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Was Zane Hodges an Antinomian? Is Free Grace?

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What’s an antinomian?

While researching responses to Lordship Salvation, I came across the transcript of a podcast that discussed the debate between Zane Hodges and John MacArthur over Lordship Salvation (see here). The hosts were interacting with a book entitled Christ the Lord: The Reformation and Lordship Salvation, edited by Michael Horton.

Being a Reformed podcast, they focused on MacArthur. However, the hosts did discuss Hodges, only to misunderstand him and charge him with holding positions he certainly rejected.

For example, Justin Perdue summarized Hodges’ theology for his listeners this way:

Zane Hodges was articulating a kind of theology. His book Absolutely Free articulated this theology that a person is justified by a single act of faith. Now, Hodges is coming at this from an Arminian, semi-Pelagian perspective where he understands that human beings can make this decision of faith and this act of faith is something they can do. And so once this act of faith occurs, once this decision to believe in Jesus occurs, at one point in time, a person is justified forever. And it matters not at all what happens in a person’s life thereafter—whether or not they continue believing, whether or not they are sanctified, whether or not they desire to obey God, whether or not there are good works in their life, etc. It doesn’t matter because a person is justified and they’re good with God.

That summary is a mixture of good and bad.

For example, calling Hodges “Arminian” is wrong. I understand that Reformed people slap the “Arminian” label on everyone who isn’t a Calvinist, but that’s lazy language. I understand this is a podcast, not an academic paper, but since the episode is dated July 14, 2021, the authors should have done some research and become familiar with Free Grace theology and learned that it is different from Arminianism. Free Grace is not Arminianism. For one thing, we believe in eternal security.

The “semi-Pelagian” label is just as unhelpful. I think that Calvinists call anyone who affirms free will, or who denies total inability, or who denies that regeneration precedes faith a “semi-Pelagian.” I suppose Hodges qualifies, but it’s an unhelpful term, referring to a debate within early Roman Catholic thought that has nothing to do with Hodges.

However, Perdue is right that for Hodges (and for Free Grace theology) salvation is an act of faith, and that once you believe in Jesus, that person is “justified forever.” Neither your salvation nor your security depends on present or future good behavior. In Hodges’ thought, works are not needed to prepare for, earn, keep, maintain, or even prove salvation. (Generally speaking, most Free Gracers would agree.)

However—and this is the big confusion I would like to clear up—Hodges would never say “it matters not at all what happens in a person’s life thereafter.” While that may be true as far as your eternal salvation is concerned, it matters very much in other respects—and Perdue knows that. After all, he goes on to say:

Of course there’s a lot of stuff within that kind of theological schema, where if you are obedient, if you are sanctified, if you become a disciple, and you’re not a carnal Christian, then there will be blessings for you in eternity and the like.

Perdue is right: behavior does matter for Hodges. It matters to spiritual growth, to progressing from being a carnal Christian to a spiritual one, and most of all, it matters “in eternity” because Jesus will reward our behavior. The doctrine of eternal rewards is central to Hodges’ thinking and to Free Grace theology in general.

The authors then misunderstand how “faith” functions in Hodges’ theology:

Jon Moffitt: He is. Because you’re putting your faith in an action, not in Christ’s actions. That’s the danger of this theology in that (1) it’s a confusion on the gospel, and (2) it is a confusion on the nature of the Christian.

To be clear, for Hodges, the object of saving faith is not our act of faith. We don’t save ourselves by believing in ourselves. That makes no sense. Yes, we’re saved through believing, but the object of our faith is Jesus and His promise of salvation. Think of it in terms of a baseball bat. The bat is not aiming to hit itself. If faith is the bat, then Jesus’ promise is the ball. (There is some disagreement within Free Grace over the exact object of saving faith.)

The speakers go on to make this claim against Hodges:

Justin Perdue: The theology of Zane Hodges can rightly be called antinomianism. It is legitimate antinomianism.

Jon Moffitt: Anti as in against obedience or anti-law.

Justin Perdue: Right. Like the law has no place in the life of the Christian, and it just doesn’t even matter what we do. That’s legitimate antinomian theology. It’s actually quite rare but it was being articulated by Zane Hodges. So we agree with John MacArthur and his critique of it.

That claim bothered me. Can Hodges be called an antinomian? It all depends. If they mean Hodges believed we can be saved apart from our obedience, then yes, he was an antinomian, and so are Free Grace people. We stand with Paul in believing that justification is by faith apart from works of the law (Gal 2:16). Works don’t enter into it.

But that’s not what Perdue means. Here’s how he defines it:

Like the law has no place in the life of the Christian, and it just doesn’t even matter what we do. That’s legitimate antinomian theology.

Given that definition, was Hodges an antinomian? No! Perdue already admitted that behavior did matter for Hodges, especially for sanctification, earthly blessings, and eternal rewards. Hodges was definitely not an antinomian by that definition.

In Free Grace thought, we distinguish between justification and sanctification, or between salvation and discipleship, or between eternal life and eternal rewards. Behavior does not matter for justification, salvation, or eternal life. But it does matter for sanctification, discipleship, and eternal rewards.

I hope that clarifies things about Hodges and Free Grace theology.

But do you see what those criticism imply for the authors, and for Reformed theology?

It means they believe in works salvation.

How so?

Well, if they’re faulting Hodges for denying that “what we do” matters for salvation, then they must think salvation depends on what we do, and not by faith alone. These other things include “whether or not they continue believing, whether or not they are sanctified, whether or not they desire to obey God, whether or not there are good works in their life, etc.” Who knows how many more conditions are included in the “etc.”

Later, the hosts say:

Now, we would be the first to say, as the Reformed have always said, that when saving faith is present, good works, repentance, and those other things will be present.

According to the authors, good works, repentance, and other things will be “present” when saving faith is present. No works means no faith. And no faith, means no salvation. So, no works, no salvation. In Free Grace theology, we call that “back-loading” the gospel.

The most charitable reading of the hosts is that they are inconsistent in their understanding of salvation, claiming to believe in sola fide on the one hand, only to insist that repentance, good works, and a desire to obey is required to be saved on the other hand.

Against that kind of confusion, Zane Hodges clearly defended that salvation is by faith apart from works and is “absolutely free.”

Send your questions or comments to Shawn.


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