Jesus and Paul were antinomians

This is a bit of a theological post, but I think it is an important topic.

In the course of a discussion with some awesome guys on Facebook, this article by Michael Horton was referenced:

I found myself vaguely disturbed by it, so I wanted to work through its points a little more carefully.

Defining Antinomianism

Horton writes:

Defining Antinomianism: Literally “against law,” antinomianism is the view that the moral law summarized in the Ten Commandments is no longer binding on Christians.

The truth of this statement all depends on what the word “binding” means. If it means, adherence to the moral law as summarized in the Ten Commandments as a condition to continued acceptance and favor from God, I believe this is an anti-biblical and even heretical view:

14 For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace. Romans 6:14 (NASB)

Paul is extremely clear that we are justified apart from the law:

21 But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; 25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. Romans 3:21-25 (NASB)

If “binding” doesn’t mean your eternal destiny is tied to your law-keeping, then what does it mean? If “binding” means that our lack of success in “sanctification” in terms of keeping the 10 commandments can disqualify our justification, then ultimately it is our success in keeping the law which justifies us, and not the blood of Christ. So, since all have sinned, only “antinomians” will end up in heaven. Count me in.

If it means, the law becomes a helpful reminder of the prompting of the Spirit, or perhaps a useful tool to lead us to confession and a renewed sense of our need for faith in the blood of Jesus for our present existential state, then it makes sense. The gospel never says that the 10 commandments are wrong or that Jesus softened His stance on what is considered right and wrong. Murdering and Adultery and Covetousness remain evil. Hating and lustful looking and coloring your speech a little remain evil as well. If we say they are not, or that we have no need of mercy for these things, we lie, and we make God a liar (1 John 1:10), because He thinks these things warranted Jesus’ death. But requiring any level of success in these things as a condition of our acceptability to God is to reject the gospel.

Third Use of the Law

Wikipedia tells us that reformed theology posits three uses of the law:

1. that “thereby outward discipline might be maintained against wild, disobedient men [and that wild and intractable men might be restrained, as though by certain bars]”
2. that “men thereby may be led to the knowledge of their sins”
3. that “after they are regenerate. . .they might. . .have a fixed rule according to which they are to regulate and direct their whole life”[7]

What I am saying is that I dispute the third use of the law, and that it is false and unfair to call someone a heretic because they maintain the first two but reject the third. I hate to say so, but the way many people press the third use of the law, it becomes a gospel-destroying heresy. The scriptures, especially the letters of Paul, line up against the third use, if it is pressed as salvific. If it is not salvific then it is nonsense; it is the same as the second use. In the name of the third use of the law all manner of wicked burdens and lack of assurance of salvation has arisen. It is in fact a profound and beautiful fact that we are quite free of the “third use” of the law.

Kinds of Antinomianism

Horton goes on in his article to quote J.I. Packer with more details about the Calvinist view of antinomianism:

One of the best summaries of the different varities of antinomianism is offered by J. I. Packer in his Concise Theology (Tyndale House, 2001), pages 178-80: (1) “Dualistic Antinomainism,” associated with Gnosticism, which treats the body (and its actions) as insignificant; (2) “Spirit-centered Antinomianism,” which views the inner promptings of the Spirit as sufficient apart from the external Word; (3) “Christ-centered Antinomianism,” which “argues that God sees no sin in believers, because they are in Christ, who kept the law for them, and therefore what they actually do makes no difference, provided that they keep believing”; (4) “Dispensational Antinomianism,” which denies that in the “church age” believers are obligated to the moral law; (5) “Situationist Antinomianism,” which teaches that love is the only rule and that duties (not just their application) will therefore vary according to circumstance.

Let’s work through these one by one.
(1) “Dualistic Antinomainism,” associated with Gnosticism, which treats the body (and its actions) as insignificant

I agree that this is wrong and weird. No dispute. I just don’t know that I would call gnosticism “antinomianism”. It is a lot bigger problem than that.

(2) “Spirit-centered Antinomianism,” which views the inner promptings of the Spirit as sufficient apart from the external Word

I really have to disagree with this one. I suppose Paul is an antinomian then:

16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. 17 For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. 19 Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, 21 envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Galatians 5:16-24 (NASB)

(3) “Christ-centered Antinomianism,” which “argues that God sees no sin in believers, because they are in Christ, who kept the law for them, and therefore what they actually do makes no difference, provided that they keep believing”

I actually agree with this one in a way. I think when we sin, I don’t want to think that God just doesn’t see it. I want to think that it has been avenged on the cross, and that He counts the blood of Jesus as sufficient wrath against it. It is this execution of justice for my sin which washes my conscience, not some hope of an unjust forgetfulness. However, there is room for a great deal of discussion around this, and I don’t find it helpful at all to brand discussion around this idea as an antinomian heresy.

In another way, I profoundly disagree with this one. What does it mean to say that what I actually do “makes a difference”? Does what I do trump faith in Christ’s blood? Then Christ’s blood is not what saves me, but my works. The profound and shocking truth of the gospel is this: in terms of being acceptable to God, it does not matter what you do. He will keep loving you. His perfect love will persist. He cares if you continue to love damaging sinful things, but His care and concern will persist. How much stronger can He say this, than forgiving from the cross those who murdered Him, and raising from the dead to persist in love? Yes, what I do “matters”, but it is from acceptance and care and persistent love that God deals with our sin, and not from a continued threat of rejection and hell.

(4) “Dispensational Antinomianism,” which denies that in the “church age” believers are obligated to the moral law

This is the exact same thing as the rest of it. What does “obligated” mean? If taken the right way, it merely becomes a rehash of the second use of the law, and if taken the wrong way, it becomes a gospel-denying heresy.

(5) “Situationist Antinomianism,” which teaches that love is the only rule and that duties (not just their application) will therefore vary according to circumstance.

I suppose then that Jesus and the apostle John are antinomians:

12 “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are My friends if you do what I command you. John 15:12-14 (NASB)

23 This is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us. 24 The one who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. We know by this that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us. 1 John 3:23-24 (NASB)

The truth is, I love Michael Horton. I love all of my calvinist brethren. I don’t mean that in a churlish or condescending way. Michael Horton is a brilliant and cogent scholar and teacher, and I have derived great benefit from many of his books and messages. This is not some diatribe against calvinism or against Michael Horton. In fact I do not think in any case where I have heard him explain his position as it touches on these things have I ever heard him say anything that disarmed the power of the gospel. This is not some charge that Horton is a heretic, I am sick of that kind of hyperbole. However, others exercise less caution and less nuance in maintaining the power of the cross of Christ over and against their notion of the third use of the law. In a way Horton is almost an evangelist to the harsher corners of the calvinist ecosystem, and it doesn’t serve anyone for him to throw out the third use of the law. As a non-calvinist outsider, I would say that the original wording of these documents which outline the third use may not be as careful as he is, and that scripture needs to trump tradition. Any gospel-honoring take on the third use of the law ends up eliminating the need for the third use and folding back into the second use of the law anyway, so I say why not throw it out? But I am a groundless hothouse flower amateur armchair theologian so what do I know? Admittedly not much.

Peace and love to all.

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  1. Not all Calvinists agree with the third use of the law. I am a Calvinist and I do not agree with the third use of the law. I rather agree with your view.

  2. Hi Jim, I found this article is very in line with what I have been wrestling with for 32 years, I would also like Carol, consider myself a Calvinist, but have never accepted the third use of the law.
    please carry on encouraging

  3. I think Packer is misrepresenting Dispensantionalist. I don’t know any Dispenstionalist who teaches that we are not bound by moral law representing God’s perfect moral nature. There are plenty of moral commands in the New testament. We are not just bound by Mosaic law, that ‘s it.

    • I appreciate that it may be true that Packer misrepresents dispensationalists, but I disagree with both. To be clear, I maintain that when Paul says “all have sinned”, he refers to the gentiles who sin without the mosaic law as well as the Jews who sin according to the mosaic law. We are justified as a gift apart from both of these kinds of law. It is a false division anyway, because the mosaic law tells us to love God and neighbor just like the law of the conscience does, and that is the law we fall short of and are justified in spite of, because of Jesus’ blood.

      • As a Free grace dispensationalist I’m not suggesting that we are somehow soteriologically bound by moral law so that we are saved our by faith evidenced by good works. We are justified and declared righteous by faith in Christ.

        I’m merely suggesting that there is still the sense of “I ought” that comes from the moral knowledge of God. I ought to obey God, not to get saved or maintain my salvation, but because it is fitting for me as a creature and a redeemed creature to reflect God’s moral nature.

        • I don’t know if this comes across in the comments, but I am deeply grateful for your responses and for the dialog. Thanks for your input! I wish we were sitting down for 2 or three hours with coffee and bibles and could talk theology. I’m actually planning to do a whole podcast on this subject with my friend Dax Swanson of Grace Bellingham Church. I think the passage I talked about a couple of blog posts back on 1 Corinthians 6 “all things are lawful but not all things are profitable” is critical to understanding this under grace.

  4. More thoughts on this. This is not because of my “theology”. When Paul defines sin in Romans 3:23, it is in terms of Falling short of glory, not mosaic law. In fact, he has gone on at length in Romans 1:18 through Romans 3:20 or so saying that there is no one who loves God, with or without the Jewish Oracle of God. So it is quite wrong to say that Paul is singing out the “little l” law or the “big L” law. Any way in which we fall short of glory is sin, and this is the sin that we are justified on account of. Look at this:

    Romans 2:9-11 ESV

    There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.

    What could be more clear? Let’s put this idea that the law we are no longer under as the mosaic law alone to test. The truth is not that way.

  5. Jim,

    You are at your best when you think out loud! Does Abraham mean anything in this? Why…yes. He was saved apart from law and there was no law for 430 years so there was nothing obligating him at all. He kinda charasmatically, if I may our vernacular, related to God. Book of Galatians is clear of this. “Why, having begun by the spirit… know the verse.


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