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A basic definition of antinomianism is “that which is against the law.” In theology, it has reference to the law of God. When we recognize that sin is, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it, “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God,” we see that all sin is an expression of antinomianism. Thus, the Bible is a record of sin, and thus of antinomianism, from Adam onward.
For instance, almost immediately after hearing the voice of God announce the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai, Israel adopted an antinomian stance as she erected the golden calf in direct opposition to God. Later, the Pharisees’ misinterpretation of the law, in effect, annulled its true intent. Jesus spent much of the Sermon on the Mount correcting their false interpretations. On another occasion, He accused the Pharisees of leaving “the commandment of God” and holding fast to “the tradition of men” (Mark 7:8).
The apostle Paul anticipated the rise of antinomianism within the Christian church in opposition to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. He stated the antinomian argument in Romans 6:1: “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” According to antinomianism, if salvation is by grace alone, we need not worry about trying to keep the law of God. In fact, the more we sin, the greater the grace of God appears. Paul refutes this argument with the teaching of Romans 6 to the effect that we were united with Christ in His death and resurrection. We thus have died unto sin and have been raised to a newness of life, in which we should walk.
The antinomian heresy was found in the early church. The Gnostic schools often held antinomian principles. For example, Marcion and his followers rejected the Old Testament and were opposed to the observance of the Mosaic Law. Also, the Carpoeratians held that the souls of men are imprisoned in their bodies and must be reincarnated. They maintained that the way to break the cycle of reincarnations was to sin fully. They were opposed to God’s law as a standard of morality, so they taught antinomianism.
Antinomianism also manifested itself in some of the heretical sects that practiced sexual immorality during the Middle Ages. Amalric of Bena (d. 1204) taught that those who are constituted in love have no sin imputed to them. His followers maintained that harlotry and other carnal vices were not sinful. They argued that since the spiritual man is God, he is not affected by the flesh, and thus cannot sin. This type of teaching led to many immoral practices. The Brethren of the Free Spirit, a fraternity that sprang up in the thirteenth century along the Rhine, held that true children of God are invested with perfect freedom from the law. Holding pantheistic views, they declared that one who is absorbed into God is the son of God in the same sense as Christ was. Such persons are free from obligations to all laws, human and divine. This type of antinomianism was apparently fairly widespread in the Middle Ages.
The word antinomianism was coined in the sixteenth century to denote the peculiar opinions of Johannes Agricola and his followers in regard to the law. Agricola was a friend and supporter of Martin Luther until Agricola began to propagate his extravagant opinions in 1528.
It is not surprising to find that some of the medieval practices continued into the period of the Reformation. A pantheistic sect known as the Libertines appeared in the Netherlands and France around 1525. Its adherents felt that they were not under the Mosaic Law or law in general, and had the right to indulge their passions. John Calvin opposed this group and its teaching.
Hendrik Niklaes founded a group known as the Familists in England around 1577. His teachings were very similar to those of the Brethren of the Free Spirit. Out of this group developed the Society of Friends, who were relatively pure, holding to an evangelical mysticism. Thomas Eaton wrote The Honeycomb of Free Justification by Christ Alone (London, 1642), setting forth antinomian principles. He saw three periods in redemptive history: Moses, John the Baptist, and Christ. Under Moses, sin was punished; under John, sin was displayed and repentance called for, but there was no punishment for sin; and under Christ, sin was punished on the cross, so that there is no sin in the church of God. God does not see sin in us.
Thomas Gataker, who was a member of the Westminster Assembly, wrote in answer to antinomianism a work titled Antinomianism Discovered and Confuted (London, 1652). He set forth the following as antinomian positions:
- That the moral law is of no use at all to a believer, either to walk in or to examine his life by, and that Christians are free from the mandatory power of it.
- That it was as possible for Christ to sin as for a child of God to sin.
- That the child of God need not and should not ask pardon for sin, and that it is no less than blasphemy for him to do so.
- That God does not chasten any of His children for sin.
- That if a man knows himself to be in a state of grace, even though he is drunk or commits murder, God sees no sin in him.
- That when Abraham denied his wife, lying, dissembling, and equivocating that she was his sister, all his thoughts, words, and deeds were perfectly holy and righteous in the eyes of God.
Another seventeenth-century antinomian group was known as the Ranters. They held views very similar to the Brethren of the Free Spirit, claiming to be Christ or God. They called Moses a conjurer and Christ a deceiver. They believed that nothing is sin but what man thinks to be so.
Some of the particular Baptists in England, and their successors among the American Primitive Baptists, became hyper-Calvinists. They held that God, having foreordained sin, is ultimately responsible for it. The elect are going to be saved, so there is no need for missionary efforts to reach the lost.
In New England, a form of antinomianism arose in the teachings of Anne (Marbury) Hutchinson (c. 1590–1643), who rejected the preaching of the covenant of works and held only to the preaching of the covenant of grace. She taught that the preaching of the law is of no use to drive a man to Christ; that a man is united to Christ and justified from all eternity, without faith; that a Christian is not bound to the law as the rule of his way of life; and that no Christian must be pressed to duties of holiness. Mrs. Hutchinson and her followers were banned from Massachusetts, and went to Rhode Island.
A number of independent groups arose in the United States, embracing one form of antinomianism or another. We shall only mention a few of these. First, there was a group known as the Shakers, who were started by Mrs. Ann Lee in England and brought to the United States in 1774. She claimed to have had a vision of Adam and Eve in sexual intercourse, which she decided was the cause of their fall into sin. She came to the conclusion that total celibacy was the proper way to live a holy life. The Shakers embraced revivalist practices, and their services were marked by shaking, trembling, shouting, leaping, singing, dancing, speaking in tongues, whirling, stamping, rolling on the floor, and crying out against sin and the carnal nature.
A second and much more radical movement arose from the Shakers, under the leadership of John Humphrey Noyes. It was the Oneida Community, which was developed in Oneida, N.Y. Instead of a policy of celibacy, Noyes developed the concept of “complex marriage” in which every woman of the community was the wife of every man, and every man the husband of every woman. Under pressure from the outside community, the complex marriage system eventually was dropped.
Parallel with this development was that of Joseph Smith, who abandoned orthodox Christianity and developed a wholly new religion, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which included the practice of polygamous marriages. Though outlawed, this practice continues in some of the remote areas of the West.
Alexander Campbell, a former Presbyterian minister, became one of the leaders of the so-called Church of Christ or Christian Church movement. One of its tenets is that, with the coming of Christ, the whole of the law was abrogated. He also taught a form of baptismal regeneration, that one must be baptized in the “Church of Christ” in order to be saved. Thus, salvation was no longer by grace alone, but by grace plus works.
Modern-day dispensationalism was taught by John Darby in England and propagated by C.I. Scofield in the United States through his annotated Bible, which is antinomian.
We see that antinomianism is a tendency in sinful human thought that has existed from Adam onward. It reared its ugly head in Biblical times, in the early Christian church, and at the time of the Reformation, and it continues to plague the church to this day. We all need to be in prayer and study that we do not fall into this error.