This is not the first time and will not be the last that I give public thanks for our brother Jason Hood. Jason is an unusually thoughtful man who serves as scholar-in-residence at a church in Memphis, having competed a doctorate in New Testament at Highland Theological College. I rejoice that he and I are on the same team. Jason, bless you, and thank you for your recent contribution to Christianity Today.
Because we are brothers, I am loathe to lock horns. Because I love the gospel, I am willing to do so. Because you love the gospel, I know that you will receive it with your usual humility and wisdom. Because I respect you and want to honor you as my brother and fellow soldier in the greatest fight, I pen this response to you rather than about you.
Jason, your concern is one I share—alarm over widespread apathy in the pursuit of “personal and corporate holiness.” You desire to see a recovery of “self-denial and cross-bearing, holiness and purity.” First in my own life, and second in the lives of Christians and Christian leaders, especially in my generation (I am 32), I sometimes look around and wonder: Whatever happened to holiness? What has become of single-minded, sacrifice-at-all-cost communion with God and earnest cultivation of a soul alive to God? What does it mean when, in the name of gospel “freedom,” unhelpful and soul-withering habits are encouraged and embraced?
In this and so many other ways, I stand with you.
But it is one thing to identify a problem and another to articulate its cause (or one of them). And I believe that the approach you take in your essay undercuts the very holiness you long to see in the church today.
Will you reconsider, brother?
Legitimate Charges or Straw Men?
Your main difficulty, it seems, is the sentiment that an allegation of antinomianism is a salutary sign of gospel faithfulness. You rightly note that Martyn Lloyd-Jones and others have suggested that if one is not misunderstood to be promoting antinomianism, then one is likely communicating a less-than-biblical gospel. You disagree. You believe that we ought not to see a charge of antinomianism as a “barometer useful for determining whether the atmosphere of one’s ministry is adequately pressurized by grace.”
I’m tempted to stop and address several peripheral issues. For example, is heresy (doctrine that damns) a sage choice of words in your essay? Where, exactly, are the “young pastors convinced that the ministerial task does not include the instruction of God’s people in law or righteousness”? Are there really that many who think that “one should not lay great stress (particularly in pulpit ministry) on the pursuit of holiness”? Who in the young Reformed crowd thinks Paul “teaches that recipients of grace are free of obligation with respect to love, good works, or effort”? Are such descriptions straw men? Are the charge of antinomianism and refutation of that charge mutually exclusive, as your last paragraph suggests?
But I pass on such matters to say just one thing: The gospel of grace is so radical, so free, so counterintuitive, so defiant of all the entrenched expectations of our law-marinated hearts, that it would be surprising indeed if our preaching of this gospel is not met with the objection anticipated by Paul—“are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace?” (Rom 6:15; cf. 3:8; 2 Pet 3:15–17). The question is not whether Paul stood squarely opposed to “lawlessness” (your definition of antinomianism). On this you and I (and Paul, and Lloyd-Jones) are happily agreed. I am puzzled at the need you feel to explain at length that Paul opposed lawlessness. Of course he did.
The real question is not whether Paul opposed lawlessness, but (1) why the charge of antinomianism was raised in the first place, and (2) how Paul handled it. As for the first question, surely the answer is the sheer gratuity—the puzzling, head-scratching, wonder-producing scandal—of free forgiveness won for us by another. Forgiveness not only of our rotten badness but also our rotten goodness. Forgiveness that confounds the inveterate semi-Pelagian simmering within every human heart since Genesis 3.
You underscore the way Paul vociferously refuted antinomianism, as if this refutation deflates Lloyd-Jones’s suggestion that charges of antinomianism may be compatible with gospel faithfulness. Yet the question here is not whether Paul rejected antinomianism. He most certainly did. The question is why he addressed it at all as a possible misunderstanding. No one is disputing that Paul rejected lawlessness. Nor is anyone denying that Jesus, Paul, and the whole Bible call God’s people to a life of radical obedience and holiness.
The Real Crux
The next and most important question, then, is how this radical obedience and personal holiness are to be encouraged. And here we come to the real crux.
You wrote that we live “in a restraint-free culture dominated by Eat, Pray, Love spirituality and Joel Osteen-grade theology.” I am as averse to such things as you are. But there are two ways to seek to redress this.
One way is to balance gospel grace with exhortations to holiness, as if both need equal air time lest we fall into legalism on one side (neglecting grace) or antinomianism on the other (neglecting holiness).
The other way, which I believe is the right and biblical way, is so to startle this restraint-free culture with the gospel of free justification that the functional justifications of human approval, moral performance, sexual indulgence, or big bank accounts begin to lose their vice-like grip on human hearts and their emptiness is exposed in all its fraudulence. It sounds backward, but the path to holiness is through (not beyond) the grace of the gospel, because only undeserved grace can truly melt and transform the heart. The solution to restraint-free immorality is not morality. The solution to immorality is the free grace of God—grace so free that it will be (mis)heard by some as a license to sin with impunity. The route by which the New Testament exhorts radical obedience is not by tempering grace but by driving it home all the more deeply.
Let’s pursue holiness. (Without it we won’t see God: Matt 5:8; Heb 12:14.) And let’s pursue it centrally through enjoying the gospel, the same gospel that got us in and the same gospel that liberates us afresh each day (1 Cor 15:1–2; Gal 2:14; Col 1:23; 2:6). As G. C. Berkouwer wisely remarked, “The heart of sanctification is the life which feeds on justification.”
Jason, if we are accused of antinomianism and our response is a nod and a glib smile, then Paul has something scathing to say to us (Rom 3:8b). There is such a thing as antinomianism. And it is a tragic underestimation, not overestimation, of grace. And, with you, I want nothing to do with it. But if we are accused of antinomianism and our response is Romans 6—which does not retract Romans 1–5 but presses it home even further—then we may be comforted that we are following in the footsteps of the apostle, and that our ministry is “adequately pressurized by grace.”
I close this response with a double-prayer, brother—that you and I will be given grace not only to see truth but also to admit where we may have things out of alignment. I invite your correction, and long to be of one mind with you, so that we may both turn once more to direct our efforts at winning the lost, fighting the good fight shoulder-to-shoulder, pursuing personal holiness, taking up our crosses, preaching a radical gospel, and rejecting antinomianism—of which, with Paul, we will surely be accused.