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Last week there were a number of posts in the Reformed blogosphere about the charge of antinomianism (literally, that which is anti-nomos, against law).

Here is an exchange worth highlighting:

Jason Hood started it off with a CT online article entitled “Heresy is Heresy, Not the Litmus Test of Gospel Preaching.”

He describes the problem he is addressing:

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.

And his conclusion summarizes his argument in response:

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.

Brief responses were written by Michael Horton (excerpt: “What's striking is that Paul answers antinomianism not with the law but with more gospel!  In other words, antinomians are not people who believe the gospel too much, but too little!  They restrict the power of the gospel to the problem of sin's guilt, while Paul tells us that the gospel is the power for sanctification as well as justification.”) and Tullian Tchividjian (excerpt: “The issue is not whether obedience, the pursuit of holiness, and the practice of godliness is important. Of course it is. The issue is how do we keep God's commands?”).

Dane Ortlund gave a more direct response. Agreeing with Hood that antinomianism is antithetical to biblical Christianity, Ortlund focuses on two ways to avoid it:

One way is to balance gospel grace with exhortations to holiness, as if both need equal air time lest we fall into legalism on one side (neglecting grace) or antinomianism on the other (neglecting holiness).

The other way, which I believe is the right and biblical way, is so to startle this restraint-free culture with the gospel of free justification that the functional justifications of human approval, moral performance, sexual indulgence, or big bank accounts begin to lose their vice-like grip on human hearts and their emptiness is exposed in all its fraudulence. It sounds backward, but the path to holiness is through (not beyond) the grace of the gospel, because only undeserved grace can truly melt and transform the heart. The solution to restraint-free immorality is not morality. The solution to immorality is the free grace of God--grace so free that it will be (mis)heard by some as a license to sin with impunity. The route by which the New Testament exhorts radical obedience is not by tempering grace but by driving it home all the more deeply.

Let's pursue holiness. (Without it we won't see God: Matt 5:8; Heb 12:14.) And let's pursue it centrally through enjoying the gospel, the same gospel that got us in and the same gospel that liberates us afresh each day (1 Cor 15:1-2; Gal 2:14; Col 1:23; 2:6). As G. C. Berkouwer wisely remarked, "The heart of sanctification is the life which feeds on justification."

Jason, if we are accused of antinomianism and our response is a nod and a glib smile, then Paul has something scathing to say to us (Rom 3:8b). There is such a thing as antinomianism. And it is a tragic underestimation, not overestimation, of grace. And, with you, I want nothing to do with it. But if we are accused of antinomianism and our response is Romans 6--which does not retract Romans 1-5 but presses it home even further--then we may be comforted that we are following in the footsteps of the apostle, and that our ministry is "adequately pressurized by grace."

In his surrejoinder, Hood zeroes in on the model of sanctification required to refute antinomianism:

There's certainly some truth to what Ortlund says. Joyfully remembering our justification and forgiveness are important tools in holiness. But it's not the approach to sanctification modeled by Paul, which is why it is hard to be consistent with that model. (Admittedly he only lays his version out briefly.) Shouldn't that tip us off that the approach of "sanctification by justification" Ortlund holds out as the only biblical approach to sanctification does not fully reflect Paul's approach to sanctification?

If so, aren't effort and action central to sanctification? Isn't exhortation to holiness vital? Why are these things--for new creation believers with new life and new ability--not all gracious gifts from God?

Some of my Reformed brothers and sisters do not know that they can please the Lord (1 Thes. 4:1; Rom. 8:8-9), or be holy (2 Cor. 7:1; or as Ortlund notes, that we will not see God without being holy and pure), or that religious acts are acceptable to God, not something to repent of (Jas. 1:27, Acts 10:4). In both his Romans and Ephesians expositions, James Montgomery Boice calls this "The New Humanity." But too many Reformed people I meet think that they are no different from unbelievers. They sadly do not know what Murray, Packer, and Ferguson taught us, and what broader evangelicalism celebrates: regeneration and the power of the Holy Spirit in believers.

Ortlund gets the last word in the exchange, and he begins by summarizing the many ways in which they agree, and focuses on what appears to be the heart of their disagreement:

You want to call people to holiness, as the new creatures they are, and bring them into a deep awareness the gospel of grace. I want to call people to holiness, as the new creatures they are, by bringing them into deeper and deeper awareness of the gospel of grace. You believe "effort and action [are] central to sanctification." I believe the gospel is central to sanctification, and that effort and action are neither central nor optional (optional = antinomianism) but integral.

The rhythm of the New Testament is "walk in love as a response to how deeply you are loved in Christ." "Be imitators of God, as beloved children" (Eph 5:1). In a nutshell: if the imperatives of Scripture are extracted in preaching without being self-consciously placed within their (heart-transforming) indicative framework, then such bald imperatives will invariably devolve into a counterproductive reinforcement of the Pharisee lurking in every human heart--even the regenerate human heart.

For the regenerate, holiness has taken on a strangely attractive hue, for God is now our loving Father, not our wrathful judge. We now delight in the law in a way we never did (never could) before. But the law itself remains impotent to generate this holiness. The law can guide us, but not propel us. It is a steering wheel, not an engine.

I wish all online debates could be this thoughtful, respectful, and productive. Click on their names above if you want to read the full posts.

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26 thoughts on “Gospel Grace, the Pursuit of Holiness, and the Charge of Antinomianism”

  1. Peter G. says:

    Justin, did you mean that first sentence to say that antinomianism is literally “against lawlessness” or “against the law”? I think you put one too many negatives in your literal translation.

    Thanks for the summary.

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      Yikes. Fixed; thanks.

  2. CMM says:

    “Be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Eph 5:1).

    Illustrative comparisons are never perfect, but the comparison of children as believers of God the father is as close to perfect as one can be.

    Children are parents’ by “grace.” They become a child of the parents not by their own doing, but by the parents’. They will always be the parents’ children and nothing can change that. However, the parents expect them to live and behave in a certain way, according to their guidelines. The rules and boundaries the parents set for them are set out of love, not to exert control over them. The parents know that if the child does what they ask and command of them, the child will be happy and safe. There are plenty of times when the child thinks he knows better than the parents do–maybe because he doesn’t understand the reason behind a particular rule or request, or maybe because he just wants to be rebellious–but he always comes to discover that the parents were right all along. Failure to keep the parents commands does not result in a loss of status as a son, but it may result in discipline. The reward for obedience is peace, and pleasure in the parents’ company.

  3. pduggie says:

    Ortlund: “In a nutshell: if the imperatives of Scripture are extracted in preaching without being self-consciously placed within their (heart-transforming) indicative framework,”

    So who does that? Who wants to do that? During what era did Reformed people teach this?

    “then such bald imperatives will invariably devolve into a counterproductive reinforcement of the Pharisee lurking in every human heart—even the regenerate human heart.”

    [citation needed]! How do we know that?

  4. pduggie says:

    I’m glad Ortlund allows the law to be the steering wheel. Too many seem to just want us to feel joy while letting the car drive itself ‘naturally’ wherever the engine takes us.

    1. …and the Holy Spirit is the fuel. That’s another element that seems to bypassed here. Not inentionally, of course, but that’s another piece of this puzzle that I used to wrestle with a lot. Understanding that it is the Holy Spirit who lives within me, reminding me who I am and Whose I am, and empowering me through His Word and prayer, made all the difference in my early struggles with sanctification.

  5. Eric says:

    With all the talk of “holiness,” I’d love to see the blogosphere pay some serious attention to Peter Gentry’s faculty address at Southern Seminary, “No One Holy, Like the Lord” (

    I think it is helpful and convincing. And, he has some important exhortations to reformed systematic theologians.

  6. mark mcculley says:

    I am not an Arminian, so I don’t believe that the justified elect lose their salvation, and therefore I don’t think that Christians have to do stuff to stay in the new covenant. But I am also not a puritan, and I don’t believe that the justified elect have to do stuff to prove to themselves or to God that they are real Christians.

    Puritans tend to let you in the front door by faith alone, but then after they allow you a little time, they will let you out the back door if your faith is still alone. In addition to faith, they ask: what have you done for me lately?

    I appreciate the illustration of a child being unconditionally a child. I tend to use marriage as an analogy. Puritan assurance i like my wife saying to me: sure, I married you for love, but now I want to see the big house with the bird nests in the big back yard.

    I am not denying that a husband could do more. I also agree that a husband should do more. There is always more! But how much does a husband have to do in order to show himself and his wife that he really married the wife? Notice, I am not even talking right now about keeping the wife!

    I suppose in the activist culture of Christianity Today, Gerhard Forde would be called an “antinomian”. Certainly he had a false Lutheran gospel based on water regeneration and faith, instead of on Christ’s propitiation. But Forde used to love this question: what would you do if you found out that you didn’t have to do anything?”

    When I walked down the marriage aisle 33 years ago, what was my thinking? Was it probation, so that I had so much time to prove to my wife’s parents that I was not work-less or worth-less? No. So was my mind thinking: now that I am married, I don’t need to love her? It’s not strictly necessary?

    The discussion so far has not done a good job of thinking of the difference between justification and sanctification because it has not account for the biblical idea of sanctification by the blood (Hebrews 10:10-14). Those who think synergism is needed for sanctification will have trouble avoiding the idea that synergism is needed for final justification.

    Works are needed. Wives need their husband to work for them. Husbands need their wives to work for them. Love works. But works are not needed to prove that we are already married.

    I know I don’t deserve my wife. But I also know that I will never ever in the future deserve my wife. And you can redefine “justice” until it becomes less strict and never use the word “merit”, but at the end of the day I will still never deserve to be married her.

    But she married me. Married is married. What we do doesn’t get us more married. And what we do doesn’t prove that we are married. The elect are saved by Christ’s work. When the elect become justified, they are married to Christ. Christians share in what Christ has, not because of what they do but because they are now married/justified.

    The puritans tend to say that you are in the house despite of who you are and what you have done, but now that you are in, there is a new covenant which now expects more of you because you could now do more if you wanted to. The subtext is even more threatening and ominous: maybe you are in, and maybe you are not in, and we shall wait and see what you want to do and then what you do, and we will never say it specifically about you, but we will say in a general way: there are some folks who were never in the house in the first place.

  7. glenn says:

    Many Puritans argue that communion with Christ is transformative. To say that one enters into a relationship with God and continues in that relationship with no evidence of transformation is not the biblical portrait oainted in the New Testament.

  8. Daryl Little says:


    James argues that rather convincingly as well.


    It’s not that inactive faith sends you out the back door, it’s that there is not such thing as inactive faith. So someone with no fruit (tough to define, I agree, well nigh impossible sometimes), has, be James’ definition, no faith.

    1. mark mcculley says:

      The person who is objecting to James says: “show me your faith without your works and I will show you my faith by my works.” I know a young drug addict who became a Jehovah Witness about a year, and completely transformed from drugs into a hard worker. If works are the evidence of faith in a false gospel, how can works be evidence of faith in a true gospel?

      The practical syllogism of the puritans always wants to reject and suppress two simple questions. 1. How much transformation is enough so that your claim to be proven saved by that evidence is not mere self-righteousness? Puritans like to suggest that even asking the “how much” question is a sign of rebellion.

      2. How can you have any assurance now, when in the future you may stop doing (as much) as you have now been doing for so long? Without doubt their insecurity motivates Arminians to all kinds of “dead works”.

      1. Timothy says:

        I think the consensus is that it is James who is saying “show me your faith without your works and I will show you my faith by my works,” not the one who is objecting to James.

        1. mark mcculley says:

          I never much cared for consensus. I know there are a group of writers and preachers who quote each other saying the same thing, and then think they have established the point. I guess that keeps it simple, if you are careful to read only the right books.

          I would prefer to look at the specific context and make arguments. But that would take time, and what good would it do you if you found yourself disagreeing with the “consensus”.

          Let me ask you a question about James. I guess I learned this one from Kierkegaard. Is there such a thing as works without faith? I know you deny that there is any faith apart from works.

          According to James, works without faith are like the body without the spirit: dead works. According to Gal 3:1-5, we are not to finish by works what was begun by the hearing of faith.

  9. telos104 says:

    I suppose if you’re going to charge AN, you’d first better get down your theology of the Law. In this case, I’m in w/ Horton – ANers are not those who believe the Gospel too much, but too little. We’d better be sure, as well, that in the process we nail the Gospel of the OT.
    The pattern is the same, I think, in the OT as the New – Gospel, then “law”, if you like, (in other words “what am I to do?”). The flow is important, no…crucial to getting at the heart of the Bible, the Law, and the Gospel – and the so-called divide (which is not a divide at all).

  10. mark mcculley says:

    Louis Berkhof, History of Christian Doctrines, p220–”Calvin and Luther both described justification as a forensic act which does not change the inner life of man, but only the judicial relationship in which he stands to God. Moreover they deny that justification is a progressive work of God, asserting that it is instantaneous and at once complete, and hold that the believer can be absolutely sure that he is translated forever from a state of wrath and condemnation to one of favor and acceptance.”

  11. glenn says:


    Are you saying sanctification is optional? The consensus of both reformed and biblical theology is those who are justified will be sanctified. Those who argue that one can be justified and sanctification is optional are defined as antinomian.

    1. Timothy says:

      This is not so much a reply to Glenn as a word in support. The Calvinist position is that, as one Calvinist scholar puts it, justification and sanctification are like the two legs of a pair of trousers (or pants to Americans) which cannot be separated without destroying the trousers. They are not like socks which are all too easily separated. As we preach justification we do need to be careful that we do not give the impression that it is unconnected to sanctification. The way Calvin preserves their connection is to see both linked to union with Christ. As one is united with Christ, we are justified and sanctified. So if united with Christ we are justified but also sanctified. If we are justified, then we must have been united with Christ and thus also sanctified.

    2. mark mcculley says:

      Of course not. All the elect are justified (in time, one by one) by the death of Christ. All these same elect (in time, one by one) are “sanctified through the offering of the the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Hebrews 10:10) “By a single offering, Christ has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:14)

      All the justified elect will be sanctified not only by the blood but also by the work of the Holy Spirit causing them to believe the true gospel (and repent of false gospels). “Brothers, beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first-fruits to be saved through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this He called you through our sanctification.” II Thessalonians 2:13, 14

      I know that this Biblical idea of “sanctification” may not be what the soundbites of the consensus are talking about. If you want to read a little outside the comfort zone, then you might check out Carson’s essay on Christ’s righteousness in the Wheaton Theology volume when he makes the distinction between how the Bible talks about sanctification and how the confessional tradition talks about “more and more growth”. Better yet: read AW Pink’s book on the Doctrine of Sanctification. Best: read David Petersen’s Possessed by God: a NT Theology of Sanctification and Holiness in the series edited by Carson, New Studies in Biblical Theology.

      I believe in faith alone, faith apart from works. I also believe in biblical sanctification.

  12. glenn says:

    The current debate is not – will growth in sanctification occur?Everyone agrees it will. The debate is what is the best and most biblical way that promotes our growth in holiness.

    1. mark mcculley says:

      I just went back and read my original post: it seems I had already made the same point about the definition of Holiness.

      I wrote: “The discussion so far has not done a good job of thinking of the difference between justification and sanctification because it has not accounted for the biblical idea of sanctification by the blood (Hebrews 10:10-14). Those who think synergism is needed for sanctification will have trouble avoiding the idea that synergism is needed for final justification.”

      I think it’s funny to talk about “consensus” when people like Mike Horton and the fellows at Westminster West are being dismissed as Lutherans by many others even in the Reformed tradition. And to think that many Reformed evangelicals agree with Arminian evangelicals about faith, works, and growth, well, that is plain scary!

      Tom Schreiner writes: “The Arminian conclusion is that some of those who truly belong to God may forsake their salvation and be lost forever. Such a view certainly deserves respect as a possible reading of the NT. Many Christians I know come close to dismissing such a teaching as a heresy, but such a judgment is rash and fails to see that the Arminian reading of the warnings is not far-fetched.” (87,Run To Win the Prize, Crossway,2010)

      Tom Wright writes: “If we leave the notion of righteousness as a law court metaphor only, as so many have done in the past, this gives the impression of a legal transaction, almost a trick of thought performed by God who is logical and correct, but hardly one we want to worship.” What Saint Paul Really Said, Now Discovered by NT Wright

      Do all evangelicals agree that we need to move on and get busy growing?

  13. JMH says:

    Overall I’m with Hood on this one. I think there is a real antinomian tendency in the Reformed world today, among lots of good guys, and that it’s a danger. As Hood rightly notes, Paul doesn’t always explicitly say “You need to think about your justification more.” Sometimes he just says, “Stop sinning!” (Come to think of it, Jesus says that too, right?)

    Now, if you asked him “How should I do that?” then of course Paul would say it’s not merely by your own effort– the Spirit is what enables your effort in the first place, etc. But the point remains: our effort is necessary. Not just faith, but self-discipline, self-denial, all that.

    I have a feeling that when Lloyd-Jones made his famous statement about being accused of antinomianism, he didn’t want you to actually be an antinomian. And to be clear, I’m not saying anybody is. But the tendency is there, and I think it picks one thing the Bible says, makes it the only think the Bible says (when it isn’t), and that it gets us into trouble. (Also it kind of makes all our sermons sound the same.)

  14. steveprost says:

    I think something that is missing from much of the debate is an idea that Piper has attempted to bring into sharp focus over the years, especially in Future Grace… gratitude (or more vaguely, appreciation and response gratefully to our justification/adoption/hissacrifice/etc.) is an IMPORTANT end in and of itself, but not the major MOTIVATION (it creates the ability FOR motivation) for delight in the law of God and its effects of running vigorously in the paths of his law/holiness (MORE reward of essentially more enjoyment/knowing God). Whats missing from the debate is in the present and eternal future, the bible suggests that for the believer there are different levels of joy to be had and different levels of making our Father sense a “well done good and faithful servant, enter into a (I’d say variegated) eternal joy”. Its all grace and all to Christ’s credit and merit, but that grace has ordained different reward for each of us thru different means of our own strivings (e.g. Paul was very expressive of his focus and boast of his personal reward awaiting him related to his strivings, i.e. not availaing himself of privileges in gospel-preaching) that NEVER merit any more status as children or acceptance and love from Him.

    I’d like to see Future Grace end up having more eventual influence comparable to Desiring God that I believe it deserves in years to come as a corrective to Reformed leanings (which seem to in the current age lean more Lutheran on sanctification) on gratitude as the main motivation for Christian holiness rather than a pursuit of more of God himself and the intrinsic value of He and His ways along His paths of temporarily tough paths of sanctification.

    1. steveprost says:

      IOW… heretical as it sounds…
      …In God’s Word He leads His sheep by using the subjunctive/conditional to drive/motivate imperatives at least as much as indicatives.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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