There are few theological aberrations more difficult to define than antinomianism. Some simply look at the etymology of the word and conclude that antinomians are against (anti) God’s law (nomos). Others are a bit more specific, suggesting that antinomians are those who deny the third use of the law (the law as a guide for the Christian life; for example, Eph. 6:1) as normative for the Christian believer. Still others contend that we should distinguish between theoretical antinomianism—just described—and practical antinomianism.
Practical antinomianism may take on two forms. The first group are those who claim to be Christians but openly disregard God’s law in their lives. The second group are preachers who claim that they affirm the need for the moral law in the Christian life, but their preaching betrays this affirmation because there are almost never any exhortations in their sermons.
There are elements of truth to all of these claims. Nonetheless, antinomianism is best understood as a theological phenomenon that arose in the sixteenth century and found its classical expression in the following century, particularly in Puritan England.
Recoiling against the perceived excesses of Puritan practical divinity, antinomian theologians shared a number of characteristics that distinguished them from their Reformed counterparts. In their minds, they were the true champions of free grace. They were the heroes who vigorously held to the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone (often by preaching that doctrine alone). And they were the preachers who were going to “proclaim liberty to the captives.” With such rhetoric, finding fault with the antinomians was always going to be difficult. But their opponents, perfectly orthodox Reformed theologians with international reputations such as John Owen and Samuel Rutherford, did not shy away from the controversy. They noted that the errors of the antinomians were many and varied, since one error inevitably leads to another.
The English antinomians gave an excessive priority to the doctrine of justification by faith alone, to the point that it effectively eclipsed their doctrine of sanctification. The current idea held by some that sanctification is merely the art of getting used to one’s justification is very much antinomian, historically considered. Moreover, most antinomians held to a view that God sees no sin in the believer, which means believers’ sins can do them no harm. Consequently, our sin or obedience has no real effect on our relationship with God (see, however, John 14:21, 23). On this supposition, God cannot be more or less pleased or displeased with his children (see, however, 2 Sam. 11:27). Divine chastisement is totally foreign to antinomian thinking (see, however, Heb. 12:3–11).
Antinomian theologians also interpreted the Scriptures in ways that had to stay faithful to their overall principles. Regarding Philippians 1:10—”so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ”—they believed it to be accomplished in justification. However, in its context, this verse clearly refers to sanctification. Today, many understand Christ’s words in Matthew 5:20 (“unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees”) in a similar way. Yet, Christ is not here speaking of His own imputed righteousness. After all, the Pharisees did not actually keep God’s law; rather, they left the commandments and held “to the tradition of men” (Mark 7:8). Those described in Romans 8:4 surpass the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 5:6; see Ps. 106:3) because their obedience is Spirit-wrought (Rom. 8:13) and far more extensive.
A robust doctrine of union with Christ provides the best antidote to antinomianism. Both justification and sanctification are blessings given to all Christians (1 Cor. 1:30). To sever one blessing from the other is, to use John Calvin’s words, to sever Christ. The Christian who is justified must necessarily be sanctified because of union with Christ. But these applied benefits must never eclipse the person of Christ. Christ’s person is a greater gift to His people than His benefits. Union with Christ helps believers to keep this salient fact in mind. We do not merely receive from Christ, but, more importantly, we belong to Him. Our identity is “in Him,” so much so that our understanding of the Christian life has strong corollaries with Christ’s own life of faith and obedience to the Father.
In John 15, Christ brings home to his disciples the reality of their union with Him. In that same context (v. 10) He informs them that if they keep his commandments, they will abide in His love. But He also, rather remarkably, claims that He remained in his Father’s love because He kept his Father’s commandments. In speaking this way, Christ desires that His joy should be in His disciples so that their joy may be full (v. 11). Because the antinomians did not view the law as a true instrument of sanctification, to them the preaching of the law could only condemn believers. However, while the power to obey the law does not come from us, God nevertheless uses the law as a means for sanctifying the church.
Thus, the solution to antinomianism must always be found in the person of Christ who provides, commands, and promises. After all, He is the one who said, “If you love me you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15), just before promising to provide them with the Holy Spirit.