I read with interest Rev. Jonathan Mahtani’s article in the May 15, 2017 Standard Bearer entitled, “Antinomianism: A Heresy Within.” I especially appreciated Rev. Mahtani’s urgent and pastoral warning against the “practical antinomianism” of using the fact of our freedom in Christ as an excuse to commit sin. The call to holiness as the proper response for gracious salvation was edifying for me personally, and I pray that it was for others as well. May Rev. Mahtani’s love for the church’s holiness be in every pastor’s heart as we minister to Christ’s bride.
However, I was uncomfortable with the true/false quiz at the beginning of the article. In my opinion, a few of the statements that were called antinomian could actually be interpreted as sound Reformed doctrine. For example, the article called the following statement antinomian: “Because I am saved by grace alone, good works have nothing to do with my salvation.” I think there is some ambiguity in how this statement is formulated. What does “good works have nothing to do with my salvation” mean? If it means that God does not command His redeemed people to obey Him, or that good works are not even the fruit of salvation, then the statement is antinomian. But if the phrase means that good works do not cause my salvation in any way, that good works have no meritorious power in my salvation, that good works are not the means of my salvation, then the statement is not antinomian, but Reformed. In fact, passages such asand teach that “good works have nothing to do with my salvation” in the sense that my good works do not save me in any way, but that God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone saves me.
This one example is enough to highlight my concern, although I found other statements in the true/false quiz to be similarly ambiguous, along with the statement of the error of antinomianism later in the article (“[Antinomianism] teaches that works of the law are not a necessary part of our salvation.”).
As the article noted, this issue is especially important to the Protestant Reformed Churches (and her sister churches) right now because of the current controversy in the ecclesiastical assemblies over these questions. An article on antinomianism in the Standard Bearer is a welcome sight if it helps the churches understand the issues better. However, my concern is that, at best, the ambiguous statements about antinomianism in the article are only going to confuse the issue; at worst, they will actually harm the gospel by charging the truth with being antinomian heresy.
Rev. Andy Lanning
As Rev. Andy Lanning notes in his letter, this topic is extremely important in the PRCA at the present time. For that reason I am thankful for the opportunity he has given me to re-visit it and clarify any misunderstanding.
In my article entitled “Antinomianism: A Heresy Within,” I wrote with the young readers of the Standard Bearer in mind. The true/false quiz at the beginning of the article was meant to catch their attention and draw them in. These statements were also for them to return to for careful examination, as a way to guard their hearts against the deceptive lie of antinomianism to which we are all prone. I pray that they have done so or will do so in light of Rev. Lanning’s letter and my response, as well as the controversy touching this topic in our churches.
Before anything else, I want to re-emphasize a point that I included in my article. Neither that article nor this response should be viewed as a support to either side in the controversy within our churches. I do not mean to accuse anyone of teaching heresy. Nor do I mean to defend anyone who may be teaching heresy. Practical antinomianism was a real and present danger within our churches before the controversy. It is a real and present danger within our churches amidst the controversy. It will be a real and present danger within our churches after the controversy. These words are not for the winning of an argument, but rather for the warning of our people.
To begin, let me defend my article and the true/false statements in general. First, remember that I wrote this article with the young in mind. While I was conscious of all the readers of the Standard Bearer, I wrote for the rubric called Strength of Youth. Therefore, I tried to be brief and simple. That may have been the reason for some ambiguity. Second, the nature of true/false questions is such that they are supposed to be a bit tricky. Admittedly, the statements were one-liners framed in such a way that, at first glance, they sound true. Yet upon careful consideration (especially after reading the article), the lie hidden within the statements should become evident. We must realize that the most deceptive lies are those mixed with truth, and the true/false quiz was meant to be a lesson in that. While I admit that my brevity and simplicity may have resulted in slight ambiguity concerning matters not the focus of my article (that is, whether we are saved because of our works), I respectfully disagree that the article “confused the issue” or “harm[ed] the gospel by charging the truth with being antinomian heresy.”
However, I do want to clarify any misunderstandings that may exist. If any young person is struggling to see how the true/false questions are all false, the best way to do so is by considering first the truth in the statement and then, secondly, the lie mixed in to corrupt the truth. Think about the first statement to which Rev. Lanning draws attention: “Because I am saved by grace alone, good works have nothing to do with my salvation.” What is the truth in that statement? As Rev. Lanning correctly points out in his letter, the truth is that good works do not cause my salvation, good works do not merit my salvation, and good works are not the means or instrument used to give me salvation.
But is the statement as a whole true or is there falsehood mixed with the truth? May we say without any hesitation, “True. Good works have nothing to do with my salvation”? I contend that this is an overstatement and thus false. Good works do have a necessary part in my salvation—not the cause, the merit, or the means but the part in which Jesus Christ sanctifies, preserves, and glorifies me. Remember the basics of the Reformed faith, the essentials of Reformed doctrine. Salvation includes all of the golden links in the chain of salvation (see sketch below). Having elected us, God by His Spirit unites us to Christ, thereby giving us salvation in this important order: regeneration, calling, faith, justification, sanctification, preservation, and glorification. All of this is salvation. Do good works have anything to do with our salvation? Yes, indeed. They are what Christ in sanctification works in us, so that we want to do good works, so that we try to do good works, and so that we are active in doing good works. We earn none of this salvation by our good works, but after Jesus alone has without our works purchased it, His salvation of us includes infusing good works in us. Good works do have a necessary place in this order of salvation. Thus, it is false to say, “Good works have nothing to do with my salvation.”
Rev. Lanning rightly refers to Ephesians 2:8-9 to explain that works are not the cause of salvation, the way to merit salvation, or the means of salvation. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” The verse says that salvation is not of yourselves and not of works. But the verse does not claim that good works have nothing to do with salvation. This is evident from verse 10 which immediately follows to explain this salvation further: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” Good works done for His glory are the very purpose God has for saving us!
To be even more specific, I am dead in sin according to my sinful nature. I cannot do any good works on my own. Even in sanctification, I cannot do good works on my own. It is not even that Christ gives me 99.99% of grace to do good works and I cooperate with my own .01% of free will to do good works. However, while 100% of the willing power and the doing power is from Christ, it is mysteriously also true that He makes me, according to the new man, want to do good works, choose to do good works, and actually do good works. In this sense, it is right to say, “I perform good works.” This is most certainly a necessary part of the salvation that Jesus works in me. Having earned for me all of salvation without my works, He then infuses salvation in me so that I do good works. If I deny this and say, “No, I don’t think this is necessary; I don’t think it is important, and I don’t think it is required; I don’t want this kind of salvation,” then I am antinomian. Then I do not have true faith. Then I must repent or perish.
Since many of us are reading this with the controversy at synod in mind, I conclude somewhat repetitively but fervently: This is not about who is right and who is wrong at synod! People of God, this is about your hearts and mine. Do you believe in Jesus, the true Jesus of the Scriptures? Then answer true or false:
________ Jesus saves me by earning every part of my salvation without my works; but a necessary part of His saving work is sanctifying me so that I am willingly active in doing good works.
Our answer must be “true.”
Rev. Jonathan Mahtani