The Antinomian Way of Justification
(This is the fourth part of John Gerstner’s Primer on Justification. In this article he discusses the antinomian view of justification)
Faith → Justification – Works
In the antinomian view of justification, the formula is the same as the preceding [see “The Neoorthodox Way of Justification”], except that the italics have disappeared. Faith brings justification minus works.
We are dealing now with a group of people who, apart from this doctrine, are genuinely orthodox. They have no doubt whatever that justification is by faith alone. And when they speak of justification, they mean the remission of sins by the shed blood of Jesus Christ, the incarnate second person of the Godhead, who was born of the Virgin Mary, fulfilled the law on our behalf, was delivered up for our offenses, and rose again bodily for our justification.
Likewise, faith in Him is of the orthodox variety. One must truly believe that He is the divine Son of God and Savior of the world. This is an orthodox faith, which professes Christ alone as the sole basis of salvation. These people preach Christ and Him crucified. There can be no doubt of it, and we are happy to give them full credit for their unwavering allegiance to the inspiration of Holy Scripture and to the supernaturalism of biblical redemption.
Their “minus’’ is not against the person of Christ directly, or the nature of justifying faith directly, it has to do with the works that must follow a justified state.
Antinomians, unlike the liberals, stress that Christ is indispensable for salvation. They are not do-it-yourself theologians by any means. They insist that faith is absolutely necessary for salvation. And they mean by “faith,” faith in the merits of Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God, the vicarious sacrifice for the sins of the world.
Insistent as they are on the proper conception of faith, they recognize that that is not itself sufficient. One must know more than what faith is; one must actually exercise it. These people usually stress the difference between a mere theoretical knowledge of the Lord and awareness of who He is. They know that faith must have the element Martin Luther stressed so much: the fiducial. Faith must be actual trust.
Theologians of this school often use an analogy that shows the difference between an awareness of the reliability of something and an actual commitment of oneself to it. A person may recognize a certain chair as sturdily built and quite capable of holding his weight; but until the person sits in that chair he cannot be said to have truly proper and thorough faith in the chair. A person may believe that he can walk across Niagara Falls on a tightrope. Until he starts walking, say these antinomians, his faith in his ability and the trustworthiness of the rope is not demonstrated. So they will insist that no amount of orthodox Christology can save anybody. No amount of historical faith can justify anybody. A person must indeed know who Christ is and even believe that He is able to save. Until, however, that person commits himself to Christ alone for his salvation, he is not, according to this school of thought, truly a justified person. So, in that matter, they are surely biblical and evangelical.
The same may be said of their doctrine of justification. Again, no italics. They are as far removed from neo-orthodoxy as they are from the self-justification of liberalism. They insist that Christ is a vicarious sacrifice, who by His mediatorial death provided satisfaction for God’s righteousness. He bestows on the person who really trusts in Him the cancellation of all his guilt and, to the same, His acquired righteousness.
It is a minor defect in these antinomians that they do not adequately stress the positive element in justification. There is a one-sided, heavy emphasis on the negative remission quality of justification. They are fond of their expression of justification: “just as if I had never sinned.” They recognize the full cancellation of the guilt of sin, but are not quite so aware that the righteousness of Jesus Christ is equally essential as a part of justification. They do not deny it. Indeed they teach it. They simply do not adequately appreciate and stress it. But this is a minor criticism at most. On the whole, antinomians are quite biblical, evangelical, orthodox, and Reformational in respect to faith and justification up to a certain point.
That “up to a certain point” has to do with the “minus works.” Why do I say ‘‘up to a certain point’’? I did not mean by that expression that antinomians are thoroughly sound up to the point of works, but rather that their soundness with respect to faith and justification goes as far as possible with a defective view of works. That defective view of works has a retroactive effect on the nature of the faith and, ultimately, of the justification. In fact, it utterly vitiates both. So while I am endorsing the antinomian’s affirmation of an essentially evangelical view of faith and justification, I am here qualifying it in anticipation of the defective view of works. Though I praise the antinomians for these first two parts of the formula, it is in a qualified sense of taking them at face value. Not even at this point am I saying that their affirmation will stand up under an analysis of their view of justification by faith as a whole.
What, then, is the meaning of the “minus works”? As in the neo-orthodox formula, it does not mean that the adherents of this school are opposed to good works. It does not mean that it encourages people to do bad works or to regard works as something that they can casually neglect. On the contrary, they themselves are often zealots for good works. They always stress the advisability of good works. Good works are absolutely necessary for rewards. These preachers mightily urge people to abound in good works so that they may have an abundant reward in the world to come. Abounding in the works of the Lord, they teach, promotes a sense of blessedness and joy in the Lord even in this world. The absence of good works will disturb our fellowship with God. As long as they are lacking fellowship with the Savior, it is impossible to have peace, joy, or fruitfulness. If this continues, there will be embarrassment at the bema (judgment seat of Christ). In other words, antinomians usually enthusiastically urge Christians to do many, many, many good works in the service of the Lord Jesus Christ, and confidently promise them that they will receive a heavenly reward for every one of them, as well as present overflowing joy in the Lord. “Minus” here does not mean a negative attitude toward works. These antinomians are often quite positive in their emphasis and their practice.
If antinomians are so enthusiastic about doing good works, why do I put a “minus” before the works in their formula? It seems totally out of place and profoundly misleading—even unfair—on the surface of it. It is not out of place and it is not misleading, but it does have to be understood accurately. What I mean is that the antinomian defends the proposition that there can be a justification by faith without any works whatsoever. They do not recommend such a life, but they do defend its possibility. Just as I diagrammed it here, so they think that it is possible for a person to be justified by faith, even though, alas, he does no good works at all (in spite of all of their exhortations to the contrary). Some antinomians sing:
Free from the Law, O blessed condition, I can sin as I please and still have remission.
This meets with a very dim reception from many of these teachers. But they cannot deny the proposition any more than they can encourage that way of stating their convictions. They do believe that the Christian is free from the law, and if he does sin as he pleases he still will have remission of his sins, if he does indeed trust in Jesus Christ. They are prepared to die for that proposition. In other words, a “minus” here is utterly indispensable to their way of thinking.
A few summers ago I was teaching a church history survey course to Campus Crusade staffers at Ft. Collins, Colorado. Several times in that survey, antinomianism was mentioned. After class one morning a student brought me a copy of Dr. Charles Ryrie’s book on discipleship. He asked me to read a particular chapter and tell the class if that taught antinomianism. Knowing the tendency of Scofieldian dispensationalism to antinomianism, I was still disappointed to find that my friend, Dr. Ryrie, one of the soundest of the dispensationalists, was guilty of antinomianism.
Incidentally, in that chapter, Dr. Ryrie mentions in a footnote that he had some discussion with Dr. James Packer and Dr. John Stott on this matter of the role of works. Packer and Stott take the orthodox Reformational position that faith must be accompanied by works. If Jesus Christ is to be one’s Savior, He must also, and at the same time, be one’s Lord. Dr. Ryrie heartily recommends that when a person accepts Christ as Savior he also accept Him as Lord, but he defends the possibility of Christ’s being Savior without being Lord. Consequently, in that footnote, Dr. Ryrie refers to Packer and Stott as “lordship” teachers (as if “saviorhood” teachers were sound). So if the antinomian is not going to insist that works are indispensable, then he comes under the indictment of a formula with “minus works,” and that is a fatal fault.
I later met Dr. Ryrie and we talked for about 15 minutes, which was all we could spare at the time. He convinced me, even in that brief conversation, that he never meant to be antinomian. He seems to realize how fatal this doctrine is. We agreed at that time to have further correspondence. When I retumed home shortly afterwards, I received from Dr. Ryrie a copy of his book on grace, in which he had underlined a number of sentences emphasizing the importance of the law in the Christian life. I wrote him a five-page letter expressing my deep appreciation for the parts he had underlined. I told him that I understood why he felt those statements freed him from the charge of antinomianism. At the same time, I pointed out that they did not do that because, enthusiastic as he was, he did not make the works of obedience necessary. They were highly advisable and very profitable. They were still, after all Dr. Ryrie’s statements orally and in writing, optional acts. He did not remove the “minus.” I pled with him to do so, but though that letter was written years ago, I have not yet received a response. I draw no conclusion from the silence, but neither does the silence answer my charges, which I have to repeat here about a dear friend who represents a whole school of thought. While proponents of that school do not want to be antinomian, they are, succeeding without trying.
If they will show that the person to be justified by faith must have his faith accompanied by good works, then I should be very happy to go immediately into print and indicate my personal gratification and endorsement of their view of justification. Until that time, I can only say of Dr. Ryrie (and of all dispensationalists, because he is certainly one of the finest of them), and of the Scofield Bible in its 1909 version, and even in its 1967 revision, that their doctrine is antinomian. It is noticeable that the revision addresses the problem more, and in a certain sense tones down the harshness of the earlier form of statement, but it does not remove the antinomianism of Scofieldian dispensationalism.
I also mention this episode in my Primer on Dispensationalism. I use it here because not only does it show antinomianism in an outstanding Bible teacher of great influence, but it is characteristic of the whole dispensational theology from J. N. Darby to Zane Hodges. Dr. Hodges’ recent Gospel Under Siege should be entitled Antinomianism Under Siege. In my Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth [Wolgemuth and Hyatt, 1991, but currently out of print] I demonstrate more thoroughly that dispensationalism, past and present, teaches antinomianism, and therein denies justification by faith alone.
Until dispensationalism repudiates its antinomianism, it is going to have to labor under that awful indictment of cutting out the heart of Christianity by a fatally defective view of justification, which is the article by which the church or theology or the individual must stand or fall. No amount of other excellencies can compensate for it. Just as a human being may be healthy in some ways except one fatal ailment, so it takes a lack of only one essential to destroy a theology.
My favorite illustration of this mentality I heard from a well-known American evangelical who died some years ago. I trust that before he died he saw the fallacy in this episode. This story is true, and it illustrates antinomianism very pointedly because of the relative triviality of the offense involved.
The story is this: this man, before he was converted, was a hobo. After his conversion, he was so conscientious that he wrote to the various train lines on which he had, as a hobo, stolen rides, asking if he could reimburse them for his thefts of free passage. They invariably responded by saying they had no established rates for such travel and forgave him. That shows how seriously he took his Christian life. He got a job, after his conversion, in an electric light company in Akron, Ohio. One time while working for that company, he stole an electric light bulb, took it home, and screwed it up in the ceiling of his room. At night, when he would get down on his knees and pray, he would often look toward heaven and see that stolen light bulb. Finally, it pained him so much that he simply could stand it no longer. He unscrewed the bulb and returned it to its owner. This was his final comment on that episode: “If I had not returned that light bulb, I would have gone to heaven anyway, but I would not have been happy along the way.”
There is your “minus works.’’ Minus very, very little work. Minus a five-cent electric light bulb. Minus next to nothing. But, nevertheless, minus a good work of doing what is a manifest duty of a Christian person: providing things honestly in the sight of all, not being a thief. A man who steals a five-cent light bulb, or embezzles $5 million from a bank, if he does not return it, is a thief. One is a bigger thief than the other, but both are thieves. If one takes property that does not belong to him and does not return it while it is in his power to do so, he is a thief.
What is the standing of thieves? The Bible is utterly unambiguous on that subject. Thieves, it says, shall not inherit the kingdom of God. When the rich young ruler asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Christ told him in no uncertain terms, “You know the commandments.” Christ then mentioned some of the decalogue, including the eighth commandment. A person could not inherit eternal life unless he was about the business of keeping the commandments. Christ was not saying that he would be saved by any merit in keeping the commandments. He simply answered a question as to how a person would inherit eternal life, and made it clear that there was no inheriting eternal life without keeping the commandments. Christ makes no exceptions. “Thou shalt not steal” is one of those commandments, and a person who is a thief is a breaker, not a keeper, of that commandment.
You say, ‘‘Yes, but the man may repent.” Yes, I grant you that he may repent, and if he repents then he is no longer a thief. If he is a Christian who was overtaken in a fault, he can be restored. But one option is not open. He cannot continue in his thievery and be an heir of eternal life. Thieves cannot inherit the kingdom of God. So our friend was utterly out of line with Holy Scripture when he said that though he was a thief he would have gone to heaven anyway. He would not have been happy on the way, but neither would he have been on the way. Thieves are not going to be happy along the way. He was correct about that. But thieves are not going to heaven either. About that he was fatally mistaken.
Even a favorite hymn can be misleading. It is true that “there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” It is also true that there is no other way to be in Jesus but to trust and obey.
The light bulb is an extreme example cited to make the point most obviously that, however refined, antinomianism is still antinomianism, and a fatal error. Often much more glaring cases are offered. We hear some antinomians saying that a true believer dying drunk in bed with a prostitute and a pot of stolen gold under the bed would be immediately escorted to heaven by holy angels. They are not referring to a godly person who had suddenly, on a single occasion, lapsed into such delinquency. They mean that a true believer who lived his whole life that way would go—without reward, of course—to heaven. And he would have been ‘‘unhappy along the way” there. But to heaven he would go. I heard one evangelist tell of a man like that whom no amount of divine chastening could correct. Did that prove he was not a Christian? Not at all! What happened? God took him home to remove the scandal!
What most clearly shows that the absence of works is utterly impossible for a justified person is the relationship of works to faith. That faith which justifies is a working faith. If justification is by faith, it must be a real, genuine faith. Everybody who reads this knows we are talking about real, not about counterfeit, faith. The fact that the hat in the window can be bought for $20 does not mean that it can be bought with a counterfeit $20 bill. The fact that justification may be by faith does not mean that it can be bought by a counterfeit faith. A non-working faith is no faith at all, a counterfeit faith indeed. It is conclusive evidence that the person is not a believer that he does not pursue holiness, without which no one shall see the Lord. Those who are Christians take up their crosses daily and follow Him. Only those who abide in His Word are His disciples (John 8:31). If a person does not take up his cross, does not abide in God’s Word, and does not deny himself, then he simply is not following Jesus Christ. He is not a true believer; he is not an heir to eternal life; he is not going to inherit the kingdom of God.
The classic passage is James 2:21: “Faith without works is dead.” James does not say that faith without works is sick. He does not say that faith without works is not very healthy. He does not say that faith without works is dying. He says bluntly that faith without works is dead. It simply does not exist. Christ said the same thing in the parable of the vine and the branches. That which does not bear fruit does not abide in Him. It is not in Christ, the vine, if it is not bearing the fruits of good works.
So we sadly conclude that antinomianism is another gospel, which is not the gospel. It is an implicit denial of justification by faith because it does not require the working faith that alone brings justification. Without a true faith, there is no union with Christ, and without Christ there is no justification. Faith without works is dead, and justification without faith is dead. If there are any “antinomians” who truly believe in justification by faith alone, then let them deny their antinomianism and join with all true evangelicals.
Excerpted from Primitive Theology by John H. Gerstner.