By Nathan A. Finn
In recent months, a debate has been stirring mostly among our conservative Presbyterian friends over antinomianism, or the idea that because believers live under grace God’s moral law should not be considered an appointed means used in our sanctification. Most antinomians are not libertines (a common misperception), but because they downplay the necessity of good works in the life of a Christian, mainstream Reformed believers argue that antinomian views do lead to a stunted understanding of sanctification.
The Reformed version of antinomianism (there are many versions of this particular error) that has often appeared among Calvinists argues against the necessity of the moral law based upon a fatalistic view of predestination and/or a too-sharp distinction between law and gospel. PCA pastor-theologian Mark Jones’s new book Antinomianism retraces the history of Reformed antinomianism and makes some contemporary application. In fact, Jones’s comments about some well-known Calvinist pastors, especially Tullian Tchividjian, have played a key role in bringing the current controversy to a head. You can read more about the dust-up at The Gospel Coalition, Reformation 21, and Tchividjian’s website. For a timely and edifying word that is inspired by this controversy, see Nick Batzig’s excellent blog post “Dangers of Theological Controversy.”
Once upon a time, the English Calvinists Baptists faced their own kerfuffle over antinomianism. Robert Oliver discusses this topic at length in his book History of the English Calvinistic Baptists 1771-1892: From John Gill to C.H. Spurgeon (Banner of Truth, 2006). This issue played a key role in the separation of the Strict and Particular Baptists from the majority Particular Baptist movement during the first half of the eighteenth century. Among Particular Baptists, there was often a connection between antinomianism and High Calvinism, though this wasn’t always the case.
Andrew Fuller wrote against the Reformed version of antinomianism in a posthumously published treatise titled Antinomianism Contrasted with the Religion Taught and Exemplified in the Holy Scriptures (1816). Fuller’s treatise can be found in the second volume of the “Sprinkle Edition” of The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller. Fuller argued that antinomianism is, at root, a species of spiritual selfishness that is concerned more with the spiritual benefits of the faith than a wholehearted devotion to Lord that is evidenced, in part, though the pursuit of ongoing spiritual maturity.
For an excellent introduction to Fuller’s critique of antinomianism, check out Mark Jones’s plenary address on that topic from last fall’s Andrew Fuller Center Conference.
Nathan A. Finn is associate professor of historical theology and Baptist Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also an elder at First Baptist Church of Durham, NC and a fellow of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies.