Housewife Theologian

The Gospel Interrupting the Ordinary

The “A” Word

Written By: Aimee Byrd - Jan• 24•14

71GcQA+-5lL._SL1500_Mark Jones went and did it. He dropped the “A” word, turned it inside out, and left the contemporary Reformed world a little exposed.

Antinomianism.

Go ahead and say it, it’s kind of a fun word. But no one wants to be called an antinomian. When you first hear the word you may immediately think, “Oh yeah, this applies to those people who are anti-law.” But Jones makes the case that “’antinomianism’ is a lot more complex than its etymology might suggest” (18).

I’m not exaggerating when I say that he turns the word inside out. At the beginning of the book, Jones suggests that maybe even the legalists have much in common with antinomians. Echoing Oliver O’Donovan, he elaborates, “Legalism and antinomianism are in fact two sides of the same coin because they are ‘fleshly’ ways of living life” (2). This is very perceptive, and Jones is setting the reader up to see that the solution isn’t to find a middle ground between the two, because they are “fundamentally the same error.”  Instead, Jones’s book sets out to show that “The grace of God in the person of Jesus Christ, properly understood, is the only solution to these twin heresies. In essence, the mistakes of legalism and antinomianism are Christological errors” (3). This is what I appreciate the most about the book. The author teaches the relationship of both Christ’s person and work to our sanctification.

He also gives us quite a history lesson. The first chapter chronicles some of the more impressionable antinomian debates covering everything from Luther, the Puritans, and the Marrow Men. With that helpful context, Jones moves on to a chapter on The Imitation of Christ. He helpfully indicates that while it is good that we emphasize Christ’s impetration, that is, “Christ’s meritorious work,” we must not focus on it to the neglect of application, that is, “the enjoyment of Christ’s purchase of redemption. The two concepts are distinct but not separate. So to be holy is both to look to Christ’s work of reconciliation (i.e. impetration) and to labor after conformity to his image (Eph. 1:4; Rom. 8:29)” (22). I love how Jones points out the relationship between Jesus’s life of faith and our own, both dependent on his Holy Spirit.

But back to the whole antinomian debate, does the law have a role in our sanctification? If so, what exactly is it? Jones exhorts, “Because of the greater indicatives of the new covenant, the imperatives are not relaxed, but in fact are strengthened” (37). How can this be if we are now under the reign of grace under the new covenant? Well, there is a whole chapter dedicated to the law, and another on the relationship between the law and the gospel. Jones breaks down the command to believers to love as Christ has loved us, explaining how after the incarnation, Christ demonstrates an even greater model of love than is commanded in the Decalogue. Since Christ has filled this perfectly on our behalf, we now have a new relationship with the law. We can pursue holiness, holding on to the promise of God, knowing that Christ is interceding on our behalf, and confident that he will accept our worship and obedience even as it is now imperfect. The believer’s relationship with the law is very different than it was as an unbeliever, but there is still a relationship there. “The gospel, largely understood, involves the work of the Spirit in applying Christ’s work of impetration. Thus, the law is changed by the Spirit into something effectual, so that we may accurately claim…that the law is an instrument in progressive sanctification” (56).

I appreciate how thorough Jones is in this chapter on law and grace. He is able to maintain the impetration of Christ as the key message in the gospel, while getting into the implications of how this is worked out in our sanctification. He does all this not my lessening Christ’s work and putting a false burden on the believer to be left in despair, but highlighting how the mediatorial work of Christ actually makes the law friendly to us, as well as the Spirit’s application in leading us to gospel obedience.

Not only does Jones turn the “A” word inside out, he pulls out all the pockets. There is a chapter on Good Works and Rewards, as well as a chapter distinguishing between God’s benevolent love and his complacent love. I confess, this is where I wrestled the most. He explains God’s benevolent love as his primary love for all believers in his election and generosity that accompanies all those who are blessed in Christ. But Jones evidences how the tradition of the Reformed also taught on God’s special delight and friendship in response to “the good that is in the elect.” On one hand, I understand. All our goodness is in Christ, dependent on the Spirit; and so as we do good, we are in a sense closer to God. But at the same time, I think of the parable of the Prodigal Son. God’s benevolent love is a passionate love that strongly pursues us, and the good that is celebrated there is a broken heart. We often focus on the good that is more visible and rewarded even by our own church peers, but we need to be reminded that God knows our thoughts and our hearts. So I would maybe have liked to see the author spend some time distinguishing between performing good with the wrong heart motives, verses the good we do in Christ that doesn’t always look to outsiders as a great spiritual accomplishment. I circled a footnote that articulated what was floating in my head as I read that chapter: “Of course, keeping with the idea that our good works are prepared in advance by God, we could also look at the issue in terms of whether those who do more good works than others have been recipients of God’s love and grace on a greater level” (82).

Is your brain twisted yet? I am amazed by how much ground is covered in a mere 130 page book. Jones opens in the preface saying every sentence must count in a book about antinomianism. He certainly succeeded in writing a succinct history, explanation, and interaction with some of the warning signs he sees in contemporary Christian language. The author ends the book working toward a solution. I appreciate the pastoral advice and tone in this chapter. I found this excerpt particularly helpful:

In the context of the Christian life, the Spirit so works in believers that they have not been deprived of their wills, but rather in such a way that our obedience is truly our obedience. The faith that is a gift of God is nevertheless our faith. The power comes from God; the act belongs to man. (125)

One thing I do fear is that readers will want to start calling out all sorts of people as antinomian, just like we like to label people as legalists. I like how Jones teaches these are two sides of the same coin. We all have tendencies to fall on one side or the other. But then again, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t operate with some sort of law—-as Jones put it, if we keep “beating the grace horse,” that too can become a law. That’s why it is so important to have the right understanding of both law and grace, as well as a solid doctrine of Christ’s person and work. This is the greatest benefit of the book. You may not agree with Jones on some of the lingo that he tags as antinomian, but you will certainly learn from him and be challenged. You will also be edified by his Christological focus, and encouraged to continue in the race that is the Christian life.

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11 Comments

  1. Tiribulus says:

    Funny you bring this up now. A small forum site I hang out on occasionally has just erupted over this very THING.

    Between the interview that Christ the Center did with this guy (and my apparent subsequent misunderstanding of his position) and this fine review, it appears that this wok could be quite helpful.

  2. susie says:

    Very interesting and helpful. Thank you Aimee! My husband and I just returned this week from a conference at Westminster Seminary in San Diego. It was a conference on sanctification and holiness .Michael Horton did a talk on this very subject you shared with us. It’s worth a listen on their site. I enjoyed your comment on turning the “A” word inside out and emptying its pockets. We basically felt the same about Horton’s talk

  3. Tim says:

    One point you made in particular really struck me, Aimee: application of Scripture in our lives is a means to enjoy Christ more. The rich ways God’s grace works in our lives is such a blessing.

    Now I have to go find a copy of Jones’ book.

  4. Great to see the connection you make here between ANTINOMIANISM and LEGALISM, Aimee. Does Mark Jones write about what Jesus said about the Pharisees?

    Anyway, all of our good works we will lay at His feet one day.

  5. Jamie says:

    Based on your review and my husband recently also recommending this book, I am working my way through it. Thanks for being the voice of women out there who want to know more about God and theology! I have always felt “on the fringe” when it came to my interest in theology, because many Christian women aren’t interested in discussing it or believe it is for the men or, more specially in some cases, the elders to discuss. I struggle with the typical small talk that often occurs after Sunday services or Bible studies, and would love to have a group of women who are more willing to dig into the deeper things of God.

    • Aimee Byrd says:

      That’s why I began writing, Jamie! Housewife theologians unite! Glad I got you into reading Mark’s book. We will be interviewing him soon for a future Mortification of Spin podcast. Let me know if you have any questions you want me to stick to him! Of course, I never get around to asking half the things I want to say in that short time, but you never know…

  6. Karen says:

    Beating the grace horse into law – what a picture!
    White Horse Inn did a really good two-part series on this.
    http://www.whitehorseinn.org/blog/2012/06/03/whi-1104-antinomianism-part-1/

  7. Anna Anderson says:

    What an eye opener to see this issue as a Christological error. Our human hearts, so prone to boast, can turn law and grace into our pedestal, when both should drive us to our knees.

What do you think?