Friday, January 28, 2011

Antinomian Wars Continued

Jason's Hood CT piece continues to prompt controversy and discussion about the proud tag of being antinomian (see here, here, and here; and apparently Jason is even a United Methodist and an Arminiam too; note Jason's response to some here). Part of the problem is, I suspect, that there are schemes of theology that have an indicative but lack the grounds for articulating an ethical imperative that is based on the exhortations of Scripture (my earlier thoughts on this subject are posted here). Scott Clark responds to Jason Hood from a Reformed perspective in effect accusing Jason of promoting a theology of glory, perfectionism, and (heaven forbid) Weslyanism. Personally, I think it is clear that Jason is promoting none of these (though perhaps Clark is caricaturing for rhetorical effect and trying to warn of extreme versions of what Jason actually said). Any ways, a few thoughts in my polite rejoinder:

1. The "Reformed reading" of Romans 7 is rather elastic. Augustine initially regarded the wretched man of Romans 7 as a non-believer, but then switched to regarding him as a believer because it was just good ammo for ragging on Pelagius. While Augustine's latter view and Calvin's have mostly carried the day, it was not unanimous and not without significant variations on the details. I used to teach a course on "The History of Reformed Interpretation of Romans" and I always set my students the essay topic, "What is the Reformed View of Romans 7?". Their answer usually was that there isn't one. For instance, H. Ridderbos and J. Murray are not your standard candle bearers for Calvin, but are no less Reformed. Elsewhere I've listed what I think are some good exegetical reasons why Romans 7 is not talking about Christians who struggle with Law and Sin. Let's resolve this with appeals to Scripture and not just footnotes to Calvin as Calvin himself would have wanted.

2. My biggest criticism is reserved for what Clark says here: "Do I need exhortation? Sure, I need the law. It doesn’t produce perfection in me or even godliness, but it does drive me to Christ, who was and remains perfect for me. When the law and my sins accuse me righteously I confess but I also say, “If Christ is for us, who can be against us?”" As a preface let me say that Clark believes we should try to be better Christians and he rightly recognizes that Spirit and gospel are the instruments that achieve this in the Christian life. No disagreement here. Much like N.T. Wright the problem is not what he affirms, but in what he denies. If I read him correctly, Clark denies that exhortations in the OT/NT actually inspire us or drive us to do good. Now Imagine preaching through the Sermon on the Mount with this view. If I may caricature: "Don't worry folks, Jesus' doesn't actually expect any of you to do this stuff, he just said it to make you realize what rotten sinners you are and understand how much you need his imputed righteousness." Or imagine, preaching through James with this view. Hear again the fictive voice: "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to believe more deeply in the doctrines of grace" (Jas 1:27 HPR [Hyper-Reformed Version]). Who could preach Matthew 5-7 or James 1:27 this way and get away with it? Jason Hood is not calling for perfectionism. Nor does prosecuting our sanctification with effort require a semi-Pelagian anthropology. To paraphrase Phil 2:13, we are to work out what God has worked into us.

Clark rightly captures Paul's anthropological pessimism about the nature of human sin and he wants to ensure the sola of sola gratia. I concur! Yet I think the perspective that he sets forth while big on sin and the need for the gospel, ultimately has a low view of the transforming power of the gospel itself. I have a hard time believing in a grace so radical that it will never change me. The exhortations we find in Romans 6 and Galatians 5 are there to be done, because they can be done, not perfectly, not infallibly, but in the power of the Spirit who indwells believers. The new creation actually creates good works in us. That ain't Wesley talking it's Jesus, Paul, Luke, John, and Peter.

I often set my students this essay question: "What better describes the state of Christians: (a) Sinners saved by grace; or (b) Saints who sometimes sin?" You could say that both are true, but there are slightly different nuances to them. Is it our pre-gospel state that defines our identity and behavior, or our post-gospel state that defines our identity and behavior. I favor the latter. I am no longer who I was nor will I ever be that person again. He is dead, crucified, buried, and raised to new life. Yes, the old me steeped in sin tries to resurrect itself, and when it does I try my hardest to put it to death, for I know it pleases my Lord to do so. Or, as I've said elsewhere, beware of exploding wolves!


mdgantt said...

Only when we see Him who is unseen do we have the power to resist sin.

Thus it is not praying the sinner's prayer that puts us in a post-gospel state; rather, it is living the sinner's prayer that does so. For when we live the sinner's prayer, we live in grace. When we forget that He is watching, we fall from grace.

Evangelical Christianity today does not teach this and thus its adherents are generally as prone to sin as those who do not know Christ.

MarieP said...

This was a very helpful blog post! I will have to read your arguments re: Romans 7. And sadly, your point about Matthew 5-7 isn't just a caricature- I once thought it was hypothetical myself!

"For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" Romans 8:13

Joe Khan said...

I have heard many in this debate declare that their antinomianism is elevating grace to it's rightful position. Then I have heard those in the theonomic reformed camp accuse them of "making too much of grace" (dumb statement if I ever heard one).

I actually think that both true antinominanism AND theonomic reformed positions are not making enough of grace. Cue Titus 2:11-14
"11For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works." (ESV)

It seems to me that God intends grace to be radically transformative in this present age... not just a fire insurance until the age to come. But not to be conformed to some written code or law, but to actually be purified by Jesus Christ and prepared by Him... for Him!

My personal view is that Jesus Christ Himself as the fulfillment of the Law is both the new standard to which humanity must adhere and the perfect redemption for our inability to adhere to Him. Furthermore our participation in Him is our justification and ongoing source of assurance.

I call it "Christonomian" unless that phrase has already been coined :)

Ultimately sin is a rejection of Christ as Lord...

Christopher said...

Love the post, Mike. I should say that in dispie circles I have on multiple occasions run into precisely the reading of the Sermon on the Mount that you describe, viz., that it is intended to drive us to despair in order that we might realize the need for salvation by grace.

Saint and Sinner said...

"HPR [Hyper-Reformed Version]"


John Thomson said...


A first class blog. I absolutely agree. Good to hear people being clear on this.

I particularly liked:

'I have a hard time believing in a grace so radical that it will never change me'

Grace is so weak it needs supplamented by law!!! Sometimes I wonder if folks (who ought to know better) read the bible.


'"What better describes the state of Christians: (a) Sinners saved by grace; or (b) Saints who sometimes sin?" You could say that both are true, but there are slightly different nuances to them. Is it our pre-gospel state that defines our identity and behavior, or our post-gospel state that defines our identity and behavior. I favor the latter.'

Amen and amen. Paul writes to the saints in Ephesus, Philippi etc not the sinners. We tend to live up to we see ourselves as being. That is Paul's emphasis again and again. 'Since uou are... be...'

I probably don't agree with you fully on Roms 7. If I remember (wothout checking)you see the 'man of Roms 7 as unregenerate (a non-believer). I don't think Paul's categories are anthropological in the sense of regenerate or unregenerate, I think his categories are redemptive-historical and represent flesh Vs Spirit where 'flesh' need not represent a non-believer but simply someone living prior to the arrival of the new age of the Spirit. Paul is simply describing someone seeking holiness through the administration of law. It cannot be done; the law is powerless.

Again, good blog.

John Thomson said...


Very good comments.

Nicholas P. Mitchell said...


I wonder if part of the problem is that reformed thinkers often equate the gospel with purely forensic understanding of justification by faith. Not that justification isn't forensic and isn't part of the gospel but if one makes 'too much' of it then the gospel is reduced to the solution to our guilt (which is, of course, absolutely crucial); however, the gospel isn't just about a forensic dealing with sin but is a robust solution to a robust problem. Our 'coming alive', the gift of the spirit and reconciliation are part of the gospel too. This is why the charge of antinomanism is not good, it misunderstands the transforming power of the gospel; isn't that the reason why Paul responds the way he does in Romans 6?