Heresy Is Heresy, Not the Litmus Test of Gospel Preaching
Antinomianism is not hostility to gnomes, and it's not fear of people from Nome, Alaska. Antinomianism is lawlessness, believing and teaching an obligation-free version of Christianity. In certain quarters of the evangelical world, being accused of antinomianism is increasingly considered to be a symptom of a healthy ministry. This belief has a long pedigree; no less an authority than Martyn Lloyd-Jones believed there was "no better test" of gospel fidelity than the accusation of antinomianism.
One can hear variations on this theme in a variety of places, particularly among younger preachers who self-identify as Reformed. In his new book Surprised by Grace, Tullian Tchividjian borrows from Lloyd-Jones in exhorting preachers to use the antinomian accusation as a self-assessment tool for ministerial fidelity. I've heard it used as a litmus test for pastoral search committees and as a rule of thumb for young pastors convinced that the ministerial task does not include the instruction of God's people in law or righteousness. While the precise wording varies, the common denominator is that accusations of antinomianism are an important barometer useful for determining whether the atmosphere of one's ministry is adequately pressurized by grace.
An accusation of theological heresy cannot be considered a fool-proof test of fidelity. Subjective human responses are rarely a correct measuring stick for faithfulness. I've also seen charges of heresy levied at other times, for instance, when studying the humanity of Jesus with laity who had been trained to see Jesus more or less exclusively in divine terms. However, I am not comfortable saying that a good test of my Christology is that I am accused of Arianism or Docetism.
Moreover, proffering the antinomian accusation as a barometric slogan prompts the question as to whether we should call our orthodoxy into question if we are not accused of being moralistic or legalistic (as Lloyd-Jones also taught). Many biblical passages—indeed, whole books—have received that charge from authorities ranging in theological savvy from Luther to Lady Gaga (the latter being the self-professed "least judgmental person in the world"). Jesus' requirements for any and all who wish to be his disciple and bear his name—self-denial and cross-bearing, holiness and purity—will inevitably sound like legalism in a restraint-free culture dominated by Eat, Pray, Love spirituality and Joel Osteen-grade theology.
But some believe that gospel grace is so neglected that special dispensations should be granted so that we can restore balance. While discussing D. A. Carson's excellent phrase, "grace-driven effort," one young Reformed pastor told me: "I grew up just hearing about effort, which is why I'm okay if some people have overemphasized the grace part. We can handle that for a season." A number of Reformed leaders believe that legalism and moralism are far greater dangers to the church than antinomianism and a lack of holiness.
Such assessments lead some to apply a slippery slope argument: one should not lay great stress (particularly in pulpit ministry) on the pursuit of holiness and radical descriptions of the requirements of Christian discipleship. These leaders almost always reject the label "antinomian," and while some of them mute radical discipleship, others are faithfully and passionately pursuing personal and corporate holiness. But in these circles antinomianism begins to be seen as something one might need to brush up against, so that the charge of antinomianism is very much welcome, to the point of being a stamp of authenticity, or "a badge of honor," as Paul Zahl puts it.