Volume Seven — Article 2, Part 2 Volume 7 | Home

Law and Gospel 

Back-breaking Work Part II

Antinomianism and Justification by Faith

After Luther had preached in the castle chapel at Dresden, Duke George inquired of Madam de Ia Sale, "How did you like the sermon?" She replied, "Could I again hear such a discourse, I could die in peace." "And I," replied George angrily, "would give a good sum not to have heard it. Such discourses are good only to make people sin with confidence."

From that day to this, Luther's enemies have tried to pin the charge of antinomianism on the great Reformer in particular or on Protestantism in general. Antinomianism is the doctrine which says that the gospel releases men from the obligation to obey the law of God — a sort of "believe and live as you please" philosophy. Anyone who seriously considers the Reformation, knows that the Reformer fought against antinomianism as much as against legalism.

Yet we must admit that Protestantism has always been seriously tempted toward antinomianism. This is not because there is anything inherently amiss in the doctrine of justification by faith; it is because there is something inherently wrong with human nature. "The carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be." Rom. 8:7. An antinomian is simply a sinner—a man in rebellion against divine law (1 John 3:4). And every man, regenerate or unregenerate, is a sinner (antinomian) by nature (1 John 1:8). The crude forms of antinomianism, like the crude forms of legalism, are generally recognized for what they are by people who have a knowledge of the Bible. Yet antinomianism, like its opposite error, is able to dress itself up in the best evangelical attire.

For instance, Paul emphatically declares that we are justified and forgiven by faith "without works," or "without the deeds of the law" (Rom. 4:5, 6; 3:28). Many will therefore declare, "Good works are not necessary for salvation," or, "Obedience to God's law is not necessary for justification." But such statements are clearly contrary to the Bible and to the great doctrine of justification by faith. They undermine the authority of God's law and turn the gospel into a sentimental platitude.

God's Word must first come to man in the law before it comes in the gospel. Apart from the law, no one can understand or appreciate what Christ did for us. At the outset of his epistle to the Romans, the apostle declares, " . . . the doers of the law shall be justified." Rom. 2:13. No man, absolutely no man, will be justified unless he brings to God an obedience which satisfies the law. When the rich young ruler inquired of Jesus, "What good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?" Jesus pointed him first to the law: "If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments" (Matt. 19:16-20). And all through the Bible there are statements which promise life to the obedient, to the overcomers, to the commandment keepers, to those who do the will of God (Isa. 1:19; Rev. 3:21;22:14;1 John 2:17).

How Faith Honors the Law

After a man hears the conditions of acceptance with God and eternal life, and is made sensible of his inability to meet those conditions, the Word of God comes to him in the gospel. He hears that Christ stood in his place and kept the law of God perfectly for him. By dying on the cross, Christ satisfied all the law's demands. The Holy Spirit calls the sinner to repentance towards and and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ to accept the righteousness of Jesus. Standing now before the law which says, "I demand a life of perfect conformity to the commandments," the believing repentant sinner cries in triumph, "Mine are Christ's living, doing, and speaking, His suffering and dying; mine as much as if I had lived, done, spoken, and suffered, and died as He did . . . " (Luther).4 The law is well pleased with Jesus' doing and dying, which the sinner brings in the hand of faith. Justice is fully satisfied, and God can truly say: "This man has fulfilled the law. He is justified."

We say again, Only those are justified who bring to God a life of perfect obedience to the law of God. This is what faith does—it brings to God the obedience of Jesus Christ. By faith the law is fulfilled and the repentant sinner is justified.

On the other hand, the law is dishonored by the man who presumes to bring to it his own life of obedience. The fact that he thinks the law will be satisfied with his "rotten stubble and straw" (Luther) shows what a low estimate he has of the holiness of God and what a high estimate he has of his own righteousness. Only in Jesus Christ is there an obedience with which the law is well pleased. Because faith brings only what Jesus has done, it is the highest honor that can be paid to the law (Rom. 3:31).

The doctrine of justification by Christ's perfect obedience to the law, strikes at the very foundation of antinomianism.5 Since faith brings to God that Life of perfect obedience to the law, no man can exercise faith which is unto salvation and at the same time be unrepentant and despise or make light of the law. Moreover, faith not only justifies, but it also brings the renewing power of the Holy Spirit into the heart (Eph. 1:13; John 1:12; 1 John 5:1; Rom. 5:5; Titus 3:5, 6). By the Spirit, the law is written in the heart and mind (Heb. 8:10) so that the believer's "new obedience" is the same kind of obedience that God imputes to him for justification. As Melanchthon writes in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, " . .. love follows faith, because the regenerate receive the Holy Ghost, and accordingly begin [to become friendly to the Law and] to do the works of the Law."—Article XII, Pt. V (Book of Concord, p.85). The spirit of the justified man is in harmony with the spirit of Psalm 119. The will of God is his delight, and the law, which is the expression of that will, becomes his meditation day and night. Any other sort of justification is mere fiction, and any other faith is a figment of the imagination, that "flits across the top of the brain" (Calvin).

In this age of lawlessness, the church is often found aiding and abetting the spirit of permissiveness by preaching a doctrine of justification that does not take the law of God seriously and preach heartfelt repentance towards God. And it is certain that those who listen to a "gospel" that does not take the law seriously, will not be moved to take the law seriously themselves.

When the cross of Christ is preached as it should be, it magnifies the gravity of disobedience; but all too often the offer of "cheap grace" encourages people to carouse on the mercy of God without repentance towards God. We agree with Dr. Adolf Koberle, who chides Barth for a one-sided attack on legalism; for while legalism is killing its thousands, antinomianism is killing its tens of thousands (see Adolf Koberle, The Quest for Holiness [Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1964]), pp. 254, 255. The only hope for the church today is to return to the two-edged sword of the Word—the law and gospel as seen in the great Reformation message of justification by faith.
Part III

4 Luther's Works (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press; St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955), Vol. xxxi, pp.297,298.  
5 In his great English classic on The Doctrine of Justification (reprinted by The Banner of Truth Trust, 1961), James Buchanan points out that antinomians acknowledge no place for the life of Christ in the sinner's justification. The antinomians try to extol Christ's death, but they fail to acknowledge the truth that it is the life of Jesus which is imputed to the believer (Rom. 5:9, 18, 19). And because they see no great value in Jesus' life of obedience to the law, they themselves see no value in obeying the law of God. The true Pauline and Reformation doctrine of justification is related to both the life and death of Christ—as the Scottish theologians would say, both His active and passive obedience. While the merit of Christ's death removes the guilt and condemnation of sin, the merit of Christ's life is imputed to the believer. Justification must not only be seen negatively (as absence from sin), but positively (as credited with a life full of good works and holy deeds). Those who appreciate the value of Christ's life of obedience to the law, will reflect it in their own lives.