JOHN WESLEY: ACCUSED OF “LEGALISM” BY ANTINOMIANS
In 18th century England, John Wesley was confronted more than once by antinomianism. This weird word, along with the word “Antinomian,” which was a pejorative label applied to those who espoused the doctrine, not only was then, but is now, any heretical system of Christian soteriology that teaches Jesus died on the cross for the forgiveness of not only our past sins, but also of our unrepented present sins and unrepented future sins. Repentance and holiness are totally shunned under this teaching; and it is usually from an antinomian view that godly and strict Christians have had to endure the label of legalism and “Legalist.” Wesley was accused of this very much from the antinomians of his day: they used the words legalness, legal, and legality. Wesley debated in writing with a number of antinomians, first with Count Zinzendorf of the Moravians; and a number of other Calvinists. Today things are really no different. More often than not; I have observed Southern Baptists, or those who have a Baptistic type faith, tend to lean in an antinomian direction. With the EXCEPTION of John MacArthur and Paul Washer lordship salvation supporters, sometimes called Reformed Baptists or New Calvinists.
The basic ideas of antinomianism can broken down into the following:
1. Antinomianism is viewed as the gospel. Antinomians will not call the teaching antinomianism, they will call it the gospel of Jesus Christ. They think Jesus died on the cross, not only to forgive our sins, but to liberate us from any need to obey’s God’s commandments. This is what they mean by grace.
2. The antinomian view of salvation is anti-law in its ideas. The word antinomianism was first coined by Martin Luther when he wrote Against the Antinomians (1539) directed at Johannes Agricola. The “anti-” part is clear, which means to be against something, but the “nomian” part comes from the Biblical Greek word for “law,” which is nomos. So, the word Antinomian means “Antilawian,” and is a heretic Christian who thinks the gospel of Jesus Christ is something that is against the law of God entirely.
3. Antinomians misuse Paul’s word “law” in the Bible. Many of the apostle Paul’s uses of the word “law,” especially in Romans and Galatians, are difficult to understand without knowledge of Biblical background and context. My personal view is that this was one of Paul’s shortcomings. Especially in Galatians, it seems that he teaches against any use of God’s law. Paul didn’t qualify the word “law” ever; he only used the word “law” in the most general sense of the word. If people have a background knowledge of the first century Judaizer sect, then they will understand why Paul speaks against the “law” so much in Galatians. This was probably one of the reasons, if there ever was a legitimate one, for why the Catholic theologians during the Reformation were against the common people interpreting the Bible for themselves; they were bound to arrive at heretical conclusions, of which antinomianism is the worst, because it overthrows growing in personal holiness.
Antinomians from the time of Agricola, to the time of Zinzendorf, to people today like Zane Hodges, have usually refused to view the “law” that Paul’s gospel frees Christians from, as the Jewish ceremonial law of the Old Testament [John Wesley, “A Second Dialogue Between an Antinomian and His Friend,” The Works of John Wesley (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002), vol. 10, p. 279]. Paul usually refers to circumcision when he speaks of the “law” being abolished, because he is referring to the Jewish ceremonial law, the rituals of Jewish life (Rom. 2; 3:1; 4:11; 1 Cor. 7:19; Gal. 2:12; 5-6; etc). Antinomians have always taken it to mean the whole law of God is being done away with by Paul, including both the ceremonial and the moral law of God. It may seem strange to devout Catholics, lordship Calvinists, holiness people, or Pentecostals, but antinomians will vehemently maintain against the use of moral commandments and laws in the Bible as providing any sort of ethical direction for Christian living. Even the Ten Commandments. However, Paul leaves for us a telling Scripture in 1 Corinthians 7:19: “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts.” Here Paul makes a clear line between the ceremonial law and the moral law, the latter which Paul considers to be “keeping God’s commands” in the New Testament sense.
4. Antinomians misuse Paul’s word “impute” in the Bible. Antinomians misinterpret Biblical teaching on the imputed righteousness of Christ. They think it means that Christ’s righteousness only covers Christians like a cloak, in an official and external sense; and that no moral transformation ever occurs within the Christian’s heart by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Ethically speaking, they remain exactly the same person that they were before they had that faith in Christ; the only difference now, is that they claim to feel less guilty about their sins; and they feel protected from Hell. It’s theological immorality.
JOHN WESLEY’S REBUKES TO ANTINOMIANISM
“A Dialogue Between an Antinomian and His Friend” (1745)
1. Christians Should Do Theology! “Friend (Wesley)–Do you ever read the Bible? Does not God himself say to sinners, ‘Come now, and let us reason together?’ (Isa. 1:18). Does not our Lord reason continually with the Scribes and Pharisees; St. Peter with the Jews (Acts 2:14ff); and St. Paul both with the Jews and Gentiles? Nay, is not great part of his Epistles, both to the Romans and to the Galatians, and the far greatest part of that to the Hebrews, one entire chain of reasoning?” (p. 267). Wesley is here responding to an antinomian’s insistence on an anti-theological attitude and philosophy. The antinomian has to be unreasonable in order to keep his views, so he tends to shun Biblical and theological study, by labeling those who love theology as relying upon their “carnal reasoning,” “letter-learning,” and “head-knowledge” (pp. 267, 271, 274). Because it is through such study that he would become accountable for his beliefs; and find that those beliefs do not stand up to the test of God’s Word. Antinomians tend to live in fear of two things: 1. Going to Hell for following rules that have been abolished by the cross of Christ, rules which could be mistakenly established on the grounds of Bible study. 2. Missing out on experience of the Holy Spirit, who is perceived intuitively, and not through the faculty of intellectual reasoning. But this actually shows how insecure they are in their salvation; and how inexperienced they are with the Holy Spirit.
The second kind of antinomians have always tended to be charismatic, or what J. I. Packer calls in his Concise Theology, “Spirit-centered antinomians,” of which there are many today. I don’t think it would be wrong to put Rick Joyner in this category. In an article he wrote in 2012, called “You Shall Be Holy,” he uses no Scripture references to prove his points. He uses phrases like legalism, fear, lawlessness, and unsanctified mercy to explain what he views as a kind spectrum for Law and Grace in the life of a Christian. He says that Christians should seek a middle road between legalism and lawlessness and follow the principle of love in order to avoid bad behavior. I see his view as only partially true; and as too vague. Yes, love fulfills the law (Matt. 22:40; Rom. 13:8-13; Gal. 5:14), but the Biblical specifics of holiness are all too easily forgotten when Christians give themselves over to such vague ideas. What about pornography, profanity, humor, and sexuality? What about movies, music, generosity, and friendships? What about modesty, moderation, evangelism, sports, and jobs? All things like this, and many other specific things in the Christian life, things pertaining to Christian holiness and separation from the world, could be adequately answered if people adopted more of a Puritan and Wesleyan view of holiness. Such a view always consults the New Testament first to see if Christians should behave in accordance with the moral law of God on any issues in life. But if you want to cast aside reason and the Bible, and hold to a general rule of love in the middle road between “legalism” and “lawlessness,” like Joyner does, then well, that’s better than nothing: but its not fully Biblical and doesn’t really help to strap down the body of Christ to any specific set of moral standards, even the standards laid down by Jesus and the apostles.
2. Keeping God’s Law Is Not a Curse for Christians! “Antinomian–Galatians 3:13: ‘Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us.’ Friend (Wesley)–What is this to the purpose? This tells me, that ‘Christ hath redeemed us’ (all that believe) ‘from the curse,’ or punishment, justly due to our past transgressions of God’s law” (p. 271). It is not burdensome to keep God’s commandments if you love Jesus (1 John 5:3). So, the antinomian interpretation of Galatians 3:13, kind of assumes that person doesn’t really love the Jesus of the Bible, but an imaginary version of him. It is not a curse to keep God’s law, but a blessing: “He that keepeth the law, happy is he” (Prov. 29:18, KJV). The Biblical Hebrew word for happy is the same one used for blessed, which is the opposite of being cursed and miserable. Jesus’ death on the cross provided a substitutionary atonement and punishment for the sins of the world, which means that the eternally miserable curse of Hell that is inflicted on mankind, due to a failure to conform to the strictness of God’s moral law, has been done away with for every repentant believer in Jesus. This is what Christians mean when they say they have been “redeemed,” or saved from Hell, and hence also redeemed from God’s curse, or the accusing power that the law of God has, which convicts and condemns sinners to an eternity in Hell. So, if anyone asks, “Why are so many people in Hell?” The answer could be given, “Because they failed to keep God’s law, and so are under the curse of God, because they refused the way of escape by justifying faith in the cross of Jesus.” But those who are in Christ, find it a blessing and also a necessity to keep God’s moral law to the best of their ability, with the help of God’s presence. Wesley said, “He redeemed them from the ‘condemnation of this law,’ not from ‘obedience to it.’ In this respect they are still, ‘not without law to God, but under the law of Christ'” (1 Cor. 9:21) (“A Second Dialogue,” p. 281).
3. Christians Must Grow in Holiness! “Friend (Wesley)–Does not a believer increase in holiness, as he increases in the love of God and man? Antinomian–I say, No. ‘The very moment he is justified, he is wholly sanctified. And he is neither more nor less holy, from that hour, to the day of his death. Entire justification and entire sanctification are in the same instant. And neither of them is thenceforth capable either of increase or decrease.’ Friend (Wesley)–I thought we were to grow in grace! Antinomian–‘We are so; but not in holiness. The moment we are justified, we are as pure in heart as ever we shall be. A new-born babe is as pure in heart as a father in Christ. There is no difference” (p. 276). This is totally ridiculous. The New Testament makes it clear that not only should Christians increase in their faith over time, but also in their adherence to the Word of God, and the principles of holiness. John 17:17: “Sanctify them by the truth; Your Word is truth.” Jesus said that sanctification comes through Bible study and obedience. This must be progressive and gradual, because nobody can know all the Bible at once. It takes time to learn its doctrines, to understand them, and apply them correctly to your life.
2 Corinthians 3:18: “We all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” This is very clear. It says Christians who practice contemplation (prayer), who worship God in Spirit and truth, and “see” in spirit the presence of God, that is, the shekinah glory, are also transformed into the image of Jesus–not instantly–but with “ever-increasing glory,” that is, the Christian transformation occurs in an ever-increasing way, progressively, on an upward curve, the more and more we become bearers of God’s presence. Holiness is improved on by learning and obeying Scripture, but also by Spirit-filled prayer; and I would argue it is here contemplative prayer that is the means of increasing sanctification, as the Catholic Church says.
2 Corinthians 7:1: “Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.” The language of progression is clearly used here. I guess if you were really adamant, you could argue that “let us purify ourselves” is not speaking of a process of purification, but there should be no confusion with the phrase “perfecting holiness,” which is definitely talking about a process of perfection, or moral improvement. To “perfect” (purr-feckt) something, whether you’re perfecting your knowledge of mathematics or history, perfecting your sales skills, perfecting your knowledge of automobiles, or perfecting your personal morals–to perfect (purr-feckt) in this ongoing, increasing, progressive, improving sense, carries a totally different meaning than the word “perfect” (purr-ficht): which is to say a thing has no flaws in it–that it is perfect in every way. A math formula, for example, could be said to be perfect, because it totally lacks errors; certain bodybuilders may be in a perfect physical condition; the angels are perfectly holy (Luke 9:26); and the law of the Lord, which converts the soul, is perfect (Ps. 19:7). So, when 2 Corinthians 7:1 says that Christians should be “perfecting holiness out of reverence for God,” we should understand Paul means that holiness is a thing like math, history, or mechanics–it is something that can be perfected, or improved upon progressively over time, through learning more about it and trying to apply its teachings to your life: teachings which come from Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament.
Ephesians 4:15-16: “Speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” This also is very clear. Paul likens the Christian Church at large to the “body” of Jesus Christ. As we speak the truth, and as we exhibit the spirit of love, we will grow and mature in every respect, to become more like Jesus. This is extremely clear language. This assumes time is a sanctifying factor in the life of a Christian: and that over time, a baby Christian grows holier as it becomes a teen Christian, and then a young adult Christian, and then a middle aged Christian, and then a senior Christian. This does not automatically mean that elderly people are holy, but it does mean that the longer a person has been walking with Jesus, the holier and kinder they are likely to be.
All of these Scriptures abundantly show that antinomianism–the idea that there is no moral improvement in the Christian life–is a complete falsehood. Of course there is moral transformation! The Holy Spirit is supposed to be in the Christian’s heart! (Rom. 5:5). How can this NOT make a change happen? We admit it’s a struggle and a fight with the flesh (Rom. 7), but we are saying that sanctification also assumes the presence of the Bible, the Holy Spirit, love, and contemplative prayer. Its a fight that has the Holy Spirit, the supernatural power of God, as a helper.