Antinomianism: The Heresy You Never Knew You Had
- Tim Pietz Contributing Writer
- 2020 15 Dec
Antinomianism is a heresy that’s all about grace. Yes, you heard that right—Antinomianism is about grace. And we often see its results in the church today.
“It’s just a little gossip. That’s not a real sin anyway.”
“It’s not like my pornography use actually hurts anyone.”
“I know I have an anger problem, but I can’t help it. That’s just the way I am! Jesus understands.”
“Everybody does it sometimes. Don’t be a legalist. It’s not a big deal.”
These are hints of the heresy of Antinomianism: the belief that, because we are saved, sinning isn’t a big deal anymore.
What Is the History of Antinomianism?
“By grace alone” and “through faith alone” were two foundational truths Luther proclaimed—but one of Luther’s collaborators, Johann Agricola, wondered if that might be taken a little further. If legalism was the problem, and grace was the solution, wouldn’t it make sense to stop preaching about commands like the Ten Commandments? Those were Old Testament laws, wiped away by Christ’s sacrifice, weren’t they? Sin was no longer a problem because it was all forgiven.
Agricola may not have realized, but his position was strikingly similar to the beliefs of Marcion, a second-century heretic. Marcion believed that the Old Testament—and most of the New Testament—was corrupted. The New Testament God was full of love and grace, but the Old Testament God seemed strict and judgmental. Surely, they couldn’t be the same God! To avoid this seeming contradiction, Marcion created his own Biblical canon, a list that included less than half the New Testament and eliminated the entire Old Testament.
With a similar distaste for the Old Testament, Agricola wrote “The Decalog [Ten Commandments] belongs in the courthouse, not in the pulpit. … To the gallows with Moses!”
Agricola and his followers were against (anti) the law (nomos), so Luther coined the term “Antinomianism” and wrote a book entitled Against the Antinomians to counter their heresy.
Disagreements among reformers are no surprise, but something is surprising about this confrontation. Why did Martin Luther, a reformer famous for his message of “by grace alone,” so passionately defend the value of Biblical laws?
What Did Jesus Say about Antinomianism?
In Matthew 5, Jesus makes a bold claim that cuts to the heart of Antinomianism:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19, NIV).
This can be surprising, even uncomfortable passage for many Christians. Is Jesus promoting legalism? Is he saying we have to follow the Old Testament laws? The short answer is “No.” But to understand why Jesus places such an importance on the law, we must ask ourselves, “Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?”
This isn’t asking why Jesus chose to die—we have ample evidence of his passionate, relentless, sacrificial love throughout the Bible. However, why did Jesus need to make that sacrifice? Why couldn’t God just say, “I forgive you”?
Because sin matters. And since sin matters, the law matters.
If we say God’s laws, his standards of goodness, are meaningless, then sin isn’t sin. People can do whatever they want, even if it contradicts God’s love and goodness because God doesn’t care enough to hold them accountable. Greed, lies, hatred, lust, arrogance, stealing, oppression, and even murder become an accepted part of the Kingdom of God.
This is why Paul, John, Luther, and countless other Christian leaders rejected Antinomianism. If we say the law—God’s standards of goodness—aren’t important, then we completely miss the reason Jesus had to die for us. We ignore God’s holiness and justice and reject his desire for a perfect eternity. We skim past the terrible punishment Jesus accepted on our behalf because we think our sins and their consequences are insignificant. We miss just how priceless a gift we have been offered and how much it cost the Giver.
But Antinomianism doesn’t just forget what we are saved from. It avoids what we were saved for.
What Does Christianity Say about Antinomianism?
Our need for God doesn’t end after we are saved. It’s only the beginning of our relationship with our Heavenly Father. And like any father, God desires us to help us grow and mature to become all we were made to be. Sanctification is what happens after we are saved. It’s the process of growing in our relationship with God, learning to love him more, and becoming more like him (1 John 2:6, 2 Corinthians 3:18, Ephesians 2:10, Romans 12:2, Philippians 1:6).
But Antinomianism doesn’t see the point of that. After all, if Christ’s grace is limitless, why would we need to try so hard to avoid sin? The greater our sin, the greater his grace, so we’re free to live how we want, right?
Paul spends a whole chapter confronting Antinomianism. The first four verses of Romans 6 summarize it well:
“What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:1-4, NIV).
Dying to sin, living a new life, offering ourselves as a living sacrifice, crucifying our sinful desires, losing our life to gain it, picking up our cross to follow him—these are but a few of God’s calls to reject sin in pursuit of him (Romans 12:1, Galatians 5:24, John 12:25, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24, Matthew 16:24-25).
But is God really calling us to a life of strict rules and discipline? Doesn’t that lead to legalism?
Legalism Vs. Antinomianism
Legalism and Antinomianism are often described as ditches on opposite sides of the Christian walk. Veering too far into rules or too far into laxity causes us to stumble in our journey. But that’s not necessarily the most helpful analogy.
Keeping our journey on course isn’t about balancing between legalism and Antinomianism—it’s about loving and trusting Christ. And both these heresies show a lack of love and trust in God.
The legalist doubts the love of God’s grace and forgiveness. “God can’t love me this much. There must be strings attached to grace. Aha! Look here, there are commands! If I follow these commands, then I’ll please God enough to deserve salvation.” Instead of accepting our heavenly Father’s loving gift, we try to buy it.
The Antinomian doubts the love of God’s calling and commands. “God wouldn’t ask me to do that! He loves me, and giving up my sin sounds hard and painful. If he really wants what’s best for me, he wouldn’t make me give this up, and he wouldn’t punish me for indulging in it.” Instead of accepting our heavenly Father’s loving discipline and correction, we reject it, confident that we know how to live a happier life without his guidance.
Both heresies doubt God’s love. Both heresies question God’s Word. Both heresies, in our heart of hearts, whisper the same doubts the serpent spread in the Garden of Eden: “Does God really love you? Did God really say that?”
The truth of God’s love, in every aspect of his Word, is the truth that legalism—and Antinomianism—both miss.
How Can We Avoid Antinomianism?
Avoiding Antinomianism doesn’t start with writing up a checklist of our sins. It starts with learning to love and trust Christ fully.
In Revelation 3:20, Christ describes the call to repentance as him knocking at the door of our hearts. He longs for us to open the door so he can come in and eat a meal with us in fellowship. Antinomianism views Christ as the deliverer of the feast of grace, but after accepting his gift, it shuts the door on him, unwilling to truly let him into our hearts and lives. It’s fast-food grace, and it sounds appealing and convenient, but it’s only a cheapened, empty version of the life-changing relationship God desires with us.
That’s what Antinomianism is afraid of. It’s afraid that if we let God and his Word get too close, we’ll have to change. It’s afraid that the change will be hard. It’s afraid it will involve sacrifice. So it clings to the gift of grace and hides from the gracious Giver.
The Giver does require sacrifice. He does require us to give up the little sins we enjoy so much, the emotional outbursts that feel so good at the time, the compromises that help us fit in with the crowd, the guilty pleasures that comfort us when we feel anxious or alone. But he gives us so much more in return.
He gives us the joy of knowing him, the peace that blesses our relationships with others, the boldness that helps our light shine bright in the crowd, and the love and strength that comforts us in our darkest times. Jesus doesn’t just save us from something—he saves us for something. And it’s something more beautiful than we could ever imagine.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/SanneBerg
Tim Pietz is a recent graduate of Taylor University, where he earned degrees in strategic communication and professional writing—in other words, he can talk and write. He currently works as a freelance editor and writer for both nonfiction and fiction. In his free time, Tim enjoys roleplaying games, ultimate frisbee, and cheering on his favorite football team, the perpetually heartbreaking Minnesota Vikings.
This article is part of our larger resource library of Christian practices and disciplines important to the Christian faith. From speaking in tongues to tithing & baptism, we want to provide easy to read and understand articles that answer your questions about Christian living.
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