched for the English language phrase “good works for salvation.” That search produced no results. To make sure that I’m not missing anything, I did a second search of 472 Latin documents from the same range of sources and found no results. The Latin equivalent of “good works unto salvation” does not appear.

      This suggests to me that this language is not so deeply embedded in our tradition as to be obvious to anyone who knows just the least bit about Reformed theology.

      Paul says in Col 1:

      And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. (Colossians 1:9-10, ESV)

      He doesn’t make our salvation conditional upon works nor does he make works instrumental but he does urge us to conduct our lives in a way that is worthy of the gift that we have been given. I think that the Heidelberg Catechism’s “Guilt, Grace, Gratitude” structure captures Paul’s intent. Clearly there is a school of thought that is dissatisfied with the traditional Reformed Guilt, Grace, Gratitude approach. They argue that if we do not make works intrinsic to salvation (defined as justification and salvation) we make them a second blessing. I reply that there is a difference between fruit and a second blessing. We’re not GGG is not about blessings first or second but about good trees producing good trees producing good fruit. Building good works into salvation in the way proposed seems to be a form of rationalism: We’ll make obey by making their final state contingent upon their good works. That, of course, is the very thing against which the Reformation rightly rebelled.

      So, I go back to the distinction between “is” and “because” (or through).

    • On this matter, I’ve always like the conciseness of this article of the Church of England’s confession, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion:

      XII. Of Good Works.
      Albeit that Good Works, which are the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God’s judgment; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively Faith insomuch that by them a lively Faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit.

  3. I think hat’s very helpful. A good tree produces good fruit naturally. One doesn’t yell at the tree and say “produce!”. I agree: it is the building of good works into salvation (by the back door) which many do not recognize as being nomistic. A good read of “The Marrow” would do us all a lot of good. And, it was my pleasure having you on the podcast! Perhaps we can do it again. And I hope you get the GarageBand issue resolved..

  4. I think that’s very helpful. A good tree produces good fruit naturally. One doesn’t yell at the tree and say “produce!”. I agree: it is the building of good works into salvation (by the back door) which many do not recognize as being nomistic. A good read of “The Marrow” would do us all a lot of good. And, it was my pleasure having you on the podcast! Perhaps we can do it again. And I hope you get the GarageBand issue resolved..

  5. Well said Scott. The Reformed world seems awash with pastor/teachers who seem to say “I believe in justification, but….”. These men are gutting assurance with their hang-ups.

  6. I’ve heard some people say something like, “We are not saved by good works. They are the fruit of true faith. However, on the last Day, God is going to judge your good works to determine whether you had true faith or not.” So they can still say that good works are the “fruit” of true faith, BUT we better have enough good works to prove to God that we really did have faith.

    It seems, to me, like a sneaky way to smuggle works back into the equation for salvation…but what do you think?

    • Josh,

      Our justification will not be re-litigated at the last day. Believers have already been justified. “Having therefore been justified…” “There is now therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

      Spirit-wrought sanctity is fruit of justification, it is evidence but it is like a light switch. It is binary. Either it is or it isn’t. To introduce a quantitative question is to change the nature of justification.

      At the last day we shall be vindicated. That is why believers look forward to it.

      Article 37: The Last Judgment
      Finally we believe, according to God’s Word, that when the time appointed by the Lord is come (which is unknown to all creatures) and the number of the elect is complete, our Lord Jesus Christ will come from heaven, bodily and visibly, as he ascended, with great glory and majesty, to declare himself the judge of the living and the dead. He will burn this old world, in fire and flame, in order to cleanse it.

      Then all human creatures will appear in person before the great judge—men, women, and children, who have lived from the beginning until the end of the world.

      They will be summoned there by the voice of the archangel and by the sound of the divine trumpet. For all those who died before that time will be raised from the earth, their spirits being joined and united with their own bodies in which they lived. And as for those who are still alive, they will not die like the others but will be changed “in the twinkling of an eye” from “corruptible to incorruptible.”

      Then “the books” (that is, the consciences) will be opened, and the dead will be judged according to the things they did in the world, whether good or evil. Indeed, all people will give account of all the idle words they have spoken, which the world regards as only playing games. And then the secrets and hypocrisies of men will be publicly uncovered in the sight of all.

      Therefore, with good reason the thought of this judgment is horrible and dreadful to wicked and evil people. But it is very pleasant and a great comfort to the righteous and elect, since their total redemption will then be accomplished. They will then receive the fruits of their labor and of the trouble they have suffered; their innocence will be openly recognized by all; and they will see the terrible vengeance that God will bring on the evil ones who tyrannized, oppressed, and tormented them in this world.

      The evil ones will be convicted by the witness of their own consciences, and shall be made immortal—but only to be tormented in the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

      In contrast, the faithful and elect will be crowned with glory and honor. The Son of God will “confess their names” before God his Father and the holy and elect angels; all tears will be “wiped from their eyes”; and their cause—at present condemned as heretical and evil by many judges and civil officers—will be acknowledged as the “cause of the Son of God.”

      And as a gracious reward the Lord will make them possess a glory such as the heart of man could never imagine.

      So we look forward to that great day with longing in order to enjoy fully the promises of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.

      • Thanks for the response Dr. Clark. I agree, “To introduce a quantitative question is to change the nature of justification.”

        Considering the following quotes from John Piper, do you think he is doing this? Or am I just misunderstanding him?

        “The answer of the last chapter by itself does not account fully for Jesus speaking the way he does about doing the will of God. Jesus says that doing the will of God really is necessary for our final entrance into the kingdom of heaven.” (pg 160)

        “There is no doubt that Jesus saw some measure of real, lived-out obedience to the will of God as necessary for final salvation. “Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35). So the second historic answer to the question, how is Jesus the path to perfection? has been that he enables us to change. He transforms us so that we really begin to love like he does and thus move toward perfection that we finally obtain in heaven.” (pg 160)

        “We have seen that even though commandment-keeping will never provide a righteousness good enough to gain acceptance with God, nevertheless, the effort to do God’s will is essential.” (pg 162)

        “Third, notice what is at stake: hell. “It is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” Many Christians who love the truth of justification by grace alone through faith alone—which I love, and which I believe Jesus teaches (see Demand #20)—find it difficult to take these threats of Jesus at face value. But there is no way to avoid them. They are strewn throughout the Gospels, and they clearly imply that if we forsake the battle for purity, we will perish.” (pg 208)

        “If we do not have a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus says, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:20). Everything we have seen in this chapter shows that Jesus is not thinking here mainly of his own righteousness that is imputed to us. He is thinking of the kind of internal transformation and external application revealed in the following six antitheses of Matthew 5:21-48. How then do we enjoy security in Jesus when what he requires is real change of heart and real righteous behavior? I tried to answer this question especially in Demand #24. Indeed I am trying to give an answer to it throughout the book. So I close this chapter with another summary statement. Think of our sense of security—our assurance that we are going to enter the final manifestation of the kingdom of God at the end of the age—resting most decisively on our location in God’s invincible favor, but also on our behavioral demonstration that we are truly in that location.” (pg 208)

        “What God will require at the judgment is not our perfection, but sufficient fruit to show that the tree had life—in our case, divine life.” (pg 211)

        From John Piper’s book “What Jesus Demands from the World”

        Curious to hear your thoughts. Thanks!

        • If by his adjectival use of “final entrance” he means to imply a distinction between initial and final justification, I reject that distinction.

          I reject his teaching that, at the last day, we rest both in the finished work of Christ and in our sanctification.

          Piper has improved in re justification but his understanding of redemptive history was shaped by Daniel Fuller who was essentially a Baptist version of Norman Shepherd. Jonathan Edwards, who was at best ambiguous about justification, is another great influence. So, despite his recent improvements re imputation and his critique of the NPP, there may be remaining areas of unhappy influence and confusion. Certainly his claim that Reformed theology leads to the Federal Vision illustrates no little confusion about what Reformed theology teaches.

  7. I’m not sure how “in any way” is ambiguous. Its a universal negative, and includes *no* ways for God’s love to be affected.

    Saying “well, what about God *stopping* his love” seems non-responsive. The issue with the antinomian is he makes excessively broad claims (like “in no way is God’s love affected”).

    But there is no ambiguity to a universal negative. By definition.

    on necessity: would you agree that

    “we reject and condemn the following manner of speaking…that no one has ever been saved without good works; or that it is impossible to be saved without good works.”

    is a good summary of Reformed teaching on good works?

  8. This works for me:
    Eph. 2:4-9,
    but God, being rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace have ye been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us to sit with him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus: that in the ages to come he might show the exceeding riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus: for by grace have ye been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, that no man should glory.

    Our salvation is by grace, secured only by the work of Christ, received through faith apart from any works of our own.

    10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God beforehand prepared that we should walk in them.

    Yet we believers do indeed do good works which “do spring out necessarily of a true and lively Faith insomuch that by them a lively Faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit.”


    “In short, I affirm, that not by our own merit but by faith alone, are both our persons and works justified; and that the justification of works depends on the justification of the person, as the effect on the cause.” (John Calvin, Acts of the Council of Trent with the Antidote)

  9. You write: “”If you believe works are not necessary for salvation, you just might be an antinomian.” ….. The word “necessary” is ambiguous.”

    The word “necessary” is not ambiguous. To say that A is necessary for B means one thing and one thing only. Namely, it means that you cannot have B without A. There is absolutely nothing ambiguous about that. It couldn’t be any more precise.

    • The ambiguity lies in the intent. “Necessary” in what sense? If as ground or instrument, that is moralism/legalism/nomism. If as evidence, that’s perfectly true.

      Ps. Pseudonyms are not ordinarily permitted.

  10. On this article on Antinomianism.

    Let’s consider what is the Etymological root source of the word Antinomian. It’s a term used by Jesus in the Epistles as a heinous sin. (Matthew. 7: 23) “I never knew you; depart from me you that work‚ (Greek Strong # 458) ANTINOMIAN.”

    Now allow us to peel off the theological bark and shine the spot light on this ancient dogma to learn the bare truth of what Antinomianism is in the Greek Epistles (Strong # 458, 459, 560, Antanomia.) Yet, what does this term in the Bible really signify to be Greek Strong # 458, 459, 560, Antanomia i.e. Anomia, meaning Antinomian i.e. Antinomianism. As Jesus and others who spoke concerning Antinomianism again in the Epistles all were in relation to a public rebuke of sinful wickedness.
    Just look at one verse (Matthew. 7: 21-23) Who are those that find themselves expelled by Jesus.? ? ? Who are these people? ? ? The Antinomians being talked about here that call Jesus “Lord” and even do good works in His name.

    They expect to inherit eternal salvation, nevertheless find themselves expelled by Jesus from salvation.

    The Greek term in (Strong # 458, 459, 560, Antanomia.) used a singular “A” prefix letter to abbreviate for “no,” “not,” “without” or “ANTI.” “A” prefix letter attached to a Greek word gives the word a negative meaning, same as “A” prefix letter attached to English words as Amoral, Atheist, etc. The disposition exhibit in the meaning of this word is that those who consider themselves as antinomian are against the Lawgiver IE they are the anarchists of God’s Law. The Scriptural Law is the (Greek Strong’s # 3551 NOMOS.) Antinomianism is antithetical to the Lawgiver’s scriptural sovereignty.

    (Lev. 4:2) express this reprimanded sin as “Against the Commandments of God.” or Anti-commandments. The Torah (Hebrew Strong’s # 8451) signify the scriptural Law, is interchangeable with the (Greek Strong’s # 3551 NOMOS) and the Greek term “Nomos” is the word used by the ancient translators of the Septuagint to translate the Biblical Torah (Hebrew Strong’s # 8451) to the Greek Bible. As used in (Hosea. 8: 1) “They transgressed My covenant and transgressed against My law [Torah.]” As Hosea expression Against God’s “Torah,” is coined in the Greek by the word Antinomian.

    “Antinomian” has been alternative form of expression for over two millennia meaning against the scripture Lawgiver and His Law. It’s from the term in the Epistles {Greek Strong # 458, 459, 460, Antanomia i.e. Anomia.} As cited in (Heb. 1: 9) “Love righteousness and hate (G Strong # 458) ANTINOMIAN.”


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