Therapeutic Antinomianism

God’s Law and the Christian Life 

This week my wife wrote a very helpful review of, and interaction with, Abigail Shrier’s new book Bad Therapy: Why the Kids Aren’t Growing Up. Shrier’s book is an expose of the many ways in which modern therapy, under the guise of empathetic caring, has made children into psychological and emotional wrecks.

As my wife put it:

Shrier outlines the problem: therapy and therapeutic concepts (“mental health”) are ubiquitous today and parents are quick to find therapeutic solutions for everything, including medicating kids with psychotropic drugs and stimulants to treat normal childhood behaviors. Any pain or disappointment is equated with trauma and, in our risk-averse society, must be avoided at all costs, or treated as a problem to be solved with therapy and drugs.

Shrier doesn’t get into the implications of her research for the church, though my wife also rightly pointed out that “[t]his ideology is even common among Christian parents, who readily rely on therapy to address perceived behavioral issues (aka sin) or on medication for normal childhood characteristics like being wiggly or distracted.”

Therapeutic concepts are so prevalent in our society that it is often hard to understand how they impact our reasoning in different areas of life. In fact, one could say that therapeutic thinking serves as one of the chief supports of a heresy that plagues the church today, as it has in every age, the heresy of antinomianism, that is, being against (anti) God’s law (nomos) as the necessary rule of life for the Christian.

Antinomianism rarely takes the form of an overt and explicit rejection of God’s moral law. Normally it is far more subtle. A particularly subtle (and thus far more dangerous) form today goes like this: No one, not even a born-again Christian, is capable of keeping God’s law perfectly. The law simply shows us our sin, and thus our need for the grace of forgiveness in Christ. Everything in the two previous sentences is true except for the word “simply.” It is with this word that antinomianism slithers in unnoticed.

It is not the case that God’s moral law simply shows regenerate believers their sin. The law does indeed do that (Rom 3:19–20; 7:7), but the law is also the necessary guide and rule for the life of the Christian. Obedience to God’s law, by the working of the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:7–9), will be worked by God in the life of every genuine Christian. No one can be justified (“declared in the right with God”) on the basis of obedience to the law (Rom 3:20; Gal 2:15–16; Phil 3:8–9), but all believers are brought into submission to God’s law, which is simply submission to God himself, as a necessary outworking of God’s grace in their lives (1 Cor 9:21; Titus 2:11–14; James 1:25; 2:8).

The therapeutic mindset (a warmed-over Freudianism) tells us that our chief problems in life come from outside of ourselves, that we are passive victims of any number of traumas we have experienced. We likely did not even recognize them as traumas at the time. What is more, therapy teaches us—the helpless victims we are—to see all difficulties in life, from the smallest to the greatest, as insurmountable ordeals inflicted upon us. We’re told that the normal stresses of work, school, family, finances, and more, have wounded us beyond our ability to cope. Thus, we need therapy (or drugs), which is quite convenient for those whose livelihood depends on their patients remaining unwell. Instead of being taught to cast our cares on the Lord (1 Pet 5:6–7) and confront and overcome those things that create anxiety (Matt 6:25–34; Phil 4:4–7) Christians are left defenseless. Modern therapeutic methods encourage, rather than help overcome, extreme mental, emotional, and spiritual fragility.

What is the connection between therapy and antinomianism? The form of antinomianism I see most prevalent today is the belief that if Christians are straightforwardly taught that they must obey God they will actually be pushed away from God. It is the notion that a firm insistence on obedience leads invariably to rebellion, and often to apostasy. This mentality mimics the therapeutic mindset: Christians are too fragile to be confronted with their sin; any attempt to do so will harm them and only cause alienation from the Lord. All we can do (we are told) is “give them grace.” Mimicry may not even be the right word. I suspect the therapeutic mentality is driving resurgent antinomianism. Out is the “fear of the Lord.” In is “reckless love.” Out is the fact that guilt and shame (1 Cor 6:5; 15:34; Titus 2:8; 1 Pet 3:16) are the inevitable results of sin, warning signs from God in fact, which should drive us to repentance (2 Cor 7:8–9). In is the notion that shame must be suppressed at all costs. The same brittle fragility resulting from modern therapy is everywhere present in the church. Much of the discourse surrounding “winsomeness” is surely a result of this fact. Is it a coincidence that in a culture in thrall to the therapeutic mindset, the supreme sin in the evangelical church is not being milquetoast enough?

There are two areas where I see the triumph of therapeutic antinomianism particularly at work in the church today, though I’m sure many other examples could be selected. The first is in preaching. Therapeutic-antinomian preaching follows a predictable pattern. Take any imperative of Scripture, tell the congregation how they are unable to obey that imperative, and then urge them to trust that Christ has obeyed it for them. Then end the sermon. Every sermon will be the same, no matter the text. The influence of the therapeutic mindset is seen in the fear that drives this kind of preaching: it is assumed that if the pastor insists that whole-hearted obedience is necessary in the life of the believer this will drive Christians to despair. In therapeutic thinking, nothing is worse than feeling bad.

This is plainly unbiblical. We’ve already seen how works cannot contribute to salvation, but “so also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). Such “faith” is no faith at all. True faith, as Martin Luther wrote in his 1545 preface to Romans is “a living, busy, active, mighty thing . . . it is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly. It never asks whether good works are to be done; it has done them before the question can be asked, and is always doing them.”

Faithful preaching makes clear that justification is by faith in Christ alone, and then goes on to show how obedience to the commands of Scripture will be worked by the Holy Spirit in the life of every believer, and how believers must actively strive after this obedience, in reliance on the Spirit (John 14:15; Phil 2:12–13; 1 John 2:3–6). Therapeutic preaching is terrified that pressing the commands of Scripture on the people of God will lead to their rebellion, not their sanctification, and that the commands of Scripture will lead God’s children away from him. But Jesus Christ “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14).

The second example of therapeutic antinomianism is found in Christian parenting literature, where it is nearly all-pervasive. It takes many forms, but a representative sample is found in the parenting approach of Elise Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick argues that “every way we try to make our kids ‘good’ is simply an extension of Old Testament Law—a set of standards that is not only unable to save our children, but also powerless to change them.” God’s law not only cannot save our children, it cannot “make them good.” It is “powerless to change them.” What, then, can a Christian parent do? Fitzpatrick continues: “We must tell our kids of the grace-giving God who freely adopts rebels and transforms them into loving sons and daughters. If this is not the message your children hear, if you are just telling them to ‘be good,’ then the gospel needs to transform your parenting too.”

No Christian parent should merely tell their children to “be good.” We must teach them of the forgiveness that comes solely through the blood of Christ (1 Pet 1:17–19) and his perfect righteousness imputed to us by faith alone (Rom 4:1–8). But all Christian parents must show their children that obedience to God and to one’s parents is necessary, good, God-honoring, and the path to spiritual and earthly blessing.

In Romans 8:3 the apostle Paul writes: “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.” The law is indeed powerless to save. It is even in itself powerless to change our children. But Paul did not stop at verse 3. In verse 4 he continues: God sent Jesus, condemning sin in Christ’s flesh “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” The Holy Spirit is the one who enables obedience to God from the heart, obedience without which “no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14).

Parenting warped by the therapeutic mindset fears setting strict boundaries and rules for children and enforcing them when violated. It fears that children will always rebel against such things. It fears, in other words, to take God at his word: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov 22:6). Our culture—through music, movies, novels, and more—relentlessly reinforces the lie that children will rebel against firm (though of course, loving) parenting. But it is a lie from the pit of hell. In fact, consistent discipline is the only truly loving thing a parent can do: “If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons” (Heb 12:8). But thanks be to God that “he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness” (Heb 12:10). Will Christian parents be more holy than God in denying our children what God gives us for our spiritual good? Or will we rather live by faith, not by sight (2 Cor 5:7), trusting God’s appointed means for the spiritual and earthly good of our children (Eph 6:1–4)?

The ravages of modern therapy are everywhere present in our world. The church is no exception. The first step in fighting back is to have our eyes opened to the presence of the problem. Then, equipped with Scripture and the commonsense wisdom of the ages we can, by God’s grace, become less anxious, more trustful of God; less: passive victims of trauma, more: joyful, repentant believers. We can, in short, “think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Rom 12:3) and live lives of confident, resilient hope in the Lord.

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Ben C. Dunson is Founding and Contributing Editor of American Reformer. He is also Visiting Professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Greenville, SC), having previously taught at Reformed Theological Seminary (Dallas, TX), Reformation Bible College (Sanford, FL), and Redeemer University (Ontario, Canada). He lives in the northern suburbs of Dallas with his wife and four boys.

6 thoughts on “Therapeutic Antinomianism

  1. I must cavil about two things.

    1. ADD is real. The writer didn’t quite say the following, but implied it: ADD is really just boys’ being boys. If that were true, no girl would ever have it, and about 25% of ADD sufferers are girls. In fact, the suicide rate among girls who have ADD is terrible, because the common perception is that only boys are subject to ADD, and girls who have it are likely to be written off as incorrigible.
    Second, there is an ADD brain type. This is discussed in the Hallowell and Ratey book, “Delivered from Distraction.” The brain type shows up readily on MRIs. It does appear that the ADD brain type is inherently a more fragile brain type than other types, and that if a child with ADD suffers a traumatic brain injury, things are not likely to go as well with him in his quest for recovery as would be likely to be the case in a child with a virtually identical TBI who doesn’t have an ADD brain type. This last bit of information is not in the Hallowell and Ratey book. It was told me by my neurologist, who in me had a former child with an ADD brain type who had suffered a moderate to severe TBI at age seven.

    The other thing is this: I agree with the author that “trauma” has become close to a precious thing in recent years, with things which in my generation would have been tough things a kid had to learn to live with, such as not making the baseball team, being classed as trauma. This does a terrible disservice to children who have been genuinely traumatized. If he is unfamiliar with it, the author of this article would be helped in understanding the range of childhood trauma, and its capacity to mar or destroy a child’s adult life, if he were to search out information about The ACE Study.

    1. My wife grew up with ADHD. The issue isn’t whether or not it is real, but rather how we actually perceive it. We treat it as an aberration rather than a type of person. My wife is a nurse. In her field, having the ability to jump from thing to thing is an asset that makes her extremely valuable. That ADHD is a part of who she is, not a disease to be wiped out.

      Surely the solution to ADD or ADHD isn’t to just drug them up their whole lives. All that does is make something that should be intolerable for them tolerable. Instead, let them experience the discomfort of having to sit for hours a day so they learn that they can’t stand to do it so they choose a career that they can actually stand.

      1. My son and I have ADD.

        Most medical professionals we work with have moved past the old approach of
        “here are drugs and therapy so you feel better”

        And instead say

        “You still have responsibilities; here are some strategies (and medications) to help you fulfil your obligations”

        The church needs to catch up with that thinking.

        Thank you for this article Ben, I found it very helpful.

  2. It may be a coincidence, but I think I have observed the distorted Christology that Mark Jones and Sinclair Ferguson associate with antinomianism. More specifically, I see a strong emphasis on Jesus’ deity at the expense of His humanity. This lop-sided Jesus leads to a “let’s pull up our lawn chairs and watch Jesus fly around in His Superman outfit; must be nice to have all those super powers.” The scriptures become mere entertainment instead of instruction; the result is “a form of godliness,” but the power–the power of His command over our daily behavior–is tacitly denied. Peacemaking and spiritual warfare–personal applications–are topics carefully avoided. It’s a fashionable kind of crypto-rebellion. I see it in the actions of church elders, both ruling and teaching, of the PCA–from my local churches and Presbytery all the way up to the SJC.

  3. Your first example of antinomialism seems to be a bit of a strawman. Do you have any examples? I’ve never heard teaching like that.

    Otherwise I agree with what you said. But therapy isn’t worthless. Mental health is important. Trauma is real. I think it is important to highlight how therapy has value — as well as how it can lead people astray.

  4. My son and I have ADD.

    Most medical professionals we work with have moved past the old approach of
    “here are drugs and therapy so you feel better”

    And instead say

    “You still have responsibilities; here are some strategies (and medications) to help you fulfil your obligations”

    The church needs to catch up with that thinking.

    Thank you for this article Ben, I found it very helpful.

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