“There is nothing new under the sun” we are told in Ecclesiastes 1:9. And as Santayana once remarked, those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. The same goes for church history, which is why all Christians should have a basic grasp of it.
To know a bit about theology and church history will greatly help us avoid many errors and dangers along the way. For example, we will be able to see that strange sounding, newfangled doctrines are in fact simply the rehashing of old errors and heresies.
There really is not much new under the sun theologically speaking, and if we understand how the church of old dealt with these various heterodoxies and heresies, we will be better equipped today to both spot them and deal with them. This is certainly true of the hyper grace error.
This is all the rage at the moment, whether by people like Joseph Prince or Paul Ellis or Clark Whitten. But their errors have long ago been dealt with. Those who pushed the line that Christians have nothing to do with the moral law of God, and should not be concerned with it, have been challenged by the Reformers, the Puritans and others.
Thus learning about those earlier debates can really help us as we encounter similar theological errors. I cannot go into all this here, but I can very strongly recommend two books which deal with all this in great detail. The two volumes are:
-Ernest Kevan, The Grace of Law: A Study in Puritan Theology. Soli Deo Gloria Publication, 1964, 2011.
-Mark Jones, Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcomed Guests? P&R, 2013.
Both books are absolutely vital in understanding antinomianism, and the modern-day hyper grace errors. The book by Jones is briefer but it offers a superb treatment of the various debates over antinomianism. He deals with the Reformers, the Puritans, and modern day examples.
Thus he examines books like Tullian Tchividjian’s 2011 volume, Jesus + Nothing = Everything. He is quite right to say of it, “his whole book is one lengthy antinomian diatribe, and it bears a striking resemblance to the content and rhetoric of various seventeenth-century antinomian writings.” See also his online review of the book here: www.meetthepuritans.com/2011/12/16/jesus-nothing-everything-an-analysis/
The grace of God is certainly a beautiful biblical truth. But if it is pushed at the expense of other biblical truths, then serious error can creep in. Basically all heresies and cults have this in common; they take some of God’s truth and elevate it, but downplay or ignore other parts of God’s truth. This is where distortion and error creep in.
One of a number of errors found in antinomianism is a failure to keep the various aspects of salvation in proper alignment. The long-standing and quite biblical threefold division of salvation is always important to appeal to here. Let me lay it out very simply and diagrammatically:
|We have been saved||We are being saved||We will be saved|
|From the penalty of sin||From the power of sin||From the presence of sin|
|One-off experience||Lifelong experience||Eternal experience|
|God’s work for us||God’s work in us||God’s work to us|
|Perfect in this life||Not perfect in this life||Perfect in the next life|
The problem with the antinomians and the hyper grace folks is they fail to see this properly. They so emphasize the first bit of salvation – justification – which is indeed solely by grace through faith, that they ignore or minimize the second and very vital truth of ongoing sanctification. Indeed, they effectively replace sanctification with justification.
So the hundreds of New Testament commands to live holy lives, to obey, to grow in Christ, to put off the old man, to crucify the flesh, to grow in grace, to be transformed, to resist sin, and so on simply get overlooked or watered down. After all, if it is all of grace, there is nothing left for us to do. So sanctification tends to disappear altogether.
All the theological eggs are put into the justification basket, while sanctification is ignored or basically lost under justification. As Jones puts it, “the antinomians essentially subsume sanctification under justification”. But both are distinct and separate. Sure, along with glorification, they comprise a package deal, and cannot be left in isolation from each other. But they must not be conflated or confused either.
This is where the hyper grace crowd commit so much error and cause so much harm. They preach the glorious truth of justification by grace alone, but then overlook the hundreds of imperatives found in the New Testament which urge these newly justified believers to work out this wonderful salvation by growing in obedience and holiness – sanctification in other words.
These teachers don’t just overlook the doctrine of sanctification, but they often slam it. They poke fun at people who seek to live holy, God-pleasing lives, and rail at them for being legalists and the like. Read many of the books by the hyper grace teachers and you will find these charges being leveled over and over again.
Now, is there some legalism in the churches? Sure there is. But is everyone who preaches and teaches on living a holy life and a life pleasing to God a legalist? No, and if legalism is a problem in some churches today, from my vantage point, the opposite error of license is far more of a problem.
When we have Christians throughout the Western world living no different than pagans, and justifying such carnal and compromised lives, then you know that telling people more about a cheap grace that expects nothing of them is not the solution. It is in fact part of the problem.
Simply consider the number of Christians I have encountered over the past few weeks actually defending the use of porn in general, and sleaze like Fifty Shades of Grey in particular. This tells me heaps about the present condition of so much of the church.
I can see why so many people flock to the hyper grace teachers. Sure, some may come there because they are in need of escaping an overly legalistic past. But why do I suspect that so many more people flock to these preachers because it helps them feel comfortable in their sin, in their worldliness, in their clear lack of holiness.
To be told that Jesus did it all, and therefore we need do nothing, worry about nothing, and just have a nice day (which effectively is the message being received from many of their listeners) is not helping to produce a pure and spotless Bride for the Holy Christ, but is helping casual and carnal believers make excuses for their lack of holiness and growth in sanctification.
Reacting to one error (legalism) by going too far into more error (antinomianism) helps no one, and simply leads the church from one heresy into another. As Kevan says toward the end of his superb book, the Puritans got it right here:
The Puritans saw that Antinomianism – in all its guises – was as dangerous as legalism, and so they stood for the continuance of the Law and the obligation of the Christian believer to keep it. The Puritans were not Antinomians. A. R. Vidler remarks that “The Church on earth has always, as it were, to walk on the razor edge between legalism and antinomianism, between taking the Law too seriously and not taking it seriously enough. It is not surprising that every Church tends to err in one direction or the other.” The Puritans walked this middle path and rendered service to the Christian doctrine of sanctification which cannot be over-estimated. They rejected Antinomianism as firmly as they repudiated Legalism.
As I mentioned, biblical truth, preached in isolation from other biblical truth, can easily lead us into damaging heresy. The hyper grace crowd have picked part of God’s truth and given it a good run. But by refusing to proclaim all of God’s truth, they give us a partial gospel, even a false gospel.
As Jones says at the conclusion of his review mentioned above: “In the end, the issue is not so much about the necessity of preaching salvation by grace. Rather, sometimes error comes in the form not by what people do say, but by what they fail to say. And, as J I Packer has so eloquently reminded us, ‘A half-truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth’.”
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