via Flikr Jen and Tony Bot

When people are first introduced to the distinction between Law and Gospel, there is often some hesitancy towards it because of what it seems to imply, i.e., that the speaker is against the law. This concern, that somehow the law will be dismissed, evokes more fear and trembling in people than just about any other.  Interestingly, this fear is exposed on both the “right” and the “left” of the theological spectrum. For example, some people are all too ready to reject the “law” insofar as it applies to areas of traditional morality, but mention to those same people that “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes”(Rm 10:4) applies also to the law of “loving the poor,” or “loving the environment,” and see how quickly you are voted out of the new monastic community! This is why, among other things, Jesus was rejected by not only the “religious right,” but by those who saw him as a political freedom fighter as well—in the end, absolution from the “works of the law” was just too much for anyone to handle. In this respect, Jesus was seen to be an “Antinomian”–he was accused of as much by the Pharisees—meaning that he was against the law, because he refused to validate anyone’s claim to having unique access to the special purposes of God other than, well, himself.

Over at the White Horse Inn blog, our Mockingbird 2012 NYC conferece main speaker, Michael Horton, is tackling these issues head-on in a series of post dealing with the question of Antinomianism. He writes:

What’s striking is that Paul answers antinomianism not with the law but with more gospel!  In other words, antinomians are not people who believe the gospel too much, but too little!  They restrict the power of the gospel to the problem of sin’s guilt, while Paul tells us that the gospel is the power for sanctification as well as justification.

The danger of legalism becomes apparent not only when we confuse law and gospel in justification, but when we imagine that even our new obedience can be powered by the law rather than the gospel.  The law does what only the law can do: reveal God’s moral will.  In doing so, it strips us of our righteousness and makes us aware of our helplessness apart from Christ and it also directs us in grateful obedience.  No one who says this can be considered an antinomian.  However, it’s not a matter of finding the right “balance” between law and gospel, but of recognizing that each does different work.  We need imperatives—and Paul gives them.  But he only does this later in the argument, after he has grounded sanctification in the gospel.

The ultimate antidote to antinomianism is not more imperatives, but the realization that the gospel swallows the tyranny as well as the guilt of sin.  It is enough to save Christians even in their failure and not only brings them peace with God in justification, but the only liberation from the cruel oppression of sin.

And it is this “cruel oppression of sin,” that is actually exacerbated by the preaching of the law as if it were synonymous with the Gospel, because we are incapable of withstanding the allure of the “law that saves.” On account of rejecting the grace of God in Christ, i.e., relying on the law, we are drawn to comparisons, naturally believing that righteousness comes by a bit of grace and a bit of driving a Prius, or abstinence, or joining the Peace Corps, or voting for Ron Paul. Whatever the case may be, the absolute demand of the law is only blunted, and people live what Thoreau termed “lives of quiet desperation” under the ever-present demand to be a bit better than they are. This demand is only ever silenced by absolution from the only one whose comforting voice can cut through the inner-directed monologue of self-created, narcissistic Decalogues saying “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

Luther, the one who coined the term Antinomian, in his fifth disputation against those who were trying to do away with the law altogether, called this attempt a “play to an empty theater,” (vaco theatro). What he meant is that even though people want to try and rid themselves of the law, there is no escape this side of death, but until then, there is faith in that one, however, who “on a hill far away,” did not run from the law, but “being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:8). Indeed.