17th Century Antinomian Controversy

17th-Century-BibleOne of the major threats faced by the biblical Gospel in our day is that of antinomianism (against law). This is a threat that was foretold by many of the biblical authors, for instance, the Apostle Peter wrote:

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction and many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed and in their greed they will exploit you with false words… They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved. For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. – 2 Peter 2:1-3a; 19-20

And in Jude we find:

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ… These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves… In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.” It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. – Jude 3-4, 12, 18-21

But as Solomon said, there is nothing new under the sun and this is not the first time that orthodox, even Reformed Christianity has faced the threat of antinomianism. In the book, Blown by the Spirit, a historical work covering the emergence of an antinomian underground during the seventeenth century and the time of the Puritans, author David Como makes the following remarks about the antinomians of that day:

  • For all their attachment to the doctrines of predestination, unmerited grace, and justification by faith, English puritans [sic] had from a very early stage stressed the importance, indeed the preeminence, of moral, social, and personal reformation. The life of faith as envisioned by godly preachers involved a strenuous and unremitting struggle to do God’s will in the world – that is, to extirpate sin and to exalt and glorify “God by promoting and performing his Law.
  • Those who earned the epithet ‘antinomian’ all saw [demands for godly living] as a . form of works-righteousness, an outward, literal, and ‘legalistic’ religiosity that nurtured a slavish devotion to the Law. Hence, godly preachers were routinely likened to ‘Jews’, rabbis, or papists’, while antinomian prophets often claimed to be promoting the true Christian message of free grace and justification by faith entirely apart from any works, legal or otherwise.
  • Christians who consoled themselves by supplicating or praying to God, hearing sermons- indeed with the performance of any “duties” – were said to be trapped in a legal or literal servitude to external elements. Most of all, the tendency of the godly to see sanctification, outward holinessand [a demand for] moral reformation were seen as pharisaical error. Nevertheless, in constructing this critique of mainstream puritan divinity, antinomians paradoxically borrowed rhetorical and theological resources from the reformed/puritan tradition, revealing a…tendency of antinomianism – the propensity to use images and motifs common to Puritanism to attack mainstream Puritanism itself.
  • [The antinomians] maintained that no act of human effort or will could do anything to earn salvation or assurance, both of which were to come solely from the overwhelming power of Christ’s life and death.
  • [The Antinomians] stressed [instead] the passivity of the believer [in relation to moral obligations]…
  • …their freedom from the Law was the result of the fact that [they believed] the Law had been fulfilled within them [already]
  • … [by virtue of] the believer’s identity with Christ.  By virtue of [this] believers were free from the Law…
  • Believers were not inherently pure, but rather rendered imputatively perfect via the holy life of Christ.

Did any of that sound familiar? This is exactly the same words and teaching we are hearing today from many who call themselves Reformed as well as the broader Evangelical Christian community. Ideas such as active obedience, contemplative gospel, etc. are being used to support an antinomian approach to the way of salvation. The only difference between the antinomian controversy of the seventeenth century and our day is that back then, the antinomian gospel was condemned as heresy, while today it is broadly accepted as biblical orthodoxy.

As a result, faithful obedience to Christ is seen as nice but optional. Modern Bible teachers teach that disciplining one’s body and making it your slave as part of the obligation to avoid condemnation (1 Corinthians 9:27) was good for Paul, but for the rest of us, all that really matters is just believing that Jesus will have our back on Judgment Day.

This antinomian gospel was condemned as heresy back in the seventeenth century because individuals who believe that Christ will be a Savior to those who think that obedience is optional or that partial obedience is good enough, those individuals will be standing in the wrong line at That Day (Matthew 7:21-27, Deuteronomy 29:19). If you do not believe that the true Gospel is one that demands full compliance and faithful obedience, you might want to consider other examples in Scripture, such as Cain, Eli, King Saul, Uzzah, the Pharisees, the Rich Young Ruler or the many other biblical characters who thought that obedience was optional or that selective obedience was good enough.

Do you think that those condemned in Matthew 7 believed that they served a God who “who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart” (1 Corinthians 4:5)? Or did they believe that Jesus + Nothing = Everything?