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What is Antinomianism and who teaches it?

Steve Furtick used a bad sermon analogy, saying ‘God broke the Law for love’. Blogs have come out about it. At this point it is unclear to me if this is a case of sloppy sermonizing or bad theologizing (the two are not always the same). Let’s assume it’s the latter. At the very least let’s use this as an opportunity to clarify how we speak of the Law, since we are all capable to sloppy analogies.

For context, the two blogs I would recommend are from Jared Wilson and Tim Challies. Jared doubles down on the the problem of Antinomianism and how grace corrects this; Challies takes this same path and is especially good at the end where he points to the work of Sinclair Ferguson. Both will give you the lay of the land.

I won’t rehash those points. Instead, I want to explore our modern use of the language of Law, legalism, and Antinomianism. I think there is a helpful clarification on this issue, one at least that has shaped my language.

But let me start, too, by stating that I have no particular target in the following comments—or maybe the target is my younger self. I find this is a problem I first noticed in my own studies, then in my own writing, and finally in my own teaching. I am grateful for my teachers and colleagues who have helped me work through these thorny issues and corrected my own bad analogies.

How Antinomianism is described today

The basic jargon on the Law and legalism rests on the ‘3 Uses of the Law’ (which I describe here). Essentially, the Law first shows us our sin and points us to the Gospel (2nd Use). However, for some, the Law can be used post-conversion to stress the need for obedience (3rd Use). The problem is how to use the Law in two seemingly contradictory ways, one contrary to our nature and the other seemingly as honey in our mouths. Reformed and Lutheran perspectives have differed on this answer almost from the beginning.

The inverse of this problem is found in the term ‘Antinomianism’. This word can be equally confusing, as it is a catchall for a variety of issues, not all of them similar. Here are the ways I’ve seen the word Antinomianism used:

1) Antinomianism is described as being those who preach sex, drugs, and rock and roll—a neo-Corinthian, living in ‘chambering and wantonness’ (old KJV). In Furtick’s video, he says nothing like this. Rather he seems to teach a bad hermeneutic of the relationship of the Old and New covenants. But he does seem to speak against the Law in a way that preps the soil for Antinomian seeds: God broke the Law because it was a stupid set of rules. This first use of Antinomianism, then, is those who wish to still live as prodigals.

2) Others use Antinomianism for those who seem, as Furtick does, to denigrate the Law itself. It’s the trivializing of the Law in the context of the Old Testament, seeing the covenant established under Moses as arbitrary and lifeless. This set of beliefs ends up lessening the grace of the cross, as it jabbers on about how Christ overthrows the entirety of the Old Testament instead of keeping the Law for the sake of justice. The cross becomes a mere demonstration of love not atonement. Pushed to an extreme, this teaching has caused some to teach an antisemitic and modern form of Marcionism (the idea that the OT God is wrathful, but the NT is grace).

3) A third option, equally confusing when you see these side by side, is the positive use of the term Antinomian. We have all heard the slogan, ‘If you preach grace well, you will at times sound Antinomian’. The earliest person to say this, as far as I can tell, was Martin Lloyd Jones in his work on Romans. Here the term is used bracingly, as a way to shake us awake to the radical nature of grace, the radical way Christ fulfilled the Law. Given the two uses above, there is clearly a potential for confusion in this third case, as it sounds as if we are affirming the first two options.

Historical Antinomianism

The origin of the word ‘Antinomian’ (or anti-Law) goes back to the Reformation itself. In fact, it was Luther who coined the word, in a book published in 1539 titled Against the Antinomians. In this work, Luther smashed together two Greek words to create a new derogatory nickname: ἀντί (anti ‘against’) + νόμος (nomos ‘the Law’). The target of Luther’s pen was only thinly veiled, as the so-called Antinomians were not lurking in pulpits throughout Germany. In fact, the situation was occurring in Wittenberg.

As the Reformation got underway, and especially as it put down roots, there was always a risk of Protestants not fully grasping Luther’s message about the Gospel. Those leaving the Catholic church were often unclear as to what would be thrown out and what would be retooled to fit the Protestant church. Many of us are aware that Luther had a sharp side to his tongue whenever he was confronted by those who challenged his perspective. There is now even a website where you can have Luther’s famous insults thrown at you or a loved one.

The source of the crisis was a close friend of Luther’s, Johannes Agricola. The two hailed from the same town of Eisleben, and Agricola wound up in Wittenberg in the late-1530s. The controversy arose when examiners were sent throughout Germany to examine if Lutheran pastors were upstanding men or wolves in sheepclothes. Agricola found this distasteful: isn’t this judging pastors according to the Law? The very thing Luther said he rejected?

For Agricola, the Law was used in the Gospel to drive us to the cross. So where he differed with Luther was not on the use of the Law for Christian living. Both were allergic to this type of thinking. Rather, Agricola concluded that the Gospel use of the Law drives us to the cross once—essentially only at our conversion. After this we are free, not only from discussing obedience in the Christian life but also of hearing the Law in an effort to drive us yet again to the cross.

Antinomianism, then, is conviction-less Christianity. It sees repentance as a single event, not to be repeated. Walk the aisle and then just wait for heaven. Sermons are no longer to expose our sins, allowing us to admit our faults and confess them freely. The Christian life is more about ignoring sin and resting on a foggy concept of grace.

In his 1539 book, Luther eviscerates Antinomianism. Needless to say, if we ask Luther if his preaching should at times sound Antinomian he may have a few choice German words in response. But the issue for Luther was not obedience but conviction for sin. Luther will always stress the need for the Law to be used in the Christian life for conviction, repentance, and renewal as it drives us to Christ. This is, in a nutshell, the homiletical method of preaching Law-Gospel. So Luther does not contrast Antinomianism with Legalism. He contrasts Antinomianism with the Gospel.

The Gospel, for Luther, frees us to admit our faults. We hear the Law repeatedly in preaching as a tool for conviction and repentance. Agricola’s strategy—which he does later reject—ultimately makes the Law something we no longer care about, even for the sake of radical grace. Since everything is grace without conviction, it ends up denying grace itself.

The centuries after Luther tell of many similar problems: people hear the hyperbole of Luther, misunderstand its message, and run pellmell towards this brand of Antinomianism.

Do we have a problem?

So are people wrong for using the term Antinomianism in one of the three ways listed above? I don’t think so. It’s not as if they’re altering the creed or teaching Arianism. Besides the history of Antinomianism itself has shifted the meaning of this word on not a few occasions. Problems are sometimes fixed by getting our words right, but in this case the problem is, often as not, misunderstanding the Gospel message itself.

I do think we should have greater caution when conflating the message of Paul and the New Testament with Antinomianism, though. This is to run counter to the entire history of the word. Too often this slogan tends to mean, not that the Gospel can sound Antinomian to new ears, but that it somehow is a soft form of Antinomianism.

Beyond this, the problem is perhaps fixed by not equating every statement with an ‘ism’. This is a lesson I often have learned, and one I likely will need again in my life. Sometimes the rot in popular preaching has set more deeply than merely identifying what brand of bad thinking a person falls under. Just as often the problem can be in our own contexts, where people who reject Antinomianism are just as often still teaching these things, only under a different guise.