Nomianism: A Pastoral Problem
It’s a Smackdown
From time to time Dr. William Stanway would begin his discussion of a motion before Grace Presbytery with a story about a member of the Mississippi legislature speaking to his constituents about a proposed squirrel hunting law. The legislator would say, “Some of my friends are for this law; some of my friends are against this law; and I just want you to know that I’m for my friends.” Sometimes I find myself in a like spot when it comes to the current discussions about grace and obedience.
In the one corner are the grace boys such as Steve Brown, Tullian Tchividjian, faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary in California, Michael Horton and Scott Clark pre-eminent among them, and, so it seems to me, the late Jack Miller, father of the Sonship theology and movement. I am not sure these folks could really form a tag team for wrestling. They might end up wrestling each other before they engaged the team in the other corner, but we’ll leave them in the same corner for our purposes.
In the other corner are the obedience boys such as Richard Phillips, Bill Evans, David Murray, and maybe my token Dutch friend, Ken Pierce who finds his Tourette’s kicking in so that the involuntarily shouts, “Grand Rapids!” whenever he hears, “Mike Horton.”
As they look across the ring, the law team begin to trash talk their opponents:
Of course, being theologians, they can’t leave it at short epithets. They need to say more before they get to the center of ring and employ their take-down arguments. So they shout:
“You deny the third use the the law. Don’t you know that the law is the believer’s friend to lead him into a life pleasing to God?”
“You don’t realize that grace is not just forgiveness of sins but transformation of life!”
“Don’t you know that salvation is not just from the penalty of sin but also from its power?”
“You put so much emphasis on justification by faith that you forget that faith unites us to Christ in the power of his death and resurrection so we die to sin and live a new life.”
“There is no faith without the new birth, and the new birth not only enables faith but renews the whole person and leads to a changed life.”
“Even Luther (who was wrong about so much!) said that we are saved by faith alone but not by a faith that is alone. Faith inevitably produces good works.”
“Grace doesn’t only justify; it sanctifies!”
“Gospel indicatives can’t be detached from gospel imperatives!”
Over the course of most of my life and ministry I have been in the Obedience Boys’ corner. In several respects I still am. I never bought into Sonship, and I have similar misgivings about Tullian. (I think Sonship tends to be more subjective, Tullianism more objective; Sonship more about feeling, Tullianism more about position.) But, I am no longer so at home in the Obedience Boys’ corner as I once was.
I find that Nomianism, or the emphasis on obedience to the Law as proof of the reality of saving faith or the faith that receives the saving benefits Christ’s work, creates pastoral problems that are not easy to resolve.
A teenage boy, who feels utterly defeated and embarrassed, gets up the courage to talk to his pastor and confesses that he feels enslaved to lustful fantasies and masturbation. He believes in Jesus as his Savior; he thinks he wants to please Jesus. Sometimes he thinks he is free, but sin’s grip gets hold of him again and again; the thoughts come, sometimes uninvited, sometimes invited; the desires demand satisfaction. It seems he can’t stop. Is he not a Christian after all? Or what?
When he can look up, he tries to read the pastor’s face. Is there shock? Disappointment? Disdain? Can the pastor help?
A middle-age housewife and empty-nester, who is feeling hopeless and ashamed, finally is desperate enough that she goes to her pastor and confesses that she drinks too often and too much. She doesn’t drink every day. She has resolved sometimes to drink less, other times to drink not at all. She goes days or weeks drinking moderately if at all. But, then she feels empty, or depressed, or hurt, and she has a glass of wine, then two, and then her husband comes home to find her tipsy. She trusts in Jesus as best she knows, but she doesn’t know what to do.
Through her tears, she, too, looks at her pastor’s face. What does he think of her now? Has he lost all respect? What will he do with what she has told him? Will he offer a quick prayer and hurry her out? What does he feel? Pity? Anger? Is he done with her?
Perhaps it says something about our whole view of sin, its reality and its power, that, while those two stories are within the experience of almost any approachable minister, it is much less likely that he has been approached by those who feel overwhelmed by pride in good looks, or gossip about friends, or driving ambition, or love of money, or self-righteous judgmentalism, or of football team idolatry.
But we do get the stories of bodily sin.
What’s a pastor to do?
Some pastors will not understand, such problems being outside their personal experience, perhaps ever, or at least not since they came to faith. Others will find themselves profoundly uncomfortable and one way or another, consciously or not, practice avoidance. Others will punt, sending the person to counseling or treatment.
But what of those ministers who will say or do something? The problems presented by the two parishioners are repetitive and chronic. Yet the person claims to believe. The person is not happy in sin, but still sins. What to think? What to do?
Is the person a true believer? Maybe the pastor will give the benefit doubt the first time around. Maybe the second. But, when the person returns with a new story of defeat, and then another, or when word reaches the pastor of the person’s continuing falls, then what?
There comes a point at which obedience boys are going to say something along these lines: “Perhaps you’re not a believer.”
Parishioner: “But I believe.”
Minster: “Well, maybe you need to read the Bible more and pray more.”
Parishioner: “I’ve tried that, and sometimes I keep going for awhile, but to tell you the truth, I have trouble sustaining it, and it doesn’t seem to help much.”
Minister: “Well, you seem to be a slave to sin, and you don’t seem to delight in the things of God. You do not appear to have the fruits of faith, the results of regeneration, the effects of union with Christ.”
Parishioner: “I don’t know what to do. What should I do?”
Minister: “Repent of your sins. Believe in Christ.”
Parishioner: “I don’t know what to do that I haven’t. I thought I did believe in him. I know I have no hope of eternal salvation without him. But still I sin”
Minister: “I don’t know what else to tell you. Just keep asking, pleading.”
Parishioner: “Ask what?”
Minister: “Ask God to give you the new birth. Ask him to regenerate you. Ask him to show you your sin and lostness. Throw yourself on his mercy.”
And that’s it, except for, “Let me pray for you before you leave.”
The minister prays, and, as the parishioner leaves, the minister says, “Here, let me give you a few of things to read,” and hands the parishioner copies of Alarm to the Unconverted, The Almost Christian Discovered, and The Distinguishing Traits of Christian Character.
There is a recipe for utter despair.
And that is why, in addition to the ones who come to us for help, there are many who hide and would not dare come. They play along. They lay low. When asked, “How are you doing?” they reply, “Fine,” and change the subject. They know that, if you knew, you wouldn’t really want to know, and that, if they told you, you would be at a loss.
They never tell us that the good they would do, they don’t, that the evil they would not do, they do, that they are carnal, sold under sin. If they release in our hearing the cry of their souls, “Wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from the body of this death?”, it is unlikely they will hear, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.”