Antinomianism has plagued Christianity for a very long time. In modern American evangelical history people might think first of the controversy over “free grace” within Dispensational circles, in which the advocates of “free grace” denied the abiding validity of the moral law as summarized in the Ten Commandments. More recently there is a genuine fear in NAPARC circles of a renewed antinomianism. There are genuine antinomians about still. I have had lengthy discussions with some who deny the abiding validity of the moral law and no matter how much evidence one amasses from the gospels and the epistles, they seem to know a priori (before they ever look at the evidence) that the new covenant is such that the Decalogue could not be the norm for the Christian life. There are other movements, e.g., the so-called New Covenant theology that are at least quasi-Antinomian, whose chief objection seems to be the abiding validity of the fourth commandment but whose explanation of the role of the moral law is virtually indistinguishable from that of the Antinomians who deny the abiding validity of the moral law. Our current discussions are nothing new. In earlier periods, as you can see, Samuel Rutherford (1600–61) opposed “familists” (a spiritualist sect in the early to mid-16th century that denied the visible church and its ministry) and the Antinomians and defended Martin Luther (1483–1546) from the charge of antinomianism—tragically too many Reformed folk today, who seem largely ignorant of Luther’s actual work, who rely on unsourced internet wizards, persist in describing Luther as antinomian. Roughly contemporary with the debates in the British Isles about the time of the Westminster Assembly, there were, in the American colonies, heated theological and political debates over the “free grace” teaching of John Cotton (1585–1652) and Anne Hutchinson (1591–1643). Of course, as already mentioned, Luther and Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560) opposed Johannes Agricola (1494–1566) as an antinomian. Indeed, the spirit of antinomianism goes back to the Gnostics and the Valentinians, who, like many of the early Anabaptists, denied the reality of Christ’s humanity and the reality of physical reality generally. The Gnostics used to say, “give to the flesh the things of the flesh and to the spirit the things of the spirit.” To the degree such a spirit-matter dualism and the attitudes of Anabaptists came to influence American evangelicals in the 19th century, to the same degree it has been affected by antinomianism.
The fundamental error of all the antinomians, whether from the 2nd century Gnostics, Agricola , Hutchinson, or some in the modern “free grace” movement has been their ignorance of or rejection of creation as a category of thought and as a pattern for life. I have yet to read or talk with an antinomian who understands or agrees that the moral law was given, in substance in creation, was re-stated, in substance, at Sinai, and continues in force, in its three uses today. They are not alone in this. Many ostensible adherents to the Reformed theology do not seem to grasp that the law did not first appear at Sinai and they react to the antinomians by insisting on a versions of continuity between Moses (the old covenant) and Christ as to blur the genuine differences. In some cases this leads to theonomy (the abiding validity of the Mosaic civil law contra Westminster Confession 19.4, in which the Reformed confess that the civil laws and punishments have “expired”) or to virtual Romanism (the new covenant sacrificial priesthood contra the repeated teaching of Hebrews that Jesus’ priesthood is superior and final and the sacrificial priesthood has expired) and to nomism (moralism), which teaches that believers are still under the covenant of works and that our justification and salvation are conditioned upon our personal obedience. If the law is grounded in God’s nature and if its substance was revealed first in creation as a perpetual pattern, then it does not begin with Moses nor rest upon Moses. Thus, even though Moses and the old covenant were temporary and even though the old covenant has expired, the moral law has not therefore expired.
In contrast to antinomianism, the confessional Protestants affirm the abiding validity of moral law not as a covenant of works but as the moral and ethical standard for the Christian life. The confessional Protestants distinguish between the way believers are no longer under the law (for justification and salvation) and the way the law continues to function as the norm for the Christian life. Paul says in Romans 7:1–2 that, we have died to the law as the way of salvation and justification. He does not say that the law no longer norms our life. Indeed, he says the exact opposite in vv. 5–7. Believers, united to Christ by grace alone, through faith alone, by the Spirit, are no longer under the law for acceptance with God. In that sense we have been “released from the law” and are no longer under “the written code” but it is quite mistaken to conclude from those phrases that the law no longer norms our life. Paul appeals to the law as our norm repeatedly. The commandment that promised life to me under the covenant of works condemned me because I did not keep it (vv. 10–12). The law is good and spiritual (Rom 7:14). I am sinful and a slave to sin. The law is good and holy: “For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being” (Rom 7:22; ESV). This is the confession and struggle of the believer.
In Heidelberg Catechism 114 we confess:
114. Can those who are converted to God keep these commandments perfectly?
No, but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience; yet so, that with earnest purpose they begin to live not only according to some, but according to all the Commandments of God.
We are not perfectionists because we do not minimize the effects and consequences of the fall. Neither do we minimize the righteousness and holiness demanded by God’s law. “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the book of the law” (Deut 27:26; Gal 3:10). The law does not say, as some in the self-described Federal Vision teaches: do your best and God will impute perfection to your best efforts. As we saw last time, he demands perfect, personal obedience. We are not perfectionists because we do not imagine that we can obey God’s law sufficiently for justification or salvation. Such a notion is a direct assault on the perfection and finished work of Christ for us who believe.
Remember, we are in the third part of the catechism. Salvation and justification are by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The question is, since we have been saved, since we have \been justified freely, how do we respond? We respond by living in union and communion with Christ, by seeking to obey God’s holy law. The law teaches us the greatness of our sin and misery (Rom 7:7). Even in its third use it continues to teach us our inability (more about that under Heidelberg 115). Nevertheless, because we have been redeemed by God’s free grace, we have been freed (see Romans 6 and 8) to serve him, in the Spirit, as living sacrifices (Rom 12:1–2), to manifest the marks of a Christian (Rom 12:9–21), to submit to divinely ordained authorities (Rom 13:1–7), to fulfill the moral law:
Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law (Rom 13:8–10.; ESV).
These hardly read like the words of one who has abandoned the substance of the Ten Words as the standard for the Christian life.
Paul was not a Gnostic, a Valentinian, an Anabaptist, a Familist, nor an Antinomian. He was a sinner saved and justified freely through faith alone, a Christian living in union and communion with Christ, seeking to bring his life into conformity to all of God’s holy moral law.