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In contrast to common labels of neonomianism as legalism, this is actually a misnomer in identifying neonomianism because both neonomians and antinomians error due to a deficient view of God’s law.  The neonomians reduce the standards necessary for justification permitting imperfect sincere evangelical obedience as sufficient, whereas antinomians deny the third use of the moral law and apply terms referring to justification to sanctification making evangelical righteousness in sanctification unnecessary.  In addition to Owen’s three characteristics necessary for a proper understanding of justification: God’s law, God’s holiness and majesty, and man’s depravity; a proper understanding of imputation is also required which relates to Owen’s three primary conditions since a deficient view of God’s law and man’s depravity leaves open the possibility of one’s own evangelical righteousness being imputed to oneself to fulfill the requirements of the Gospel covenant as the neonomians proposed.  Benjamin Keach provided a unique critique of the neonomians’ federal theology with his argument for viewing the covenant of grace as threefold in its execution thereby grounding justification in God’s decretive will rather than God’s prescriptive and making the covenant of grace consist solely of the elect, not a mixed seed, the elect and their infants.

The neonomian errors of Baxter and his followers whom Keach responded to shortly following after Baxter’s death have not remained dormant.  In Scotland in the 18th century the republication of Edward Fischer’s The Marrow of Modern Divnity by Thomas Boston sparked heated debate in the Church of Scotland, which declared the book as antinomian.  Fischer had responded to neonomain errors in the 17th century with his book but it primarily remained unnoticed until it was republished by Thomas Boston with his additional explanatory notes.  Thomas Boston along with other supporters of the The Marrow of Modern Divinity were called Marrow men, and they ended up splitting from the church of Scotland later forming the Secession churches[1].  Thomas Boston does reference Richard Baxter once in his notes stating, “We would beware of Mr. Baxter’s order of setting repentance and works of new obedience before justification, which is indeed a new covenant of works[2].”  Edward Fischer and Thomas Boston came to similar conclusions as John Owen and Benjamin Keach regarding the errors of neonomianism such as: 1. placing repentance before faith as antecedent to justification, 2. trusting one one’s own obedience to God’s law for assurance rather than in Christ’s finished work, 3. viewing the covenant of grace as a covenant of works requiring obedience as the precondition for justification, 4. a denial of good works being a fruit of justification rather than antecedent to justification, 5. denying Christ as a Surety for the elect, and 6. denying the necessity of Christ’s active and passive obedience as well as Christ’s imputed righteousness as the sole basis for justification[3].

The neonomians stand not only as a warning for the errors of making the covenant of grace into a covenant of works and turning towards a Catholic view of justification, but also as a warning of how Christians ought to respond to antinomianism and to be cautious not to make conditions such as repentance or good works necessary for justification rather than being part of sanctification.

“Hence this Article [Justification] is justly styled, by worthy writers, Articulus stantis, vel cadentis Religionis: The very Pillar of the Christian Religion.  Other subjects a Minister may preach upon, and that unto the Profit and Advantage of the People; but this he must preach, this he cannot omit, if he would truly Preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ[4].”

[1] William VanDoodeward, The Marrow Controversy and Seceder Tradition: Marrow theology in the Associate Presbytery and Associate Synod Secession Churches of Scotland (1733-1799) (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011), 113

[2] Edward Fischer, The Marrow of Modern Divinity (Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2009), 161

[3] 1. ibid, 146-148, [Thomas Boston’s notes] 159; 2. ibid, 106; 3. ibid, 108;  4. ibid, 114; 5. ibid, 120; 6. [Thomas Boston’s Notes] ibid, 126

[4] Benjamin Keach, Marrow of True Justification, 18