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Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Antinomianism and the Hyper Grace Error

Feb 16, 2015

“There is nothing new under the sun” we are told in Ecclesiastes 1:9. And as Santayana once remarked, those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. The same goes for church history, which is why all Christians should have a basic grasp of it.

To know a bit about theology and church history will greatly help us avoid many errors and dangers along the way. For example, we will be able to see that strange sounding, newfangled doctrines are in fact simply the rehashing of old errors and heresies.

There really is not much new under the sun theologically speaking, and if we understand how the church of old dealt with these various heterodoxies and heresies, we will be better equipped today to both spot them and deal with them. This is certainly true of the hyper grace error.

This is all the rage at the moment, whether by people like Joseph Prince or Paul Ellis or Clark Whitten. But their errors have long ago been dealt with. Those who pushed the line that Christians have nothing to do with the moral law of God, and should not be concerned with it, have been challenged by the Reformers, the Puritans and others.

Thus learning about those earlier debates can really help us as we encounter similar theological errors. I cannot go into all this here, but I can very strongly recommend two books which deal with all this in great detail. The two volumes are:

-Ernest Kevan, The Grace of Law: A Study in Puritan Theology. Soli Deo Gloria Publication, 1964, 2011.
-Mark Jones, Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcomed Guests? P&R, 2013.

Both books are absolutely vital in understanding antinomianism, and the modern-day hyper grace errors. The book by Jones is briefer but it offers a superb treatment of the various debates over antinomianism. He deals with the Reformers, the Puritans, and modern day examples.

Thus he examines books like Tullian Tchividjian’s 2011 volume, Jesus + Nothing = Everything. He is quite right to say of it, “his whole book is one lengthy antinomian diatribe, and it bears a striking resemblance to the content and rhetoric of various seventeenth-century antinomian writings.” See also his online review of the book here: www.meetthepuritans.com/2011/12/16/jesus-nothing-everything-an-analysis/

The grace of God is certainly a beautiful biblical truth. But if it is pushed at the expense of other biblical truths, then serious error can creep in. Basically all heresies and cults have this in common; they take some of God’s truth and elevate it, but downplay or ignore other parts of God’s truth. This is where distortion and error creep in.

One of a number of errors found in antinomianism is a failure to keep the various aspects of salvation in proper alignment. The long-standing and quite biblical threefold division of salvation is always important to appeal to here. Let me lay it out very simply and diagrammatically:

Justification Sanctification

Glorification

Past Present Future
We have been saved We are being saved We will be saved
From the penalty of sin From the power of sin From the presence of sin
One-off experience Lifelong experience Eternal experience
Positional Continual Final
God’s work for us God’s work in us God’s work to us
Perfect in this life Not perfect in this life Perfect in the next life

The problem with the antinomians and the hyper grace folks is they fail to see this properly. They so emphasise the first bit of salvation – justification – which is indeed solely by grace through faith, that they ignore or minimise the second and very vital truth of ongoing sanctification. Indeed, they effectively replace sanctification with justification.

So the hundreds of New Testament commands to live holy lives, to obey, to grow in Christ, to put off the old man, to crucify the flesh, to grow in grace, to be transformed, to resist sin, and so on simply get overlooked or watered down. After all, if it is all of grace, there is nothing left for us to do. So sanctification tends to disappear altogether.

All the theological eggs are put into the justification basket, while sanctification is ignored or basically lost under justification. As Jones puts it, “the antinomians essentially subsume sanctification under justification”. But both are distinct and separate. Sure, along with glorification, they comprise a package deal, and cannot be left in isolation from each other. But they must not be conflated or confused either.

This is where the hyper grace crowd commit so much error and cause so much harm. They preach the glorious truth of justification by grace alone, but then overlook the hundreds of imperatives found in the New Testament which urge these newly justified believers to work out this wonderful salvation by growing in obedience and holiness – sanctification in other words.

These teachers don’t just overlook the doctrine of sanctification, but they often slam it. They poke fun at people who seek to live holy, God-pleasing lives, and rail at them for being legalists and the like. Read many of the books by the hyper grace teachers and you will find these charges being levelled over and over again.

Now, is there some legalism in the churches? Sure there is. But is everyone who preaches and teaches on living a holy life and a life pleasing to God a legalist? No, and if legalism is a problem in some churches today, from my vantage point, the opposite error of license is far more of a problem.

When we have Christians throughout the Western world living no different than pagans, and justifying such carnal and compromised lives, then you know that telling people more about a cheap grace that expects nothing of them is not the solution. It is in fact part of the problem.

Simply consider the number of Christians I have encountered over the past few weeks actually defending the use of porn in general, and sleaze like Fifty Shades of Grey in particular. This tells me heaps about the present condition of so much of the church.

I can see why so many people flock to the hyper grace teachers. Sure, some may come there because they are in need of escaping an overly legalistic past. But why do I suspect that so many more people flock to these preachers because it helps them feel comfortable in their sin, in their worldliness, in their clear lack of holiness.

To be told that Jesus did it all, and therefore we need do nothing, worry about nothing, and just have a nice day (which effectively is the message being received from many of their listeners) is not helping to produce a pure and spotless Bride for the Holy Christ, but is helping casual and carnal believers make excuses for their lack of holiness and growth in sanctification.

Reacting to one error (legalism) by going too far into more error (antinomianism) helps no one, and simply leads the church from one heresy into another. As Kevan says toward the end of his superb book, the Puritans got it right here:

The Puritans saw that Antinomianism – in all its guises – was as dangerous as legalism, and so they stood for the continuance of the Law and the obligation of the Christian believer to keep it. The Puritans were not Antinomians. A. R. Vidler remarks that “The Church on earth has always, as it were, to walk on the razor edge between legalism and antinomianism, between taking the Law too seriously and not taking it seriously enough. It is not surprising that every Church tends to err in one direction or the other.” The Puritans walked this middle path and rendered service to the Christian doctrine of sanctification which cannot be over-estimated. They rejected Antinomianism as firmly as they repudiated Legalism.

As I mentioned, biblical truth, preached in isolation from other biblical truth, can easily lead us into damaging heresy. The hyper grace crowd have picked part of God’s truth and given it a good run. But by refusing to proclaim all of God’s truth, they give us a partial gospel, even a false gospel.

As Jones says at the conclusion of his review mentioned above: “In the end, the issue is not so much about the necessity of preaching salvation by grace. Rather, sometimes error comes in the form not by what people do say, but by what they fail to say. And, as J I Packer has so eloquently reminded us, ‘A half-truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth’.”

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20 Responses to Antinomianism and the Hyper Grace Error

  • Thank you for your research and clarification, Bill.

  • hi Bill, AMEN! AMEN! I have been studying this topic out recently myself… very encouraging seeing this article! Thanks Bill.

  • Thank you Mr Muhlenberg for this. In one sense the hyper grace position actually downplays God’s grace, because the indwelling Spirit graciously enables the believer to overcome sin.

    The whole point of the new birth is that it enables us to stop sinning and become more Christ like. We do not obtain perfection in this life, but we must always be striving after it. How challenging is 1 John 3:9 in this respect. We must be wary of an ‘I shall always be a hopeless sinner till I reach glory’ attitude. It is effectively a denial of The Spirit’s power to overcome the lusts of the flesh.

    Hebrews 12:14 tells us that though saved by grace we shall not reach heaven without actual holiness.

  • Excellent, thank you!

    At my one and only church the senior pastor was always called legalistic and the other, his asistant a female pastor was always, grace, grace, grace while the congregation small though it was in number was like being in the world, absolutely no different.

    No wonder then that the enemy ripped it apart quickly and thoroughly. I had to leave. How can you stay when the pastor says from the pulpit – I am not here to adress your sin, that’s God business, between you and him only, after all we’re all sinners – and children and non-believers served communion.

    I would speak of holiness and daily sanctification and was hated by some for it, others had not a clue as to what it meant, it was too highly spiritual and all this from people who called themselves christians for about 20-30 years! They were known as ‘christian teenagers’ by the pastors and needed our grace.

  • Bill, as I read your critique of Antinomianism, I could not help thinking of Rasputin: He allegedly believed that extreme sinning was a necessary precursor to proper repentance and a thorough redemption! The importance of the Holy Spirit’s work of justification in a Christian’s life is underlined by the words of our Lord in Matthew 10:25a “It is enough for a disciple that he be like his teacher, and a servant like his master.”

  • Thank you Bill, amazing article as usual. In the last church I attended, the Pastor preached the Hyper Grace message, and read these books that you mentioned. He made us Christians that wanted to live holy lives feel like we were the freaks! we were looked down upon. Whenever we objected to this new grace message he would just palm us off as being “too legalistic”. How sad the church leaders have turned against those who dare to speak the truth! Since having read your many articles I’ve come to realise that this hyper Grace teaching is nothing new, and just liberal theology rebranded. Our former Pastor thought he had discovered something new and jumped on the band wagon. Thank you for showing me that it’s just another fad to destroy the church. Thank you Bill, really appreciate you speaking out about this, it’s helped me so much!

  • Thanks Bill, nice and clearly put.

  • Your Quote: “But why do I suspect that so many more people flock to these preachers because it helps them feel comfortable in their sin, in their worldliness, in their clear lack of holiness.”

    Yes, true. Hyper-grace is not only a false doctrine, but it is also a work of the flesh, its within us, and that is why it is so easy for many to leave Christ for it. Its the justifying the fact that one has quit carrying a sometimes heavy Cross, on a road of very few believers holding fast the faithful Word.

    This is the ‘great’ apostasy which 2 Thess 2:3 speaks about. Christians will divorce the authority of Scripture for another gospel, refuse to hear sound doctrine and heap up teachers having itching ears.

    They do not see, but for a distant prick in their hardened conscience, that they do not have the Holy Ghost within them, they have sold Him out for a familiar spirit.

    This noticeable apostasy is the one outstanding sign that the second coming of Christ is nearer than ever.

    Good article and thank you, its good to get some air support when your in the pits.

  • I have heard that D B Knox, one time Principal of Moore Theological College, was asked what he was going to do through his retirement years. His reply was “I am going to repent”.

  • The diagram of justification, sanctification and glorification is really great! Thank you.

  • The article states: “After all, if it is all of grace, there is nothing left for us to do”.

    Not so. Our life as believers is life in the Spirit. The Spirit of Christ lives in us and through us. We are to understand who we are in Christ (heavily emphasized by the message of grace) and allow Christ’s life to manifest through us. It’s Christ working through us. We are to act holy because we have been made holy in Christ. This gives strength to complete the good works that God has prepared in advance for us to do. Grace does not promote inactivity, it propels activity – see it for yourself by reading 1 Corinthians 15:10. Paul said as much right there.

  • Thanks John. The Christian life involves doing good works by the grace of God – just as I explained in my article.

  • Excellent article, thanks Bill.

  • thanks again Bill. We should spend more time, well lots of time really, teaching The Way rather than teaching opinion and feel good quick snippets.

  • Hey Bill, that was a really valuable teaching with references to follow up with. Thanks for your work in this area.

  • Excellent article! I would like to add that the Tabernacle is a type and shadow. John 14:6 “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life and no one goes to the Father except through Me”. The 1st door is “I am the Way” (Jesus) who justifies us from our sins = Justification. (the outer court of the Tabernacle)The 2nd door is “the Truth” (Holy Spirit) = Sanctification. (the Holy Place of the Tabernacle).The 3rd door is “the Life” (God the Father) = Glorification (The Holiest of Holies)

    As the priests who performed within the tabernacle couldn’t jump from the outer court into the Holiest of Holies without first going through the Holy Place. The same applies to us.
    Any attempt in the new covenant of Grace that separates any part of the Trinity, will be rendered void by God. Any attempt to jump from Justification to Glorification without Sanctification by jumping the line will still not make it. God will say “you jumped the line, you cannot cheat Me!”

    Thank you for your article that is rare to find on the internet!

  • I really appreciated reading this and that it exisits, so I have shared it, via another brother alerting me to it on Facebook.

    Thank you. Wendy Anderson. New Zealand

  • It is way past due that this article get out to people who are being deceived by the hyper grace message..Thank you for sharing.. Susan Arsenault, Canada

  • Brilliant and inspiring article .

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