Book Review: "Antinomianism" by Mark Jones

Mark Jones
P&R Publishing Company
P.O. Box 817
Phillipsburg, NJ 08865
ISBN: 9781596388154; $17.99; November 2013
Reviewed by Rev. Dr. Michael Philliber for Deus Misereatur.

Heavy and Hearty – 3 1/2 stars out of 5

There come times when a singular Christian teaching will take center stage, drawing all the attention to itself, getting all the fanfare and coopting all the press coverage. Usually it happens as a remedial reaction to perceived, or actual, deficiencies in the Church. But trouble begins to boil to the surface when that singular teaching starts to take over the platform, pushing all others stage-right or stage-left, attempting to re-write the whole play around itself. It’s at this point that some of the biggest fans commence to voice concerns and critical reviews, endeavoring to alert others that something has gone awry.  Mark Jones, Senior Minister at Faith Vancouver Presbyterian Church (PCA) and Research Associate at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa, does such in his new 176 page paperback, “Antinomianism: Reformed Theology's Unwelcome Guest?” Jones seeks to signal to theologians and pastors, with the help of a delightful forward from J.I. Packer, that things have gotten a bit skewed on the Reformed stage, and the new, naughty Prima Donna is “Justification.”

“Antinomianism” is primarily a work of historical theology, showing how we’ve been here before, how the problem was laid out and diagnosed, and the way it was momentarily corrected. In this regard, Jones moves the reader through the first chapter by a summary rehearsal of the antinomian controversies from the Reformation into the seventeenth century, to include the Marrow men and their detractors. What becomes clear is that “history is messy” (17), especially with all the in-fighting and label-tossing. Rightly, the author brings out four concluding thoughts from this foray into the past: “First, the right questions need to be asked. ( . . . ) Second, Christology will always prove to be decisive in debates on antinomianism. ( . . . ) Third, the importance of historical theology to the tasks of exegetical and systematic theology cannot go unnoticed. ( . . . ) resurrected errors require resurrected answers ( . . . ). Finally, ( . . . ) the term “antinomianism” is a lot more complex than its etymology might suggest” (17-8).

In the second chapter, Jones unpacks the sticky topic of Christ as not only our holy salvation, but our example of holiness. Christians being united to Christ have Christ’s own obedience, holiness and vindication (23) imputed to them (justification), receiving it by faith alone. But then that faith works out the consequences of these gracious gifts with a life of holiness (sanctification) that walks in union with Christ, by the empowering strength of the Holy Spirit. It is not God doing the works of holiness for them, but through Christ and by the Spirit making believers able to follow Jesus in holiness. The author’s point is that God’s imputing Christ’s righteousness and his imparting righteousness must not be blurred or conflated (29); we are not to collapse sanctification into justification. To put it in a way that might make Calvin smile, justification and sanctification are to be distinguished but not divorced.

The next two chapters tackle the Law and the Gospel, and builds the case that “the antithesis between the law and the gospel ends the moment someone becomes a believer” (54). With regard to the law, Jones shows how the moral law’s requirements are intensified for the Christian because of the great privileges and work of God in Christ. As the author states, “Because of the greater indicatives of the new covenant, the imperatives are not relaxed, but in fact are strengthened” (37). Here he is drawing a straight line from the claim made in the Westminster Confession of Faith as it explains the present significance of the Moral Law for believers in chapter 19.5. “Neither doth Christ, in the Gospel, any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.” In respect to the gospel Jones shows how the gospel is often stripped down to become synonymous with justification (40), in which case the gospel has “nothing to do with what happens “in” believers, but only with what happens “for” believers” (46). The author then discloses that the gospel, narrowly understood, is purely indicative – what God has done for us; but the gospel, taken largely, includes both indicative and imperative – what God has done for us and what he wants from us (47). And in the gospel, taken largely, there are found gospel threatenings (47-50), for “God’s commands, threatenings, and promises for believers are all derived from the gospel, largely understood. ( . . . ) gospel threatenings are for the good of believers, in order that they may persevere to the end  in  renewed obedience to the one  who is both lawgiver and rewarder” (50).

Over the next three chapters of “Antinomianism,” Jones deals with motivations for our good works. In essence, the author constructs the defense that our good works are necessary in our salvation, and so “there is a relation between good works on earth and rewards in heaven” (75). These good works do not earn or cause our salvation, but are “consequent conditions of our having been saved” (65). The author’s thrust is a Christological one, based upon our union with Christ, for “whatever is true of Christ ultimately becomes true of his people because of our union with him” (76). There are then at least two corollaries that flow from this. The first recognizes that though the Father loves us deeply, he can be displeased with us (thus, the earlier arguments about gospel threatenings); a point made in the Westminster Confession of Faith as it is discussing none other than Justification: “although they can never fall from the state of justification, yet they may, by their sins, fall under God's fatherly displeasure, and not have the light of His countenance restored unto them, until they humble themselves, confess their sins, beg pardon, and renew their faith and repentance” (11.5). Though the sixth chapter, where all of this is brought out, makes fitting conclusions – both confessionally and biblically – I found the framework the author used of God’s benevolent love and his beneficent love rather knotty. The second corollary is that good works are helpful in strengthening our assurance of salvation (103), something specifically noted in the Westminster Confession of Faith 16.2.

The final two chapters wind down the book. The one warns about the unhelpfulness of the hot rhetoric that was used on this topic by our forbearers. Though most of the examples he rehearses are from the antinomian perspective, nevertheless his point is well taken. The other chapter wraps up with something of a summary for the book, concluding with solutions already noted throughout.

“Antinomianism” is a book that, in the words of J.I. Packer’s forward, is “primarily for pastors” (xi). It is a technical – sometimes thick and sometimes tense – work. There are rough places here and there where the fiber sticks out, and would benefit from a gentle sanding down.  All in all, Jones has pulled together important material that needs to be digested and worked through so that, as pastors, we can rightly shepherd the flock “in which the Holy Spirit has made us overseers” (Acts 20:28). I recommend the book.

Thanks to P&R Publishing for the print copy provided for this review.

[As always, feel free to post or print this review; and please give credit where credit is due. Mike]


Thanks for this review.

I have not read the book yet, but I am intrigued by the comment that the law/gospel anti-thesis ends the moment someone becomes a believer. Sounds like something Doug Wilson would say, or an over-reaction to Lutheranism.

I have in mind WCF 19.6: that the Law continues to be of use to the believer to, among other things, "...come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred of their sin, together with a clearer sight of their need for Christ, and the perfection of His obedience."

Is that not antithesis? If not, what is it? I prefer to use the term law/gospel contrast, rather than antithesis, so perhaps it is just a terminology problem. But clearly there is some kind of law/gospel contrast/antithesis which continues in the believer's life.

mphilliber said…
Chris, Jones's statement goes along with WCF 19.7, "Neither are the aforementioned uses of the law contrary to the grace of the Gospel, but do sweetly comply with it;..." The hard contrast, for one united to Christ, is softened, and the believer finds the "grace of the Gospel" walking in friendship with the law, so that sweetly comply with one another.
Yes, I realize that. Still does not do justice to 19.6, though, does it? Does Romans 8 soften the reality of Romans 7? No, it provides relief. That's rather the point, it seems to me. I suppose I should just buy and read the book myself; but it seems to me the Reformed are so quick to affirm the Law as good, they forget its ongoing convicting role; that or they think they are doing a pretty good job following it.

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