The Reformation-era charge: teaching salvation by faith breeds lawlessness
Acting with great inconsistency, opponents of the Reformation in the sixteenth century liked to imply that early Protestantism encouraged the hope that salvation through Jesus Christ could be confidently enjoyed by a faith never followed by good works. One finds this in the Decrees of the Council of Trent, which met intermittently between 1545 and 1563. Trent condemned, as a terrible error, the opinion (attributed to Protestants) that “nothing besides faith is required in the Christian…and that the Ten Commandments in nowise appertain to the Christian”. Now, taking as disputable the question of whether any responsible Protestant ever taught this viewpoint (I think it very doubtful), the question still remains as to why such a condemnation was ever uttered by Trent at all. I have suggested (above) that there was great inconsistency involved in Trent’s doing so.
The bishops of the Roman church, assembled at Trent, knew full well that their church had accumulated a huge backlog of abuses involving misuse of funds, sale of offices (simony), and widespread violations of vows of celibacy (by priests, bishops, and members of monastic orders). No one attributed the widespread occurrence of these grave matters within the Roman church to its teaching that “nothing besides faith is required for the Christian”. And who would ever have accepted that suggestion as valid, if it had been made? And yet, within Catholicism there was a widespread tendency to live as though the Ten Commandments did not apply to the Christian. How could and did that communion level this very charge at early Protestants?
This charge (made by whichever party) is about what Christians have traditionally called “antinomianism”(the rejection of the moral law as relevant to the Christian’s experience); it has a long and checkered history. We are probably right in detecting it in the confused persons whom the apostle Paul rebukes in the 6th chapter of his Roman letter (these individuals fancied that God’s grace would be magnified if they continued to sin); its existence is also highlighted in the group (termed ‘Nicolaitans’) rebuked in Revelation 2:6 and 15. Antinomianism’s opposite is the biblical insistence that the life of the one who is justified by faith in Christ (Rom. 5.1) will be one characterized by careful conformity to God’s commandments in reliance on the indwelling assistance of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5.13-26).
Antinomianism: the persistent charge against Calvinism
The council of Trent was thinking of Protestants considered generically when it gave out its warning against ‘salvation by faith’ teaching. Since that time, this charge has continued to be hurled especially at followers of Reformed theology, and for two reasons:
- not only does the Reformed expression of Protestantism join with others in affirming that the sinner is accepted as righteous in God’s sight by faith placed in Jesus Christ, but also
- Calvinism (better: Reformed theology) has consistently taught that those who do place their whole trust in Christ in order to be justified before God do so as persons chosen for salvation and specially assisted by the Holy Spirit (see 1 Thessalonians 1.4).
In the judgment of many, this set of ideas contains within it the ingredients of what might be called a ‘perfect storm’. After all, these urge, if one accepts the suggestion that he or she has been chosen for salvation (and – chosen without respect to any native goodness or prospect of goodness) why would not such a person live on ‘auto-pilot’ and be morally indifferent all in the inflated confidence that such a decreed salvation was his or hers irrevocably? One contemporary theologian, Norman Geisler, has warned of the “personal irresponsibility” that this kind of confidence breeds.
How has Reformed theology responded?
In point of fact, from the beginning of the Protestant era, Reformed theology has consistently emphasized that the man or woman who has come into right relationship with God by justifying faith in Christ may not:
rashly cast out the whole of Moses and bid farewell to the two tables of the Law…Moses has taught that the law, which among sinners can engender nothing but death, ought among the saints to have a better and more excellent use. (Calvin: Institutes 2.7.13)
And in the next century, when this confusion of grace with license had apparently not been eradicated, Reformed theology again insisted:
The moral law of God doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof….Neither doth Christ, in the Gospel, any way dissolve but much strengthens this obligation. (Westminster Confession 19.5)
In the judgment of these authorities, the ongoing role of the Ten Commandments (and, as amplified by Jesus Christ in Matthew 5 & 6) was permanent and ongoing for the believer. Mainstream Reformed theology has never allowed that the principle of election in any way diminishes the need for careful obedience; on the contrary the stated goal of election in Christ is that we be “holy and blameless” (Eph. 1.4); circumspect living, rather than license, is the mark of God’s chosen people.
Even so, it remains the case that not only in the century of the Reformation, but in every century since, some evangelical Protestants have theorized that the law of God is unnecessary for the believer. To be fair, a portion of these have lived exemplary lives and with these, we have little to quarrel about. There is, after all, a well-intentioned Christian attitude which takes the view that the Christian now lives under the dictates of the Gospel, rather than the dictates of Sinai. Now this, no less than the view recommended here, can make for holy living.
But quite distinct from this, there has as well always been a contingent of those who have theorized that careful walking in the ways of the Lord is non-necessary since
- the believer has been justified from eternity, and this justification is a reality for us prior to our becoming aware of it, and
- self-examination and confession of sin is not called for in the Christian, as all sin has already been pardoned and
- marks of grace are not important in the life of the Christian (see 2 Peter 1.5-10) as assurance of salvation can be enjoyed independent of any such evidence of being ‘new’ in Christ.
Though it may sound strange to report it, these “fringe” attitudes not only cropped up among some late seventeenth and early eighteenth century Calvinists, but among the followers of John Wesley. Wesley’s own brother-in-law, Westley Hall, (also a Methodist preacher) was denounced for being a polygamist and consequently forfeited his status among the Wesleyans. His was not an isolated case. Now this recognition that in recent centuries, the antinomian tendency is not associated exclusively with any particular branch of Protestantism, but found on the fringes of almost all, brings us to the realization that antinomianism is a perennial pitfall for all branches of Christianity.
Isn’t this the sorry truth? Whether it is the mishandling and embezzlement of charitable gifts, the preying on children as well as those in counseling situations, marital infidelity, covetousness and the incessant pursuit of ‘more’, these are the sins that cling to far too much of what passes for Christian leadership and Christian living today. We have seen the fear of God evaporate; we have seen the love of the world proliferate – among those professing to be the people of God. The sad fact is that many of us frequent churches in which the commandments of God (and the amplification of them given by Jesus) are no longer recited or read. Sermons are seldom preached on these themes. Antinomianism stalks us all….
Paradoxically, Reformation Protestantism – far from being the breeding ground of antinomianism – may indeed offer us the resources for combating it. The venerable practice of catechizing children required the committing of the Ten Commandments to memory; Reformed church walls were often emblazoned with the two tables of the law. Corporate confession of sin after reading the Decalogue was long the regular Sunday practice; cycles of sermons on the commandments were regularly preached in churches of the Reformed tradition (and with suitable evangelistic applications, too). Thus, rather than extending the life of the old canard that Calvinism promotes antinomianism, it would be better to understand that this expression of Protestantism is one of the best means of resisting it.
*READ LAST WEEK’S GUEST POST: “MYTH: TULIP has the Imprint of Antiquity”
Kenneth J. Stewart is professor of theological studies and former chair of the department of biblical and theological studies at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia. He holds an M.Phil. in early modern European history from the University of Waterloo and a Ph.D. in nineteenth-century Christianity from the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition.