One of the more arresting claims in recent theological discussions is that an emphasis on the forensic nature of justification can nurture antinomianism. This claim looks amazingly unreal given the traction that various forms of transformationalism have among conservative Reformed Protestants â€“ from Doug Wilsonâ€™s defense of Constantinianism, the Baylysâ€™ war with Reformed â€œpacifistsâ€ in the culture wars, to Tim Kellerâ€™s conception of word and deed ministry. If anything, the conservative Reformed world is awash with various expressions of neo-nomianism and legalism â€“ not antinomianism.
What is even more amazing is that the concern with antinomianism would ever classify Lutheranism as a wing of Christianity that disregards the law. In point of fact, the real antinomians around the time of the Westminster Assembly were not Lutherans but Quakers. I know conservative Presbyterians (myself included) donâ€™t get out much. But it is important to remember sometimes the wider setting in which the Reformed faith has grown. The people who believed they had the Spirit so truly â€“ in Lutherâ€™s words, swallowing the Holy Ghost â€œfeathers and allâ€ â€“ were not his followers in Germany but on the radical fringes of the Puritan movement.
For this reason, it may be useful to remember what Lutherans actually profess about good works and their importance for the Christian life, and compare those teachings with the musing of the Quakers.
How One is Justified before God, and of Good Works.
What I have hitherto and constantly taught concerning this I know not how to change in the least, namely, that by faith, as St. Peter says, we acquire a new and clean heart, and God will and does account us entirely righteous and holy for the sake of Christ, our Mediator. And although sin in the flesh has not yet been altogether removed or become dead, yet He will not punish or remember it.
And such faith, renewal, and forgiveness of sins is followed by good works. And what there is still sinful or imperfect also in them shall not be accounted as sin or defect, even [and that, too] for Christ’s sake; but the entire man, both as to his person and his works, is to be called and to be righteous and holy from pure grace and mercy, shed upon us [unfolded] and spread over us in Christ. Therefore we cannot boast of many merits and works, if they are viewed apart from grace and mercy, but as it is written, 1 Cor. 1:31: He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord, namely, that he has a gracious God. For thus all is well. We say, besides, that if good works do not follow, faith is false and not true. (Smalcald Articles, XIII )
And now for something completely different. This is from the 1655 letter of John Lilburn, a Quaker, held captive in England for the better part of a decade for his religious convictions and their legal and political implications.
. . . the contrariety is so great between the foresaid two Kings and Masters, that whatsoever in the King, or Ruler in the Kingdom of the world, (or fallen, or unrenewed man) and the Subjects thereof, is esteemed highly or excellent, is an abomination in the sight of God: And therefore this spiritual King having purchased all his Subjects and Servants with a glorious price, (as the greatest demonstration of love) of his own blood, by his spiritual Command requires them not to be the servants of men, but to glorify him both in body and soul; and therefore his grown up servant Paul, declares himself to be no man-pleaser, avowing himself that if he were a man-pleaser, he should, nor could not be the servant of Christ.
And therefore the same apostle, by the infallible spirit of the Lord, requires the spiritual Subjects of this spiritual King Jesus, to present their bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which (says he) is your reasonable service; and do not be conformed to this world (the kingdom of the Prince of darkness, but be you transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good, and acceptable and perfect will of a God; and therefore when any man once becomes a spiritual subject of this spiritual King Christ, and dwells in him, he becomes a new creature, and old things in him are passed away, and all things in him are become new, spiritual and savoury, yes even his very thought and his words are found few and divine, his behaviour righteous and solid, his deeds upright, and free like God from all respect of persons: and although there be such a perfect and absolute contrariety between all the laws and constitutions of these two Kings or Masters, and a continual and perpetual war between the Subjects thereof, yet the weapons of the warfare of Christ’s Spiritual, Heavenly, and glorious Kingdom, handled and used by his Servants and true Subjects, who although they do walk in the flesh, yet do they not war after the flesh, and therefore their weapons of warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God, to the pulling down of strongholds, casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, and brings into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ. . .
Of course, this doesnâ€™t sound very antinomian. In fact, it reads a lot like those anti-2k folks who wail and gnash their teeth over the moral failings of the United States, and also insist that Christians need to take back the nation for Christ because the antithesis between believers and non-believers is so great, and the moral gulf between the saints and pagans so wide, and the denial of Christâ€™s lordship so great, that we cannot trust civil affairs to the likes of Obama, Kerry, or Gore.
But what does make this quotation antinomian is that Quakers like Lilburne (along with Anabaptists) renounced by the sword and believed any government that used force was of the Devil. As such, they did not recognize the existing government as legitimate, thus making them antinomian (as in, against the established law and order).
Looks to me like there are lessons all around on the contrast between the true and false antinomians. In fact, it is hard to miss the irony that those who criticize 2k the most for being antinomian may harbor a good dose of the antithetical reading of humanity and civil authorities that put Quakers like Lilburne in jail.