Another dispensational straw man that critics love to set up so that they can knock down is the charge that dispensationalism is antinomian. Antinomian means without or against law. Those who set up this straw man charge that it is is not necessary for Christians to obey the so-called moral law of the Old Testament. Antinomianism is often equated with completely lawless behavior. One theologian has charged Christians with just this sort of antinomianism. He writes that “Antinomianism is a prevailing modern heresy. That everyone should have a right to ‘do their own thing’ seems to be the dogma of the day…Antinomianism is the spiritual air we breathe.”1 Another simply calls antinomianism a license to sin.
The late John Gerstner leveled this charge against dispensationalism. He asserted that dispensationalism is “committed to the non-negotiable doctrine of Antinomianism.”2 He also said that dispensationalism teaches that “converted Christian persons can (not may) live in sin throughout their post-conversion lives with no threat to their eternal destiny.”3 In other words, Gerstner was charging that dispensationalists and dispensationalism separates salvation from sanctification. But are these charges true? Let’s address each one. First, do dispensationalists teach that salvation is unrelated to sanctification?
Consider dispensationalist Lewis Sperry Chafer who writes,”…fruit depicts the normal expression of a genuine regeneration—a reasonable test of that regeneration. It will be remembered, however, that there is such a condition possible as a Christian who, for a time, may be out of fellowship with Christ. In such a state there will be no fruit borne. Such a situation is exceptional rather than normal when the test of salvation by its fruits is made. Both lines of truth—that salvation is to be tested by its fruits, and that a believer may be for a time out of fellowship with his Lord—are abundantly sustained in the text of the New Testament.4” Chafer’s point is that salvation and sanctification are inextricably linked. The norm is that true salvation is proven by its fruits. While conceding that the believer may for a time be fruitless, the normal situation is that true salvation leads to sanctification which is apparent through its fruits.
Similarly, Donald G. Barnhouse wrote “Justification and sanctification are as inseparable as a torso and a head. You can’t have one without the other.”5 Likewise, Alva McClain asserted that “Justification cannot be separated from sanctification”.6
So, to the first charge that dispensationalists teach that a person may be saved without being sanctified, we can say no. Certainly there are some dispensationalists who hold this view. However the leading and seminal dispensationalists of the past most clearly did not believe this.
The second charge, that dispensationalism is inherently antinomian also fails. Those who make this charge claim that since dispensationalism teaches that the law is done away with in Jesus this means that it inevitably and of necessity leads to antinomianism. Yet, it is not only dispensationalism that teaches that the Christian today is not under the Mosaic Law. The historic, non-dispensational, confessions of faith agree that the Mosaic Law does not apply to the church.7 So that fact that so many dispensationalists and non-dispensationalists agree on this means that such a view is not unique to dispensationalism.
This does not mean that the Christian today is not under any law. To again quote Chafer,
It is unfortunate that the theological discussion which has proceeded on the supposition that a Christian must either be under the law of Moses, or else be absolutely lawless and ungoverned, could not have made place for the fact that there is a third ground of relationship to God which is neither the law of Moses, nor the ungoverned lawlessness of the world. To be “inlawed to Christ” is to be under the teachings of grace as a rule of life. These teachings include the “commandments” of Christ which are addressed to Christians as such in the upper room, and these “commandments” of Christ have been taken up, enlarged, and advanced, under the guidance of the Spirit in the book of the Acts and the Epistles of the New Testament. They constitute a separate and sufficient rule of life for the believer which is divinely adapted to his position in grace.…8
Similarly Hart writes, “it can be maintained that the New Testament believer is under the law of Christ instead of the law of Moses9.” After all Jesus’ charge to the apostles was that they go into the world and make disciples of all nations by baptizing and “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Mt. 28:20) So also Paul urged the Galatians to “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal. 6:2)
So, to the second charge that dispensationalism inevitably leads to antinomianism, we can also say no. Dispensationalism and historic expressions of theological conviction agree that the Mosaic Law is no longer the rule of life for the Christian. Yet this does not mean that there is no rule of life for the Christian. The law of Christ is God’s final and complete revelation of God’s will for man.
In light of all the evidence to the contrary, non-dispensationalists continue to malign and disparage dispensational teachers and theology. This can only mean that they choose to be uninformed or that they are disingenuous in their criticism. How much more productive would it be if we put our energy into discussing genuine differences than to keep erecting and destroying straw men?
1 Gerhard O. Forde, “Fake Theology: Reflections on Antinomianism Past and Present,” Dialog 22 (1983): 246.
2 Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth, v.
4 Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1993), 297.
5 Donald G. Barnhouse, Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961), 3:10–12..
6 Alva J. McClain, Romans: The Gospel of God’s Grace (Winona Lake, IN: BMH, 1973), 141.
7 Numerous historic confessions of faith agree on this point. Consider for example The French Confession of Faith (1559), Art. 23; The Belgic Confession (1561), Art. 25; The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (1563), Art. 7; The Second Helvetic Confession (1566), Art. 12; The Irish Articles of Religion (1615), Art. 84; The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), Chapters 3–4; Methodist Articles of Religion (1784), Art. 6; Reformed Episcopal Articles of Religion (1875), Art. 6.
8 Lewis Sperry Chafer, Grace: The Glorious Theme (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1922), 100–101.
9 John F. Hart, “Released from the Law for Sanctification: A Dispensational Perspective on Romans 7:6,” in Dispensationalism Tomorrow & Beyond: A Theological Collection in Honor of Charles C. Ryrie, ed. Christopher Cone (Ft. Worth, TX: Tyndale Seminary Press, 2008), 407.