“There is today a great deal of talk about ‘grace.’ It is described as scandalous, liberating, shocking, counterintuitive, unpredictable, dangerous, etc. But when an emphasis on grace eclipses a focus on Christ, as it sometimes does, then grace is not being preached; rather, a sort of cheerleading experience takes place, in which very little is actually said about grace because it is divorced from the riches of Christ’s person and work” (p. 114).
So Mark Jones argues in his new book, Antinomianism (Phillipsburg; P&R Publishing, 2013) – a book which is sure to elicit some mixed reviews. After reading it, I am compelled to review it because I do think it is a worthwhile resource on the topics of grace, law/gospel, justification, and sanctification. As many of our readers know, there is an ongoing debate over these doctrines in Christian circles (specifically in Calvinistic circles and in Reformed ones). In fact, one reason Jones wrote Antinomianism is to engage Tullian Tchividjian’s 2011 publication, Jesus + Nothing = Everything. For the record, I did read Jesus + Nothing = Everything, but didn’t really enjoy the book because the writing style drove me crazy. And I don’t follow Tchividjian’s work at all, so I’m not deeply involved in this ongoing debate. But it is an important one, and I’m glad Jones’ book is now part of it.
Antinomianism is primarily a discussion about several aspects of the antinomian movement in 17th century English Puritanism and Presbyterianism. Jones doesn’t cover every part of this historical debate, and though the book is historical theology, it is more than that. There are explanations of how the debate back then can help our discussions about this topic today and also a few pastoral notes throughout. In fact, Jones wrote this book primarily for pastors, though of course others can benefit from it as well. It is worth noting that the book is somewhat scholarly and detailed; I would say it is not for beginners, but more for those who know the main aspects of Reformation history, systematic theology, and the Westminster Standards. Jones interacts well with figures like John Owen, Francis Turretin, Thomas Goodwin, John Flavel, and so forth.
In the first chapter, Jones summarizes the 17th century antinomians. He also takes some time to explain how antinomianism is much more layered than simply wanting to do away with God’s law. It is deeper than. In fact, Jones argues (persuasively, in my opinion) that antinomianism also has to do with Christology and an overemphasis on justification, among other errors. The second chapter is where Jones talks about the Reformed terms impetration and application – redemption accomplished by Christ and applied by him through his Spirit who unites his people to him. Antinomians blur this Reformed distinction, Jones argues. In the third chapter, Jones explains the law in the Christian life. The fourth chapter is where Jones discusses the Reformed law/gospel distinction, as well as the “gospel” defined narrowly and broadly. Good works and rewards are the topics of the fifth chapter. Here he talks about evangelical obedience and God’s gracious reward for it (cf. Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 63).
The sixth chapter is the one on God’s love for his people. Specifically Jones highlights the Reformed distinction of God’s amor benevolentiae and God’s amor complacentiae. Reformed theology echoes the Bible’s teaching that while our heavenly Father loves his people with an everlasting love, he is also grieved and displeased with his people when they sin. The seventh chapter is on assurance. Here Jones explained that the 17th century antinomians based assurance solely on believing in justification more, whereas the Reformed said a Christian’s good works also have something to do with assurance (cf. WCF chapter 18). In the eight chapter, Jones examines the rhetoric of the 17th century antinomians and compares it to the rhetoric in today’s debate. I love this line: “[Today]… the richness of Reformed Christology has been lost in favor of clichés” (p. 118). The final chapter is where the author again defines antinomianism and gives a brief Reformed way to respond to it and deal with it.
One area where I thought the book could have been better was Jones’ explanation of the law/gospel distinction in chapter four. He is right that the word “gospel” can be used broadly and narrowly, but at times I didn’t know how he was using the term himself. It would have also been helpful if Jones had summarized the ways Reformed theologians have explained the relationship between the law and the gospel (i.e. Fisher and Colquhoun, for example, have “points” that explain the law/gospel distinction). I also wished Jones would have nuanced the way he talked about Jesus’ faith, justification, and assurance. True, when he was on earth, Jesus believed in God the Father, was “justified,” and assured of his future, but in the context of having no sin – so the discussion needs to be nuanced. It didn’t seem to me that Jones nuanced this enough.
However, I do believe Jones’ purposeful grounding of this debate more in the person and work of Christ is right and good. Many new Calvinists and the Young, Restless, and “Reformed” crowd today are not aware of the historic and confessional Reformed distinctions and discussions. In other words, perhaps some in Calvinistic circles sound at times like antinomians because they are not well versed in historic Reformed theology. There’s more to Reformed theology than the five points, the five solas, and the law/gospel distinction! For example, if you highlight grace and justification, you should never lose sight of Christ’s person and work. They go together. Jones does a nice job in getting us to look again at other aspects of Reformed theology, namely Christology.
One more thing is worth noting: Jones’ chapter on antinomian rhetoric (where the opening quote above is found) is very helpful. I agree that there is much moralistic preaching in churches today. But we have to be careful not to overreact and overemphasize justification at the expense of sanctification. We have to be careful not to overemphasize Jesus’ work (what he’s done for us) at the expense of his person (who he is). We have to be careful not to make trendy “twitterable” statements about grace at the expense of all the other beautiful aspects of Reformed theology. As Jones notes well, “frequently, antinomians are in more serious error in what they fail to say than in what they do say” (p. 117).
In summary, I do have some question marks in the margins of Antinomianism. I don’t agree wholeheartedly with it all. There are some aspects of it that I need to think more about and study. This isn’t the “final authority” on antinomianism. But I do very much recommend because this book pushes us deeper into Reformed and biblical theology. The book was helpful to me because it reminded me of the great Reformed and biblical way to talk about (and preach!) sanctification in a way that centers on Christ’s person and work and also does justice to God’s grace and justification by faith alone.
Mark Jones, Antinomianism (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2013).