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Book Review: Antinomianism (Mark Jones)

Mark Jones. Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2013. 176 pp. $17.99.

antinomianismI recently found myself the unwitting and unwilling participant/victim in an Internet war. I had posted a book review that I thought was irenic and fair – pointing out and praising the author for the many good points that he raised, but critiquing and warning against the error of conflating and confounding justification and sanctification. But I was vilified as a legalist and slaughtered. In the aftermath of that war and because of the popularity of this author/pastor and by extension this view of sanctification, I wanted to study sanctification and the law/gospel issue. I was therefore very eager to read Mark Jones‘s latest book.

The cluster of deviations bearing the name antinomianism has been an intense battleground within the tradition of Reformed theology since its very inception, and is still a significant issue today. However, books on the topic are few and far between; apart from strictly academic works that are mostly descriptive in nature, not many books specifically devoted to the topic have been written in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Therefore, Jones’s monograph is a much-needed work.

Having thoroughly researched historic antinomianism, Jones believes firmly that “antinomianism is a system of thought that has to be carefully understood in its historical context, rather than simply according to its etymology” (xiii). As such, the first chapter sets the stage for the rest of the book by providing a brief survey of of antinomian debates in the Reformation and post-Reformation eras, beginning in the 16th century with Luther and the Lutherans and ending with the 18th century Marrow Controversy in the Church of Scotland.

Chapter 1 concludes with factors for coming to measured, sustainable conclusions about antinomianism. The first is that in contemporary debates, simply acknowledging and affirming the indicative-imperative model will not suffice for guarding against legalism and antinomianism; more specific questions need to be addressed, and these are the central focus of later chapters. Second, “Christology will always prove to be decisive in debates on antinomianism. In relation to the questions that are being asked, the answers must always have a Christological focus” (17). That antinomianism is fundamentally a Christological problem is the main thesis of this book, and therefore most chapters have a strong Christological focus. Third, because a number of popular errors today have been clearly addressed before, the importance of historical theology to the tasks of exegetical and systematic theology cannot go unnoticed. Finally, because antinomianism is a lot more complex than the etymology might suggest, acknowledging a place for the moral law in the life of the believer may not be sufficient if other truths are neglected or denied.

In chapter 2 Jones addresses the imitation of Christ, answering the questions of how and in what power Christ was made holy, and what relation His pattern of holiness has to His people. Here, Jones reminds us that discussions of sanctification must be thoroughly Christocentric and Pneumocentric.  Chapter 3 is focused on the different views of the role of the law in the life of the believer held by the antinomians and the orthodox Reformed theologians in Puritan England. Specifically, the focus is on issues pertaining to the commanding nature of the moral law in the new covenant. Chapter 4 looks at how the law-gospel distinction is formulated among Reformed, Lutheran, and antinomian theologians and aims to show that the moral law is friendly to the Christian because of Christ’s mediation which makes us friends of God and because it is accompanied by the Spirit so that our obedience is gospel obedience. Chapter 5 addresses good works (Are good works simply our gracious response to all that Christ has done for us? Or are they a necessary part of our perseverance in the faith in order to receive eternal life/glorification? Are good works in any way a condition for salvation?) and rewards for obedience.

Chapter 6 pertains to the question of whether God loves all His people identically (i.e. with the same intensity), or if there is also a conditional love that depends on our obedience. This chapter also addresses the related issue of whether God is pleased or displeased with his saints when they obey or disobey his law. In Chapter 7 Jones discusses the debates related to assurance – whether sanctification provides evidence to the believer himself of justification, and how objective and subjective grounds for assurance are related.  Chapter 8 highlights some of the rhetoric that was used in the antinomian debates of the 16th century and makes some application to today’s church. The book concludes with a chapter toward a definition and solution. Here Jones summarizes many of the points previously made and characteristics previously identified about antinomianism, and reiterates that “the solution to antinomianism must be to understand and love the person and work of Christ” (128). Christ’s truly human experiences as well as the promises by which He lived provide the pattern for His people because of our union with Him.

It seems to me that in popular American evangelicalism, teachings about sanctification have recently been influenced by ideas that, though not outrightly antinominan, have nevertheless been influenced by antinomian theology. Antinomianism is not just being “against the law,” and it does not just result in living licentiously. It’s much more complicated than that, and in this volume Jones has provided the church a valuable resource for understanding the complexities of the historic debates and differences between Reformed orthodoxy and antinomianism. While illuminating the differences, there is from beginning to end a strong Christological element, as Jones’s thesis is that good Christology is the solution to the problem of antinomianism. He also relates the issues to the contemporary church and makes pastoral applications.

I highly recommend this book to Reformed pastors (both Packer in the foreword as well as Jones in the preface commend this volume particularly to pastors), as well as educated laymen and theology students interested in matters related to sanctification and the relationship between law and gospel.

Purchase: Westminster | Amazon

*I received a free copy from P&R in exchange for an honest review.

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