The Bogeyman of Antinomianism
“It is important to understand the term antinomianism in its theological sense. I do not use the word to be derogatory. To say someone is antinomian is not necessarily to say that person spurns holiness or condones ungodliness. Most antinomians vigorously appeal for Christians to walk in a manner worthy of their calling; but at the same time they minimize the relationship between obedience and faith. Antinomians typically believe Christians should yield to the lordship of Christ; they just do not believe surrender is a binding requirement in the gospel call to faith. Antinomians do not necessarily despise the law of God; they simply believe it is irrelevant to saving faith. They suggest that obedience to the righteous principles of the law might not become a pattern in the Christian’s life (Rom 8:4, 10:4). In short, Antinomianism is the belief that allows for justification without sanctification.” – John MacArthur, The Gospel According to the Apostles, page 95
MacArthur argues Antinomianism is the belief that surrender is not a binding requirement in the gospel call to faith. By surrender, he means “a continuous operation of the Holy Spirit in believers, making us holy by conforming our character, affections, and behavior to the image of Christ.”
If this is so, if salvation is conditioned upon “a continuous operation of the Holy Spirit in believers, making us holy by conforming our character, affections, and behavior to the image of Christ”, then let it be said, no one in the Bible was saved!
You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ publicly portrayed as crucified? This then is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain – if indeed it was in vain? So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you do so by the works of the Law or by hearing with faith? Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham.
Romans 4:5 But the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, His faith is credited as righteousness.
Colossians 1:20-23 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations – Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch (referring to things that all perish as they are used) – according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value I stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
What MacArthur has constructed here is a straw man. He has attempted to redefine Antinomianism in a way which suits him.
Antinomianism does not mean a belief that surrender is not a binding requirement in the gospel call to faith. This is how Richard Baxter, the Neonomian, also tried to define it.
Antinomianism means, “without law.” It is a term used to describe people who deny the law has any use for the Christian.
MacArthur contrasts his teaching with that true Antinomian, Zane Hodges. Unfortunately, he only contrasts it with Zane Hodges. In the space of three books and an entire host of sermons, he never gets around to contrasting it with anyone else.
What MacArthur refuses to acknowledge, or perhaps what he is hiding from, is the fact that most of the people who oppose him are not followers of Zane Hodges. Zane Hodges is hardly orthodox. Who cares what he thinks. Rather, most of the people who oppose MacArthur are orthodox, gospel believing, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Reformed Protestants who do not believe the gospel call to faith represents a surrender to a binding requirement. These people are not Antinomian. They do not deny the law applies to Christians. They do not deny they are sinners. They do not deny the law tells them they are sinners. They do not deny the law instructs them in the way they should behave. What they do deny is the notion that their assurance is conditioned in any way upon their obedience to the law. What they do deny is the notion they should look to their obedience for assurance of their justification.
MacArthur says Antinomians do not believe that behavior change is a binding requirement in the gospel call to faith. In asserting this, he demonstrates he believes behavior change is indeed a binding requirement in the gospel call to faith. This was the same heresy taught by the Anabaptists and by Baxter.
What must I do to be saved? That is a very good question. In Acts 16:30, a Philippian jailor asked Paul that very same question. Paul told him, “Believe upon the Lord Jesus.” Lordship Salvation answers the question quite differently.
Edward Gross is an advocate for MacArthur and his Lordship Salvation theology. He even went so far as to write an apologetic book dedicated to the defense of MacArthur and Lordship Salvation. In it, he writes:
“The Scriptures also depicts salvation as something that is presently occurring in each believer, ‘For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who ARE BEING SAVED (emphasis Gross) it is the power of God’ (1 Cor 1:18). This aspect of salvation is rarely addressed today. Yes, God has justified us, pronounced us righteous in His sight because of the imputed righteousness of Christ. But is that our entire salvation? Is God not presently saving those whom He has justified? Is He not sanctifying us and giving to us in our practical lives a salvation from the power of sin? All true Christians are being saved.”– Edward Gross, Christianity Without A King, pg. 15
It is true in one sense of the word the Bible teaches a multi-tense view of salvation, but not in the way Gross means it. That is, although my salvation has been purchased by Christ’s death, and is therefore guaranteed, I still yet await the return of Christ for the receipt of that salvation which He has purchased for me (1 Cor 15:16-19).
The idea that I am being saved by my obedience is an idea nowhere found in Scripture. Christians are indeed instructed to behave a certain way. That is not in question. What is in question is the notion that a Christian’s salvation is conditioned upon this behavior, or that the elect undergo a life long process of gradual salvation from their sins. The free gift of grace, not the threat of a hell still to face, is always the motivation for walking in a way that is pleasing to the Lord.
Colossians 1:9-14 And so from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will to all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. May you be strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
Notice the verb tense in Colossians 1. Paul does not say the Father will transfer them, but rather, He has transferred them. You have been delivered. You have been redeemed. You have been forgiven. These are not being words. It is not you are being saved, being delivered, being redeemed. Rather, these are have been words. You have been redeemed, you have been delivered, you have been forgiven.
What then is Paul talking about in 1 Corinthians 1:18? Why does he use the present perfect tense to describe salvation in this one instance?
Everything Paul wrote in his epistle to the Corinthians previous to verse 18 would have made no sense had he meant believers are in the process of being saved. Consider, for example, verses 4 through 8.
1 Corinthians 1:4-8 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in very way you were enriched in Him in all speech and all knowledge – even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you – so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Here again, Paul’s descriptions of the Corinthian brothers are all to be found in the past tense. Grace was given you. You were enriched in Him. The testimony of Christ was confirmed among you. You are not lacking in any spiritual gift. Consider also the fact that he makes his point even stronger in verse 2 where he states that even their sanctification is past tense.
1 Corinthians 1:2 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.
What Paul is talking about in verse 18 is what the writer of Hebrews is taking about in Hebrews 10:14.
Hebrews 10:14 For by a single offering He has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”
In this instance, the writer of Hebrews is using the word sanctified to denote conversion. We know this because of what the author states in verse 10.
Hebrews 10:10 And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Those who have been sanctified once and for all time are part of a larger group of people who are in the process of being converted. Not all the elect have been converted yet. The full number is still being called and converted. What Paul has in mind in 1 Corinthians 1:18 is what the author of Hebrews has in mind – the whole number of the elect. Paul has to say “being saved” rather than “has been saved”, because the full number has not yet been called. He does not know what that full number is or when that full number will all finally be converted, but he knows it will be.
Gross rejects this interpretation though. He insists that 1 Corinthians 1:18 is not about election and conversion, but rather about a process leading to salvation that he believes every Christian enters into after conversion. And even though his interpretation contradicts every shred of the past tense language which precedes it, not to mention the immediate context of the passage, he nevertheless continues to assert it anyway.
As is obvious then, Lordship Salvation rejects the once and for all time propitiatory nature of Christ’s death. It replaces the word accomplished with accomplishing. It teaches that what the cross needs in order to save is some cooperation from our end. We must work to improve our behavior.
How much behavior improvement is enough though? If just a little, how much little is enough? If a lot, then how much of a lot is enough?
The law is not half the gospel. Rather, the law is no gospel at all! It is opposite the gospel. The law reminds me I am a sinner. This is the function of the law, this is what the law was meant to do. What the gospel does is tell me Jesus atoned for my sins by dying for them on the cross, and in the process He propitiated God’s wrath which stood against me because of my sins.
The words, thou shall not, are not an opportunity to improve myself. They are instead a judgment. Thou shall not means you broke me and now must die as a consequence. I do not answer with oaths and promises that I will try harder next time. Nor do I spiral down into despair, wondering if I am really saved. Instead, I turn immediately to the cross. “Thank you Jesus for dying for this sin, because otherwise I would be a goner.”
MacArthur and Gross bristle at this. They call my turning to the cross an act of cheap grace. They throw their chins high and turn their noses down at me. Thank God we are not like this sinner, this cheap grace, no-lordship fellow who treats grace like it was a no-strings-attached, open-ended package of amnesty divorced from any moral demands.
Grace does not mean I pay no attention to sin, or that I approach sin with a willy-nilly attitude. That is licentiousness. No, I acknowledge Christ has commanded me to behave a certain way. However, this does not mean I will obey. As Luther put it, the law tells me what I should not, not what I can do. I am a sinner. I will continue to disobey. I am not flippant about that. It hurts me to say it, but this is the truth. I have not yet been resurrected . I still as yet reside in a body of sin. The lifetime of failures I will continue to experience are not opportunities to sink into despair. Rather, they are opportunities to keep turning to the cross, keep turning to the cross, keep turning to the cross, each time glorifying God with gratitude and thanksgiving. Thank you so much, Lord Jesus for dying for that sin and that sin and that sin and that …
Where there is no efficaciousness though, no effectual atonement and redemption, then there is only a grim reminder of guilt and wrath. This is what Lordship Salvation gives to people. Twice the citizenship of Hell.