Freedom from the law is not something to look at warily.
The words “antinomian” and “antinomianism” are polemical terms, and as is often the case, they carry connotations. But does a look at what’s claimed with these words stand up to scrutiny? A dictionary definition says an antinomian is “one who holds that under the gospel dispensation of grace the moral law is of no use or obligation because faith alone is necessary to salvation.”[i] The definition relies on history more than Scripture for this explanation. All should agree that we are saved by faith alone, apart from the law, but it isn’t quite accurate to say the law is of no use. Paul says “through the law comes the knowledge of sin.” It is a rule—a canon, or yardstick which shows mankind how far short we fall. But the definition also refers to the “moral law,” a concept from historical theology, but which can’t be found in Scripture.
The unity of the law is everywhere throughout the Old Testament, but also in the New. When Paul gives his explanations of the law in both Romans and Galatians, he never qualifies to say “the moral law” or to say as some seem to suggest, “You also have died to the civil and ceremonial law.” Paul always treats the law as a whole. Indeed, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” (Gal 3:10, citing Deut. 27:26)
This is where the polemical nature of antinomianism enters in. Those who use the term don’t accuse opponents of not keeping the civil or ceremonial law, but of diminishing or dismissing the “moral law.” But here, too, there is sometimes disagreement on what makes up the moral law. Does it include the Sabbath commandment? Or is that part of the ceremonial law? If it does include it, and we are going to observe it, does it mean we will do no work on Saturdays? For there never was any change of the Sabbath day. To suggest that we “keep the Sabbath” by attending Sunday worship is, again, a product of church history, but not of Scripture.
Many have objected that Paul cites several of the Ten Commandments in his epistles, such as in Romans 13.
“Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Rom 13:8-10)
But has Paul said “You are obligated to keep these”? Rather, he has in fact pointed the believers to love—not as the keeping of the law, but as the fulfilment of it. Our obligation, that which we owe, is to love. If we focus on this, keeping the law is not something in our purview. Is it “antinomianism” to point believers to the higher standard of God’s love, rather than the law given at Sinai? Is it an encouragement to sin to point believers to the example of Jesus rather than commands given under the old covenant?
Two other observations show that the common accusations of “antinomian” are without merit. The first are the explicit statements the apostle Paul makes that tell believers they are not under law. “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” (Rom 6:14), and also “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” (Gal 5:18.) The word antinomian does not actually appear in the New Testament, however, the words “hyponomian,” (ὑπὸ νόμον) to be under the law, do appear. It is that which Paul says believers are not. To be “not under law” means to be free of both condemnation and obligation. Some want to retain obligation even as they insist that condemnation is gone. Do human laws work this way? If a murderer would face no consequences whatsoever from the state, would anyone credibly claim that the state insists its citizens have an obligation to obey the law against murder?
The other claim is that antinomianism somehow encourages us to sin, because it dismisses God’s standards as a curb on our sinful nature. But here, too, Paul says the opposite. That is, rather than control sin, the law actually exacerbates our sin! “The law came in to increase the trespass.” (Rom 5:20) And from his own experience Paul testifies that the law aroused sin in him. “If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” (Rom 7:7) The law as a guardrail, or in some way helpful as a curb to our sinful desire is therefore not a valid argument. Paul similarly argued in Romans 6:14 that the way sin gains mastery or dominion over a person is because they are under obligation to the law.
To say believers are free from the law is not to say we are free to sin, nor is it to say that we have cast off righteousness or the pursuit of Christlikeness. If walking by the Spirit, and thus not being under law means I am “antinomian,” then I count myself happy to be in apostolic company. For although the word antinomian wasn’t used, a form of the accusation seems to have been leveled at Paul by who misunderstood his extolling grace above law. “And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying.” Rom 3:8. Antinomianism is a hollow accusation because the law can’t take us to conformity to Jesus. It isn’t inconsistent with where we are called, but we actually exceed it on the way to putting on the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 13:14) Love, not law is our measure and guide.
[i] Merriam-Webster online https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/antinomian