By Shane Lems
As I mentioned in my review of Mark Jones’ new book,Antinomianism, I very much appreciated his chapter on antinomian rhetoric. For example, I noted the following quote:
“There is today a great deal of talk about ‘grace.’ It is described as scandalous, liberating, shocking, counterintuitive, unpredictable, dangerous, etc. But when an emphasis on grace eclipses a focus on Christ, as it sometimes does, then grace is not being preached; rather, a sort of cheerleading experience takes place, in which very little is actually said about grace because it is divorced from the riches of Christ’s person and work” (p. 114).
Jones argues well that historic Reformed theologians typically critiqued antinomian rhetoric (i.e. our sanctification means going back to our justification). They critiqued it because it was unclear, because it had a primarily negative view of the law, because it became a hermeneutical grid, and because it lacked a balanced approach to Christology and the Christian life. In speaking against the antinomians, Anthony Burgess even said they have an “itching” to explain grace in such away that it’s never been heard before. Here’s how Jones comments on this antinomian tendency in today’s context.
“The rhetoric one often hears today has to do with ‘getting it.’ That someone ‘gets’ grace often really means that ‘it does not matter what we do.’ Condescending talk abounds from the lips of modern-day antinomians who think they alone have understood what grace is” (p. 117).
Samuel Rutherford also criticized the antinomians for their rhetoric. He said that “one ounce, one grain of the spiritual and practical knowledge of Christ is more to be valued than talent-weights, yea, shiploads, or mountains” of antinomian rhetoric. Here’s Jones again.
“[One of the dangers of antinomian preaching is] it becomes boring. The same repetitive mantras are preached week after week, to the point that if you have heard one sermon, you have heard them all. …Despite the popularity of such adjectives as ‘scandalous’ and ‘radical,’ many preachers who use these terms to describe grace and the gospel are not as shocking as they believe themselves to be. Indeed, good Christology should never be boring, but the riches of Reformed Christology has been lost in favor of clichés. Christ should be in every sermon, as we see in apostolic example and teaching. Preaching the whole Christ [i.e. his person and work] prevents us from becoming monotonous in our so-called gospel summaries at the end of every sermon’ (p. 118).
We most definitely live in the age of the trendy buzzword. From explicit books and sermons on sex to macho masculine mantras, Christian authors and pastors are trying hard to be shockingly trendy and relevant. The news media values shock and rhetoric to capture attention; sadly, some Christians leaders have stooped to that level.
Jones’ helpful chapter on rhetoric teaches us a few things: 1) By God’s good providence, his ministers have been preaching the gospel of grace for around 2,000 years. Let’s not act and speak as if we’re the first to “get it.” 2) Solid Christian theology cannot be reduced to trendy phrases about grace. We should not try to be cool by coining adjective filled phrases that become fads. 3) Preaching about free grace should not lead us to avoid preaching about gratitude; huge sections of the Reformed and Presbyterian confessions explain in detail what the Ten Commandments mean for our lives today.
We should follow the Apostle, who said that he did not hesitate to proclaim the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). Jones again:
“What is in fact important is not whether preachers say things from time to time, as they make use of rhetorical devices like hyperbole, that they sound ‘antinomian’ or ‘legalistic,’ but whether during a sustained course of ministry, they give the impression that they preach Christ and preach the imperatives that God, in his wisdom, thinks his people need to hear” (p. 121).
Shane Lems is pastor of the United Reformed Church in Sunnyvale, Washington (in the Yakima Valley). He is a graduate of Westminster Seminary California. He blogs, along with fellow classmate Andrew Compton, at Reformed Reader where this article first appeared.