Grace is a lovely young lady of nineteen years. She professes to be a Christian. She goes to church regularly, gives money in the offering, reads her Bible and prays. Her pastor teaches that since Christ is our righteousness Christians are free from the confines of God’s moral law. He teaches that Christian liberty is the freedom to do whatever we wish, even sin. He just finished a sermon series he called Scandalous Freedom. There are a few caveats, but the basic message comes through loud and clear- you are free from God’s moral law through Christ. Free not just from the curse of the law but also its commanding authority in our lives. Grace is encouraged by this teaching to go ahead and move in with her boyfriend. They plan on getting married later but with college and all it just isn’t the right time. She prayed about it and has a peace about her decision and she really does love him. They were drinking one night and a few weeks later she realizes that she is pregnant. They can’t afford a baby right now. She begins to contemplate having an abortion. At first her conscience bothers her about the idea but her boyfriend is all for it and the pastor’s teaching seems to allow for this kind of freedom. Yes, he did say we are free to do it right or wrong. That is all she needs. She schedules an appointment for an abortion.
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“Ye Are Not Under The Law”
This little story is being played out with different scenarios throughout American Christianity. Christians are being taught that God’s moral law has little to nothing to do with their behavior, that it does not have authority to guide their lives. In theology this is called antinomianism. Unless you are a student of theology you probably have never seen this word. The word antinomian is a compound word consisting of the Latin anti which means opposed or against, and the Greek nomos which means law. So someone who is an antinomian is someone who is opposed to or against the law. More particularly, it is a professing Christian who believes that because of the grace of the gospel the moral law of God is of no use or obligation. Antinomians take verses like Galatians 5:18 “But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law” to mean there is no valid use for God’s law in a Christian’s life.
Declared Right To Be Made Right
But doesn’t salvation by faith alone imply antinomianism? Doesn’t Romans 3:28 “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” teach that God’s law has no place? Here is where a few distinctions and clarifications will be helpful. There is a difference between God declaring us righteous solely on the merit of Christ which we receive by faith alone and not through the law, and living out our faith on a day to day basis using God’s moral law as a guide to determine right from wrong. In theological terms it is the difference between justification and sanctification. Justification is a onetime legal act in God’s court when those who exercise faith in Christ’s atoning work are declared to be righteous. They are declared to be righteous, not because of any good works they have done, but because they are joined to Christ by faith and God sees them as righteous on Christ’s account. Sanctification, on the other hand, rather than the legal declaration of righteousness, is being set apart unto God to be made holy. Justification is an act of God’s grace whereas sanctification is an ongoing work of God’s grace through which we grow in practical righteousness. This distinction explains why on the one hand the apostle Paul says “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth” in Romans 10:4, and “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law” in Romans 3:31. The first verse has reference to justification and the second refers to sanctification.
The Principle Of Grace
What then, is the meaning of Paul’s statement (in reference to believers) “for ye are not under the law, but under grace” in Romans 6:14? At first glance this seems to directly assert antinomianism. To begin with, in the Greek from which the New Testament is translated the definite article the before the word law does not appear. It could be more literally translated “for ye are not under law, but under grace” as some translations do. The meaning is that it is not just a particular law that we are not under, but that we do not stand righteous before God or obtain victory over sin on the principle of law at all. There is another principle by which we have obtained righteousness and triumph over sin, that is, the grace of God.
Grace Is Not License To Sin
To understand how this text is not teaching antinomianism let’s look at the full verse with the following one. “For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under law, but under grace. What then? shall we sin, because we are not under law, but under grace? God forbid.” Romans 6:14,15. This text is asserting that because believers stand on the principle of grace rather than law it leads to power over sin. Then the apostle asks a question that amounts to “since we don’t stand under the condemnation of the law does that mean we have a license to sin?” He answers with a resounding “NO”. It is also helpful if we define sin according to the Bible. In 1 John 3:4 Scripture says, “Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law”. Now let’s paraphrase Romans 6:14,15. For sin shall not have the rule over you: for ye are not under the principle of law, but under the principle of grace. What then? shall we break God’s moral law, because we are not under the principle of law, but under the principle of grace? Certainly not. We can gather from these verses that victory over sin comes through grace not law, and yet grace in no way grants us a license to break God’s moral law. So reading the phrase “for ye are not under the law, but under grace” in context completely rules out antinomianism and rather establishes the law in its proper place.
Antinomian For Different Reasons
There are several distinct categories of antinomianism which many professing Christians fall into. The following categories were taken from J. I. Packer’s Concise Theology and the definitions are a mixture of Packer’s words and my paraphrase and commentary 1.
Dualistic Antinomianism. This thinking follows the Gnostic idea that salvation is for the soul alone, so whatever we do in the body is irrelevant to God’s interests and our soul’s health. In my view this is the worst form of antinomianism because everything is permissible. Many so called Christians who view salvation as mere fire insurance fall into this category and continue to live without regard to God or his moral directives. The apostle Paul warned the Corinthians about those who disregard God’s moral law. “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.” 1 Corinthians 6:9,10.
Spirit-centered Antinomianism. People who hold this view put such trust in the Holy Spirit’s inward prompting as to deny any need to be taught by the law how to live. Freedom from the law as a way of salvation is assumed to bring with it freedom from the law as a guide to conduct. Life is lived in an ‘if it feels right do it’ kind of way. While it is true that the Spirit mightily works in a true believer’s heart, the sin nature still remains and the written Word is necessary to discern whether it is the Spirit you are obeying or simply your own flesh. Jesus said unequivocally, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” John 14:15.
Christ-centered Antinomianism. Those who hold this opinion argue that God sees no sin in believers, because they are in Christ, who kept the law for them, and therefore what they actually do makes no difference, provided that they keep believing. The problem with this view is that it denies the Biblical doctrine of sanctification, that God enables us to live out the righteousness that Christ legally gives to us. When sinners receive Christ through the gospel it is true that God looks at them as perfect on Christ’s account. What they overlook is that since believers are given the Spirit they are now free from the dominion of sin as well as its penalty. The morphed caterpillar no longer crawls but flies as a new butterfly. If they only keep crawling it is evidence that the metamorphosis never actually took place.
Dispensational Antinomianism. This view denies that biblical law is God’s direct command and affirms that the Bible’s imperative statements trigger the Word of the Spirit, which when it comes may or may not correspond exactly to what is written. For instance, Joe is aware that the moral law forbids premarital sex, but since he doesn’t see that law as binding he interprets it rather loosely. He feels like he can live with his girlfriend because it feels right to him. He has imagined that the Spirit is okay with fornication now whereas in biblical times he was not. We hear it often, ‘get with the times’ or ‘things are different now’. In opposition to this idea Jesus declared, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:17-19.
Situationist Antinomianism. Those who take this stance say that a motive and intention of love is all that God now requires of Christians, and the commands of the Ten Commandments and other ethical parts of Scripture, for all that they are ascribed to God directly, are mere rules of thumb for loving, rules that love may at times disregard. The problem with this is that right and wrong become subjective with this view so as long as your motive is good any number of sins may be committed. For example, a person may use this line of thinking to justify homosexual behavior by thinking that as long as they love the other person it is okay.
To summarize all of these views, antinomians are those who for various reasons think that God’s moral law is non-binding in New Testament times.
What Exactly Is The Moral Law?
I think there is also a lot of confusion about God’s law. It may be helpful to define just what I mean by the moral law. The moral law in contradistinction to the ceremonial law are biblical laws that reflect the unchanging character of God and therefore are themselves unchanging. Jesus summarized the moral law in two basic commandments. He lays it out as an answer to a question that a lawyer posed to him. “Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Matthew 22:35-40. The Ten Commandments are a fuller summary of the same moral law. Commandments one through four relate to loving God and commandments five through ten relate to loving our fellow man. All of the other moral injunctions and principles in Scripture in both Old and New Testaments relate to the Ten Commandments and ultimately to the two great commandments. The ceremonial laws of the Old Testament are not unchanging moral laws but rather temporary laws that related to the worship of God which were typical of Christ. For instance, the sacrificial system typified the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ on the cross and since Christ has become what the sacrifices symbolized they are no longer in force. There are other laws that relate only to the people of Israel in Old Testament times and cannot be considered moral. Some examples of such laws are the laws relating to the inheritance of the Promised Land and how it was to be passed down, or how Israel was to wage war against the Canaanites.
Three Legitimate Purposes For The Law
Even if we acknowledge that the moral law is binding we must also acknowledge that the law has a limited use. Paul said to his understudy Timothy “But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully.” 1Timothy 1:8. Subsequently, it is evident that there is a proper way to use the law and an improper way. Protestant theologians historically have seen three proper uses for the law which can be expressed as the civil, the pedagogical, and the normative uses.
Fear Of Punishment
The first use, the civil, is that the law is a force to restrain sin in society by its threats of punishment. Though it cannot change the heart, the law can to some extent inhibit lawlessness by its threats of judgment, especially when backed by a civil code that administers present punishment for proven offences 2. The governing authorities are empowered by God to carry out punishment for criminal activity even to the extent of capital punishment. One example of Scripture teaching this first use of the law is found in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Speaking of the civil ruler he said, “For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil”. Romans 13:4. With this use of the law a measure of peace in society can be maintained because it restrains evil men.
Despair Of Personal Ability To Gain Righteousness
The second use of the moral law is the pedagogical use. Since God’s standard of righteousness is perfection, and the penalty for breaking even the slightest commandment is death in God’s court, and seeing that we all fall woefully short, the law in this capacity causes us to despair of ever finding righteousness through the law, thereby leading us to look outside of ourselves to Christ for salvation. “Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” Rom 3:19,20. When we come to understand this it causes us to cry out with Paul “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” Romans 7:24.
The Law For The Redeemed
The third use, the normative use, is for those who have been saved from God’s wrath through Christ, to use the law as a guide to lead them in their obedience to Christ. It serves as an external, objective guide to confirm what the Spirit teaches them inwardly is their duty, so that the righteous desires of their redeemed hearts may be fully informed of true righteousness. In those God has redeemed, the curse of the law has been removed so that now it is the gentle tool in the hand of God to instruct his children in how to love him and their fellow man. David, the king of Israel, understood this third use of the law very well. Here are a few excerpts from one of his psalms. “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee. Blessed art thou, O LORD: teach me thy statutes. With my lips have I declared all the judgments of thy mouth. I have rejoiced in the way of thy testimonies, as much as in all riches. I will meditate in thy precepts, and have respect unto thy ways. I will delight myself in thy statutes: I will not forget thy word… O how love I thy law! it is my meditation all the day… I have refrained my feet from every evil way, that I might keep thy word. I have not departed from thy judgments: for thou hast taught me. How sweet are thy words unto my taste! yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” Psalm 119:11-16,97,101-103
What Are You?
Now I ask, are you an antinomian? Do you acknowledge the three lawful uses of the law? There are an increasing number of American Christians who are becoming antinomians yet it is nothing new. Even in the days of the writing of the New Testament antinomianism plagued the church. Jude writes, “For there are certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation, ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness (lewd sensuality), and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ.” Jude 1:4. The warnings of Scripture are clear that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God. If your theology does not give the moral law its proper place you may be an antinomian. If you balk at God’s commandments, and despise his holy requirements you may be one of those who have turned the grace of God into a license to sin.
- Packer, J. I. Concise Theology. Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, 1993. 178- 180. Print.
- Ibid. 94