Chapter One

Antinomianism : where is it?

Mr. Fletcher's definition of antinomianism is a curious illustration of the value attaching to names of this kind in such controversies. Luther invented the term to designate the views of Agricola, who denied the use of the law to produce conviction and repentance, as well as sanctification. Mr. Fletcher's statement would condemn Luther himself, and it was intended to include the chiefs of the Calvinistic evangelical party of his day. Dr. Hodge says ("Outlines of Theology," p. 404), "Antinomianism] has often been ignorantly or maliciously charged upon Calvinism as a necessary inference by Arminians," — such as Mr. Fletcher and Dr. Steele; and he retorts the charge upon them thus: "It is evident that all systems of perfectionism, which teach (as the Pelagian and Oberlin theories,) that men's ability to obey is the measure of their responsibility, or (as the papal and Arminian theories,) that God for Christ's sake has graciously reduced His demand from absolute moral perfection to faith and evangelical obedience, are essentially Antinomian." (p. 526.)

Thus it seems the Plymouth Brethren have companions under the same imputation with themselves. As I have said, Mr. Fletcher's definition was admittedly not made for them, but for such men as Hervey, Toplady, Romaine, Whitefield, and others, — men with whom it would be an honour to be condemned, but whom Dr. Steele seems anxious to associate with those who "decry that evangelical legality (!) which all true Christians are in love with — a cleaving to Christ by that kind of faith which works righteousness"! And, reader, you are, according to the definition, an Antinomian, unless you expect to be justified before God by your own personal obedience, and not by the obedience of Christ, in the great day of final account. (pp. 31, 32.) That is the test of antinomianism for Mr. Fletcher. — Dr. Steele, in summing it up, however, adds new features, which are some of them indeed part of the creed of hyper-Calvinism, while some of them probably no one would own in the present day, and none but a fanatic could ever hold. Let Dr. S. produce, if he can, from the thirty-seven volumes of the "leader" of the school, or from the numerous writings of C. H. M., or Wm. Kelly, — wide enough scope, if this be the Plymouth doctrine, — the least intimation that "my faith is simply a waking up to the fact that I have always been saved or that "a believer is not bound to mourn for sin, because it was pardoned before it was committed, and pardoned sin is no sin;" or that "by God's laying our iniquities upon Christ, He became as completely sinful as I;" or that "no sin can do a believer any ultimate harm;" or that "the conditions of the new covenant, repentance, faith, and obedience, are not on our side, but on Christ's side, who repented, believed, and obeyed in such a way as to relieve us from these unpleasant acts." (pp. 35, 36.) After ten years of patient inquiry, an accuser cannot be guiltless in putting out such things in a book professedly against the Plymouth Brethren without guarding his readers against attributing them to them as they would do necessarily otherwise. It is true Dr. S. has not directly charged them with them; but this is the creed of an Antinomian, and they are Antinomians. The argument is too simple and necessary not to be made, and he must know it would be.

We now have a historical sketch of antinomianism, which is of no special importance for our purpose. It only needs to remind the reader again that the doctrines attributed to one and another in it are not to be supposed transferable to that class of people in whom we are told it has been in these days "revived." They are responsible for their own views, but for nothing more. And the association with Dr. Crisp and others only can avail to stir up feeling and create prejudice before the real cause is taken up. Dr. Hodge states as to Crisp, that he denied the inferences put upon his doctrine ("Outlines of Theology," p. 404), and certainly it is hard to believe that he actually wrote or said, "Sins are but scarecrows and bugbears to frighten ignorant children, but men of understanding see they are counterfeit things' (p. 141). If he did say this, it is altogether needless to bring him up from merited oblivion.

It is strange, however, that whereas Agricola, Tobias Crisp, and such like come conspicuously to the front, as do "John Wesley, the apostle of experimental godliness and of Christian perfection," and "the seraphic John Fletcher," we are not once told with whom these contended in their day, or with what.

On the whole, we are well pleased with Wesley's definition of antinomianism. According to its root idea ("against law,") the only scriptural definition must be "the doctrine which makes void the law through faith." (p. 38.) We have, then, to find the real Antinomian to take the New Testament doctrine of the law, and inquire who makes void the law? who refuses to take it for whatever purpose God has given it? who perverts it to any other use? who takes off the edge of its requirement? Searching along these lines, we can scarcely fail to find the Antinomian in the only proper sense.

What, then, is the office of the law according to Scripture?

It is (1), to give the "knowledge of sin" (Rom. 3:20), not only by putting it into account, — reckoning it up as the items of a bill (Rom. 5:13), and making it exceeding sinful, as breach of plain command (7:13), but also by detecting it in the heart in the shape of lust (7:7) and giving it power by the very prohibition (7:8, 9).
(2) Although ready to justify the doer of it (Rom. 2:3), yet requiring complete obedience (James 2, Gal. 3:10), and finding none (Gal. 3:10), it only condemns and curses and never justifies — (Rom. 3:19; 4:15; Gal. 2:16, 21; 3:11; 5:4).
(3) Its principle is not faith (Gal. 3:12), and it cannot be added to or dis-annul the promise of grace, which 430 years before had declared the way of blessing for all the earth (vv. 17, 18); being given for a certain time and purpose till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made (v. 19).
(4) For those under it in the day of judgment, there can be therefore no escape (Rom. 2:12; 4:11).
(5) As to holiness, sin shall not have dominion over you, because you are not under it, but under grace (Rom. 6:4); it is the strength of sin (1 Cor. 15:56), even to those delighting in it (Rom. 7:22); in order to live to God and serve Him, we are delivered from and dead to it by the cross (7:7, 6; Gal. 2: is), and dead, that we might belong to Christ, and so bring forth fruit to God (Rom. 7:4): we cannot have the law and Christ, as a woman cannot have two husbands at the same time (vv. 1-3.). The "righteousness of the law" is thus, and only thus, fulfilled (8:4).

This is the Scripture-doctrine of the law, and to the whole of it the so-called Plymouth Brethren fully, and with a free heart, subscribe. It will be difficult, therefore, to prove them Antinomians. As for their "rule of life," it is most certainly true that they do not believe it to be the law, but to result from their place in Christ, a new creation. This is what the epistle to the Galatians explicitly teaches: "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature (ktisis, creation). And as many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and mercy" (chap. 6:15, 16). Thus the exhortation is, "As ye have received Christ Jesus the Lord, walk ye in Him" (Col. 2:6). Or, as the apostle John says, "He that saith he abideth in Him ought himself also so to walk, even as He walked" (1 John 2:6). This manifestly includes the "righteousness" — all the practical, moral excellence — "of the law," as the greater includes the less. Or, if Dr. Steele will say it does not, he will no doubt let us know it. But, in fact, Dr. Steele evidently does not speak the whole truth about the objects of his attacks. He only permits you to see partially, and then through coloured glasses. I am not aware that once throughout his book he speaks of the "rule" which the Plymouth Brethren acknowledge. Yet their writings abound with exhortations as to it, and he has studied them for ten years! Why this utter silence, when he can permit himself to say of the "consistent Antinomian," and they are such for him, "He thinks that the Son of God magnified the law that we might vilify it; that He made it honourable that we might make it contemptible; that He came to fulfill it that we might be discharged from fulfilling it, according to our capacity" (p. 34). On his own part, it is only simple truth to say, nothing that can vilify is omitted; nothing that could brighten the picture is allowed to be seen.

But the antinomianism is here, that we "affirm that our evangelical or new-covenant righteousness is in Christ and not in ourselves," and that we are not under the law — modified to make it practicable (here is Dr. Steele's own real antinomianism) as a rule of judgment. For the opposite view, he quotes Baxter (Aphor. Prop. 14-17,) — "Though Christ performed the conditions of the law (of Paradisaical innocence), and made satisfaction for our non-performance, YET WE OURSELVES MUST PERFORM THE CONDITIONS OF THE GOSPEL. These (last) two propositions seem to me so clear, that I wonder that any able divines should deny them. Methinks they should be articles of our creed, and a point of children's catechisms. To affirm that our evangelical or new-covenant righteousness is in Christ and not in ourselves, or performed by Christ and not by ourselves, is such a monstrous piece of Antinomian doctrine as no man who knows the nature and difference of the covenants can possibly entertain." (pp. 92, 93.)

So we must give up "His name whereby He shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS." (Jer. 23:6.) We must give up that Christ "of God is made unto us wisdom, and RIGHTEOUSNESS, and sanctification, and redemption." (1 Cor. 1:20.) To affirm that our righteousness is in Christ and not in ourselves is but a monstrous piece of antinomianism! Do Wesleyan Methodists indeed hold this? Let them speak out if they do not, and disown this attempt to take from the Lord of glory one of His "many crowns"! For our part, the name of Richard Baxter affixed to this bold heresy will be of no avail to make it truth, nor weigh the lightest feather-weight against the NAME we are thus called to renounce. Be it so, we are Antinomians for it, then Antinomians we will be, and one of our proudest titles it will be forever.

Do we believe, then, that we have not to "perform the conditions of the gospel"? If this means that Christ repents and believes for us so that we need not, away with the utter absurdity, and saddle it where it belongs! If Dr. Steele can find a sentence or hint to this effect in any of the writers with whom he has been ten years familiar, then we give up the man to the scorn and condemnation of all sane, moral men. But neither repentance, nor faith, nor both together, are the righteousness in which a believer stands before God. Faith is but that in which we rest in Another, — the hand with which we lay hold upon Him. Repentance is the acceptance of the divine sentence upon ourselves which leaves us hopeless except in that other. Thus they are both included in true conversion, and never found separate. As conversion is a spiritual turning round, so if the back is turned on self, the face is turned to Christ, and vice versa. These are, if you will, conditions of the gospel, although sovereign grace alone brings about in any the fulfillment of them, but their fulfillment leaves us just as much Christ as righteousness***, — the only righteousness in which we are accepted.

Dr. Steele's comment upon Baxter contains the full endorsement of these errors, with others of his own: — "Thus speaks this pious, practical, well-balanced dissenter against the fatal errors arising from confounding the Adamic law with the law of Christ, the first demanding of a perfect man a faultless life, the other requiring an imperfect man, inheriting damaged intellectual and moral powers, to render perfect, that is, pure love to God his heavenly Father through Christ his adorable Saviour, with the assistance of regenerating and sanctifying grace." (p. 93.)

There are here about as many mistakes as lines, and they are serious ones. Where does he find this Adamic law demanding of a perfect man a faultless life? From Genesis to Revelation there is not even a hint of it. "Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." This, as I understand it, was the law to Adam. Was there a lex non scripta***, different from this? Where have you it, Dr. Steele? But there is small danger of confounding this with the law of Christ, methinks. Theology perhaps may affirm what Dr. S. maintains; but theology has fallen on evil days: we have learned nullius Jurare in verba magistri***, save of our "One Master," Jesus Christ. Now for this "law of Christ" cited, once more to the statute book, Dr. Steele! We know that the apostle says to the Galatians who "desired to be under the law," but were biting and devouring one another, "Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ." (Gal. 6:2). And we concede fully that the will of Christ is law to the Christian. We believe fully that we are "inlawed," as it has been literally expressed, "to Christ." (1 Cor. 9:21.)

But all this fails to show that peculiar character of law which our reviewer insists on, that immoral law (as it would surely be) that lets off easily a man of damaged moral powers, and allows him to proclaim aloud "with tongue and type and telegraph and telephone" his "genuine CHRISTIAN PERFECTION." Oh, sir, if this be all, you should, methinks, take your way more humbly into heaven; and if this is the righteousness in which you hope to stand accepted before God, allow us to thank Him that for you and us He has provided a better, — even in Him whom you, alas! refuse as that.

This is fairly and fully the very antinomianism with which Dr. Hodge, not without cause we see, charges the school of perfectionists to which our author belongs. And notice, that while he contrasts his strict Adamic ***with his relaxed law, which we will not call the law of Christ, the only law which God gave to man, what is called such in Old Testament and New, contrasted as such with the gospel and its grace, that law on which the apostle in Christian times insists as of unbending holy requirement, — this law escapes somewhere into the darkness, evaporates, and is lost.

With Dr. Steele, thus, there is no right standard of holiness; the Christian is let off easier than the Jew while there is no true "salvation of God" at all. God puts man in a salvable state, that is all; his final salvation is of himself, with God's assistance. As for peace, upon this system none ought to have it, and, indeed, Dr. S. does not say any one ought. "The removal of the wholesome safeguard found in the fear of being morally shipwrecked and cast away, must tend to looseness of living in not a few cases. It is possible that a few might suffer no detriment from embracing such a theory, but they would be exceptions." (p. 96.)

And this is for people in whom no "sin in the flesh" remains, — in whom spirit and soul and body are entirely sanctified. So that along the easy road of the relaxed law the perfect Christian requires to be driven with a scourge of this kind! And these are they — for the absurdity cannot be left incomplete in this strange and incongruous mixture of contradictory things, — in whom perfect love casteth out fear, because fear hath torment!

In fine***, we have neither peace, nor salvation, nor law, nor grace, and certainly not holiness. Such is the really Antinomian law-gospel of Dr. Steele.