[K:JNWTS 20/1 (May 2005) 3-8]

Calvinistic Antinomians

James T. Dennison, Jr.

The names John Saltmarsh, Tobias Crisp and John Eaton are not familiar to most of us. Nevertheless, their names were well known in 17th century Calvinistic circles. Saltmarsh (d. 1647), Crisp (1600-1643) and Eaton (1575-ca. 1631) were Antinomians. 17th century Calvinistic Puritans especially were alarmed by their preaching and writing.

Antinomianism is a compound word literally signifying "against" (anti-) "the law" (nomos, Greek). The law in question is: the moral law of God; the Decalogue or ten commandments; the law given at Mt. Sinai by God to Moses and Israel (Ex. 20:1-17; Dt. 5:6-21). Antinomianism has traditionally expressed opposition to the moral law or ten commandments because (so they argue) the grace of God in and through the justifying work of Christ surpasses, indeed makes passé, the Decalogue as a rule of life for the Christian. In the 17th century, the Calvinistic Antinomians: denied the morality of the Sabbath day under the New Testament; suggested that sanctification was a "legal bastard"; and accused Christian ministers of turning the new covenant of the New Testament into a Mosaic covenant of works. Their rhetoric concluded that Christ had fulfilled the moral law for the Christian and hence the moral law was abolished ("dead") to the believer.

Here are some sample statements from the 17th century Antinomians.1

"The moral law as it was delivered at Mt. Sinai is not only abrogated to a Christian, as a means to attain life, and in respect of the malediction and curse, but also as it is a rule of life now to a Christian."

"The moral law is to a believer as a cancelled bond to one whose debt is paid."

"A believer is so dead to the law that as a man cannot command his wife when she is dead, nor a master command his servant after he is made free, so cannot the law command any after he is in Christ."

"After a man is justified by Christ, he is no more subject to the commandments of the moral law; he must do nothing in conscience of the Law; he must not take himself to be bound to or by it."

"He that makes the Law a rule of his life, whatever he be in heart, he is a Papist in practice."

"A believer is free from the law—the moral law."

The 17th century Antinomians emphasized what they called the "Third Time" or "Third Era". The "First Time" was the era of Adam in the garden; the "Second Time" was the era of Moses and the Law. The "Third Time" was the era following Christ's death and resurrection, i.e., the time of the church up to the second coming. In this third era, the believer so willingly and cheerfully practiced all Christian duties, according to these Antinomians, that law codes and the so-called "ten whips" delivered in Exodus 20 were obsolete. The Decalogue as a moral code was annulled, canceled, indeed abolished by the new covenant.

Recently, we have heard and read such statements as these.

"The Decalogue has also been made obsolete along with the first covenant of which it was an integral part."

"The ten commandments then are not the universal moral law binding on all mankind in all ages."

"If the Mosaic covenant involves a works principle with regard to Israel's probation in the land, and if the Decalogue is merely a compendium of the Mosaic covenant in summary form, then the Decalogue cannot be the form of the moral law that binds the believer in Christ."

"We are not under the law. Paul uses that phrase ten times in his writings. This means that we are free from the condemnation of the law and we are freed from the commanding authority of the law as the Old Covenant."

"The teaching of Paul and the New Testament [is] that the Mosaic Law no longer has binding authority over New Testament believers."

It is apparent that the 21st century Calvinistic Antinomians are echoing the themes (even using similar expressions) of the 17th century Calvinistic Antinomians.

Reformed theology has historically affirmed the threefold use of the law—meaning the moral law of God written on the heart, codified in the ten commandments, fully revealed as the law of the kingdom of heaven. First is the so-called political use of the Law referring to the Law as a mirror to restrain and convict us of sin (cf. Rom. 3:19, 20). Second is the pedagogical use of the Law referring to the Law as a tutor to direct us to Christ (cf. Gal. 3:24). Third is the normative use of the Law referring to the Law as a rule or canon of sanctified or holy living (cf. Rom. 7:12). This position is embedded in the struggles of Luther, Calvin and the fathers of the Reformation and Calvinism with various guises of Antinomianism in the 16th and 17th centuries: anarchists/Munster radicals (Luther), libertines (Calvin), 'evangelicals'/English Civil War radicals (Puritans). The summary of those struggles may be found reflected in the Reformed Confessions in which the moral law of God (enshrined in the Decalogue) is considered under the Old and the New Testament.

". . . we confess all our life ought to be ruled in accordance with the commandments of his holy law in which is contained all perfection of justice, and that we ought to have no other rule of good and just living, nor invent other good works to supplement it than those which are there contained, as follows: Exodus 20: 'I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee,' and so on" (The Geneva Confession of 1536, chapter 3).

"We do not mean that we are so set at liberty that we owe no obedience to the Law . . . but we affirm that no man on earth, with the sole exception of Christ Jesus, has given, gives, or shall give in action that obedience to the Law which the Law requires" (The Scottish Confession of Faith, 1560, chapter 15).

"Why, then, does God have the ten commandments preached so strictly since no one can keep them in this life? First, that all our life long we may become increasingly aware of our sinfulness, and therefore more eagerly seek forgiveness of sins and righteousness in Christ. Second, that we may constantly and diligently pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, so that more and more we may be renewed in the image of God, until we attain the goal of full perfection after this life" (The Heidelberg Catechism, 1563, Question and Answer 115).

"We teach that this law was not given to men that they might be justified by keeping it, but that rather from what it teaches we may know our weakness, sin and condemnation, and, despairing of our strength, might be converted to Christ in faith . . . The law of God is therefore abrogated to the extent that it no longer condemns us, nor works wrath in us. For we are under grace and not under the law. Moreover, Christ has fulfilled all the figures of the law. Hence, with the coming of the body, the shadows ceased, so that in Christ we now have the truth and all fullness. But yet we do not on that account contemptuously reject the law. For we remember the words of the Lord when he said: 'I have not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them' [Mt. 5:17]. We know that in the law is delivered to us the patterns of virtues and vices. We know that the written law when explained by the Gospel is useful to the Church, and that therefore its reading is not to be banished from the Church . . . We condemn everything that heretics old and new have taught against the law" (The Second Helvetic Confession, 1566, chapter 12).

"Q. 96. What particular use is there of the moral law to unregenerate men? The moral law is of use to unregenerate men, to awaken their conscience to flee from the wrath to come, and to drive them to Christ; or, upon the continuance in the estate and way of sin, to leave them inexcusable, and under the curse thereof.

Q. 97. What special use is there of the moral law to the regenerate? Although they that are regenerate, and believe in Christ, be delivered from the moral law as a covenant of works, so as thereby they are neither justified nor condemned; yet, besides the general uses thereof common to them with all men, it is of special use, to show them how much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good; and thereby to provoke them to more thankfulness, and to express the same in their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule of their obedience.

Q. 98. Where is the moral law summarily comprehended? The moral law is summarily comprehended in the ten commandments, which were delivered by the voice of God upon Mount Sinai, and written by him in two tables of stone; and are recorded in the twentieth chapter of Exodus" (The Westminster Larger Catechism, 1648).

In each of these Confessional documents, the moral law of God is regarded as God himself—perpetual and ever authoritative. The genius of the Reformed fathers and their Confessions is that they have recognized what may be termed the heavenly character of the moral law. In other words, as God himself is a heavenly being, so his ethical or moral character is heavenly too. He therefore reveals that heavenly moral character of himself in history through the law written on the heart (Rom. 2), the ten commandments (Ex. 20; Dt. 5) and the fullness of "all righteousness" (Mt. 3:15). Jesus expands on his statement to John the Baptist in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5-7 is a description of the law and life in the heavenly kingdom, i.e., the kingdom of heaven.

Since God's own moral character in his heavenly being and glory is the ultimate pattern of that which is holy, just and good; and since God reveals that character to man, his image-bearing creature, at creation, under the law and under the gospel, it is clear that the moral law per se (in and of itself) is as perpetual as the One whose moral character it mirrors and reflects. God is eternal; God's moral character and moral law is eternal. To be or do otherwise would be for God to deny himself, to annul himself, to abolish himself. The heavenly or eschatological character of the moral law of God is as heavenly and eschatological as the source of that law—God himself.

Thus what is revealed in the ten commandments at Sinai shall endure as long as God and heaven endure. These "ten laws" could no more pass away than God himself. Jesus, God's Son, is in fact making this very point in the Sermon on the Mount. Not only is he publishing the ten commandments in enlarged and penetrating aspect, he is orienting the ten commandments to the kingdom of heaven (notice Mt. 5:3, 10, 16, 19, 20, 48; 6:3; 7:21). Heaven's law is "Thou shalt not kill" because in God's heaven, murder is impossible. Heaven's law is "Thou shalt not commit adultery" because in God's heaven, adultery is unthinkable. Heaven's law is "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy" because in God's heaven, Sabbath profanation and desecration is impossible. And on we could go—no other gods, no other manner of worshipping God, honoring God's name, honoring God-given authority, no theft, no lying, no covetousness: all of these moral mandates breathe the arena of heaven (cf. Rev. 22:15; 21:8, 27). Hence the Christian is called to mirror/reflect these heavenly morals in his earthly life—"for of such is the kingdom of heaven." Even as the believer now delights in God himself because he anticipates delighting in God himself forever in heaven, so the believer now delights in the moral law of God (ten commandments) because the believer anticipates delighting forever in the moral law of God (ten commandments) in heaven forever.

The error of Calvinistic Antinomians old and new is the error of reducing the moral law (ten commandments) of God to a temporary and provisional aspect, along with the temporary and provisional elements of the Mosaic theocracy (cult, sacrifice, civil statutes, etc.). That is, these Antinomians, in their zeal for the liberty with which Christ has set us free from the curse of the law, from the beggarly elements of the former era, overreact by wanting to set us free from the moral law per se (in and of itself). Their love for Christ and freedom from condemnation in Christ has carried them to the extreme of throwing out the heaven-oriented moral character of the Decalogue with the bathwater of its condemnatory aspect. As with most errors for which historic Calvinism is a remedy, this is not an either/or matter; it is a both/and matter. Not either freedom in Christ or the rule of the Decalogue (moral law), but both freedom in Christ and the rule of the Decalogue (moral law). In fact, freedom in Christ is the wonderful liberty to seek to obey the rule of the Decalogue (O Lord, "How I love thy law!" Ps. 119:97).

"Do we make void the law [moral law/ten commandments]? God forbid!" And so our Reformed Confessions teach; and so we believe; and so we preach.


1 These quotations are selected from the cases in the British court of High Commission, 1628-1630. Cf. David Como and Peter Lake, "Puritans, Antinomians and the Laudians in Caroline London: The Strange Case of Peter Shaw and its Context." Journal of Ecclesiastical History 50/4 (October 1999): 684-715.