Since some readers consider me clueless about the law to the point of being antinomian, the following essay, originally printed in the October 2002 issue of the NTJ, may be useful for clarifying the concerns of Oldlife.
Ever since the sixteenth century Protestants have had to bear the accusation of being antinomian. The logic was, and still is, simple. If you believe that salvation is based strictly on faith, not on works, you send the message that the way a believer lives does not really affect his or her standing before God. Despite (or perhaps) owing to this complaint, Protestants since the Reformation have done their darnedest to prove the accusation wrong. So successful have the descendants of Luther and Calvin been in correcting the impression that good works donâ€™t matter in obtaining Godâ€™s favor, that Roman Catholics and Protestants have swapped roles, with the former being the church for an antinomian piety, and the latterâ€™s denominations insisting upon good behavior for continued fellowship.
This is not a cheap shot at Roman Catholics (at least it is not the intent). The difference between Rome and Protestantism these days on good works actually works toward Roman Catholicismâ€™s favor. The church that once accused Lutherâ€™s teaching of antinomianism has consistently made room for repeat offenders, the kind of sinners whom Protestants are quick to remove from church rolls. Roman Catholic history is filled with examples of believers who fall off the wagon, repent, confess their sin and find forgiveness in the churchâ€™s ministry. From whiskey priests to mafia dons, the Roman Catholic church has been a communion, despite its teaching on the relationship of faith and works, where the believerâ€™s ongoing battle with sin is frankly acknowledged and accommodated. This makes it one of the great ironies in Western Christianity that the ones who originally accused Luther of sanctioning immorality have been the communion to provide what appears a roomier basis for fellowship than Protestants can muster.
The recent scandal surrounding Roman Catholic priests and pedophilia suggests that this may be changing, that, in fact, becoming an American church has involved becoming infected with Protestant philonomianism. This is certainly the impression that Richard John Neuhaus gives in his comments on the meeting of the United States bishops in Dallas to address the sexual misconduct of priests. The editor of First Things quoted one reporter who claimed that the American bishops â€œbehaved more like Senators or CEOâ€™s engaged in damage control than as moral teachers engaged in the gospel.â€ Neuhaus fears that the adopted policy of â€œone strikeâ€ and â€œzero toleranceâ€ will prevent repentant priests from coming forward and seeking help and forgiveness. Even worse, he writes, is what the policy of retribution does to the churchâ€™s witness. â€œThe bishops have succeeded in scandalizing the faithful anew by adopting a thoroughly unbiblical, untraditional, and un-Catholic approach to sin and grace.â€ They wound up with â€œa policy that is sans repentance, sans conversion, sans forbearance, sans prudential judgment, sans forgiveness, sans almost everything one might have hoped for from bishops of the Church of Jesus Christ.â€ Of course, Reformed Christians have a different understanding of the basis for a sinnerâ€™s forgiveness. But Neuhausâ€™ complaint, the bishopsâ€™ policies notwithstanding, implies that the language of mercy may be more the possession of Catholics than Protestants.
In Protestantism’s case, the adoption of an ecclesial posture free from charges of antinomianism is not only ironic but ridiculous. Yet evidence accumulates that demonstrates just how uncomfortable Protestants are with receiving and resting on Christ alone for all the benefits of salvation.
One such example comes again from Neuhausâ€™ journal, First Things. In the April 2002 issue Jerry L. Walls, a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary wrote in defense of purgatory, thus proving to some in the NTJâ€™s offices that the line separating Wesleyans and Roman Catholics on sanctification is a thin one thanks to John Wesleyâ€™s curious doctrine of perfection. Walls begins on a weak note, one sure to get him and us in trouble. He asserts that Wesleyans â€œreject the notion that salvation is only, or even primarily, a forensic matter of having the righteousness of Christ imputed or attributed to believers.â€ God not only forgives, Walls adds, but â€œalso changes us and actually makes us righteous.â€ The problem is that life is not long enough for the sanctification of believers. So much sin, so little time. In addition, Walls finds the Protestant notion of perfection in death to be unconvincing. Purgatory is the solution. For it is a teaching that emphasizes â€œthe notion that no one can be exempted from the requirement of achieving perfect sanctity in cooperation with Godâ€™s grace and initiative.â€
Walls admits that the idea of a time after death where the road to sanctity is allowed to wind on in proportion to a sinnerâ€™s wickedness appears to deny justification by faith alone. That is so if salvation is conceived in solely forensic terms. But Protestants were novel to separate justification and sanctification. And since â€œjustification so understood does not make us actually righteous, it is simply irrelevant as an objection to purgatory.â€ What is especially interesting to note here is Wallsâ€™ conclusion since it bears on this matter of forgiveness and how sinners become righteous. â€œAppealing to Godâ€™s forgiveness does nothing to address the fact that many Christians are imperfect lovers of God . . . at the time of their death.â€ As such forgiveness â€œaloneâ€ cannot eliminate the unpleasant aspects of sin. â€œOther remedies are necessary, and . . . they may involve pain.â€ One wonders if Walls may have been present behind the scenes when the Roman Catholic bishops gathered in Dallas. His understanding of pain-added forgiveness would certainly square better with the policy of â€œzero toleranceâ€ than Neuhausâ€™ idea of divine mercyâ€™s recuperative powers.
Of course, Walls may be dismissed as a Wesleyan who, following the lead of the urWesleyan, collapsed justification and sanctification in such a disquieting way. Yet, Reformed Christians have of late been giving Methodists and Roman Catholics a run for obscuring the sufficiency of Christâ€™s righteousness. In fact, many within the ranks of conservative American Presbyterianism show how willing they are to blink when the charge of antinomianism comes their way. In which case, Reformed Christians, like Walls, blur justification and sanctification in the hopes of making their theological tradition as good as they want Reformed Christians to be moral.
One indication of the confusion comes from an earnest Presbyterian elder who has written an unfortunate explanation of his views in response to some who suspect him of denying the Protestant doctrine of justification. A read through this paper suggests that his accusers have a point. (He will remain anonymous because of presbytery proceedings that have taken up this matter.) At one point, under the heading of â€œGodâ€™s Purpose and Plan,â€ he writes: â€œNeither the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, which all Christians receive at justification, nor the infusion of the righteousness of Christ (a false and non-existent concept taught by the Roman Catholic Church) can suffice for that purpose [i.e. being conformed to the image of Christ in true and personal righteousness and holiness]. Christ does not have an imputed righteousness; His righteousness is real and personal. If we are to be conformed to his image, we too must have a real and personal righteousness.â€ What is interesting about this quotation is that it is as hard on Protestantism as it is on Roman Catholicism. But because he denies Romeâ€™s error the implication is that he is error free. What remains, in fact, is an error of Pelagian proportions.
Of course, this example could simply be an aberration. But the trouble is that theologians and pastors in Presbyterian circles have encouraged these ideas by what one might call a hyper-covenantalism. Because they believe that the Bible makes the covenant central to Godâ€™s relationship with man, all doctrines have the potential to be covenantalized. So, for instance, Peter Leithart on his website offers a paper in which he articulates a â€œbiblicalâ€ perspective on justification. There he comments: â€œwhile Protestant theology rightly understands â€˜justificationâ€™ as â€˜courtroomâ€™ or â€˜forensicâ€™ language, it does not take sufficient account of the full biblical scope of the â€˜forensic.â€™ Following a number of recent studies, I take â€˜righteousâ€™ to be essentially a covenantal and relational term.â€ As such the main idea behind biblical righteousness is not â€œconformity to a code of laws,â€ but instead refers to â€œfulfilling obligations in a relationship.â€ On it goes.
It needs to be stated that Leithart does not go where the unnamed elder dared to go — Leithart does not deny the doctrine of imputed righteousness. But he does reflect where the equivocation of justification along covenantal lines, begun by Norman Shepherd twenty-five years ago and published recently as The Call of Grace (2000), has led. The impression persists that the traditional formulation of justification is passe and doesnâ€™t reflect the recent scholarship. Just as bad, itâ€™s not biblical but a theological imposition upon the text. Even worse, itâ€™s responsible for keeping Roman Catholics and Protestants apart. As Shepherd stated in a Reformation Day sermon five years ago, â€œIf we could get our Roman Catholic neighbors to see that the Bible talks about covenantal love and loyalty, and not about the merit of good works, and if we could get our evangelical Protestant neighbors to see that the Bible talks about covenantal love and loyalty, and not about cheap grace, then at least one major obstacle would be removed preventing us from seeing that the true church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. We would have a catholic church that is reformed according to the word of God. This is the church that Jesus is building today.â€
In this sermon Shepherd interestingly uses the word â€œcomfort.â€ A covenantal understanding of justification does not offer comfort to the antinomians because the gospelâ€™s promises are not â€œunconditional.â€ Nor does it provide succor to the legalists because the good works it requires are not meritorious. The problem is that the covenantal understanding of justification does not offer much comfort — period. For it still saddles sinful men and women with obligations that they cannot keep perfectly. Which leaves them in a bit of a pickle.
Here it might be worth considering why people are not comforted by the Protestant doctrine of justification. Even if we were to concede that the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone, which looks to Christâ€™s righteousness alone for justification today and on judgment day, even if this doctrine were not true, why wouldnâ€™t Protestants want it to be? The psychological problems are easier to spot for Roman Catholics who anathematized Protestants in the sixteenth century and so are on record against justification by faith alone. A defense of truth (as Catholics understand it) along with a defense of the tradition drives Roman Catholics to deny the Protestant doctrine. The only possible explanation for Protestants abandoning the doctrine is that the truth of the Bible is at stake. But even here, if the Bible taught that our salvation depended in some small way upon our own righteousness or our ability to cooperate with Christâ€™s, why would any Protestant believe it? â€œThus saith the Lordâ€ has a certain force to it. But if the Lord says â€œyou must be good in order to be savedâ€ then the consequences of disobedience are just as great as those involved in obedience. For if men and women are honest with themselves, the thought of producing works good enough for Godâ€™s favor is downright scary.
But if Protestants who cozy up to the notion of obedience fail to notice the relief that Christâ€™s righteousness provides, these reformers of justification donâ€™t seem to fathom how incomplete human righteousness is. As such, if classic Protestantism is susceptible to the charge of â€œcheap grace,â€ neo-Protestants are in danger of promoting â€œcheap works.â€ The point here is one well made by the Westminster Divines in chapter sixteen of their Confession of Faith. This is a section of the Westminster Standards that few of Lutherâ€™s Reformed critics ponder.
It is, of course, one thing to say that nothing the unregenerate man may do will please God, thus at least requiring Christâ€™s work to wipe the slate clean. But once regenerate, some are teaching, Christians may actually perform deeds that are acceptable. Not so, according to the Westminster Confession. â€œWe cannot, by our best works, merit pardon for sin, or eternal life, at the hand of God, because of the great disproportion that is between them and the glory to come, and the infinite distance that is between us and God, . . .â€ So much for the possibility of being re-justified on Judgement Day on the basis of our good works. And the reason is that our good works proceed both from the Spirit who makes them â€œgoodâ€ and from us who make them â€œdefiled and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection that they cannot endure the severity of Godâ€™s judgmentâ€ (16.v). In other words, our good works, the allegedly conditional part of the covenantal arrangement, are not very good. In fact, they come up short of Godâ€™s holy standard, thus making Christâ€™s righteousness the only sufficient basis for our standing before God. Sin goes so deep that perfection for the Christian awaits death or the consummation.
Yet the justification-revision school continues to be worried about antinomianism. They appear to fear that grace and mercy will lead to moral laxity. And so they contrive various biblical themes to water forgiveness down with obedience. In the process, they lose sight of how helpless sinful men and women are, both before and after regeneration. They make it seem as if believers may really keep the law because the promises are conditional, though not meritorious. The net effect is to ignore the depths of human depravity, as well as the burden that comes with always asking whether you are really good.
The Reformers were aware of this problem. The Belgic Confession in Article 24 (Manâ€™s Sanctification and Good Works) concludes on this somber note: if we do not keep in mind that our good works in no way merit Godâ€™s favor, â€œthen, we would always be in doubt, tossed to and fro without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be continually vexed . . .â€
Does this mean that we should keep on sinning so that forgiveness may abound? The apostle Paul stared that one in the face and said, of course not. Smoking two packs a day because you know youâ€™re going to die anyway is not the best response to the blessings of this life (one pack should be sufficient). Neither is abandoning your wife a legitimate response to the idea that marriage is provisional and not part of the glorified state. The Reformed response, along with the Lutheran one, has been the third use of the law, even though the latter tradition has not always spoken in these terms. The basis for good works is gratitude, not fear. In fact, the release that comes from knowing that Godâ€™s demands have been satisfied by Christ frees the Christian to perform good works, though still polluted, from the correct motive — to glorify God, not to save oneâ€™s hide. The Augsburg Confession, Article 20 could not state it any better than when it declares: â€œIt is also taught among us that good works should and must be done, not that we are to rely on them to earn grace but that we may do Godâ€™s will and glorify him. It is always faith alone that apprehends grace and forgiveness of sin. When through faith the Holy Spirit is given, the heart is moved to do good works.â€
Forgetting forgiveness and loving the law has had many unfortunate consequences. But the greatest may be that Reformed Christianity no longer can be accused of being antinomian. Of course, antinomianism is bad, and thatâ€™s why the Reformed creeds assert the importance of good works. But at the same time, proclaiming the gospel in such a way that it sounds antinomian is very good, even biblical. Martin Lloyd-Jones had it right, when he wrote, following the lead of the apostle Paul:
The true preaching of the gospel of salvation by grace alone always leads to the possibility of this charge being brought against it. There is no better test as to whether a man is really preaching the New Testament gospel of salvation than this, that some people might misunderstand it and misinterpret it to mean that it really amounts to this, that because you are saved by grace alone it does not matter at all what you do; you can go on sinning as much as you like because it will redound all the more to the glory of grace. . . .I would say to all preachers: If your preaching of salvation has not been misunderstood in that way, then you had better examine your sermons again, and you had better make sure that you really are preaching the salvation that is offered in the New Testament to the ungodly, to the sinner, to those who are dead in trespasses and sins, to those who are enemies of God.
After almost five hundred years of hearing the charge of antinominan, one would think Reformed Christians could resist the philonomian temptation to turn Christâ€™s sufficiency into a blueprint for ethical enrichment.
Townsend P. Levitt