Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest?

Jones, Mark. Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013. 176 pp. $17.99. Amazon |Barnes & Noble | Christianbook.com | Westminster Books 

antinomianism_markjonesWhat is the relationship between the law and gospel? How do Christians relate to the declarations given to God’s people on Mount Sinai and reemphasized throughout Scripture? If saved and sustained by grace, what need does a believer in Christ have for moral striving? These questions have been continually raised from the New Testament to the present day, and Mark Jones provides a helpful lens for focusing modern day discussion. By centering on the reformation and its Puritan forebears, Jones seeks to aid readers in identifying the theological anomaly known as antinomianism (anti – against; nomos – law). He states his goal clearly in the preface, “This is not a book on holiness or sanctification per se, but by analyzing and critiquing antinomianism, this work will provide readers with a theological framework within which to approach the Scriptures and make sense of passages that sometimes are explained away in the most ingenious ways.” (xv). 

In nine succinct chapters, Jones walks through the historical and theological issues related to antinomianism. Establishing his historical framework in chapter one Jones asserts that antinomianism is ultimately a Christological error. Antinomians misunderstand the nature of Christ’s work therefore misunderstand how to apply it to their lives. Taking a sweeping look from Luther to 18th-century Scottish Presbyterianism, Jones reveals the thorny issues surrounding antinomianism. At times it grows like a weed based on a lack of theological clarification. At other times it is firmly planted through a purposeful antinomian posturing. Zeal and rhetoric feed into debates and often make theological positions murky. Such is the case with antinomianism. From history, Jones moves to the theological categories of justification and sanctification and the nature of imputation. Does the holiness of Christ extend to the point of making our works invaluable? Does the imputation of Christ’s righteousness eliminate the need for moral responsibility? Jones demonstrates that both sides of the debate promoted the need for holiness in the Christian life, however, the extent to which one understands the work of Christ and the ongoing work of the Spirit will color how one acknowledges responsibility in holy living.

Jones leads readers through aspects of the law, the relationship of the law and gospel, and the historical and theological understanding regarding the necessity of good works. Jones’s historical acumen is apparent throughout the text. He writes as one well versed in the Reformation and Puritan tradition and as an apt theologian connecting Scripture with larger theological topics. The most helpful segment of his discussion is found in chapter six regarding the nature of God’s love. This indeed is a thorny issue capable of confusion, but Jones delicately smoothes the bumps as a potter to the clay. He states, “[To] speak only of God’s benevolent love is dangerous, because it ignores the important truth that God loves and delights in goodness that is in his people, and also the fact that Christ, according to both natures, communes in love with his people, but to varying degrees.” (95). God is indeed love, but his love is a transformative one. God’s love is displayed in the justifying power of the cross just as much as in the chiseled stone of the ten commandments.

Admitting to the thorny nature of antinomianism, Jones might have served readers better by not calling out contemporary Reformed pastor Tullian Tchividjian so explicitly on this issue. I say this not because I am not likewise concerned with the theological vagueness of Pastor Tchividjian, but because such a discussion deserves just that–a discussion. Some may not agree, but a footnote describing the necessity for clarity in Tchividjian’s theology would seem more charitable to this reviewer. The issue is indeed a thorny one. Clarity is absolutely necessary, however grace is also a vital message. But then again so is holiness, but charity in this case warrants discretion. A call to debate might first begin with a call to fellowship around the table. That being said, I can’t help but agree with Jones’s conclusion and his overall balanced approach to this topic. Jones has served readers well with an insightful historical survey which connects with Scripture and theology in a pithy volume worthy of everyone’s attention. Presuming upon grace and neglecting the good and right pursuit of holiness in the light of Christ’s justifying work must be dealt with. Jones has done well to shine a light on this dark spot in Reformed theology with the hopes that readers would look to Christ who “is not only the pattern for our Christian life, but also the source of our Christian life.” (129).

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One thought on “Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest?

  1. Pingback: View-Worthy: 6.1.14

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