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Faces of Antinomianism

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
November 23, 2022 12:01 am

Faces of Antinomianism

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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November 23, 2022 12:01 am

We might imagine that the solution to legalism is to treat God's law more loosely. But this would only trade one error for another. Today, Sinclair Ferguson explains how both legalism and antinomianism misunderstand the character of God.

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Antinomian. It's a term that refers to people who believe that because of God's grace, Christians are no longer obligated to follow His law. Today there is fairly frequently antinomianism that has an exegetical face, by which I mean many New Testament scholars today argue that whereas the Ten Commandments were important under the Old Covenant, they are no longer significant under the New Covenant.

Is that true? Are we free from following God's law? This week on Renewing Your Mind, Dr. Sinclair Ferguson is walking us through an eighteenth-century church controversy. It was called the Marrow Controversy, and it caused quite a stir. But by wrestling through these issues, the church gained a much clearer understanding of how you and I are saved. Well, we've come now to the seventh in our series of studies.

We are around about the halfway point. We began, you remember, thinking about this ancient controversy that began in an obscure Scottish village and rumbled on through meetings of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, ended up with a book that almost nobody had ever heard of, The Marrow of Modern Divinity, being banned, ministers being told they shouldn't recommend it to members of their congregation, and some of the gospel ministers in Scotland believing that the teaching that they found there had helped them not only to preach the gospel, to offer Christ freely, but especially helped them to wrestle through issues like legalism and antinomianism. We were thinking in the last studies about the characteristics of legalism, and one of the things we noticed is it actually began, you remember, in the Garden of Eden. We've been saying that by nature, everyone now born, the children of Adam, comes into this world as a legalist, but may respond to that legalism in two quite different ways. They may respond by more legalism, by working harder to earn the favor of God, or by reacting, as you remember, Eve ultimately reacted and became an antinomian. So the same woman in the Garden of Eden was both a legalist and an antinomian.

And we're going to be thinking now for a session or two about antinomianism. Antinomianism from the word anti, against, and nomos, law, is a view, different forms of it of course, but is a view that suggests that there is no place in the Christian life for the Old Testament law of God. And sometimes that is a view that has arisen in the thinking of Christians because they have felt so much the pressure of the law of God on their lives. They wanted to be delivered from the law of God.

They wanted to take seriously the way in which the New Testament teaches us that in some sense, believers in Christ are free from the law. One of the most interesting and dynamic illustrations of this is found in John Bunyan's great book Pilgrim's Progress. One of the companions that the pilgrim meets on the way is a man called Faithful. Faithful, if you know Pilgrim's Progress, you may remember, had been somewhat lured in the city of deceit by Adam I. Adam I wanted to draw this new believer back, as it were, into his clutches.

Among other things, he offered him his three daughters in marriage if he would just settle down there in the city of deceit. And eventually, Faithful escapes, just escapes, and no more as Adam I tries to draw him back. And then he goes on his journey further up the hill, and as he's going up the hill, he is overtaken by a man who starts beating him. And he cries out to this man, please, he says, have mercy upon me.

Why are you beating me? He says, I am beating you because of your secret inclining to Adam I. So here's a picture of a Christian. He's making his way. Yes, there is difficulty, but he is making his way. He is progressing in the Christian faith, and then there is this allurement back to the old way, Adam I. And so this figure starts beating him, and when he cries out, have mercy on me, the figure responds, I know not how to show mercy. And then as he is being beaten, another man appears, and Faithful doesn't realize who this is, but this man rescues him from the beating that he is receiving from the first man. And as he explains all this to his companion, Pilgrim the Christian, he says, I recognized him by the nail piercings, the holes in his hands. It was the Lord of the hill who rescued him from the representative figure of Moses and the law, who was beating him.

And so they continue on their pilgrimage. And that's a not uncommon experience in the Christian life, isn't it? In a sense, I suppose, in John Bunyan's thinking, it was partly a way of representing the kind of experience Paul describes in Romans 7, 14 to 25. That makes him cry out, O wretched man that I am!

Who is going to deliver me? So we learn in the gospel that we need to be delivered from the way in which the law beats us and condemns us. And yet it's very possible, and actually often happens in Christians' lives and the history of the Christian church, that the way in which people seek to deliver themselves from that is by denying that the law of God, the commandments of God, have any significant place in the Christian life. That is antinomianism, and it comes in various shapes and sizes.

And I want us to try and investigate it a little in this session. It's interesting just when you think about it that actually Jesus was accused of being an antinomian, wasn't He? That He didn't get His disciples to keep the law, and that was one of the great accusations against the Apostle Paul. You remember how He speaks about it in Romans chapter 3, that people are saying because of His preaching of free grace, He is saying you don't need to have anything whatsoever to do with the law.

Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones, whom most of you will know, says on one occasion in his exposition of Romans he says, you know, if as a preacher of the gospel you are never accused of being an antinomian, there may actually be something amiss in the way in which you're preaching the gospel. The gospel is so free, the gospel delivers you from the law. In Christ, Paul says we are free from the law. Well, then there is an instinct in us because by nature we are all legalists. And since as far as I have seen Christian believers, none of them is yet perfectly sanctified or glorified, that legalism continues to linger.

And there is something about many Christians that becomes nervous about the freeness of the author of the gospel. And this of course is why the Marrow men, about whom we've spoken from time to time, were actually accused of teaching antinomianism. Remember we noticed in connection with legalism that words that end in I-S-T and I-S-M can be dangerous words.

We pigeonhole people, and people are not pigeons. We often use these kinds of words as terms of abuse. You see in the press or in the media a fundamentalist. It's not usually meant to be a compliment. You see people referred to as Calvinists, and sometimes it's definitely not meant to be a compliment. And the same can be true of this word antinomianism.

So let's pause and explore a little what antinomianism is. The expression comes into the history of the Christian church in the modern era, at the time of the Reformation. Martin Luther, you remember, very strongly viewed the law of God as the instrument that had crushed him to death. And so certainly in his earlier ministry, he had a tendency to view the law of God as the enemy.

We have said that. But he had a tendency to view the law of God as the enemy. We have several enemies. The devil is our enemy. Sin is our enemy. The law of God is also our enemy. And some of his disciples began to work that through. One of them in particular, a man called Agricola, really began to work that through to the position where he said the law has nothing to do with the Christian believer, at which point Luther became a little nervous. And you will notice thereafter his theology begins to change and actually, in my own view, becomes more biblical. But that struggle that was there, the law condemns me.

I'm free from the law. Does the law still have any place in the Christian life? Rumbled on into the seventeenth century. And at certain times in the seventeenth century, certainly in the English-speaking world, there were controversies about this whole question. This is why, incidentally, when the Westminster Confession of Faith was written, its nineteenth chapter on the law of God is probably the chapter in the whole confession on which the Westminster Divines spent most time. They understood this is a key issue if people are going to be able to live the Christian life properly and well. But antinomianism, as I say, comes in different shapes and forms.

Let me mention four of these so that we can be careful about the way we use this language. First of all, antinomianism sometimes appears in a doctrinal form, a theological form, and it can appear in the lives of people whose own personal Christian experience is otherwise commendable. Some of the figures who arose in the seventeenth century were known as model Christians, but they had been deep-seated legalists. And theologically, the only way they could work through, how can I really be free from this condemnation of the law I experienced, was if they took Paul's teaching that we are free from the law as applying to the law in its totality. All that we do now is trust in the Holy Spirit. By contrast with the Old Covenant and the law, they said Jeremiah teaches us that the key thing in the Christian life is the indwelling of the Spirit. And if the Spirit indwells us, then we will be safely guided by the Spirit as to how to live for God and for His glory. We can live, as it were, by the exhortations of the New Testament, relying on the Holy Spirit. Problem with that, of course, and we'll return to this, is that it didn't take account of the way in which the New Testament speaks about the commandments of the law still being relevant to the Christian life.

Remember when Paul speaks about the Christian household, he refers to the commandment with respect to honoring father and mother, and says now children follow through this commandment because it's the first commandment with promise. And he seems to assume that these Christians in Ephesus will be walking in the way of the Ten Commandments of the Lord. And so it's important for us to see that while God in Christ delivers us from the condemnation of the law, what He does is actually to turn the condemning law into our friend rather than our enemy. So there is doctrinal or theological antinomianism. Today there is fairly frequently antinomianism that has an exegetical face, by which I mean many New Testament scholars today argue that whereas the Ten Commandments were important under the Old Covenant, they are no longer significant under the New Covenant when the Westminster Divines write about the law.

They say the law has three dimensions. It has a moral dimension in the Old Testament. It has a civil dimension in the Old Testament. It is relevant to this particular people group. And it has a ceremonial dimension in the Old Testament.

There are these types and sacrifices that point forward to Jesus Christ. The Westminster Divines stood in a tradition of saying that through Jesus Christ what happens is the ceremonial law is fulfilled and therefore we no longer keep the Old Testament liturgical rites. The civil law that was for a particular people rather than intended to be internationally applied, that civil law is abrogated apart from the fact we can still learn from its principles. But the moral law, the Ten Commandments, they continue because they were given by God as a design for our lives in this world. Now exegetical antinomians argue that the law was the law.

It was a single sheet of paper. So when the New Testament tells us that the law of Moses has gone, it means the law of Moses has gone. We live now by the teaching of the New Testament. We don't turn back in any real sense to the teaching of the Old Testament, and particularly we don't turn back to thinking about this principle, Christians live by the Ten Commandments.

It is very rare actually if you probe scholars who hold that view. It is very rare if you ask them, so which of the commandments can I forget? Then it becomes fairly obvious that they don't really want to ditch the Ten Commandments. And of course, it seems to me the problem here is a failure to understand that the Ten Commandments in Exodus chapter 20 are actually the design that God wrote into the hearts of Adam and Eve at creation. And then when that law was breached, God rewrote it for them. Their fuzzy minds needed the law to be written down for them. And yes, there are some applications in the Ten Commandments that may not be relevant to you.

You may not have servants. You may not be a cattle rancher and so on, but the basic principles that are enshrined there are surely the very principles that Jesus expounds for us in the Salmon and the Mount in Matthew chapter 5 verses 17 to the end of the chapter. You have heard it was said, but I say to you, it's not Jesus saying so you can forget about the Old Testament law.

It's Jesus saying, I want you to understand what that Old Testament law really said because it went far deeper than the teachers you have actually say today. So there is a kind of antinomianism that comes with a doctrinal face. There's a kind of antinomianism that comes with an exegetical face. But then, and in some ways more serious, there is the kind of antinomianism that comes with what we might call an experiential face. And you have probably encountered this among Christians. You know, you're driving along the highway and just to draw your driver's attention that he's going at 80 miles an hour, and this is a 70-mile-an-hour speed limit, and he turns to you and he says, but we're free from the law.

And you smile to yourself if you look in the rearview mirror and there are flashing lights behind. We're not free from the law. We're not free from the civil law to begin with.

That's a kind of antinomianism. I'm free from the civil law, so the law of the land doesn't matter. I am astonished how many Christians who simply because they are Christians seem to think that they can live fast and loose to the law of the land. And if they live that way with respect to the law of the land, it's highly probable they're living that way with respect to the law of God.

What is their attitude? My sins are forgiven. Or I made a decision. I remember a friend telling me that after he had conducted the funeral of a man who had not darkened the door of a place of worship for more than three decades, his brother came to him at the graveyard and held out his decision card on which he'd written his name forty years ago and said, he's all right, isn't he? That's another form of antinomianism, isn't it?

That I made my decision, so it doesn't really matter what happens thereafter. Now, what's so tragic about that is that it not only fails to understand the law, it fails to understand how the gospel works. Remember how Paul puts it in Romans 8, 3 and 4, that God did in Christ what the law could not do, condemning sin in the flesh in order that what the righteous requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh. I think it's highly likely that anyone who says to you, but I'm free from the law, I walk by the Spirit. I live in the Spirit.

I have the Spirit. I don't need the Ten Commandments, anyone to say, did you stop at Romans 1, 1? Have you never read Romans? Have you never taken in this beautiful harmony that the New Testament teaches us between the law of God and the grace of God in Jesus Christ?

Now, there's a fourth face that antinomianism sometimes wears, and it's really a version of number three, but it comes in this particular form. It comes when people say to us, God loves me the way I am, and therefore, I'll stay the way I am. He's so full of grace, He loves me the way I am.

Now, there are two things wrong with that. The first thing that's wrong is the real truth is God loves you despite the way you are. God loves you despite the way you are. So long as I think God loves me the way I am and because I am the way I am, I have no sense of His love. I have no sense of His love whatsoever. You measure love by the distance between the lover and the loved, by the contrast between the lover and the loved.

But there's another thing that's clearly wrong about that, isn't it? Isn't it wrong to say God loves me just the way I am, not only because He loves you despite the way you are, but because He loves you, He doesn't mean to leave you the way you are? Love never does that. So, in fact, now what we see is not only a misunderstanding of law and a misunderstanding of grace and gospel and Christ, we see a misunderstanding of love.

It's surely one of the most misunderstood words in our vocabulary. Love never, love is so loving, it will never want us to remain the way we are because it's not good for us to be the way we are. And so, when we are loved with God's everlasting love and embraced into His family, His love wants to make us like Himself. Isn't that what happens in a family where a child is adopted? The child has no sense of belonging to the family. The child is estranged from his or her old family and comes into this new family. What does that new family want to do?

That new family wants to love the child in such a way that the child will feel and live as part of this new family. And when we come into the family of God, when we approach God and say, like Jesus, Holy Father, the God who loves us despite the way we are, loves us in order to transform us to be more and more like He is. So what then is the relationship between the law and the gospel, the law and the Spirit?

It's like this. The law is the train tracks on which our life runs. The Holy Spirit is the engine that drives the train forward to live for God's glory. And when we see these things we will be helped, I think, to be delivered from the fear and the possibility of antinomianism. I love the way Dr. Sinclair Ferguson explains that. This is from his teaching series, The Whole Christ, and you're listening to Renewing Your Mind on this Wednesday.

I'm Lee Webb. Thank you for being with us. Dr. Ferguson taught this series in 12 lessons, and in it he gives us perspective on a church controversy that happened in the 18th century in Scotland. As we study this controversy, it helps us clarify our own understanding of the gospel, and we'd like to send you this two-DVD set for your donation of any amount.

Our offices are closed for the holiday, but you can give your gift and make your request online at In this series, I hope you can see why studying church history matters. The questions that those pastors and theologians dealt with three centuries ago in Scotland are helpful for us to consider today. Each of the 12 messages in this series is about 24 minutes in length, and if you teach a Sunday school class at your church or lead a small group in your home, this is an opportunity for you to teach this period in church history and bring a clear proclamation of the gospel. This is an online offer only this week, so let me give you our web address. It's Tomorrow Dr. Ferguson helps us understand the cause of antinomianism, and surprisingly we'll discover that it comes from the same source as legalism. I hope you'll make plans to join us again Thursday for Renewing Your Mind.
Whisper: medium.en / 2022-11-23 03:51:38 / 2022-11-23 04:00:23 / 9

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