The Antinomian Calvinist

I have often heard that the preaching of the gospel leads to antinomianism… When I ask what people mean they often say something along the lines of “calvinism leads to a disregard for the law” i.e. Calvinists are antinomian.

Check out what Scot McKnight (someone who is not a Calvinist) has to say about this claim:

And a comment about the charge that Calvinism is antinomian. My own experience is that this charge is false; Calvinists are not antinomian, and in fact have a tendency (paradoxically) toward a more legalistic framework. To be sure, an emphasis on election and final perseverance can promote antinomian ideas, but I’ve only seen such sillinesses among the immature or in the rhetoric of opponents.

But what I’m seeing today among some young Calvinists, e.g., Tullian Tchividjian, appears to me to be an exaggeration of grace theology at the expense of how the Bible frames ethical practices and injunctions. Not to mention how even Calvin talked about the law’s usefulness for the Christian. Clearly, there is no attempt with these — as has been the case at times in church history — to justify sin or to minimize sin. It has to do with the law and commands and how to frame ethics. In other words, instead of simply permitting someone like Jesus or Paul to say “follow me” or “do this” they tend to have a need to explain each and everyone of those as expressions of a grace at work in the life so that “follow me” really means “God’s grace will prompt following me.” As I view such approaches, the potency of the command and the appeal to the will are blunted. I don’t see this tendency in Calvin’s commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, which I’m reading now.

Let me make two comments on this:

  1. McKnight makes an observation that I have often made myself, namely that some reformed people tend to be the stuffiest, most legalistic, most “our tradition is right yours is wrong, most judgmental Christians around (and I say this as someone who identifies with the reformed tradition). Really it makes no sense! Reformed people should be the most gracious, most forgiving, most ecumenical people around.
  2. McKnight is right in pointing out certain Calvinists (e.g. Tullian) who exaggerate grace theology and blunt the language the Bible uses to speak about following Jesus. I often hear a warning before any talk of biblical commands, the warning often goes “I’m not being legalistic… you follow the commands as a response to the gospel.” Yeah that is about right. But adding this caveat to every command leaves a hole in our holiness. It downplays the difficulty of obedience. It downplays the fact that we work in conjunction with the work that the Spirit initiates within us to obey. Obedience does not happen simply by looking at the gospel or thinking about grace. Obedience happens when the Spirit works in us to obey. The Holy Spirit is a gift of grace. That is the part of grace we should emphasize.

Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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