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'All you need is love'—Does Antinomian Controversy ride again?

by Gary R. Jepsen (Pastor of Pilgrim Lutheran Church, Puyallup, Wash.)

Date Unknown

Pastor Gary Jepsen


photo of Pr. JepsenSome weeks ago my wife and I were invited to have dinner with a group of retired ELCA Pastors and their spouses. The dinner conversation eventually drifted to the homosexuality issue facing the ELCA. We talked about our ordination vows and the commitment we pledged to the Confessions and to the Scriptures as the norm for the faith and life of the church. We talked about our call to proclaim faithfully the gospel. It was then that one of the retired pastors said something to the effect, “But what is the gospel, really, except the message of ‘unconditional love’?” While granting that God’s love is central to our proclamation (John 3:16), I said I wasn’t comfortable reducing the gospel to “unconditional love”. Still, his comment stayed with me long after the evening was over.

In reflecting on that evening, I searched for a word to help me understand why I was so uncomfortable with that conversation and the attitudes being expressed. The word that came to mind was ‘antinomianism.’ Might it be said, I wondered, “the Antinomian Controversy rides again”?

I. Background material

To refresh the reader’s memory, the Antinomian Controversy is a name given by Reformation scholars to refer to the disagreement that arose between Luther and Johannes Agricola. In fact, the word “antinomian” was first coined by Luther to refer to Agricola and his followers.[1]

The word “antinomianism” comes from two Greek words:

  1. anti (anti) – meaning “instead of” or “opposite” and, in more modern times, it has the connotation of “against.”
  2. nomoV(nomos) – meaning, “law”, “rule” or “standard”. In some cases it was used as a translation for the Hebrew word for religious law and tradition (Ro. 3:20). It carries the sense of “a rule of life or of moral conduct.”

Although Agricola was not a libertine, antinomians like him were known to place an inordinate emphasis on “love”.[2] Law was seen by Agricola as hostile to grace, love and faith. F.Bente, in Historical Introductions to the Book of Concord (pp.161-169), writes: “‘Antinomianism’ means ‘opposition to the Law.’ Those who hold it think that the Gospel only and not the Law should be proclaimed.”

Some of the earliest forms of Christian antinomianism go back to NT times – the various Gnostic heresies, which at the time plagued the early church. The goal of Gnosticism, whether by extreme asceticism or hedonistic indulgence, was to come to true spiritual knowledge (gnosis) – an enlightenment superior to that of ordinary persons, which would put one beyond the need for law.

II. Antinomianism and scripture

Although the word “antinomian” is not to be found in the New Testament, another similar word, namely, anomos (anomoV, an adjective meaning “lawless” or “without law”, and its noun form, occurs over 20 times. A few examples are:

  • In Romans 6:19, Paul speaks of those who had yielded themselves to “iniquity”(anomia),
  • In Matthew 7:20-23, Jesus says to those who are ultimately rejected, “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.” (RSV) The Greek word here translated “evildoers” is “anomia”, otherwise translated “ye that work iniquity” (KJV) or “you who practice lawlessness.” (NKJV)
  • The same analysis would apply to Matthew 13:41 where Jesus says “The Son of man will send His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers” (anomia - RSV).

Thus, although the word “antinomian” per se does not appear in the NT, the word “anomia” appears frequently and its meaning is very similar to antinomianism. However, even more significant is the fact that “anomia” – lawlessness – is never referred to favorably in the New Testament and is in fact almost always condemned.

III. Some applications

From the perspective of Luther, antinomianism arose out of an inadequate reading of the gospels. It was seen as a reading of scripture that missed the Law-Gospel tension, which was so essential to Luther’s thought, because it focused only on a watered down sense of the gospel. For example, consider such passages as in Matt.22 where Jesus teaches that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart soul, mind and strength and out neighbor as ourselves. (Matt.2:37-39)

And then, of course, there is Romans 13:10 where the Apostle Paul writes, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.“ (emphasis mine-GRJ)

These are great passages! However they do not represent a full reading of the Gospels. For example, if one were to take passages like these in isolation, one might easily get the impression that love is all that is necessary. Like the Beatles of old we could all just sit around crooning, "All you need is love," and be done with it.[3]

However, there are numerous problems with such a reduction of the gospel message, several of which are that…

  1. love becomes fuzzy and sentimental having no real point of reference other than what the individual feels is right at the time,
  2. feelings, such as feelings of love, are wonderful, but they are at best fickle and are easily manipulated by ego, sin and evil.
  3. any real sense of brokenness, sin and evil is lost,
  4. and thus there would be very little awareness of need for repentance, healing, redemption and salvation.

Similarly, Luther’s teaching that the Christian is “at the same time saint and sinner” is lost. Likewise, the understanding that we as sinners constantly need confession, repentance, forgiveness and salvation would also be lost. James Nestingen summarizes as follows:

In the fifth Antinomian Disputation (theses 40 and 41), Luther argues from two poles: first, ‘insofar as Christ is raised in us, so far are we without the law, sin, and death’; second, ‘insofar as he truly is not yet raised in us, so far are we under the law, sin, and death.'[4]

For Luther (and St. Paul, Rom.7:19-24), in this life, we are still under sin.

And so, the real tragedy of antinomianism is that the gospel is ultimately lost. Without a profound sense for “sin, death and the power of the devil”, from what does Christ save us? It is little wonder, therefore, that Luther’s reaction to antinomianism, with its rejection of the law, was sharp and unyielding. The gospel, in Luther’s eyes, was in danger. “If we cast the Law aside,” Luther said, “we shall not long retain Christ.”[5]

IV. Antinomianism and Lutheranism

Thus, it is an interesting twist that Lutherans have often been accused of being antinomian, probably due to their heavy emphasis on the Pauline doctrine of “justification by grace apart from works of the law.” (Ro.3:28) Luther himself was puzzled by this accusation. He wrote:

It is most surprising to me that anyone can claim that I reject the law or the Ten Commandments, since there is available, in more than one edition, my exposition of the Ten Commandments…[6]

Nevertheless, the accusation persists. And its potential validity is intensified by the fact that Lutherans, who fail to grasp Luther’s carefully nuanced understanding of Law, often tend to fall into one of two errors: legalism or antinomianism.

Regarding the latter, an ELCA study, Living the Faith: A Lutheran Perspective on Ethics, describes the phenomenon as follows:

Because of an over concern with legalism and works righteousness, and a failure to see the necessary use of the Law in the Christian life, Lutheran ethics has lost its moral substance. For all practical purposes, some say, all we have left is a vague commandment to love others that can be filled with whatever content we want. The end result, says Lutheran theologian Reinhard Hutter, is a ‘Protestant-lite’ version of ethics that fails the Christian community with its lack of moral direction … 'As a result, the argument goes, we are easily seduced by the over-emphasis on individualism in our society that sees freedom as a ‘freedom from’ the Law.'[7]

Granted that the ELCA study, “Living the Faith…” is here simply describing one side of the debate over Lutheran ethical deliberation, nevertheless, the potential critique is devastating!

V - A: Antinomianism and 'Journey Together Faithfully Part Two'

“… there is nothing new under the sun.” (Eccl.1:9). Ecclesiastes is undoubtedly true. However, the controversies that confront the church today, such as antinomianism, seldom come in exactly the same packaging as they might have in the past. Thus, with each new challenge, they need to be re-identified and thought through anew.

So, the question that is before us is: has the ELCA study process via “Journey Together Faithfully” and its “Report” become for the ELCA what Agricola was for Luther—a new carrier, so to speak, of “the antinomian virus”?

Unless one is by nature a “rebel without a cause,” it is doubtful that anyone intentionally sets out to be antinomian or a heretic. However, what can happen in heresies is that someone comes up with a valid insight (e.g., Agricola was right in saying “love” is central to the gospel) which when coupled with ego (e.g., the desire to be clever and ingenious in applying the insight), leads to a distortion or even perversion of truth.

When an insight into the truth is exaggeratedly represented as the whole truth, truth itself is distorted and perverted!

V. - B

As the introductory anecdote indicated, in some quarters the truth of the gospel has been reduced to mere “love.” As was indicated earlier, when that happens, love is thereby elevated to a prominence beyond its due and without any clear context or point of reference (much like what happened with antinomianism in the past). “Living the Faith…” puts it this way, “all we have left is a vague commandment to love others that can be filled with whatever content we want.”[8]

But in addition to “love,” other words have joined the antinomian mantra, words like “unity,” “tolerance,” and the phrase, “God is doing something new.” Space will not allow us to examine each of these words or phrases, but consider the following from Journey Together Faithfully, Part Two: “Regardless of our different sexual orientations or views about sexual orientation and sexual conduct, our unity comes from Christ and his gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation.”[9] (emphasis added)

Sounds great but how do we do that? On the surface, who could argue with the desire to be one as Christians? Who would want to stand against Jesus prayer in John 17(vv.11 and 22)? And, who in theory could be against the notion of the church being united in mission? Nevertheless, similar to our earlier concerns about the misuse of “love” and “unity”—as used in Journey Together Faithfully and its “Report” is:

  1. without focus or a point of reference,
  2. and an insight into the gospel that is blown out of proportion and morphed into the whole gospel.

Beyond that, one wonders how we are to find unity in Christ and mission when we go against the very Order of Creation that Jesus so plainly upheld. Jesus clearly affirmed God’s order of creation when He asked, “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female…?” He was thereby affirming the order of creation. So, how do we have unity in any real sense when some take His pronouncement seriously and others explain it away?

In John 8, a woman who had been caught in adultery was brought to Jesus. But notice, Jesus did not say, “Hey, it’s no big deal. Love God and do what you want.” No, He said, “Go, and sin no more” (Jn.8:2-11). In fact, throughout the Gospels, Jesus did not lessen God’s demand for sexual morality, or any other kind of morality, He intensified it saying, “You have heard that it was said… But I say to you…” (Matt.5:27f.).

So, the point is, one is hard pressed to conceive of what possible unity we might have in Christ when there are such radically different interpretations of scripture. What unity might there be when one side takes Jesus’ clear teaching seriously and the other cannot conceive that God might say “no” to anything they might want to do in the name of “love” or “unity” as they understand the terms? What kind of unity is there when there is no clear consensus (due to modern interpretive methods) as to who Jesus actually is and what He saves us from? And, how can there be unity without common convictions (except for a unity so “vague … we can fill it with whatever content we want”)?

A similar analysis might be offered with regard to what it means to speak of “tolerance.” Do we tolerate what scripture regards as intolerable? And how do we deal with the assertion “God is doing a new thing” (Isa.43:19)? Does Isaiah in context mean God is going against the very order He has established in creation or that He is going to re-establish that order? In short, is God a God of order or of confusion (1Cor.14:33)?

However, due to space constraints we must forego further analysis.

VI. Concluding thought

Ken Myers has written that, “…part of the mission of the Holy Spirit through the Church is, as Jesus says in John 16, to tell the World that it is wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.”

However, Myers continues, there are also those in the church "… who reject the historic Christian teaching and who seem to believe that the World, as represented by its most self-consciously progressive institutions and thinkers, is ahead of the Church in ushering in the Kingdom of God, indeed that the World is right in telling the Church that it is wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.”[10]

If Myers’ assessment is at all accurate, then there is in the church a clash of perceptions and, with such a clash, it is little wonder that, as Robert Jenson put it, we are serving in a church that has lost its story.[11]

For my part, it seems that antinomianism in the tradition of Johannes Agricola, who was at best well-intentioned but misguided, and at worst was driven by ego desire in order to be perceived as clever, rides again. In fact, the revisionists who stand behind Journey Together Faitfully and its Report might be seen to stand solidly in the tradition of Agricola. If so, that does not bode well for the ELCA.

[1] The History of Antinomianism - Kevin Hartley -, p.1

[2] ELCA congregational study titled: “Living the Faith: A Lutheran Perspective on Ethics” – Session 4: “The Law that Guides the Believer,” p.2. Available at: or

[3] That essentially was the problem with Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics (1966) in which he “was driven by a passion to get rid of legalism in church and society. He taught a radical love ethic in which love (agape) is the only absolute.” Quoted in the ELCA position paper “Living the Faith” noted above, p.3. “Living the Faith” concludes, “Situation ethics may sound appealing, but it fails to appreciate the role of the Law in serving the common good. It attempts to reduce the rich tapestry of moral responsibility and accountability of justice and obligation, to one concept of love.”

[4] James Arne Nestingen, “Luther in Front of the Text: The Genesis Commentary”, Word & World 14/2, 1994, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN, p.188.

[5] See “On the Third Use of the Law: Luther’s Position in the Antinomian Debate” (FC VI) by Armin W. Schuetze, Luther quote from LW, 22, p. 146.

[6] LW 49, p.107.

[7] Ibid, #3, p.2.

[8] Ibid, #3.

[9] See ELCA study, Journey Together Faithfully”, p.7. And, consider the following from the sexuality Task Force Report: “…the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality recommends that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America concentrate on finding ways to live together faithfully in the midst of our disagreements.” p.5.

[10] Ken Myers:  “Same-Sex Marriage in Cultural Perspective” This text served as the introduction to an interview with Dr. Robert Gagnon on Volume 68 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, and in the Conversation, “Texts, Sex, and Sanctity,” produced by MARS HILL AUDIO.

[11] Robert W. Jenson, “How the World Lost Its Story,” First Things 36 (October 1993) 19ff as noted by Nestingen, op.cit., p.186.