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.

Article continues below

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.

The charge of antinomianism appeared as a prescription in a recent review of David Platt's challenging bestseller, Radical: "I would hope that as David speaks in risky ways in order to challenge us all to shake off nominal Christianity, he would also on occasion speak in such a risky way that he's charged with antinomianism (Rom. 6:1)." Such statements prompt the question as to whether the antinomian charge was something Paul himself saw as a positive sign.

The antinomian charge will not stick for Paul, and is in fact repudiated in the most vociferous way. Romans 6:1 asks two questions—What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?—which are introduced by Paul so that he can utterly refute them. His first two words in the Greek of 6:2, me genoito, are the strongest possible denial available to him in Greek—a denial so strong that it difficult to express in English without using "French."

In the remainder of the chapter Paul forcefully insists that an "anti-law" or "anti-obligation" label is not only inaccurate, but a deceptive and hostile mischaracterization. A life free of laws or commands is the exact opposite of what Paul's religion is about, as the rest of Romans displays. Believers are being united to Christ so that "we might walk in newness of life" (6:3-4); with such an objective, "how on earth can you still live in sin?!?" (6:2). Since death has no rule over Jesus anymore, neither does death have any dominion over believers. So sin shouldn't reign in believers, either (6:8-11). They must present themselves as instruments of righteousness, as those who were dead but are now alive, because they are united to the resurrected Messiah (6:12-14).

Article continues below

Paul paints a similar move from death to new, work-producing life in Ephesians 2:1-10. When God gives saving grace, he renews believers to new life and trains believers in self-control, godliness, and good deeds (cf. Rom 12:6-8; Eph 3:7-8, 4:7-16; Titus 2:11-14; Heb 13:20-21). As the Reformation tradition at its best has always taught, Paul distinguishes between gospel indicatives and imperatives, but never allows us to think that they do not go hand-in-hand. To the extent that we celebrate the charge of antinomianism, we risk divorcing what Paul would never separate. He would agree with James, who holds that indicatives without imperatives are demonic (2:14-17, 19-20).

According to Paul, the charge of antinomianism is not an understandable misunderstanding, but an utterly undeserved, undesirable, and slanderous charge that is ironically accurate of Paul's loveless, lawless opponents (Rom 3:8; Gal 2:11-12, 5:9-10; Matt 23), and grossly inaccurate for Paul, Jesus, and the entire early Christian movement. The charge is thoroughly incorrect and unwelcome, on a par with the slanderous accusations the early church endured of atheism, cannibalism, incest, and evil-doing (cf. 1 Pet 2:12).

Adopting accusations as a badge of honor or litmus test represents a failure to understand the rhetorical function of the antinomian accusation in the literary context of Romans and in Paul's social context: It was neither a fair and honest assessment nor a reasonable response to Paul's preaching, but a weapon employed against Paul's honor in the court of public opinion. Taking the charge of antinomianism as a positive sign is as anachronistic as suggesting that the charge of drunkenness is a good test of our ministry in light of Matthew 11:19 and Luke 7:34. Moreover, Paul uses similar rhetorical questions in Romans. Should we strive to speak about redemptive history in such a way that our listeners sometimes charge God with unfaithfulness and injustice in rejecting Israel outright (Rom 3:3, 9:14, 11:1)?

Paul considered the antinomian charge to be worthless with respect to his message and his ministerial fidelity. In his letters and in Acts, Paul emphasizes his effort and his suffering as a model for believers (Col 1:24, 29; Phil 2:12-13; 1 Cor 9:24-27). He never teaches that recipients of grace are free of obligation with respect to love, good works, or effort; grace is not a kissing cousin of lawlessness. He never downplays radical obedience or the imitation of Jesus in self-denial, and never suggests that he is slack on crippling sins such as adultery and greed.

Article continues below

But note also that the New Testament's solution is not the Stoic's risk-averse balance. Rather, if Paul and company are our guides, they show us how to present both of the risky, glorious sides of the metaphorical Christian coin: a radical, unbelievable love that must beget radical slaves. I suppose that we may be charged with antinomianism. In our contemporary climate, we will certainly be charged with something like legalism and moralism. But neither accusation should be a "badge of honor" to which we aspire.

We should strive to avoid the charge of antinomianism. And if Paul is our model, if such charges ever do come they must be refuted with the strongest language and clearest corrections possible. They should not be met by a nod and a checkmark on our fidelity chart.

Jason B. Hood is Scholar-In-Residence at Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis and blogs at The Society for the Advancement of Ecclesial Theology.

Related Elsewhere:

More articles on theology are available in our topic page. Hood wrote about Muslims in Evangelical churches earlier this month.