Editor’s note: The statements by the antinomian that are in quotation marks are quotations that Wesley selected from a writer who defended the antinomian position. The term antinomian means “one who is against law.” An antinomian denies that the law of God has any relevance to a Christian, alleging that grace frees the believer from any requirement whatsoever, except to believe. In this, they imply that all of the commands of Scripture can be ignored. While there are few, if any, who would call themselves antinomians, the term is frequently used by those who debate them.
ANTINOMIAN. — My friend, I am glad to see you. But I am sorry to hear you have changed your religion.
FRIEND. — Changed my religion! I do not know what you mean.
Ant. — You once believed that we are saved by faith.
Friend. — Yes; and I still do.
Ant. — Do you believe, then, that the “whole work of man’s salvation was accomplished by Jesus Christ on the cross?”
Friend. — I believe that by that one offering, He made a full satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.
Ant. — But do you believe that “Christ’s blood and our sins went away together?”
Friend. — I do not understand what you mean.
Ant. — Did Christ, “when He was upon the cross, take away, put an end to, blot out, and utterly destroy, all our sins forever?”
Friend. — He did pay the price, so that all who truly believe in Him are now saved from their sins; and, if they endure to the end, will be eternally saved. Is this what you mean?
Ant. — I mean, He did then “heal, take away, put an end to, and utterly destroy, all our sins.”
Friend. — Did he heal the wound before it was made, and put an end to our sins before they began? This is so obviously absurd, that I cannot imagine how you can accept it.
Ant. — I thought you would come to your “carnal reasoning.” What has faith to do with reasoning?
Friend. — Do you ever read the Bible? Does not God himself say to sinners, “Come now, and let us reason together?” (Isaiah 1:18). Does not our Lord reason continually with the Scribes and Pharisees; St. Peter with the Jews (Acts 2:14, etc.); and St. Paul both with the Jews and Gentiles? Is not a great part of Paul’s epistles, both to the Romans and to the Galatians, and the largest part of that letter to the Hebrews, one entire chain of reasoning?
Ant. — You may do what you please. But I do not reason, I believe.
Friend. — I both believe and reason, for they are not inconsistent with each other. And I would be as willing to pluck out my eyes to secure my faith, as to lay aside my reason.
Ant. — But do not men continually abuse their reason? Therefore it is best to have nothing to do with it.
Friend. — Now you are doing the very thing you condemn! You are reasoning against reasoning. And no wonder; for it is impossible, without reasoning, either to prove or disprove anything.
Ant. — But can you deny the fact? Do not men continually abuse their reason?
Friend. — They do. But if we must lay aside whatever men abuse continually, we must lay aside the Bible; and meat and drink too.
Ant. — But come to the point. In what do you trust for justification and salvation?
Friend. — Only in the merits of Christ, which are mine if I truly believe that He loved me, and gave himself for me.
Ant. — If! So you make salvation conditional!
Friend. — And you do not? Otherwise, you make God a liar: for His clear words are, “He that believeth shall be saved; he that believeth not shall be damned.” What is this except to say, “If you believe (therefore conditionally), you will be saved?”
Ant. — But I do not like that word, “conditional.”
Friend. — Then find a better one, and we will lay it aside.
Ant. — However, I insist that “nothing else beside faith is required” for justification and salvation.
Friend. — What do you mean that nothing else is required?
Ant. — I mean, “There is but one duty, which is that of believing. One must do nothing but quietly attend the voice of the Lord. The gates of heaven are shut upon workers, and open to believers. If we do nothing for heaven, we do as much as God requires.”
Friend. — Do you really mean that we are to do nothing in order to have present or final salvation, except “only to believe?”
Ant. — Have I not told you so? “To believe certainly, that Christ suffered death for us, is enough; we need no more. We are justified by submitting to accepting the truth of God’s grace in Christ Jesus. It is not necessary that a man do any works, that he may be justified and saved. God does not require you to do anything that you may be saved or justified. The law sets you to work; but the gospel binds you to do nothing at all. Nay, the works are not only not required, but forbidden. God forbids us to work for justification. And when the Apostle Paul presses men to believe, it is as much as if he had bid them not to work.”
Friend. — Let Paul be permitted to answer for himself. In the twenty-sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, he tells how our Lord sent him “to open the eyes of the Gentiles, — that they might receive remission of sins” (vv. 17, 18). “Whereupon,” he says, “I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision; but showed — to the Gentiles, that they should repent, and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance.” Observe: He “obeyed the heavenly vision,” by teaching the Gentiles, before they were justified, before they had “received forgiveness of sins,” to “repent and do works meet for repentance.” So he was hardly “bidding them not to work,” though he was “pressing them to believe.”
Ant. — You have started your “carnal reasoning” again.
Friend. — “Carnal reasoning” seems to be a term that you use when you do not know what else to say. But did St. Paul preach according to the instructions given to him from heaven, or not?
Ant. — Certainly he did; otherwise he would have been “disobedient unto the heavenly vision.”
Friend. — How then can you say that a minister of Christ ought to preach nothing but “Believe, believe?” and that telling men to do anything is “preaching the law?” Do you not condemn, not only the great Apostle, but also Him that sent and commanded him “thus to preach?”
Ant. — Surely you would not want us to be “under the law!”
Friend. — I am afraid you do not know what that expression means. St. Paul uses it three times in his Epistle to the Romans, five times in that to the Galatians, and in one passage of his first Epistle to the Corinthians; where he declares in what sense he was “under the law,” and in what sense he was not. “Unto them that are under the law” (that still adhere to the whole Jewish dispensation), “I became as under the law” (I conformed to their ceremonies), “that I might gain them that are under the law: But unto them that are without the law” (the Gentiles or heathens), “as without the law: Being,” all the while, “not without law to God, but under the law to Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:20, 21). It is clear that the Apostle was “under the law” of Christ, though he was not “under the law” of ceremonies.
Ant. —But does St. Paul not say to the believers at Rome, “Ye are not under the law, but under grace?”
Friend. — He does; and what he means is, “You are not under the Jewish, but the gracious Christian dispensation.” The same also holds in the next verse, where he says, “We are not under the law, but under grace.”
Ant. — But what does he mean, when he says to the Galatians, “Before faith came, we were kept under the law?”
Friend. — Undoubtedly he means that we were kept under the Jewish dispensation until we believed in Christ (3:19). And so we read in the next chapter, “When the fullness of time was come, God sent forth His Son, made under the law” (the Jewish dispensation), “to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (vv. 4, 5); might serve God, without fear, in righteousness and holiness, with a free, loving, child-like spirit.
Ant. — You cannot convince me of this; I know better. The law of works (the “moral law,” as you call it) means nothing to me. “From the demand of the law, no man is obliged to go one step, to give away one farthing, to eat, or omit one morsel. For what did our Lord do with the law? He abolished it.”
Friend. — However, should we not, after we believe in Him, obey all the commandments of Christ?
Ant. — Obey! Law! Works! Commandments! What “legalness is in your spirit!” So, I suppose, “your comforts vanish away when you are not assured that you obey all Christ’s commandments!” On the contrary, “a spiritual man beholds justifying grace in believing, without his obedience to commands for external worship and good works.”
Friend. — But how does this agree with countless texts of Scripture, and, specifically, with our Lord’s own words? “Think not that I am come to destroy” (or abolish) “the law: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, until heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in nowise pass from the law. Whosoever, therefore, shall break one of these least commandments, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17, etc.).
Ant. — I tell you clearly, I will not reason with you.
Friend. — That is as much as to say, “I will not be convinced: I love darkness rather than light.”
Ant. — No; it is you that is in darkness. I was until a few weeks ago. But now my eyes have been opened. I see my liberty now. Now I am free. I was in bondage long enough.
Friend. — What are you free from?
Ant. — From sin, and hell, and the devil, and the law.
Friend. — You put the law of God in good company. But how did you become free from the law?
Ant. — Christ made me free from it.
Friend. — What? From His own law? Please, tell me where that is written!
Ant. — Here, in Galatians 3:13: “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us.”
Friend. — How is this relevant to the question? This tells me that “Christ hath redeemed us” (all believers) “from the curse,” or punishment, that our past violations of God’s law deserve. But it does not say a word about redeeming us from the law, any more than from love or heaven. But what do you mean by bondage?
Ant. — Why, being bound to keep the law.
Friend. — You have not one Scripture for this. Bondage to fear and bondage to sin are mentioned there; and bondage to the ceremonial law of Moses. Why, according to your sense of the word, all the angels in heaven are in bondage!
Ant. — Well, I am not bound. St. Paul himself says to believers, “Why are ye subject to ordinances?” (Colossians 2:20).
Friend. — True; that is to say, “Why are you Christian believers subject to Jewish ordinances?” He mentions a few of these in the very next verse, “Touch not, taste not, handle not.”
Ant. — No, that is not all. I say, “Outward things do nothing avail to salvation.” This is clear; for “if love to God, and love to our neighbor, and relieving the poor, are completely unprofitable either for justification or salvation; then these outward works, submitting to outward ordinances, are much less valuable.”
Friend. — Are you speaking of the ordinances of Christ?
Ant. — I am. “They bring in the most dangerous kind of Popery, and pervert the pure gospel of Christ, who persuade men, that if they do not submit to the ordinances of the Lord Jesus, He will not confess them before His Father.” So I affirm, “It is better not to practice outward ordinances at all, than to practice them on these gospel-destroying principles, to the ruining of our souls.”
Friend. — What Scripture do you produce for this?
Ant. — I wish you would not build your case so much upon the letter and rather talk of inherent righteousness.
Friend. — Then do you say that a believer has no inherent righteousness?
Ant. — I do. I say, “God will save us to the utmost, without any righteousness or holiness of our own.” To look for inherent righteousness, “is to deny the Spirit, and trample under foot the blood of the covenant. Believers have no inherent righteousness in them. Our righteousness is nothing but the imputation of the righteousness of Christ.”
Friend. — I believe that Christ, by His Spirit, works righteousness in all those to whom faith is imputed for righteousness.
Ant. — “By no means; all our righteousness is in Christ. It is wholly imputed, not inherent. We are always righteous in Christ, but never righteous in ourselves.”
Friend. — Is not, then, every believer righteous or holy?
Ant. — Undoubtedly; but he is holy in Christ, not in himself.
Friend. — Does he not live a holy life; and is he not holy in heart?
Ant. — Most certainly.
Friend. — Is he not then holy in himself?
Ant. — No, no, in Christ only. He has no holiness in himself at all.
Friend. — Does he not have love for God and for his neighbor in him; even the entire image of God?
Ant. — He has. But this is not gospel holiness.
Friend. — What useless noise this is! You dispute the name, all the while agreeing with the thing I contend for. You agree that a believer is holy both in heart and life. This is all I mean by inherent righteousness or holiness.
Ant. — But I tell you, this is not gospel holiness. Gospel holiness is faith.
Friend. — If you stand for this, you still lose your whole argument. For, based on your supposition, I reason: faith is holiness or righteousness; but faith is in every believer: therefore, holiness or righteousness is in every believer.
Ant. — I pity you. Take my word for it, you are in complete darkness. You know nothing of true faith; nothing at all.
Friend. — Will you then be so kind as to explain it to me?
Ant. — I will make it as clear as the sun. I will show you the heart of that doctrine which “I recommend, with all my heart, to all, as the most wholesome doctrine of Jesus Christ.”
“Many think they know it, when they have but crude, carnal, indigested notions of it. And they imagine we rest contented with such a faith as theirs; that Christ has died to ward off the wrath of God, to purchase His favor, and, as an effect of that, to obtain certain inherent qualities and dispositions, to make us fit for the kingdom of heaven. If this were our faith, it would be necessary to seek after this sort of sanctification, and not to be at rest unless we felt something of it. But, on the contrary, we believe that the blood shed upon the cross has put away and blotted out all our sins, and that then there was an everlasting righteousness brought in. By believing this, our hearts and consciences are made as perfectly clean as though we had never sinned. In this consists true purity of soul, and not in habitual qualities. And whoever are thus made pure and perfect are delivered from the dominion of sin. They do also bear forth the fruits of righteousness, not in order to become more holy, but because they are perfectly holy, through faith. It is true, we have still the vile, sinful body, which continually disposes the mind to evil. But the blood of Jesus makes us free from sin.”
Friend. — Of all the explanations I have heard, this is the most “crude and indigested.” But let us go over it step by step. You first described what you consider a false faith, that is, “A faith that Christ has died, to ward off” (or satisfy) “the wrath of God, and to purchase His favor;” (by example, for me, a lost sinner) “and as an effect of that,” (of God’s favor purchased with the blood of Christ) “to obtain” for me “certain inherent qualities and dispositions, to make me fit for the kingdom of heaven.” Now, how do you prove this is a false faith?
Ant. — Easily enough; for men “are obliged to support it by reasons, feelings, and works.”
Friend. — And did not you agree, just now, that whoever has true faith is “holy both in heart and life?” That he has “love for God and for his neighbor; even the entire image of God” in him?
Ant. — I did. What about it?
Friend. — Then you have contradicted yourself: For you have agreed that true faith cannot be supported, or even exist for a moment, without “certain inherent qualities and dispositions” (love for God and for all mankind), “which make us fit for the kingdom of heaven.” You have agreed that true faith cannot exist without a holy heart, a continuance in good works, and a sense of God’s love for me, a sinner.
Ant. — I hear you. Go on.
Friend. — You said next, “If this were our faith, it would be necessary to seek after this sort of sanctification.” From your own words it appears that this is your faith, if you have any true faith at all. You must then “seek after this sort of sanctification,” love for God and for your neighbor. For if you can be “at rest” without it, it is clear that your heart is not clean, but rather hardened.
Ant. — You can say what you please. You do not know any better.
Friend. — You went on: “On the contrary, we believe that the blood shed upon the cross has put away and blotted out all our sins.” Who believes otherwise? If you mean only that Christ did away with the punishment of all the sins of those who believe in Him; I ask, who is to be corrected by this line of argument?
Ant. — It corrects you, who deny that “an everlasting righteousness was then brought in.”
Friend. — I deny it no more than you understand it. But I ask, in what sense was it “brought in?” What was it brought into? Was it first brought into the world? You cannot say this without saying that all who departed from the world before that time were lost. Or was it brought into the souls of believers? Then believers have an inward or inherent righteousness. You had better, therefore, leave this text alone. It will do nothing to help your cause.
Ant. — I see that you are still as blind as a beetle. I am afraid your head knowledge will destroy you. Did not I tell you, “Our hearts and consciences are made perfectly clean by our believing; and that in this consists true purity of soul, and not in habitual qualities? Thus we are made perfectly holy.” And though “the vile, sinful body continually disposes the mind to evil,” yet “the blood of Christ makes us free from sin.”
Friend. — How can my mind be “continually disposed to evil,” and “free from sin, perfectly clean, perfectly holy,” all at the same time?”
Ant. — The dullness of some men! I do not mean actually holy, but holy by imputation. I told you clearly, the holiness of which we speak is not in us, but in Christ. “The fruits of the Spirit, (commonly called sanctification) such as love, gentleness, longsuffering, goodness, meekness, self-control, neither make us holy before God, nor in our own consciences.”
Friend. — I know that these cannot atone for sin. This is done only by the blood of Christ; for the sake of which, God forgives, and works these qualities in us by faith. Do I understand you now?
Ant. — No, no; I am amazed at your ignorance. I mean, “we are not made good or holy by any inward qualities or dispositions: But being made pure and holy in our consciences, by believing in Christ, we bear forth, inwardly and outwardly, the fruits of holiness.” Now, I hope, you understand me.
Friend. — You say, “We are not made good or holy by any inward qualities or dispositions.” But are we not made good by inward goodness (remember, we are not speaking of justification, but sanctification); holy, by inward holiness; meek, by inward meekness; gentle, by inward gentleness? And are all of these not “inward qualities or dispositions?”
Ant. — You still do not grasp my meaning. I mean that these inward dispositions “are not our holiness. For we are not more holy, if we have more love to God and man, nor less holy, if we have less.”
Friend. — Does a believer not increase in holiness, as he increases in love for God and man?
Ant. — No. “The very moment he is justified, he is wholly sanctified. And he is neither more nor less holy, from that hour, to the day of his death. Entire justification and entire sanctification are in the same instant. And neither of them is thenceforth capable either of increase or decrease.”
Friend. — I thought we were to grow in grace!
Ant. — “We are so; but not in holiness. The moment we are justified, we are as pure in heart as ever we shall be. A newborn babe is as pure in heart as a father in Christ. There is no difference.”
Friend. — It serves your purpose well to ignore Scripture and reason. For until a man abandons both, he can never swallow this. You are acting as if you had found the most important truths, the likes of which no one ever knew before. All that is truly remarkable in your doctrine is this heap of broad absurdities, in which you almost always contradict yourselves, as well as Scripture and common sense. In the meantime, you boast as if “ye were the men, and wisdom should die with you.” I pray that God will “humble you, and examine you, and show you what is in your hearts!”
This excerpt from John Wesley, edited for conciseness and readability, was originally published in A Timeless Faith: John Wesley for the 21st Century by Stephen Gibson.