I came across a definition for the word Antinomian in a theological dictionary the other day which I think provides a wonderful opportunity for some clarification. Here it is:
ANTINOMIAN: from the Greek anti, against, and nomos, law. A term coined by Martin Luther in his controversies with Johan Agricola, who objected at first to the use of the ‘law of Israel–specifically, the ‘Decalogue’ [10 Commandments]–in instructing believers in their obligations, and later also to its use as a means to call sinners to repentance, arguing that the preaching of the gospel sufficed for that purpose. Luther responded with a treatise Against the Antinomians, in which he defended the use of the Law in teaching and in preaching. . . .
So far so good. However, a little further down, it continues:
. . the term “antinomianism” has come to be applied by extension to all opposition to the value and use of the law in the Christian life. . . In the early church, Paul’s struggles with the law and its insufficiency for salvation led some to establish a radical opposition between law and gospel.
While the entry does go on to further explanation, the implication is that anyone who “rejects the law as guide for Christian living” is an Antinomian. This is simply not true. The Antinomians against whom Luther wrote were, it is true, people who claimed that the law no longer held any sway for those “in Christ.” However, their error was not that true Antinomianism was possible; it was their belief that we (Christians or non-) can ever be free from the accusatory power of the Law. As Luther wrote in the treatise, “For if you resolve to annul the Law. . . you do no more in effect, but throw away the poor letters L.A.W.” Like Unicorns and a non-hilarious Tim Allen movie, and along the lines of thesis #13 of the Heidelburg Disputation, Antinomianism, after the fall, exists in name only.
Fundamental to our entire project here is to show how the power of the Law is at work through all institutions and in every life in a way that is specifically addressed by the Gospel. In short, we’re arguing that there are no true antinomians, although we all attempt to escape, explain away, drive away or ignore the Law.
We’ll continue fleshing all this out, but the next time, or first time, or every time you hear the word Antinomian, know that there are purported Antinomians out there, but true Antinomianism–in light of the message of the Gospel–cannot really exist.
In the words of Mockingbird patron saint, Gerhard O. Forde: “Antinomianism is about the only heresy that is impossible to pull off. We might leave the church, but Law will go with us. You can count on that. Perhaps Johnny Cash’s song Sunday Morning’ Comin’ Down catches that as well as any theological statement:
On a Sunday Morning ‘sidewalk, I’m wishin’ Lord that I was stoned. Cause there’s somethin’ ‘bout a Sunday, that makes a body feel alone, and there’s nothing’ short of dyin’ Half as lonesome as the sound. As the sleepin’ city sidewalk And Sunday mornin’ coming’ down. (A More Radical Gospel, p. 107)