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Law and Gospel: Looking for balanced teaching in the evangelical world

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What does it mean to be an antinomian? The word, often attributed to Martin Luther, basically means “anti-law”. The word, as Luther used it, referred to people who taught that, because being justified (declared not guilty) by God is an entirely free gift, not based on human effort, there is no need to make effort to obey God’s Law. In other words, Christians, because they are justified, are free from any obligation to keep the Law. Luther taught that because we have a sin nature so long as we’re alive on earth, we are not free from the restraining influence of God’s Law, but rather we need God’s Law to keep our sinful inclinations in check.

1. Antinomian unrest among Presbyterians

Evangelical theology has never formally embraced antinomianism. However, in some circles it has almost become a badge of honor to be accused of antinomianism. This is said to be evidence that one is preaching free grace, unshackled by the entanglements of legalism. For example, in his 1990 book, When being good isn’t good enough , PCA minister and popular radio personality Steve Brown said:

“The radical idea is this: If you are a Christian, you are free. No, I don’t mean you are free with a number of ifs, ands, or buts. I mean you are really free. No disclaimer. No addendum. No qualifying points…Now hear something very important: while the apostle Paul was not antinomian, he was very close to it… Also, while the Christian faith is by no means antinomian, it is very close to it… The Christian faith would not have had to deal with the heresy of antinomianism unless there was something in it which seemed to imply that particular heresy.”

While Brown is correct, it would be healthy to throw at least a couple of “buts” in, lest people walk away hearing something he didn’t intend to say. Whenever Paul issued such grace-saturated statements in Galatians, he accompanied them with disclaimers—“Use your freedom to serve Christ and one another, not to serve your sinful nature. If you sow to please your sinful nature, you’ll reap destruction.” We still have a sinful nature and it needs to be kept in check. Hence, the glorious news of freedom must be accompanied with warnings against misusing it. Paul and the other apostles never preached “cheap grace.” If Paul felt the need to add a necessary “but” in his letters, shouldn’t we modern-day Christians as well?

Presbyterians, doctrinally conscientious as they are, historically have prided themselves on preaching both God’s grace and God’s call to living lives of obedience. Recently, though, conservative Presbyterians who subscribe to the same confessional standards (the Westminster Confession of 1647) are accusing each other of being antinomians. Some rejoice at free grace statements such as the one by Steve Brown, and others are leery of them, fearing they lead to licentiousness. What are we to make of this?

2. Wesleyan perspective of the Reformed and Lutheran view of sanctification

Controversy over who’s teaching antinomianism is not confined to Presbyterians. Wesleyans often suspect antinomian leanings in Reformed and Lutheran theologians. Some Wesleyans believe that their distinctive view of sanctification (being set apart by God to live an obedient life) is so foundational to the gospel that any view that falls short of it must necessarily be a watered down version. Consider, for example, that the Independent Methodist Arminian Resource Center has a section addressed to the doctrine of eternal security titled “20 Lies Not Found in Scripture”. Among the “lies” listed are statements such as:

“Salvation is unconditional”, “Only at death can we ultimately be saved from sin”, “Christians are still sinners”, and “I am secure because Jesus paid my sin debt in full”.

Some of these statements are sorely in need of clarification, but let’s address these one at a time.

1. Of course it’s not a “lawless” attitude to believe that salvation is “unconditional”, humanly speaking. The only condition of our salvation is Christ’s blood. That doesn’t mean we irresponsibly “use” Christ’s blood to cover continuous, unrepentant sin. Still, salvation is based on Christ’s blood, not on any conditions we meet.

2. We can’t be fully saved from the last remaining vestiges of sin until death, but that doesn’t mean the only alternative in the meantime is a defeatist, “Might as well sin because I can’t help it” attitude.

3. Christians are still sinners, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t combatting against their sinful desires.

4. Our security is grounded on the fact that Jesus paid our sin debt in full. The fact that we are perfectly loved by God, for Christ’s sake, frees us up to obey God, not out of fear of hell, but rather out of gratitude for his having adopted us as his children.

The Wesleyan suspicion that many Reformation era teachers taught an incorrect or insufficient doctrine of sanctification, or that they under-emphasized the need for Christians to live lives of holiness, is traced back to John Wesley himself, the founder of Methodism. Consider what Wesley had to say in his journal of Martin Luther’s view of sanctification:

“Who has written more ably than Martin Luther on Justification by Faith alone? And who was more ignorant of the doctrine of sanctification, or more confused in his conception of it? In order to be thoroughly convinced of this, of his total ignorance with regard to sanctification, there needs no more than to read over, without prejudice, his celebrated commentary on Epistle to the Galatians.”

Elsewhere, Wesley said he “utterly ashamed” when he read Luther’s Galatians commentary. In Wesley’s estimation, Luther was “quite shallow in his remarks on many passages and muddy and confused almost on all … How blasphemously does he speak of good works and of the law of God; constantly coupling the law with sin, death, hell or the devil; and teaching, that Christ delivers us from them all alike.”

As one can see, many reputable Christian teachers for many generations now have had critics out there who think they are over-emphasizing some truth at the expense of another. Balance is sorely needed.

3. Defending Tullian Tchividjian

Jackson Presbyterian Examiner believes that one of the best communicators of the gospel today, as far as balance between the Law and the Gospel is concerned, is Tullian Tchividjian, grandson of Billy Graham and current pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Read, for example, his brilliant article published in Christianity Today last August, "God’s Word in two words".

The article beautifully distinguishes between the Law (which shows us what God demands of us) and the Gospel (which shows us what God has done for us). Imagine this examiner’s shock, then, when hearing that a new Reformed book slanders Tchividjian himself as an antinomian.

David B. Garner, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, recently wrote a book review of Mark Jones' Antinomianism: Reformed Theology's Unwelcome Guest? (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2013).

In his review, Garner says, “Jones does not conceal his concern for current perpetrators, though he only names one advocate of contemporary antinomian theology - Tullian Tchividjian (pp.90-91, 116, 128). His restraint is commendable: ‘The charge of antinomianism should only be made carefully, and for that reason I have refrained from implicating certain individuals who have leanings in that direction,’ (p.128).”

If Jones believed caution was called for before applying the label “antinomian” to a teacher, then it’s mind boggling how he could still manage to label Tchividjian. Summing up some of Jones’ main points, Garner provides the following bullet list, which deserves some comment:

• If you believe that sanctification is getting used to your justification or reveling more fully in your reliance upon Jesus' righteousness, you just might be an antinomian.

It is only by relying more and more heavily on Jesus’ righteousness that a person will be able to experience any growth in holiness. So long as you are, even subconsciously, relying on your own work, your efforts to please God will result, not in growth, but in exhaustion and anxiety.

• If you believe that God loves you and that your ongoing sin or your incremental obedience does not in any way affect God's love for you, you just might be an antinomian.

God hates sin, and the sin that believers commit is no exception to this. Luther, who some Wesleyans and Reformed alike accuse of over-stating grace at the expense of a robust doctrine of sanctification, took sin so seriously that he believed Christians could possibly fall away from grace and be lost through unrepentant sin. In this respect, he has more in common with Wesleyans than with the Reformed. The point? As it relates to Garner’s bullet point, whatever one’s view of perseverance of the saints is, surely all Christians can agree that when believers sin after conversion, this doesn’t affect God’s love for them. Nothing we can do can either increase or decrease the love God has for us. This is because God loves us, not for our own sakes, but for Christ’s sake. Wesleyans would surely concede that even Christians who fall away and are ultimately lost are still loved by God. When people perish, it is not because of any deficiency of love on God’s part.

• If you believe works are not necessary for salvation, you just might be an antinomian.

This statement is sorely in need of some clarification. A person who trusts in Christ will have a changed heart that wants to obey Christ. This will result in obedient actions. It’s inconceivable for someone to trust in Christ and not manifest that trust through outward actions. As the apostle James explains, faith without works (mere intellectual assent, lip service, without actions to back it up) is dead. That said, technically speaking, the work that merit God’s favor, the works that ensure we will stand faultless before God on the Last Day, are not our own, but rather Christ’s work on our behalf. Our works are necessary in that they serve as evidence of Christ being in us. They are not “necessary” in the sense that we must earn God’s approval through them.

Consider C.S. Lewis’ profound statement on the matter, taken from Mere Christianity:

“[To have Faith in Christ] means, of course, trying to do all that He says. There would be no sense in saying you trusted a person if you would not take his advice. Thus if you have really handed yourself over to Him, it must follow that you are trying to obey Him. But trying in a new way, a less worried way. Not doing these things in order to be saved, but because He has begun to save you already. Not hoping to get to Heaven as a reward for your actions, but inevitably wanting to act in a certain way because a first faint gleam of Heaven is already inside you.”

• If you believe that preaching must avoid imperatives and only celebrate the indicative of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection and/or the declarative of Jesus' forgiveness, you just might be an antinomian.

There is a place for preaching imperatives. However, the balance in the evangelical church is often out of whack. For every no-strings-attached declaration of Christ’s work on our behalf, there are four or five imperatives thrown in. The resulting impression that many new Christians understandably get is that though salvation is initially by grace alone, it is sustained by our work, work, work.

Garner comments, “To be sure, our works contribute nothing to our justification, but the presence of the Holy Spirit is real and his enabling, compelling power is real. Good works of believers are really good -not because of the inherent goodness of man, but because of the power of the God. Grace is astounding not just because God forgives our sin, but because he enables us to do good works which he ordained (Eph 2:10).” If such an explanation is meant to stand out in contrast to what Tchividjian himself teaches, it’s hard to see where there’s any real disagreement at all.

Thankfully, Tchividjian still has plenty of support in the evangelical world. In a recent dialogue between Kevin DeYoung and Tulliam Tchividjian, DeYoung remarked that although he took issue with some of Tchividjian’s teaching on sanctification, he still regarded him as “an ardent champion of the gospel”.

4. Giving Lutheranism another chance to weigh in on the debate

In an article published recently on The Aquila Report, William Evans, Professor of Bible and Religion and Department Chair at Erskine College, had this to say about Tchividjian:

“He is part of a significant group of ministers, centered especially in the ‘missional wing’ of the Presbyterian Church in America, that has been… influenced … by a Lutheranized version of Reformed theology emanating from people such as Michael Horton at Westminster Seminary in California.”

Perhaps Professor Evans hits the nail on the head regarding why men like Tchividjian are causing unrest in the Reformed world—the Lutheran overtones. It is true that both Michael Horton’s and Tullian Tchividjian’s explanation of how the Law and the Gospel are related does sound very reminiscent of Lutheran theology. In his article, Professor Evans implies that this is a bad thing, but if Reformed preachers could learn anything positive from their Lutheran brethren, it would be how to articulate the simple, liberating, no-strings-attached gospel of Jesus Christ.

So often, in evangelical circles, when the gospel is expressed, while Christ’s mercy is stressed, the main emphasis is still on us—what we do with grace, our response, our decisions, our post-conversion growth, etc. It was after visiting a Lutheran congregation shortly after college that this examiner was struck by just how good the good news really is. The preacher, in his proclamation of the gospel, wasn’t telling the listeners to go out and do anything. He was simply telling them what Christ had done for them. Period.

5. Conclusion

Of course, there is a place for pastors to exhort their members to action. But those exhortations, as Tchividjian so astutely explains, will only resonate with people after they have first come to grips with the fact that God loves them through Christ, they are accepted in Christ, and their status as children of God doesn’t hinge on their own performance. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, Christians must understand that God loves the real them, not some ideal them. As Brennan Manning was fond of saying, God loves people as they are, not as they should be. That doesn’t mean moral laxity is okay. Paradoxically, it’s only by understanding that God’s approval, per se, is not at stake, that Christians can find in themselves lasting motivation to seek God’s approval, pleasing him not to earn his favor, but because they have it already. These are the types of Christians who, as Wesley emphasized so heartily, will live lives of “holiness, without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14)

Scripture says, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom”, but what kind of freedom? The freedom we need isn’t simply freedom from the penalty of sin (though this is so often the connotation), but also freedom from the power and presence of sin. Though the ultimate fulfillment will be in heaven, there is an earthly foretaste that we should be experiencing here as well. New converts who say they have been “saved from sin” should mean, not only that they’re going to heaven, but they are, in the here and now, experiencing deliverance from besetting sins. As Luther said, we should fear sin itself, the prospect of displeasing God, more than any potential penalty.

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