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“A good sermon should skate right up to the edge of heresy. Make your point to the extreme. You’ll have other sermons to pull in the other direction. Dare to go out on the thin ice. You’ll hear some cracks and groans. Just don’t fall through.”

So I was once told by an older colleague. Perhaps he was being a little provocative. But all these years later, I still remember it.

His comments motivated me to consider “heresies I have loved”—beliefs and doctrines that are just beyond the pale. Nonetheless, they are attractive. They make sense in their own way. They are very close to the Gospel. Maybe that’s what makes them winsome. Maybe that’s what makes them dangerous. So, from time to time here on The Twelve, I’m going to try to develop my own little series—Heresies I Have Loved. I welcome your ideas and suggestions.

*****

I was a frightened seminary student, just a week or two into school. It was our very first small-group discussion session, and another student kept dropping the word “antinomian.” I had no idea what he was talking about. He and the doctoral student who led the discussion were going on and on.

Most of the time I looked down at the floor, avoiding any eye contact, just hoping I would not be called on. Occasionally I would nod knowingly, implying, “Yes, of course.” I escaped that day without significant humiliation, went home and looked up “antinomian”

This is what I found: “a belief that Christians are freed from biblical and moral laws because salvation is solely by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.” Apparently, the term was coined by Martin Luther, who was himself accused of being antinomian on occasion. There is a long and complex history within the church of debates surrounding antinomianism. But that’s not where I’m going today.

The Good News of Jesus Christ is about grace and mercy and freedom and release. It is not about being good, tallying brownie points of morality, or self-improvement. God’s love for us in Jesus Christ is free. No-strings attached. No asterisks with fine print. I believe it was Phil Yancey who said, “There is nothing you can do that will make God love more or love you less.”

An LGBTQ Christian friend boycotts Chick-fil-A because of their anti-gay policies and stances. Good for him. Admirable. However, about once a year, he eats there. This is somewhat because he actually likes the food—a lot. But it also reminds him of his freedom in Christ. It puts a ding in his sense of moral accomplishment. It keeps him from becoming inflexible and prim.

I like my friend’s practice, especially if he is able to imagine that everyone else in the restaurant that day is doing the exact same thing—their annual moral exemption. That way he isn’t judgy or resentful about the others enjoying their chicken sandwiches. We might all do well to think about our personal moral scruples and practices. Then, consider violating them intentionally from time to time in celebration of our Christian freedom and as an antidote to moral pride.

Jesus was always wrangling with the strict, the law-abiding, the morally fastidious. The irony, of course, is that he is now viewed as the founder of a religion for the obsessively moral. He has given rise to so many who aspire to be elder sons and so few prodigals.

In worship a year or so ago, I heard the story of a woman anointing Jesus. In his conversation with Peter afterwards, Jesus says, “The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Those words staggered me. I do not want to love little. I want to love much. The way to loving much apparently goes though being forgiven much. That doesn’t mean I go out of my way to sin, thereby needing forgiveness. Nor do I cheekily describe myself as “depraved” and go around self-flagellating. But I do want to love much. And I am more loving and gracious and accepting when I see myself as one who is forgiven much.

In saying I wish I was antinomian, I am not saying I wish I was a libertine—a person who flouts morality and responsibility. I have no desire to be to be violent or hateful, to cheat on my wife or my taxes, or even to break traffic laws (most of the time). Generally, I am a pretty boring, compliant, law-abiding person. I’ve even blogged here on The Twelve about my love of the law. Decades ago, when Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young sang “rules and regulations, who needs them?” I thought, “Actually, I do.”

Why, when we hear “All things are permissible for me,” do so many of us respond—instantaneously and reflexively—“Yes, but not all things are beneficial.”

Similarly, when we hear “For freedom Christ has set you free” we pounce with “Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence.”

We are more certain about the second halves of Paul’s statements than we are the first. This immediate need to constrain the wild, vast openness of grace deadens its power. Our frantic need to blunt the Gospel often makes me wonder if we really trust in grace. Is it wise to tell middle schoolers that “all things are permissible for me”? Do we dare share it with adults?

No doubt there are many, many things that are not beneficial. Still, that is not the Gospel. There will always be room for Christian ethics—to explore the better option, the way of justice, the life of mercy. We can get to morality eventually, but never as the gatekeeper to Jesus.

Increasingly I have no time for conversations that begin, “Can a person do X and still be a Christian?” “Are Christians allowed to do…?” “Should Christians…” This is the life-killing, joy-taking, hair-splitting way of morality. And we Christians have a hard time discussing morality without it becoming hyper-morality, rigid morality, morality that usurps Jesus.

Antinomianism is something we should keep close at hand—to refresh the wildness of grace, and dilute our drive for purity. It may be a heresy, but there is a lot of Gospel here.

And I’m okay with being accused of antinomianism every now and then.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

17 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Wasn’t it Charles Hodge who took a drink of liquor every year, even though he disliked alcohol, as a matter of principle against prohibitionist legalism? I am very much looking forward to this series, especially as I figure that some of the NT writers, if pressed, would have answered questions like Modalists, Adoptionists, Nestorians, eetc.

  • Lynn japinga says:

    I’m always surprised when students who are dubious about Christianity criticize professed Christian students for drinking. “How can you be a Christian and party on the weekends and then act all holy in church?” What have they learned about Christianity? Or maybe more to the point, what have they learned about drinking??? 😀😀

  • Allen Schipper says:

    Remember Jesus Christ Superstar? What was going on with Jesus and Mary Magdalene?

  • James Dekker says:

    Thank you for this. I too look forward to more heresies you have loved. I hope this isn’t quibbling, but as I read and reread this essay, I kept thinking that instead of “morality” and it’s variations, “moralistic” and “moralism(s)” might be more accurate word choices? I don’t think “morality” automatically lends itself to rigidity, but “moralism” does. Keep writing grand heresies., please.

  • Mero says:

    The beginning of this series is good and I
    look forward to others.
    I have one question. Why is it admirable that your friend boycotts Chic-fil-A and not that he’s intolerant of another’s stance? If I boycotted a business because their beliefs aligned with the LBGTQ’s I’d be labeled intolerant very quickly.
    I don’t believe that Chic-fil-A is trying to push their beliefs on anyone, just stating what they believe.

    • Steve Mathonnet- VanderWell says:

      I suppose boycotts always depend on whose side you’re on. Some people recently tried to boycott Nike for their use of Colin Kaepernick in their advertising. I believe there have been attempted boycotts of companies that had gay couples in their advertising–two dads and Campbell’s soup, if memory serves. My friend doesn’t like what Chic-fil-A stands for, and where they give their money and so he chooses not to patronize them. I find that admirable.

  • Marilyn Paarlberg says:

    So, should I worry about the Nth degree to which I love this piece? 😉

  • Jeff Munroe says:

    Steve – I wrote about the church and the legalization of marijuana six years ago on this blog and no one picked up the conversation then. I still see this as a church issue that no one is talking about. Your post today opens the door to that conversation again.

    • Steve Mathonnet- VanderWell says:

      Jeff, I remember that blog. I think you even cited Dennis Voskuil. Please do pick up the conversation again.

  • Peter Dykstra says:

    Great idea for a series! My question for the theologians: are there any new heresies we should be aware of, or are they all variations of the tried and true? (Or false, I guess.) Did Occam ever try an electric? Is heresy sin? Is sin heresy? Can heresies be perceived directly (i.e., faults of perception?) or or are they limited to the realm of formulation (errors in describing what I perceive)? Is there a gender-neutral word for heresy? Surely the word itself cannot be a heresy (a perverse reflection of hymnody? what a hall of mirrors!). We’d need a new word! Where are Calvin and Hobbes when you need them? Help, Mr Wizard!

  • David Stravers says:

    Your focus on “heresies” seems to be most concerned with ortho-praxis rather than orthodoxy, the life application rather than purity of doctrine? I like that. We need to be constantly challenged on that.

  • Jill Fenske says:

    Crossing paths on the quad at PTS , I would never have guessed that you were the frightened Seminarian back then. Some days I am still the frightened Pastor, both wanting to learn and push the edges of what we know – especially how we “read into” the sacred text, but also to be true to the Reformed faith and theology that I still love. Rock on Steve, looking forward to see/read what comes next.

    • Steve Mathonnet- VanderWell says:

      Thank you, Jill. Must be that looks can be deceiving. It wasn’t you who kept saying “antinomian” in that first TH 01 precept! Memories…

  • Dan Walcott says:

    In teaching high school students I often used a line, “no, you will not be sent to hell for X,Y,Z, but someone else might.” I may not be a stumbling block. I recently read about a pastor (second one) who uses profanity as a badge of honor, and we were called to be holy. We draw people to Christ when our lives become attractive, not when there is nothing different about us, should I keep on sinning so that grace may abound? I know I am a sinner saved by grace but Peter challenges me to demonstrate my calling and election.

    • Steve Mathonnet- VanderWell says:

      Thank you, Dan. While I trust it is clear that my tongue is firmly in my cheek for much of the above, you are correct that sin is serious, dangerous stuff. When I suggest that we all should intentionally violate our moral code on occasion, I hope it equally clear I’m not advocating bank robbery, racist jokes, marital infidelity, or colluding with Putin.

  • Steve Mathonnet- VanderWell says:

    Thanks to all of you who seem very eager and energized by this “series.” It is a bit overwhelming to sense your enthusiasm and the way you’re already thinking of possible heresies to explore and love! Right now, I’ve only got one in the bank. And I’m not going to say what it is. So seriously, help me. I don’t think I ever have loved Montanism. I may, at points, have been inadvertently Nestorian, but no love there either. I really do welcome your input and help.

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