In the past five years, our churches have struggled mightily to combat and root out error that gave to good works a place “out of harmony with the Reformed confessions.” In the process of that struggle, some have warned against antinomianism as an error that must also be avoided. My editorial about the “two thieves” showed that there is always error on both sides of the gospel of the cross, both on the left and on the right. The error of giving credit to good works is an error, perhaps referred to as error on the ‘left.’ But there is also an error on the ‘right’ that would have a different and opposite misunderstanding of works. The church has often called this error Antinomianism.
Angry reaction to any reference to antinomianism claims that it distracts from the real issue, misleading people to ignore the main error in the PRCA and focus on one that is not error. In this editorial I want to point out how PRCA members, especially the ministers, have been trained to detect both errors, especially now the error on the ‘right.’ The minister who gave us this training began his ministry, he says (and I paraphrase), “With his gun loaded for Arminian bear, only to find that the congregation’s weakness was not Arminianism….”
The Protestant Reformed Churches in America and the RFPA (Reformed Free Publishing Association) have considered Prof. David Engelsma’s Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel so important, and the book has had such a world-wide audience, that it has been reprinted three times. First published in 1980 (it had already appeared as Standard Bearer articles beginning in 1974), it was reprinted/republished in 1994 and again in 2014. It is not the best-seller in the RFPA’s repertoire, but it is among their top ten and is one of the PRCA’s most important because it explains an essential element of our rejection of common grace. Even the second generation of PRCA preachers, born shortly after 1900 and still preaching in the late 1970s were familiar with it. Any PRCA minister today who is not well versed in its argument would be embarrassed to admit it.
As a preacher in the PRCA for the first 20 years of my ministry and now for 18 years as a professor of preaching in the PRCA, I have been especially interested in the book’s last chapter (chapter 9) because it contains sound advice for preachers about preaching. After all, it is a book about the biblical view of how the gospel ought to be preached: its title is not merely Hyper-Calvinism, but Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel, and I am tasked by the PRCA to teach men to preach, an essential element of which is to present the call of the gospel. Part of my task involves asking what is the PRCA’s tradition about how to preach and a significant aspect of the answer is “Not with an Arminian well-meant offer.” This negative answer is the thrust of Engelsma’s book in the first eight chapters. These chapters are a skillful defense of the PRCA against the accusation that they are hyper-Calvinists.
At the end of chapter 8 the question remains: “How then ought the gospel to be preached? If not by offering Jesus in an Arminian way, how must Jesus be presented?” Chapter 9 addresses this question, warning the PRCA of another danger on the side opposite to Arminianism, the danger that PRCA preachers do not do justice to the serious call of the gospel. This is the thrust of chapter nine “The Threat of Hyper-Calvinism.” Other seminary courses will require students to read chapters 1-8. Beginning preaching students are required to read chapter 9.
In sum, the book is a defense of the PRCA against the charge, “Hyper-Calvinists!” And when Prof. Engelsma finishes that defense, he wisely asks, “But is there a danger of Hyper-Calvinism in Reformed churches, even in the PRCA?” Prof. Engelsma answers, “Yes.” Then spells his explanation out in a very clear way.
The following description of the main argument in the chapter aims to be a short tutorial on antinomianism. It will also reveal why, amid our recent troubles, PRC ministers have been calling out errors on the right (antinomianism) at the same time that our churches have rejected errors on the left (giving works a place in salvation they cannot have). After reading this you will see why the ‘Reformed antennae’ of our preachers have been detecting some strange sounds of late.1
Hyper-Calvinism is not the worst danger for Reformed churches (193). Engelsma introduces the chapter by reminding us that the worst threat in Reformed circles is Arminianism. That error is so predominant that one might be tempted to invite some hyper-Calvinism into the churches to ‘balance out’ the error of Arminianism. But this would be wrong, for the church does not fight error with error. Reformed churches do not do theology by being reactionary. The Synod of Dordt is a fine example of that: when Arminianism accused Reformed churches in the Netherlands that their doctrine of election destroyed the ability to preach the call of the gospel properly, Dordt did not, in overreaction, deny the seriousness of the gospel call to everyone who hears. Being reactionary will not help the gospel’s cause. But all this is only an introduction to the main point of the chapter.
Hyper-Calvinism is a real threat. “It is the lie on the right that must be guarded against as scrupulously as the lie of self-salvation on the left” (195). Hyper-Calvinism purports to be Calvinism but is an extreme and therefore a distorted form of Calvinism (“hyper” means “above”). Hyper-Calvinism 1) restricts the preaching to born-again believers, and/or 2) silences the call to repent and believe, and/or 3) loses zeal for missions. After Dordt there have been examples of hyper-Calvinists in Calvinistic-Baptist churches, and this tendency appears also among some in Reformed churches. We are not “ignorant of Satan’s devices” and the appearance of the error must be traced back to him, the father of the lie. If Satan cannot prevent the recovery of the gospel of grace (as Dordt recovered it), he will try to turn grace into license. The devil uses this tactic especially when the church is battling Arminianism. As the church contends against one false doctrine, get her in reaction to succumb to the opposite error. “As she guards the front door, slither in through the back window” (197). Here Augustus Toplady is quoted approvingly: “Christ is still crucified between two thieves, Antinomianism and Pharisaism.” This introduces the reader to the subject of Antinomianism.
Hyper-Calvinism is a descendant of Antinomianism. 2 Antinomianism is the error of being, in one way or another, against (anti) God’s law (nomos). Antinomians are against God’s law, they claim, because they are for the gospel. Since we are saved by grace and not law, it is “treason” to the gospel to command God’s people to obey the law. The law can only teach men their misery. It cannot be a required standard for sanctification. Antinomians, then, are strong on the first two parts of the Heidelberg Catechism (sin and salvation) but weak on the third (thankful living). This is Antinomianism in the stricter sense (198)
But there is also Antinomianism in a broader sense, and that is the error of Hyper-Calvinism (199). After a four-page digression (199-204), which warns of an incorrect understanding of Hyper-Calvinism), Engelsma returns to the point that Hyper-Calvinism is Antinomianism: It is “…a denial of man’s responsibility [that] has appeared again and again in the Calvinistic camp. Antinomianism’s dirty head has protruded again and again to strike the heel of the gospel of grace. And hyper- Calvinism is antinomianism with reference to the preaching of the gospel, especially the imperative [commands] of the gospel, and with reference to the duty of men…” (204, emphasis added). Note well: Hyper-Calvinism is antinomianism.
Hyper-Calvinism itself has a “classic” (original) form and a “developed” form. Hyper-Calvinism’s classic form Engelsma calls “hardened hyper-Calvinism” (204). This hardened form denies the duty of the church
to preach the gospel of salvation to all men and to call all men to believe on Jesus Christ. But Hyper-Calvinism developed, and this development the church must recognize and resist (205). Just as Antinomianism produced Hyper-Calvinism, Hyper-Calvinism has brought forth its heirs, still similar in nature but slightly different in appearance. They are not the hardened form of Antinomianism, but manifest the “subtle inroads of the hyper-Calvinistic heresy.”
To guard against these subtle inroads is the urgent task of the Reformed church that has rejected the wellmeant offer, that is, of the PRCA. The PRCA must guard against the Antinomianism of Hyper-Calvinism. This is the climax and main purpose of chapter 9.
What are the manifestations of this spirit of Hyper- Calvinism? They are three:
First, a minimizing of the need to do missions. Why? Because, well, God has His elect, and He will see to it that they go to heaven (206-208). This concern is real but is not our concern in this editorial.
Second, Hyper-Calvinistic Antinomianism is fearful and embarrassed to call men to “repent and believe!” (209). Here is one of the most important parts of the chapter. People are afraid to call men to repentance and faith because they fear that “this goes in the direction of works…” They are afraid of telling men that there is something they must do. Such fear may cause the minister to say everything about how wrong the Arminians are, but never issue the “tender and urgent call” of the gospel to come to Jesus. The following lines need to be digested if we will be on guard against Hyper-Calvinistic- Antinomianism:
If the fruit of the preaching of the gospel is that men, pricked in their hearts, cry out, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” or that a Philippian jailor says, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” it is not in place, it is not typically Reformed, to launch into a fierce polemic against free will or to give a nervous admonition against supposing that one can do anything towards his own salvation. The answer to such questions, the Reformed answer, is “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins…,” and “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved….”
Third, Hyper-Calvinism’s spirit resists preaching the admonitions of Scriptures. This happens when Hyper- Calvinism’s spirit has developed somewhat. The Hyper-Calvinistic spirit says, “Good gospel preachers should not tell people what to do,” likely because Christians will work automatically in response to the gospel. This spirit does not like admonitions, especially when they are preached “with the sharpness, urgency, boldness, and freedom that obtain in the Scripture.” Where there is resistance to preaching the warnings of the gospel there is Hyper-Calvinistic Antinomianism. “From this stage, it is but a little way to the disorder and license of open antinomianism: ‘Let us sin that grace may abound’” (210). Engelsma’s chapter ends with a lengthy quotation from Luther. Buy the book, and read Luther, who “can be our teacher here” (210).
What must we learn from this?
First, Reformed Christians must learn what Antinomianism is in all its developed forms and be bold to call it what it is: Antinomianism. Even though it may have ‘morphed’ into a shape that does not look like it did two or four centuries ago, it is still Antinomianism and we must not be afraid to say so. At Synod 2017 I spoke with some vehemence comparing Antinomianism to a virus that changes form to adapt to circumstances and avoid assaults against it. The vaccine for a virus that might have worked in years past will not work today since mutations in the virus now allow it to exploit and damage its host in different ways. Similarly, since Antinomianism first appeared, it has adapted and modified itself. Pelagianism, a different error, did the same. Soon after Augustine condemned Pelagianism, it transformed itself. The church called it semi-Pelagianism. Pelagianism had disguised itself. And then semi-Pelagianism mutated and appeared as an even greater threat to the church after the Reformation through a man we all know as Arminius. Thus, when the great Synod of Dordt condemned Arminianism, it was not afraid to call it Pelagianism resurrected out of hell (Head II.B.3). In whatever disguise Antinomianism appears today, we should recognize it as a descendant of the old Antinomianism itself. “Antinomianism Original,” “The New Antinomianism,” “Hyper-Calvinism Hardened” or “Hyper-Calvinism Modified,” are all Antinomianism. Freely debate about the best word for any particular strain. But call them all error.
Second, since there are different forms of Antinomianism and different aspects of its error, we should not be surprised if a person does not appear to be Antinomian in one respect but is guilty of it in a different respect. I may be a practical Antinomian even though I am doctrinally sound regarding Antinomianism. I am still Antinomian. On the other hand, I may love God’s law and live according to it, and in that respect am not Antinomian; but if I have a very wrong view of the use of God’s law in the preaching, I may still be grossly Antinomian.
Third, PRC ministers have been recognizing forms of Antinomianism among us for quite some time, and more in recent years. In a paper widely publicized with his permission, one of our ministers spoke of a “gross antinomianism,” a “practical antinomianism” and the “spirit of antinomianism” in some of those who have left us. Another minister’s letter identifies a form of Hyper- Calvinism in the schismatics. I have been preaching in the PRCA long enough to have heard a wide variety of reactions to preaching including reactions I judge to be Hyper-Calvinistic and Antinomian. When I preached some time ago on the sin of breaking God’s covenant (see Leviticus 26, Psalter 78:11) and identified that reality as a ‘violation’ of God’s covenant and not a ‘severing’ of the relationship, one man nevertheless angrily responded, “We cannot break God’s covenant!” He did not want to hear warnings about the believer’s sin against God’s covenant. Recently, when I preached Paul’s wonderful confession of grace from I Corinthians 15:10, one man commended me, “There, that’s what we need to hear. Let’s stop talking about works.” Stop talking about works? That is hyper-Calvinistic-Antinomianism. It is what Luther warned against and what Engelsma said is a wrong resistance to the preaching of admonitions.
Fourth, therefore, although a charge of Antinomianism can be a red-herring—a play designed to draw attention away from the real error—it may be fatally wrong to identify every charge of Antinomianism as a red herring. Why, what Antinomian would ever admit to being an Antinomian? And what better defense, for an Antinomian, than to cry foul? Of course there is angry reaction. But the angry reaction itself may well be an attempt to distract attention from genuine Antinomianism.
Finally, and again, let us always resist over-reaction to error. An error that undermines grace by giving an improper place to works must not allow us to ignore the call to work. And an error that undermines works must not allow us to ignore the necessity of grace.