March 5, 2014 Broadcast

The Distortion of Lawlessness

A Message by R.C. Sproul

Christians must make ethical decisions that are in accord with God’s will. The difficulty comes because not every ethical situation in life has an easy solution. There are so many factors and contingencies that make each situation unique. But what if there was a one-size-fits-all solution to any and every problem we could possibly face—an over-arching principle that we can use to navigate through life’s difficult situations? There are some who believe there is one such principle. In this message, Dr. Sproul explains that, as attractive as it may sound, that principle is not as biblical as many like to believe.

From the series: Building a Christian Conscience

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. article

    Against the Law

  2. devotional

    Walking by the Spirit

  3. article

    Delighting in Our Duty

Against the Law

Mark Jones

There are few theological aberrations more difficult to define than antinomianism. Some simply look at the etymology of the word and conclude that antinomians are against (anti) God's law (nomos). Others are a bit more specific, suggesting that antinomians are those who deny the third use of the law (the law as a guide for the Christian life; for example, Eph. 6:1) as normative for the Christian believer. Still others contend that we should distinguish between theoretical antinomianism—just described—and practical antinomianism.

Practical antinomianism may take on two forms. The first group are those who claim to be Christians but openly disregard God's law in their lives. The second group are preachers who claim that they affirm the need for the moral law in the Christian life, but their preaching betrays this affirmation because there are almost never any exhortations in their sermons.

There are elements of truth to all of these claims. Nonetheless, antinomianism is best understood as a theological phenomenon that arose in the sixteenth century and found its classical expression in the following century, particularly in Puritan England.

Recoiling against the perceived excesses of Puritan practical divinity, antinomian theologians shared a number of characteristics that distinguished them from their Reformed counterparts. In their minds, they were the true champions of free grace. They were the heroes who vigorously held to the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone (often by preaching that doctrine alone). And they were the preachers who were going to "proclaim liberty to the captives." With such rhetoric, finding fault with the antinomians was always going to be difficult. But their opponents, perfectly orthodox Reformed theologians with international reputations such as John Owen and Samuel Rutherford, did not shy away from the controversy. They noted that the errors of the antinomians were many and varied, since one error inevitably leads to another.

The English antinomians gave an excessive priority to the doctrine of justification by faith alone, to the point that it effectively eclipsed their doctrine of sanctification. The current idea held by some that sanctification is merely the art of getting used to one's justification is very much antinomian, historically considered. Moreover, most antinomians held to a view that God sees no sin in the believer, which means believers' sins can do them no harm. Consequently, our sin or obedience has no real effect on our relationship with God (see, however, John 14:21, 23). On this supposition, God cannot be more or less pleased or displeased with his children (see, however, 2 Sam. 11:27). Divine chastisement is totally foreign to antinomian thinking (see, however, Heb. 12:3–11).

Antinomian theologians also interpreted the Scriptures in ways that had to stay faithful to their overall principles. Regarding Philippians 1:10—"so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ"—they believed it to be accomplished in justification. However, in its context, this verse clearly refers to sanctification. Today, many understand Christ's words in Matthew 5:20 ("unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees") in a similar way. Yet, Christ is not here speaking of His own imputed righteousness. After all, the Pharisees did not actually keep God's law; rather, they left the commandments and held "to the tradition of men" (Mark 7:8). Those described in Romans 8:4 surpass the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 5:6; see Ps. 106:3) because their obedience is Spirit-wrought (Rom. 8:13) and far more extensive.

A robust doctrine of union with Christ provides the best antidote to antinomianism. Both justification and sanctification are blessings given to all Christians (1 Cor. 1:30). To sever one blessing from the other is, to use John Calvin's words, to sever Christ. The Christian who is justified must necessarily be sanctified because of union with Christ. But these applied benefits must never eclipse the person of Christ. Christ's person is a greater gift to His people than His benefits. Union with Christ helps believers to keep this salient fact in mind. We do not merely receive from Christ, but, more importantly, we belong to Him. Our identity is "in Him," so much so that our understanding of the Christian life has strong corollaries with Christ's own life of faith and obedience to the Father.

In John 15, Christ brings home to his disciples the reality of their union with Him. In that same context (v. 10) He informs them that if they keep his commandments, they will abide in His love. But He also, rather remarkably, claims that He remained in his Father's love because He kept his Father's commandments. In speaking this way, Christ desires that His joy should be in His disciples so that their joy may be full (v. 11). Because the antinomians did not view the law as a true instrument of sanctification, to them the preaching of the law could only condemn believers. However, while the power to obey the law does not come from us, God nevertheless uses the law as a means for sanctifying the church.

Thus, the solution to antinomianism must always be found in the person of Christ who provides, commands, and promises. After all, He is the one who said, "If you love me you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15), just before promising to provide them with the Holy Spirit.

Walking by the Spirit

Christians have always faced the problems of legalism and antinomianism. Legalism tries to thwart sin and promote holiness through imposing a law code that adds to Scripture. Of course, Paul addresses legalism in Galatians due to the false teachers who wanted to circumcise Gentile believers even though God never says Gentile disciples of Christ must become Jews (proselytes, Gal. 5:2–6).

Those who embrace antinomianism misinterpret Christian liberty, seeking to eliminate standards entirely. Antinomians indulge their flesh, which refers to human nature in rebellion against the Lord (Rom. 8:8). Legalism is a common response to antinomianism, and Paul defines the true way not to indulge the flesh in today’s passage, answering the Galatian Judaizers who bolstered their appeal to the Law by saying that keeping it is the only way to avoid sin.

Most legalists try to be faithful to God’s call to be holy (Lev. 11:44), but their good intentions do not produce right results. For as Paul tells us, the only way to keep from gratifying the desires of the flesh is to “walk by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16). The basic idea here is that the Christian life is one defined by the fruit of the Spirit, which fulfills the Law (v. 22). We are to be constantly dependent on the Spirit for living in a manner pleasing to God. Again, a life under the Law is not a life without any directives. Paul talks about the Spirit-led life and fulfilling the Law through love in the same context (vv. 13–15), indicating that to walk by the Spirit produces a manner of life characterized by love for God and neighbor, the two great commandments (Matt. 22:34–40).

Living in the Spirit is incompatible with living in the flesh — with being dominated by sin — since the flesh and the Spirit are at odds with one another (Gal. 5:17). It is not a life free from all sin, for we will fall into transgression on occasion until death (1 John 1:8–9). But it is a life in which evil does not reign because the Holy Spirit Himself compels us to follow God’s will (Jer. 31:31–34). We who walk by the Spirit uphold the Law, not in our own power but in putting to death any idea that we can keep our Creator’s law in our own strength and drawing upon the Spirit’s might to make us please the Lord (Eph. 5:18).  

Delighting in Our Duty

Burk Parsons

When we think of the law of God, the first thing that should come to mind is love—God's love for us as fallen sinners, directing us to love Him, enjoy Him, and glorify Him. God's law is a gracious gift to us, and it has three primary uses. First, the law functions as a teacher by showing us God's perfect righteousness and our unrighteousness and sin, and it shows our danger of God's judgment, leading us, by God's grace, in repentance and faith to Jesus Christ who fulfilled all the righteous demands of God's law (Rom. 3:20; 4:15; Gal. 3:19–24). Second, the law functions to restrain evil in all realms of society, preserving humanity and, thus, serving God's overall plan of redemption for His covenant people (Deut. 19:16–21; 1 Tim. 1:8–11). Third, the law functions as a guide to righteous living for all men, and it directs us as God's beloved children by teaching us what pleases our heavenly Father and fulfills the law of Christ (1 Cor. 9:21; 1 Thess. 4:1–8).

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them" (Matt. 5:17). Jesus Christ fulfilled the law, and in fulfilling it, He set us free to love the law, to delight in keeping the law, and to repent for our lawbreaking as we live by faith in Christ for the Glory of God in all that we do (Rom. 3:31; Titus 2:11–14; 1 John 2:3–4). Even in the Great Commission, Christ commanded that we make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to observe ("to keep" or "to obey") all that He commanded. And to His disciples Jesus said, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15), promising to send the Holy Spirit to indwell us, help us, comfort us, and sustain us.

Moreover, when a scribe asked Jesus, "Which commandment is the most important of all?" Jesus answered, "The most important is, 'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." (Mark 12:28–31). In giving the first great commandment, Jesus was quoting the Shema from Deuteronomy 6:4–5, which is the preeminent Old Testament monotheistic self-proclamation of the God of Israel and the confession of all who are united by faith alone to the true Israel of God, Jesus Christ the righteous. The Shema is God's call to "hear, O Israel," and in hearing God, loving God, and obeying God, we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus who is the author and finisher of our faith, trusting Him and following Him every hour of every day in all that we do with our whole being—all the while, teaching and showing our covenant children what it means to live each day coram Deo, before God's face, as we strive to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

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