Antinomianism: Grace-without-law theology
Throughout its history the Christian church has had to contend with two major heresies: Legalism and Antinomianism.
Legalism is the false teaching that we sinners can earn a right standing before God by our own personal merits and obedience to God’s law. But Scripture teaches that we are justified before God by His grace alone, through faith in Jesus Christ alone, and apart from works of the law. From Genesis to Revelation the Scriptures declare that our salvation is a gift of pure, sovereign, electing and redeeming grace from God, and we can take no credit whatsoever for the salvation which our Lord Jesus earned for us by His obedience, cross and resurrection. (For example, read Paul’s epistles to the Romans or the Galatians; especially passages such as Romans 1:16-17; 3:19-31; 4:4-5; 5:1-2, 6-11; 10:8-13; and Galatians 2:15-3:14.)
On the opposite extreme, antinomianism (which means “against the law”) teaches that, because we are saved by God’s grace alone and apart from our own law-obedience, therefore we have no ethical obligation to strive after holiness or to obey God’s law. However, while the Scriptures indeed teach that we are justified by grace through faith alone, they also teach that the grace by which we are justified is a grace that also morally transforms and sanctifies us so that we now desire to serve God out of love and gratitude (rather than guilt and fear) for His free gift of salvation. The faith by which we are justified is a living faith in a living Savior, a faith which bears ethical fruit in love, good works, and a striving after obedience to God’s moral law. (See Galatians 5:13-24; Ephesians 2:8-10; James 2:14-26; etc.)
In his book Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry (HarperSanFrancisco, copyright 1983 by Thomas C. Oden), Rev. Thomas Oden confronts the problem of antinomianism in the pastoral practice of the church. Rev. Oden is an ordained Methodist minister who was trained in the tradition of liberal theology, but who abandoned theological liberalism for a more broadly-evangelical, classically-orthodox understanding of Christianity. While there are a number of important areas where we Orthodox Presbyterians would disagree with Rev. Oden’s theology, his perspective on antinomianism in the church is highly relevant for both pastors and church members today:
“Keep in mind that antinomianism is our own doing. We cannot conveniently claim to be victims of some external, evil, socially alienating force. We have welcomed it, confusing it with genuine Christian liberty. Its modern forms are sexual permissiveness, egocentric romanticism, and a vague taste for anarchy. If its strength and appetite were less, we would bother less about it. But antinomian hopes have been set loose like Mediterranean fruit flies upon both church and ministry by misguided exegetes and well-meaning but unwise theologians (to whom the popular media are insatiably attracted). Now, full circle, they have brought us to an “improved theology” that assumes that God loves us without judgment, that grace opposes obligation, that “oughts” are dehumanizing if not sick, and that the gospel always makes the law questionable. History is now requiring of us that we unlearn much that we have prematurely learned about aborted “Christian freedom.” This freewheeling grace-without-law theology infects many ancillary problems of pastoral practice.
“A weakened theology has taught collusive pastoral practice to misplace its identity in a song with four verses: (a) there is no really significant distinction between ordained ministry and general lay ministries; (b) sacraments are not the living presence of Christ, but symbolic culturally derived paradigms of the general notion of redemptive sacrifice; (c) the resurrection did not in any real sense happen, and its eventfulness cannot be central to faith; and (d) interlaced with these seductive assumptions, the innocent-looking, haloed face of antinomianism: God’s unconditional love demands nothing of us, no moral response, no behavioral change, no exemplary life, no “works of the law.”
“As if having watched too much television, we have become dazed and addled with an oversimplified gospel that most laypersons easily recognize as innocuous-looking pabulum with highly toxic side effects: God loves me no matter what. Nothing is required by this merciful God. Don’t worry about any response to God in order to feel completely OK with yourself and God. Feelings of guilt are considered neurotic. God turns out to be a naive zilch who permissively turns his eyes away when we sin. How strangely different from the Holy One of Amos, Isaiah, and Jesus.
“The central tradition of pastoral care prior to this century would have frankly called this talk nonsense. But we suffer fools gladly with a bored smile. How often we are obliged to cherish it as if it were “obviously good” theology. So when we are engaged in pastoral counseling, we withhold all ethical judgments, aping ineffective psychotherapies. When we preach, we avoid any hint of morally evaluative (“preachy”) demeanor and risk no admonition, disavowing the prophetic office. We offer the sacraments as if this were a morally irrelevant act. The classical pastoral tradition requires us to challenge these assumptions.” (pp. 8-9)