I’m Broken and I Can’t Get Up: On Martin Luther and “Mild Antinomianism”

I just listened to this fun 9Marks interview on Christian freedom with Mark Dever, Carl Trueman, Mike McKinley, and Andy Johnson. In the course of the sprawling discussion, Trueman raised the issue of Luther’s understanding of the gospel and spoke against modern “antinomianism.” It’s clear that Trueman believes that we misappropriate Luther if we read him as indicating that Christians, once saved, are virtually powerless to change and grow.

I agree with Trueman on this point, both exegetically and historically. I came across this little section in Luther’s “Lectures on Galatians” that speaks to the importance of vibrant piety. It encouraged me:

When I have this righteousness within me, I descend from heaven like the rain that makes the earth fertile. That is, I come forth into another kingdom, and I perform good works whenever the opportunity arises. If I am a minister of the Word, I preach, I comfort the sad, I administer the sacraments. If I am a father, I rule my household and family, I train my children in piety and honesty. If I am a magistrate, I perform the office which I have received by divine command. If I am a servant, I faithfully tend to my master’s affairs. In short, those who know for sure that Christ is their righteousness not only cheerfully and gladly work in their calling. They also submit themselves for the sake of love to magistrates” (Lull, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 23).

This section does not tie up every issue, but it does show us that Luther did not believe that all a Christian could do each day was tremblingly seize upon the rope of grace and be lifted out of the pit. Instead, saving grace–justifying faith–enfranchised and enlivened the Christian to “perform good works.”

Our “big grace” movement gets the primacy of God’s forgiving love gloriously right. It is tending, however, in a mildly antinomian direction. The narrative I’m seeing in numerous places is this: “I’m broken and sinful, and I’m not really able to make a lot of progress as a Christian. But God’s grace is awesome, and it covers me.” This is not entirely wrong. It’s true to a degree. We are all sinful as Christians, and we do need God’s daily grace for our sins.

But I’m hearing a fair bit of defeatism among younger Christians, defeatism that may also bleed into spiritual laxness. Grace is big, and our fundamental reality as believers, yes. But we are saved to grow. The gospel is super-charged. It transforms us (Romans 12:1-2). Paul’s expectation was that his Roman audience, for example, really would grow in conformity to Christ and not the world. He really did believe that the Colossian church would “put off” sin and “put on” righteousness (Colossians 3:1-11). He really did expect that Peter would stop excluding the Gentiles from fellowship with the Jews (Galatians 2:11-21). In none of these–and many other–instances did he and his fellow apostles let fellow believers off the hook for sin, or excuse them for their behavior with the reminder of soft, lullabyesque, pillowy grace that never exhorted and only back-patted.

Grace is active in Scripture. The gospel is made for work. Faith is given for transformation. Let’s say that we recognize this, and set out, in line with Luther’s stirring words, to grow in godliness. Let’s say that we falter in this pursuit. The biblical witness compels us not to feel really sorry for ourselves, excuse our weakness, and give up on discipline in the name of “big grace.” The biblical witness offers us forgiveness, and it impels us to renew our efforts to mature and grow in the power of the Spirit.

Watch out for mild antinomianism. It creeps in where believers cease to graciously challenge one another and only soothe one another. It pops up whenever a parent excuses inattentiveness to their children by lamenting their inability to change. It advances when a wife confronts a husband about a sin, and he blames circumstances or even his “sinful side” ¬†instead of repenting, asking forgiveness, and pursuing holiness in a practical way. It wins a small victory when we swear, or watch filthy, raunchy media that has no place in our homes, or make sexual jokes that dishonor Christ, and laugh it all off, because we’re not “fundies,” but “big grace” people.

We live in glorious freedom. We really and truly are not condemned by the law, and we will never will be. Mighty waters of healing and comfort flow from these words, showers from heaven as Luther put it. But we are to “perform good works” as free Christians. We are freed not to sin, or even to coast, but to serve the Lord, the church, and our neighbor (Romans 6:1, which needs to printed on banners and placed in churches across the globe).

Mild antinomianism seems liberating, but in the end, it leaves us trapped where we are, sinning and then excusing it and then sinning and then excusing it and so it goes. There is a better way: gospel transformation. It’s all over the Bible, and it’s coming soon to a godly believer near you.