THEOLOGICAL errors move in cycles, some times of very long periods. They resemble those comets of unknown orbits which occasionally dash into our solar system; but they are not as harmless. Often they leave moral ruin in their track. Since all Christian truth is practical, and aims at the moral transformation of men, all negations of that truth are deleterious; they not only obscure the truth and obstruct its purifying effect, but they positively corrupt and destroy souls. This is specially true of errors which release men from obligation to the law of God. After St. Paul had demonstrated the impossibility of justification by works compensative for sin, and had established the doctrine of justification through faith in Christ which works by love and purifies the heart, there started up a class of teachers who drew from Paul’s teachings the fallacious inference that the law of God is abolished in the case of the believer, who is henceforth delivered from its authority as the rule of life. Hence they became, what Luther first styled, Antinomians (Greek anti, against, and nomos, law). We infer from Romans 3:8, 31; 6:1; Ephesians 5:6; 2 Peter 2:18-19, and James 2:17-26, in which warnings are given against perversion of the truth as an excuse for licentiousness, that Antinomianism, in its grosser form, found place in the primitive church. All along the history of the Church, a revival of the cardinal doctrine of justification, by faith only, has been followed by a resurrection of Antinomianism, which Wesley defines as “the doctrine which makes void the law through faith.” Those who aver that ultra-Calvinism is the invariable antecedent of Antinomianism, would be unwilling to accept the necessary inference that the apostle to the Gentiles was an ultra-Calvinist; yet it is true that the doctrines of Calvinism can be logically pushed to that conclusion. It is also true that other forms of doctrine which emphasize faith in Jesus Christ, as the sole ground of acceptance with God, are more or less liable to have the tares of Antinomianism spring up in their field.
The root of this error lies in a false view of the mediatorial work of Christ, that He performs for men the obedience which they ought to perform, and that God can justly demand nothing further from the delinquents. It is claimed that Christ’s perfect virtues are reckoned to the believer in such a way as to excuse him for their absence; His chastity compensating for the absence of that moral quality in the believer. Hence, adultery and murder in King David, being compensated by the purity and benevolence of Jesus imputed to him in the mind of God, did not mar David’s standing as righteous before God.
Theologians who state the doctrine of the atonement with proper safeguards, are careful to limit its vicarious efficacy to the passive obedience of the Son of God, His sufferings and death [see John Boruff’s The Gospel of Jesus Christ]. His active obedience constitutes no part of His substitutional work. The germ of Antinomianism is found in the inclusion of the latter in the atonement. It is true that the God-man was actively obedient to the Father’s will, but this obedience was personal, and not mediatorial. Hence, every one justified through faith in the shed blood of Christ, is under obligation to render personal obedience to God’s law. In this respect Jesus cannot be his proxy or representative.
Says Bishop [Ezekiel] Hopkins’ Practical Christianity: “Though Christ’s bearing the punishment of the law by death does exempt us from suffering, yet His obeying of the law does not excuse obedience to the law. He obeyed the law as a covenant of works –we only as a rule of righteousness.”
It should be said that the Gnostic sects were Antinomian on other grounds. They held that their spiritual natures could not contract moral pollution, whatever their moral conduct might be, sin [existing] only in matter. As a piece of gold retains its purity while encompassed by the filth of the pig sty, so the soul keeps pure amid the grossest sins. This species of Antinomianism was not limited to those who professed faith in Christ. It was adopted by all who held that all evil [exists] in uncreated matter.
Modern Universalism is only another form of Antinomianism. It is the expectation of salvation through Christ, without obedience to either the law or the Gospel.
Christianity was very early disfigured by antinomianism, a doctrinal and practical error which opposes itself to God’s law even in the evangelical form in which it was defined by His adorable Son, “Thou shalt love God with all thy heart, and thy neighbor as thyself” (Mark 12:30-31). This had been the burden of Christ’s preaching, with the hint that His own life was to be given, as a ransom for many, and to secure grace to enable them to fulfil God’s law. The apostles, by precept and example, powerfully enforced their Lord’s doctrine and practice. Their lives are true copies of their exhortations. It is hard to say which excite men most to believe and obey, their seraphic sermons or their saintly lives. Success crowned their labors. Both Judaism and paganism heard the thunder of their words of faith and fell prostrate beneath the lightning of their works of love. But before all is lost, Satan hastens to “transform himself into an angel of light” (2 Cor. 10:14). In this disguise he instills speculative faith, instead of a saving faith which works by love, purifies the heart, and overcomes the world; he pleads for loose living, puts the badge of contempt upon the daily cross, and gets multitudes of Laodiceans and Gnostics into his snare. Sad and sure is the result. Genuine works of faith are neglected; idle works of men’s invention are substituted for those of God’s commandments; and fallen churches, gliding downward through the smooth way of antinomianism, return to the covert way of Phariseeism, or to the broad way of infidelity.
Such was the distressing outlook upon the church when Luther arose. True faith was dethroned by superstitious fancy, and works were will nigh choked by the thorns of this baneful error. Luther swung the sharp scythe of reform over northern Europe, and he might have mowed a broad swath through Italy and Rome itself, if he had not at the same time scattered the dragon’s teeth of antinomianism, which sprang up around his German home an army of armed men. The balance of evangelical precepts had not been preserved in preaching the forgiveness of sins by faith only, without adding that this faith is genuine only when it buds, blossoms, and bears the fruitage of holy character.
Our Lord’s sermon upon the Mount, was explained away, and St. James’ Epistle was wished out of the Bible as an “epistle of straw,” and not of the precious stones of Gospel truth. The practicable law of Christ, styled the law of liberty, because of the ease with which it could kept by a regenerate soul entirely sanctified through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, was perpetually confounded with that impracticable Christless law of Edenic innocence; and the avoidable penalties of the former were injudiciously represented as one with the dreadful curse of the latter, or with the abrogated ceremonies of Mosaism. Then the law of Christ demanding purity and love was publicly wedded to the devil, and poor bewildered Protestants were taught to defy and scoff at both. From such a seed-sowing the dreadful harvest waved over Germany. Lawless believers, under the name of Ana-Baptists, arose fancying themselves the dear elect people of God, reasoning thus: “First, the earth belongs to the saints, and, secondly, we are the saints.” All things were theirs. They were complete in Christ, and absolutely sure of salvation by reason of their standing in Him. They went about in religious mobs to deliver people from legal bondage, and bring them into Gospel liberty, — a liberty to despise all laws, Divine and human, and to do every one what was right in his own eyes. Luther was alarmed and shocked. He hastened from his concealment in the castle of the Wartburg, to check a movement which was disgracing the Reformation. But the mischief was done: the thistle-seed had been broadcast over Germany. The only proper remedy he did not perseveringly apply: salvation, not by the merit of works, but by the works of faith, as a condition, and as a proof of its genuineness in the great day. Men are now justified from the guilt of sin by a work-producing faith. They will be justified in the day of judgment only on the testimony of faith-produced works.
Nevertheless, Luther learned wisdom enough to abandon the root of the mischief when he drew up, or, rather, endorsed, the Augsburg Confession, in which are these remarkable words: “We teach touching repentance, that those who have sinned after baptism may obtain the forgiveness of sins as often as they are converted,” etc. Again: “We condemn the Anabaptists, who say that those who have been once justified can no more lose the Holy Spirit.”
This antidote of Gospel truth, clearly and frequently enforced, might have stopped the spread of Antinomianism.
But Luther did not insist upon it, vacillated, and sometimes seemed even to contradict it. When Calvin arose, though he seldom went the length of some of his followers in the next century (some 1600s Puritans) in speculative Antinomianism, yet he laid excellent foundations for it in his un-Scriptural and unguarded doctrine of absolute decrees, and of the necessary, final perseverance of backsliding believers (once saved, always saved).
We have hinted that Antinomianism has had its cycles in the history of the Church. Its full development, since the Reformation, is due to John Agricola (1492-1566), one of the early coadjutors of Luther, some of whose expressions, as to justification and the law, in the heat of his great controversy with Rome, were hasty, extravagant, and quite Antinomian. These utterances Agricola developed into a system so extreme, and so subversive of Christian morals, that he published in 1537 these words: “Art thou steeped in sin–an adulterer or a thief? If thou believest, thou art in salvation. All who follow Moses must go to the devil; to the gallows with Moses.” This was the kind of tares sown in Luther’s field by a professed friend. Luther attacked him violently, calling him a fanatic, and other hard names (see Against the Antinomians). After Agricola’s death, Amsdorf and Otto advocated his doctrines, and maintained that good works are an obstacle to salvation. Similar sentiments were preached in England in the days of Oliver Cromwell. But it remained for Dr. [Tobias] Crisp, (1600-1642), a rector of the Church of England, to give this error its full development in Anglican theology, from the seed-corn of high Calvinism. The following sentiments abound in his sermons: “The law is cruel and tyrannical, requiring what is naturally impossible.” “The sins of the elect were so imputed to Christ, as that, though He did not commit them, yet they became actually His transgressions, and ceased to be theirs. The feelings of conscience which tell them that sin is theirs, arise from a want of knowing the truth. It is but the voice of a lying spirit in the hearts of believers that saith they have yet in wasting their conscience, and lying as a burden too heavy for them to bear. Christ’s righteousness is so imputed to the elect, that they, ceasing to be sinners, are as righteous as He was, and all that He was. An elect person is not in a condemned state while an unbeliever; and should he happen to die before God calls him to believe, he would not be lost. Repentance and confession of sin are not necessary to forgiveness. A believer may certainly conclude before confession, yea, as soon as he hath committed sin, the interest he hath in Christ, and the love of Christ embracing him.”
This doctrine completely destroys the distinction between right and wrong, and removes all motives to abstain from sin. It boasts in the perseverance of the saints, while it believes in no saint but one, that is, Jesus, and neglects to persevere. Several vigorous theologians opposed this baneful doctrine, the chief of whom were [Richard] Baxter [Aphorismes of Justification and The Scripture Gospel Defended] and [?] Williams, who, after heroic efforts and no small suffering, finally triumphed.
The next revival of Antinomianism in the Church of England and among the dissenters, was in the eighteenth century and was met most courageously by John Wesley, the apostle of experimental godliness and of Christian perfection (see “Letter to James Hervey” and “A Dialogue Between an Antinomian and His Friend“), and by the seraphic John Fletcher, whose writings, says Dr. Dollinger, “are the most important theological productions which issued from Protestanism in the latter part of the eighteenth century.” His reasoning is cogent, his imagination vivid, his style clear and incisive, and the momentum of his arguments is so irresistible that he swept the field, driving Antinomianism out of England during, at least, two generations. His [Checks to Antinomianism] stand to-day unanswered and unanswerable. No man can read them with candor and continue to deny the obligation of believers to strict obedience to the law of God; that inwrought holiness is the requirement of the Gospel, and that there is no sharp contrast between it and the law.
A thorough study of these Checks, by the ministry in our times, would wonderfully stimulate their spiritual life, tone up their theology, and furnish them with the weapons for the conflict with the cycle of Antinomian error which is now upon the Church.
The agency through which this heresy, entombed by Fletcher, has had its resurrection, is the so-called Plymouth Brethren…