Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology

Defining Antinomianism

by Pastor Kevin D Hartley

he use of the term antinomian has not been left in antiquity. While it can be argued that true historic antinomianism does not exist today, the word remains in use among many in theological discussions. Sadly, though, it is used most often in ignorance and as an affront. This fact necessitates the proper definition of antinomianism in order that the word may retain its historical integrity. If the word is to be used historically and properly, it cannot continue to be so broadly and indiscriminately used as it has been of late. An antinomian, as identified by the word’s historic use, is neither simply a theologian who accentuates the law of Christ over and above the Law of Moses, nor is an antinomian necessarily someone who draws a sharp distinction between law and grace. An historic antinomian is also neither simply someone who stresses the grace and goodness of God as the impetus behind gospel obedience, nor is an antinomian someone who stresses discontinuity between the biblical covenants. The true antinomian asserts an absolute antithesis between law and grace. This is the fundamental presupposition of historic antinomianism. Historic antinomianism sets forth the premise that God relates to men either by way of law or by grace and never the twain shall meet. The implications of this presupposition are pervasive and devastating to the gospel, as this article shall detail. True historic antinomianism was, is, and ever shall be, heresy.

An understanding of the antinomian presupposition begins with an understanding of where the doctrine generally is born. Whenever and wherever the doctrines of grace are taught, there appears to be a subsequent rise of antinomianism. The reason for this correlation is that whenever free grace is taught there are always those who take the doctrine of grace to its extreme application. Antinomianism is built upon a radical view of the fundamental reformation doctrine of sola fide. Gertrude Huehns states: “…it was always …free justification by Christ alone.”[1] Thus, the doctrine of free grace has been, albeit inadvertently, instrumental in the rise of antinomianism in every age. While it was instrumental in the rise of antinomianism, yet it is not the grounds for such conclusions. Antinomian theology takes true free grace and makes it grace free from the human element. It takes grace and teaches, applies, and places it outside the metaphysical realm, separating the man, this world, and this life from God’s gracious work. In a sense, antinomianism has historically taught that salvation is a heavenly, eternal work that has never infiltrated the natural realm.

Antinomianism took salvation outside of the cosmic scheme and made salvation a matter separate from this world. The antinomian ‘gospel’ taught an eternal justification where men did not exercise faith; rather, men were justified by the faith that was Christ’s. A man’s salvation was accomplished and applied in the heavens. Justification and sanctification were instantaneous, and the importance of Christian living on this earth was annulled. The work of grace was in the spiritual realm, and the law never once entered that realm nor played a role in the work of salvation. John Eaton said:

When there is any morall work commanded to be done upon paine of punishment, or upon promise of any reward either temporall or eternall, there is to be understood the voyce of the Law. Contrarywise, where the promise of life, favour, salvation, or any other blessings and benefits are offered to us freely, without our deservings, and simply without any condition annexed to them of any Law, either naturall, ceremoniall or morall, all those places, whether they be read in the Old Testament or in the New, are to be referred to the voice and doctrine of the Gospel.[2]

Thus, never in the antinomian theology was law a factor for the Christian in redemptive, historical salvation. God eternally related to men either by way of the law or by grace, and the two never intersected. A Christian could say the law never played a role in his or her salvation; he was always a child of God, who looked upon the elect with mercy eternally and was never once displeased with the person. In reality, the person was no sinner, since sin was never held against him; he was, in the eyes of God, justified and sanctified in Christ. Life, for the true antinomian, was never defined as a process of godly mortification and vivification, since the sinner was perfect in Christ and as God looked upon him.

Salvation, for the true antinomian, occurs completely outside himself. There is never an effect of grace upon the natural man. The natural man is not renewed by grace, but rather is indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit simply imposes himself upon the man and never does the natural man, in his being, change. The natural man has not faith, since it is not the man’s faith that justifies, but Christ’s faith that justifies. The natural man does not die to sin or grow in holiness, in himself, since it is the Holy Spirit in him that is perfect and causes all grace to flow from the man. Thus, the Christian is never concerned about sin in this life since it is the natural man that sins and shall never change and is not known to God. All good deeds are simply the immediate work of the Holy Spirit. A Christian is also never concerned about sin in his life because it is of the old man; it is ignored by God, and repentance, conviction, and sorrow for sin have no place in the Christian’s life. A man is fully sanctified, though he sins and does so egregiously, and never once is God displeased with him. John Winthrop listed this as a fundamental error of the antinomians when he wrote of the New England Antinomian Controversy: “Error 32. After the revelation of the spirit, neither the Devill nor sinne can make the soule to doubt.”[3] Assurance for the antinomian was immediate and never to be questioned.

The implications drawn from antinomianism were disastrous. Since the man was taken completely out of the process of salvation, never once was the importance of this life raised. Life for the antinomian became, as Samuel Rutherford coined it, “a matter of courtesie ….”[4] But understand that even such courtesie was not the soul’s act of gratitude or contrition. An antinomian was not saying a sinner finds gratitude, or thanksgiving, a cause for obedience. An antinomian would declare that no consideration of the man, based upon the soul’s reflection, was instrumental in good works. Sanctification, for the antinomian, was no process; instead, it was instantaneous perfection outside the natural man. Faith was never of the man; it was ever of Christ. Therefore, the process of salvation never once touched the man outside the Holy Spirit’s indwelling effect. Gertrude Huehns states: “the answer of the antinomians remained the same: they could not be touched by anything that belonged either to the dispensation of nature nor to that of law.”[5] Thus, consider the logical conclusions of antinomianism as drawn up by John Winthrop:

The nature of the Opinions themselves, which open such a faire and easie way to Heaven, that men may passe without difficulty. For, if a man need not be troubled by the Law, before faith, but may step to Christ so easily; and then, if his faith be no going out of himselfe to take Christ, but onely a discerning that Christ is his owne already, and is onely an act of the Spirit upon him, no act of his owne done by him; and if he, for his part, must see nothing in himselfe, have nothing, doe nothing, onely he is to stand still and waite for Christ to doe all for him. And then if after faith, the Law no rule to walke by, no sorrow or repentance for sinne; he must not be pressed to duties, and need never pray, unlesse moved by the Spirit: And if he fals into sinne, he is never the more disliked of God, nor his condition never the worse. And for his assurance, it being given him by the Spirit, he must never let it goe, but abide in the height of comfort, though he fals into the grossest sinnes that he can.[6]

Life for the antinomian was one of enduring euphoria. Salvation was never in doubt from the moment the Holy Spirit entered and dwelt. Regardless of what was done in life, one’s assurance, confidence, and bliss were never changed. Commands had no place in the Christian life, regardless of where they came from, since, although they were scriptural commands of Christ, even they were legal works. Only the spiritual law, made known by the Spirit and his exercise, was considered of the gospel. Exhortation was as useless as any word of instruction for the man. The Christian was given simply to wait upon the Spirit to work good while the natural man just kept on sinning, which, to the Christian, was neither to trouble him or cause him any thought. Assurance was full and instantaneous and afforded the Christian simply by the Holy Spirit’s testimony within him or her. The word of God was irrelevant, as the true word of God was Christ speaking by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, all means were fundamentally denied in the absolute separation of the spiritual and physical categories of antinomianism. John Gerstner notes:

For the Reformed theologian, good works, while the result of divine grace, are genuinely human actions. For the antinomian, good works are divine actions, the direct action of God within the human person…This dualism leads in turn to an odd, but understandable juxtaposition of licentiousness and Perfectionism—sometimes in combination.[7]

A true antinomian is at one moment denying the important process of sanctification and at the same moment affirming his perfection while sinning. He does not grieve over his sin, repent, or even give it a nod. Never once is the antinomian like the man Paul speaks of in Romans seven who is wrestling within. The antinomian doctrine taught that the true Christian never wrestles but always has full and impenetrable assurance. Again, the theological implications of historic antinomianism are grave.

Historic antinomianism, then, is established upon an absolute separation between law and grace, where God relates to men either by law (only with the natural man) or grace (in the spiritual man), and law, condemnation, and guilt have no place in the Christian’s life. Consider a catalogue of errors (noting only a few) as drawn up by the Puritan fathers in New England: “Errour 33. To act by vertue of, or in obedience to a command, is legall.”[8] Any reaction of a man upon hearing a word of exhortation or command was a legal act and not of the gospel. The word of God contained nothing to mandate or by which to frame his life, since the true word of God was made known through the Holy Spirit that dwelt within. “Errour 64. A man must take no notice of his sinne, nor of his repentance for his sinne.”[9] Such actions were legal acts, acts of the natural man, and the spiritual man was to neither be concerned nor attentive to the acts of the natural man. These activities (of awareness of continuing sinfulness and repentance for it) were legal acts, denying the full assurance a Christian had at the moment of the Holy Spirit’s assurance. “Errour 67. A man cannot evidence his justification by his sanctification, but he must needs build upon his sanctification, and trust to it.”[10] His only reflection came not from his life, since all his life did was show the Holy Spirit’s work and the natural man’s work; his reflection came from that instantaneous work of assurance at the moment of belief. “Errour 72. It is a fundamentall and soule-damning errour to make sanctification an evidence of justification.”[11] For a man to even look upon his works as evidential of his salvation was law work and damnable work. All of the Puritan attention to the process of sanctification, of examining oneself, of growing in holiness, was denied by the antinomian doctrine. “Errour 77. Sanctification is so farre from evidencing a good estate that it darkens it rather, and a man may more clearely see Christ, when he seeth no sanctification than when he doth, the darker my sanctification is, the brighter is my justification.”[12] It was as though the antinomian was saying, “let sin abound that grace may abound.” It was as though an antinomian was taught to take greater comfort in his sinfulness than in any manifestation of goodness in his life. He needed no witness from works, since his assurance was complete at one moment and his surety was perfect in the eyes of God from the beginning.

Thus it is, for the true antinomian, that commands have no place in the Christian’s life. It was considered a legal matter for any law (Christ’s law or a perceived moral law) to be an impetus of action. A Christian performed good works at the whims of the Spirit, and those works were of no use to one’s assurance since the Spirit gave immediate and undeniable assurance to the soul at the moment of his indwelling of the person. In the antinomian formulation, God is said to relate to men either through a legal or evangelical way. Steele summarizes it this way:

In short, the creed of the Antinomian is this: I was justified when Christ died, and my faith is simply a waking up to the fact that I have always been saved – a realization of what was done before I had any being; that a believer is not bound to mourn for sin, because it was pardoned before it was committed, and pardoned sin is no sin; that God does not see sin in believers, however great sins they commit; that by God’s laying our iniquities upon Christ, He became as completely sinful as I, and I as completely righteous as Christ. Moreover, I believe that no sin can do a believer any ultimate harm, although it may temporarily interrupt communion with God. I must not do any duty for my own salvation. This is included in the new covenant, which is all of it a promise, having no condition on my part.[13]

Now many think such things when they encounter free grace, but the realities of this sinful life and the knowledge of the changes in the man and in the soul are usually enough to convince a man to avoid the extremes of antinomianism. Coupled with the fact that the word of God is scattered with gospel commands and admonition, the cautious soul understands that to embrace antinomianism is to deny the very word of God itself. In the estimation of the antinomian, the word of God was a legal book; hence, it was useless to the Christian.

Consequently, the antinomian understood that the truly elect needed no book; they have the Spirit and the Son. In the legal way, the law condemns, and all actions are worthless towards one’s own righteousness. Even if the written word could have an effect upon the man, it would only be a legal effect. In the gospel way, the natural man is wholly excluded from acting, and the Holy Spirit alone chooses to act. Law has no place in the working of salvation, either before or after salvation. Stoever wrote: “From God’s viewpoint there simply is no longer any sin in believers or in the church. On this ground Eaton firmly rejected the common Protestant notion that the justified are simultaneously sinners and righteous in God’s eyes.”[14] Salvation, justification, and sanctification are all spiritual matters and have no introduction into the physical realm. Stoever noted: “Traske, not unlike Eaton, distinguished between the respective times of law and gospel and denied that the law is to be preached to believers at all, for neither does it serve to work repentance and faith nor is it a rule for believers to walk by.”[15]

In the end, then, for the antinomian the word of God had no place in his life, neither did admonition, nor exhortation, as they were legal means to legal works. Never was a Christian to concern himself over sin in this life since to do so was to deny the power of God. Works were never useful for assurance since assurance was an instantaneous work at the moment of the Holy Spirit’s introduction into the man. John Gerstner says that antinomianism is the true doctrine of “let go and let God,” and in that analysis he is right. In its logical end antinomianism made the Christian life a utopia. Men were to never doubt, question, trouble themselves over, or concern themselves about what the natural man was doing, as it mattered not to him or God. Neither was a person to consider, strive, or contemplate obedience since to act on such grounds would be legal acts, and only the Holy Spirit’s impetus could produce gracious acts.

Nevertheless, to be cordial and fair, it is proper to pause and remind the reader that the antinomians of history were often practicing antinomians of varying degree. Many were simply theological antinomians; their lives were not evidential of their belief that sinning was a good thing. As is often the case, one doesthey did not always follow through entirely on the logical and necessary conclusions of their presuppositions. There were historically varying degrees of antinomianism. Some in Luther’s day went so far as to say “good works are an obstacle to salvation,”[16]but not all agreed with Luther, as Agricola was said to not represent so aberrant a view. Early antinomianism was more Libertine than later historical antinomianism. The antinomianism of Puritan England (held by such men as Crisp, Taske, and Eaton) was more interested in the teaching of grace apart from law and was, in some sense, reactionary to the often-extreme experimentalism of Puritan piety. Often Puritan examination was overstated, leading many to lack assurance and providing a way for the antinomian to come in with that faire and easiee waye. Antinomianism was more theological and practical, and often sought to defend itself against the charge of extreme licentiousness. The antinomianism of Puritan New England was even more discrete, as it was more interested in assaulting the evidential use of works, denying the practical syllogism, and fighting against the preparatory use of the law for leading one to Christ. One must understand that antinomianism had its expressions of degree, and the careful man must be cautious to intricately examine a person’s statements and presuppositions before applying the historical term antinomian, because to do so is slanderous.

It might be said that the middle way of antinomianism was historically more a theological premise than it was a mandate on life. Antinomianism, in its mature form, often did not press its presupposition to its logical end. True antinomianism did not abandon the idea of obedience and godly living, as is evident in the life and teaching of those who bore the title, even if it is believed that their theological assumptions drew such conclusions. There is a clear difference between one who teaches sin is good and what is done in this body is irrelevant and one who teaches that love is the impetus behind action brought about by the Holy Spirit. There is also a clear difference between one who teaches that what is done in this life does not matter and one who teaches, as Tobias Crisp did in saying, “If you abide in Christ and keep in Christ, no searjent of the law dares come in to serve a writ; no accusation of the law can come in against you.”[17] As seen in this quote, at times antinomianism was historically an overstatement of its presupposition voiced in rhetorical wit. Antinomianism was chargeable with an over emphasis upon the distinctive differences between law and grace and failing (or consciously choosing not) to seek continuity between the legal and the gracious. Chronically, antinomianism was ill timed, poorly thought out, and reactionary to perceived legal means and orders, such as John Goodwin's sermon in New England on the fast day, when he was ordered to humbly consider the trouble brought upon New England by the Antinomian Controversy.

We may conclude that an antinomian is someone who has a particular view of the relationship between God and men and expresses that view in contradistinction to the view of federalism. The true issue raised by the antinomian presupposition is identifying how God relates to men in this life and how law and grace function in such a relation. Antinomianism is basically a denial of federal theology. As it grew up alongside federalism, it maintained a distinct identity of its own and was often heard as a brother berating its sibling. Federal theology constructed a contiguous and complementary view of creation, salvation, and sanctification. The covenant of works was not antithetical to the covenant of grace; both were God’s means to an end. Antinomianism denied the premise that the covenant of works and covenant of grace were complementary.

Antinomianism often functioned within federal theology, affirming the designations of the various covenants. This is why it is necessary to address presuppositions. Antinomians were able to speak of the covenant of works and the covenant of grace and often hide themselves quite well.

As noted in the last article, antinomianism went wherever federalism traveled. This was the case in New England in the 17th century. The New England court comprised of New England Puritan divines that reviewed Anne Hutchinson’s antinomian practice had great trouble condemning her. When reading the transcripts one is brought to remark of her composure, verbal skill, and theological proximity to the federal Puritans of her day. Her great error was in speaking without provocation, offering her thoughts on the Spirit’s direct witness. She declared that the Spirit gave to her immediate insight beyond the metaphysical realm, where she was able to discern times, happenings, and circumstance as made known to her by the Holy Spirit alone. She might have succeeded if she had not volunteered this insight into the supposed direct witness of the Spirit, which gave her accusers the means to condemn her.

Antinomians did not necessarily disagree with the scheme of the covenants. They did, however, disagree with the federal understanding of a covenant. They were at odds with the presupposition of federal theology that God relates to men by way of a covenant, meaning there is an involvement of men in salvation where men, by faith, affirm the covenant with God. Antinomianism denied such involvement of men, and the denial of this basic premise was the undoing and unraveling of the whole premise of federalism. The entwined knot of federalism holds together the very principal of the established relationship between God and men in a metaphysical covenant relationship. Antinomianism appeared to abandon all sense of agreement and consequent necessity. John Gerstner wrote:

Another historic factor contributing to this heresy is an ontological dualism, which denigrates the created order and places total reliance upon the direct and unmediated work of God. It is crucial to understanding the point at issue here. The question is not divine monergism in salvation – whether salvation is entirely a work of God. Rather, the issue at stake is whether God works through the created order and whether God truly effects positive changes in the created order.[18]

Since antinomianism dichotomized the soul into the Holy Spirit and the impotence of men, good works were not acts of men and had no direct bearing upon their standing before God; to the antinomian the covenant did not involve men or any act of theirs. This seeming abandonment of the involvement of men in the process of justification and sanctification was the point of contention. The antinomian said all good works are of the immediate and not mediated work of the Holy Spirit.

Antinomianism was not, then, in agreement with the presupposition of federal theology. Neither can it be said that antinomianism is synonymous with dispensationalism, as John Gerstner sought to affirm in his book, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism. From the vantage of principle presuppositions, antinomianism is an entity all its own. Again, the presuppositions of antinomianism and dispensationalism set the two apart. Where dispensationalism drew an antithesis between law and grace, it did so subordinate to its ethnic distinctive. Daniel P. Fuller wrote:

These ‘vital distinctions’ of dispensationalism are the physical and spiritual seed of Abraham; the earthly, Messianic kingdom of God versus the timeless, spiritual kingdom; Jesus’ coming again ‘for’ his saints in distinction to his coming again ‘with’ his saints; and the absolute distinction between Israel – God’s earthly people, and the Church – God’s heavenly people.[19]

Daniel Fuller’s words predate the current advancements in progressive dispensationalism and therefore are somewhat antiquated. Yet his statement demonstrates that, while dispensationalism does purport a deep-seated antithesis between law and grace, that antithesis is subordinate to its precursory presupposition of ethnic distinction. Historic antinomianism is of a different breed altogether than dispensationalism. Dispensationalism does not necessarily overlook the metaphysical aspects of salvation. Equally, antinomianism is not predicated upon the premise that God relates to Israel one way and all others of ethical distinction another; instead, it purports that God relates to men either by law or by grace and never both.

What separates historic antinomianism’s presuppositional law-grace antithesis from both federalism and dispensationalism is its pervasiveness. Antinomianism is predicated upon an absolute antithesis between law and grace. The word absolute is what makes antinomianism itself. An antinomian can at one minute sound dispensational and the next federal and never once be either. A dispensationalist may say things that sounds antinomian to a federalist, and a federalist may say things that could be antinomian in character, yet such statements do not necessarily make one an antinomian. If the word antinomian is to be properly used in its historical and theological context, it must be assigned to those who affirm the basic presupposition antinomianism has historically defended. A true antinomian is not someone who discounts the application of the law to a Christian; a true antinomian denies the Christian altogether. True historic antinomians deny scripture, all commands, and all growth in sanctification, while affirming all the elect as perfect and sin of no concern or consequence in their lives. The true antinomian is more than against law; he is against salvation.

In order for a person to be an antinomian he must hold to the presupposition that God relates to men either by law or by grace and never in combination. He must believe assurance is only to be obtained by an inner witness of the Holy Spirit that is instantaneous and never changes. He must believe that God never regards sin in his life and neither should he. He must believe he is not justified by faith in himself, whether by grace or not, but that it was Christ’s faith which justified him. He must believe sanctification is not a process, but that perfection is attainable in this life and possessed of all those in Christ, and that he need merely reflect upon the sense of assurance he had at the moment of life. He must believe that commands, exhortations, law, repentance, sorrow, and grief have no place in his life. He must believe that every good thing done in him is solely the work of the Holy Spirit and that he remains constitutionally unchanged. He must believe the Bible is a legal text and the Spirit’s working within us says something wholly different from what is in the written word, as Thomas Collier said:

It remaines a Rule, so farre as we are in the flesh, I mean in the knowledge of Christ after the flesh, but as God writes his Lawes in the hearts of his people…so shall they live above the Law in the Letter, even of the Gospel, yet not without it, for they have it within them…and so they are a Law to themselves.[20]

He must believe he is sufficient in Christ, apart from natural things, means, and ends. He must believe, in conclusion, that the Christian life is irrelevant, unnecessary, and of no avail. The antinomian takes life out of the way and says that God relates to men in this life legally; he says that God relates to men in Christ spiritually, and he affirms in absoluteness that never the twain shall meet. Thus, there really is a faire and easiee way, and what is done in this life is of no great concern. He can truly say, "go and sin that grace may abound and rejoice when you sin because God declares you are perfect and what you do has no bearing upon that fact." Whether theological or practical, antinomianism is not biblical Christianity, and to call someone an antinomian, in ignorance of the term, is theologically unforgivable. We must know our terms and our presuppositions, and we must not let ignorant words wage the war for the truth.

End Notes

1. Gertrude Huehns, 39. [back]

2. Ibid., 39. [back]

David D. Hall, The Antinomian Controversy: 1636-1638: A Documentary History, (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1968), 227. [back]

4. Ibid., 52. [back]

5. Gertrude Huehns, 50, 1. [back]

6. David. D. Hall, 203. [back]

7. John Gerstner, 211. [back]

8. David D. Hall. 227. [back]

9. Ibid., 236. [back]

10. Ibid., 237. [back]

11. Ibid., 239. [back]

12. Ibid., 240. [back]

13. Steele, 45. [back]

14. Stoever, 140. [back]

15. Ibid., 142. [back]

16. Steele, 47. [back]

17. Tobias Crisp, 132. [back]

18. John Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism, (Brentwood: Wlgemuth & Hyatt, 1991), 210. [back]

19. Daniel P. Fuller, Gospel & Law: Contrast or Continuum? The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1980), 3. [back]

20. Gertrude Huehns, 53. [back]


[ Top | Eschatology | Bible Studies | Classics | Articles | Other Articles | Sermons | Apologetics | F.A.Q. | Forum ]