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In The Grace of Law, Ernest Kevan makes this point about the moderate antinomians of seventeenth-century England: “The main object of the moderate Antinomians was to glorify Christ; but, failing to understand the true relationship between ‘law’ and ‘grace,’ they extolled the latter at the expense of the former.”
“Moderate antinomianism” has resurfaced under a new banner, with a modified vocabulary but with similar tendencies. New Covenant Theology (NCT) extols the Lordship of Christ in Christian ethics, which we applaud (Westminster Confession of Faith, 19:5), but it does so at the expense of the moral law.
What makes an antinomian?
Claiming that NCT is antinomian requires two qualifications. First, NCT is not morally antinomian. It does not say that we should “continue in sin that grace might increase.” Second, NCT is not typically antinomian. In many ways, it is more dangerous than explicit antinomianism because it acknowledges many Reformed doctrines. However, it seeks to redefine the moral law, drives a wedge between Old and New Testament sanctification, and destroys the foundation of much of the Reformed view of the law. Thus, NCT fits within the theologically antinomian camp.
NCT even sounds a clear alarm against antinomianism. However, we must be careful to ascertain what NCT means when it speaks of antinomianism. We must ask: Against what law? And what does the word against mean? Does it mean against altogether? Could it mean against in part? The prefix anti has various nuances. It can mean “against,” “instead of,” or “in place of.” In other words, although NCT may not be against law in an absolute sense, if it denies that the moral law of the Old Testament is the moral law of the New Testament, and if it replaces the moral law with another, then it is antinomian on two counts.
Examining NCT is not easy. Adherents of NCT often disagree when it comes to identifying its fundamental axioms. Another difficulty concerns its origin. Some say it goes back to John Bunyan’s perspective on the law. Others say its origin resides in a mediating position on the law buried in seventeenth-century obscurity. One major NCT proponent even calls it “a novel approach to systematic theology.” Still, though NCT is not easy to pin down, it is not impossible to critique.
Theological antinomianism of NCT
Two tenets of NCT distance it from Reformed orthodoxy and place it within theological antinomianism. The first concerns the function of the Ten Commandments (the Decalogue).
The commandments function in at least three ways. First, the Decalogue formed the heart of old covenant law. It was spoken by God, written by God on stone tablets, and then placed in the ark of the covenant (Ex. 20:1–17; 31:18; 2 Chron. 5:10). It constitutes a body of apodictic law; that is, laws that unconditionally and categorically assert right and wrong.
Second, the Decalogue forms the heart of new covenant law. In the promise of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31:33, God says: “ ‘I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts. . . ’ ” Whenever God speaks of “My law,” He is referring to something already revealed to Israel throughout the Old Testament (2 Chron. 6:16; Ps. 89:30; Jer. 6:19; 16:11). God Himself writing a law is a familiar Old Testament scene. Jeremiah teaches that the basic law of the new covenant is a law that was written on stone by God and will be written on hearts by God.
A comparison of Exodus 31:18, Jeremiah 31:33, and 2 Corinthians 3:3 is illuminating:
“ . . . He gave Moses two tablets of the Testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.”
“ ‘But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts. . . ’ ”
“[C]learly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart.”
Both antecedent (Ex. 31:18) and subsequent (2 Cor. 3:3) revelation agree that God Himself wrote the law on stone and will write it on hearts.
Third, the Decalogue forms the heart of the moral law—the law common to all men written on their hearts (WCF 4:2; 19:5). Many New Testament texts rely on the Decalogue as the basic ethical canon for all men (Matt. 19:18–19; Rom. 1:18ff.; 2:14–15; 3:19–20, 31; 7:7; 1 Tim. 1:8–11; James 2:8–11). This explains why Jesus, Paul, and James are quick to cite it in evangelistic or didactic contexts.
These functions of the Decalogue teach us that it is transcovenantal. Its utility as the basic, apodictic law of the Bible starts at creation and continues through the history of redemption.
However, NCT views the Decalogue as functioning as a guide to sanctification under the old covenant alone. NCT does teach the perpetuity of nine of the Ten Commandments. However, it does so upon faulty reasoning—since nine of the ten are repeated in the New Testament, then nine of the ten are binding. This is a logical conclusion based on the faulty premise that the Decalogue as a guide to sanctification went when the old covenant went. It also presupposes that only repeated commands of the Decalogue are moral law. NCT’s view of the function of the Decalogue pits it against the very heart of the moral law.
A second tenet that places NCT within theological antinomianism concerns the Sermon on the Mount as it relates to the Law of Moses. The Reformed view of the Sermon on the Mount sees Jesus as introducing a contrast between a true understanding of the Law and the false one of the scribes and Pharisees. Christ is not altering the Law or supplanting it with another. But NCT views the Sermon on the Mount very differently. Christ is seen as “giving the church a new canon of moral conduct,” according to John G. Reisinger in But I Say Unto You. . . Moreover, Reisinger writes in Christ, Lord and Lawgiver Over the Church, that Christ’s law is “infinitely higher and more spiritual than anything Moses ever wrote.” The Sermon on the Mount is said to contrast rule under law (Moses) and rule under grace (Christ). What Christ affirms in Matthew 5:17 is that the Law of Moses points to Him and to His advanced and heightened law. The law of Christ is the eschatological transcendent law that Moses’ Law both anticipated and is advanced by, according to Tom Wells and Fred Zaspel in New Covenant Theology.
These claims are impossible to reconcile with the rest of Scripture. Claiming that Christ’s law is higher and more spiritual than Moses’ contradicts the fact that the law Christ expounded in the Sermon on the Mount and revealed in the epistles includes portions of the very things Moses wrote. The Sermon on the Mount is old law masterfully applied by the Lord of law!
NCT’s understanding of the Sermon on the Mount is antinomian because it supplants the Old Testament’s moral law and forces the New Testament to repeat the Old for it to be binding. But moral law is applicable to all men because it is based on the character of God and man’s status as image bearer of God.
These tenets of NCT expose its antinomianism on two fronts. First, NCT is against the moral law of the Old Testament, claiming that only repeated laws are binding. The Biblical and Reformed view is that all laws are binding unless rescinded (Matt. 5:17–20; 2 Tim. 3:16–17). Second, NCT replaces the Old Testament’s moral law with a new law—the law of Christ. This does not do justice to the continuity of law as promised in Jeremiah and the sweeping statements by Christ in Matthew 5:17–20 and Paul in 2 Timothy 3:16–17.
The essence of righteousness in man is the same from creation to consummation. The righteousness demanded of Adam is essentially the same demanded of us. The righteousness procured by Christ’s life (His active obedience) and imputed to believers is the same for all the elect. NCT unwittingly tampers with what constitutes essential righteousness in man. This is so because NCT sees the moral law as a dynamic concept in Scripture and therefore in process, both changing and advancing as revelation unfolds. This impinges upon the active obedience of Christ, the imputation of righteousness, and the ground of justification. The Bible teaches one justification based on one righteousness, not various levels of righteousness depending on what moral law one is under.
The Decalogue is the heart of the moral law. It summarizes all moral law. Its utility transcends covenantal bounds. The Sermon on the Mount is an exposition and application of the Bible’s moral law. The essence of what constitutes righteousness in man is the same throughout Scripture. As long as NCT denies these Biblical verities, it must be considered theologically antinomian. NCT is a novel approach to an age-old problem—extolling grace at the expense of the law.