Four ‘Antinomians’ Tried and Vindicated

A book review by Stuart Brogden

Antinomian! It’s a charge levied at grace preachers in every generation – beginning with the Lord Jesus, who was accosted by the law-keepers of His day for not being as “diligent” as they were in keeping the law. Paul addressed this in Romans 5 & 6, wherein he was explaining the believer’s relationship to law:

Romans 5:20-6:2 (HCSB) The law came along to multiply the trespass. But where sin multiplied, grace multiplied even more so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace will reign through righteousness, resulting in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. What should we say then? Should we continue in sin so that grace may multiply? Absolutely not! How can we who died to sin still live in it?

Law does not provide nor guide life. Grace does not endorse nor permit lawlessness. These are ditches on either side of the path. On one side there are legalists, who think all who do not live according to the law (however they define that) are lawless (which is what antinomian means – without law). On the other side are those who are truly lawless, claiming all who endorse godly living are legalists! In the middle is the narrow way of God’s gospel truth. The believer’s response to temptation to sin is NOT to hide behind the law; it’s to flee to Christ!

And this is the theme brother David H.J. Gay brings out in his most excellent book, Four ‘Antinomians’ Tried and Vindicated. David examines the work of four men who were written off as antinomians in the 17th century by those who embraced the Westminster/Puritan view of “the Moral Law.” Tobias Crisp, William Dell, John Eaton, and John Saltmarsh were all what we would call Calvinists, yet they did not align with John Calvin’s view on the role of law in the life of the saint. Hence they were all called antinomians. Sigh,

In examining Dell’s perspective on the law and the believer, David tells us that Dell said “‘When a believer has in him the law of the Spirit, the law of the letter has no more power over him; that is, so far as he is taken up into that other law of the Spirit, but no further.’ This sort of talk, as Dell well knew, is a red rag to the Reformed. While they argue vehemently that the believer is still under the law of Moses (having, without biblical warrant, reduced this to the ten commandments, which they call ‘the moral law’), here we have Dell claiming that ‘the law of the letter has no more power over him’ since he is dead to the law, and that he is governed by the law of Christ. A more direct clash you could not wish to see! Dell knew how the Reformed would react.”

“More important, of the utmost importance, Dell was making a point of major significance. He was arguing that it is only by the law of Christ that the believer can fulfil the law of Moses – and that, by meeting the goal of the commandment, which is love. In the new covenant, the child of God is not merely free from the old law, he is under the law to Christ. And there is no danger in making such an assertion. In fact, it has to be preached, taught and believed, so that saints can fully appreciate the glorious liberty they have in Christ. The believer is under the law to Christ, not the law of Moses, and it is only because he has this new relationship that he can possibly be sanctified (Rom. 7:1-6). As I say, Dell was making a point of huge significance, showing, moreover, that he was no antinomian.

“But, of course, he was flying in the face of Reformed teaching. But not only Reformed! Dell knew he faced two opponents to what he was saying. First, he knew he would offend real antinomians. He did not shirk the battle!

“The presence of Christ, that is the living word of God, within us, is the killing and crucifying of the body to all sin… by the presence of the Spirit… by the baptism of the Spirit… So it is plain that the destruction of sin in our bodies, by the living word and Spirit of God, is our crucifying with Christ… The apostle would have those who are crucified with Christ to reckon themselves dead to sin… As far as the same word and Spirit of Christ prevail in us, they will make us dead to sin for the time past and present, and for the future will preserve us from sin.”

From Dell: “This, then, is the sum of this matter… A man, in union with Christ, has his own life destroyed out of him, and Christ’s own life communicated to him, so that, in the true believer, the soul and body of man live in the life of the Son of God… And thus the flesh lives a life that is not of the flesh; indeed, thus the creature lives in itself the life of God. For as that eternal life, that was with the Father, was manifested in the Son – that is, in his flesh or humanity – and all believers have seen and known it, so also that very life of the Father and the Son, is both communicated to the saints, and also manifest in them, as faith very well knows. And this is the great mystery of the gospel. Let them receive it that can receive it.”

As he turned to John Eaton’s work, brother David is swept up with the glories of the grace in Christ given to wretched sinners. “If I may answer that right at the beginning, by giving my own experience of Eaton’s work, I can only say that in reading it, and then preparing it for this publication, I have discovered that for over fifty years I have had too low a view of justification by faith, altogether too dry a view of it. Of course, I knew the doctrine. Yes, I could argue the texts. But the depth, the fullness, the sheer wonder of free justification simply had not penetrated my heart as it ought to have done. I had not realised how God sees me in Christ. Oh! I had sung about it, I had preached it, and I had written about it. But until I read John Eaton’s work – a true honeycomb indeed – I had far too academic a view of this most wonderful truth of free justification; namely, that the weakest believer, trusting Christ, is absolutely sinless in the sight of God, and sinless for ever. Far too often, I had taken marvellous New Testament statements about justification, and the effects and benefits of it, and shuffled them off to eternity to come. But those statements are true of me, NOW! That is what I have come to feel, and to feel in a way I have never felt before.”

From Eaton: “Before we are justified, and while we are in the state of nature, we are the children of the devil and of wrath (Eph. 2:3), but when we are justified with this internal and secret justification, and made thereby the children of God, then…

“None are made… perfectly holy and righteous, but such of the elect as are actually called, because although all the elect shall be justified in their time, and none but the elect shall be justified (for whom he justifies, these he glorifies – but he glorifies none but the elect), yet the very elect are not actually and really justified, but are darkness, and live in sin and darkness, until they are effectually called… (Rom. 8:30).”

The four men examined in this book were no antinomians, but men who saw the gospel clearly: justification is by grace through faith in Christ. The Spirit gives life – what need has He for law to prepare a sinner for salvation? The law condemns, incites sin – how can it work to make a man savable? These men denied antinomianism, exhorting the saints to walk as children of the light – as if the Scriptures told us such things!

David sums up, “As I will show, Eaton worked it out in detail: the glorious nature of justification; the two parts to justification – before God and before men; justification is received by faith, contrary to reason, sense and feeling; justification and sanctification are inseparably linked; justification always leads to sanctification, being its spur and motive; the law is not the motive of sanctification – in fact, preaching the law actually hinders sanctification; the nature of saving faith; the joy of the justified; and the way of assurance.

“Read Eaton himself, read him for yourself. Indeed, why worry about Eaton? Read the New Testament! What does the New Testament set out as the believer’s rule and way of sanctification? Whatever you find there, hold on to, and seek to put into practice. For my part, I have no doubt that Eaton got it right: the New Testament sets Christ before me, and sets him before me for all – for justification, for sanctification and for glorification.”

I will point out one repeated idea in this book where I disagree with David. He repeatedly talks about the offer of the gospel and the offering of Christ to sinners. I strongly disagree! The gospel is not an offer but a proclamation and command! You can find a short article on this topic written by me on the Pristine Grace web site.

As David did not write off these four men over some disagreements he had with them (such as Saltmarsh’s view that the elect are eternally justified, rather than being as Paul described us Ephesians 2), nor do I write David off because I disagree with him on this “gospel offer” idea.

This is an excellent book that will help every child of God grasp the free grace that Christ has bestowed upon us and God Himself might use this book to work in us a new awe of the work of our Savior on our behalf – but primarily for His glory