On the Problem of Legalism and Antinomianism
by Thiago Silva, ThM
The Christian Church has struggled with the twin dangers of legalism and antinomianism.
Legalism is the idea that one can earn salvation through good works or strict adherence to a set of rules or regulations while antinomianism is the rejection of the moral law as irrelevant to the Christian life.
In this article we’ll look at these two concepts in greater detail, and learn how to strike a biblical balance between the two.
A Delicate Balance
Legalism can lead to a focus on external behavior rather than the internal transformation of the heart.
When obedience to rules and regulations becomes the focus of one’s faith, it can lead to a legalistic spirit that is judgmental, harsh, and unloving.“Legalism is the idea that one can earn salvation through good works or strict adherence to a set of rules or regulations while antinomianism is the rejection of the moral law as irrelevant to the Christian life.”
This danger was lurking and threatening “the truth of the gospel” in the churches of Galatia. In Galatians 2:14, the apostle Paul writes to the church saying: “I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel. . .”
Legalism was taking over the Galatian churches, and this was bothering the apostle Paul so much that he asserts in Galatians 2:21 that “if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.”
The problem is not just keeping the law but keeping the law as the way to salvation.
On the other hand, antinomianism can lead to a lack of concern for the moral law and a disregard for the ethical demands of the Christian faith.“While legalism exalts the law in such a way that it excludes grace, antinomianism exalts grace in such a way as to lose sight of the law as a rule of life.”
When grace is emphasized to the exclusion of moral responsibility, it can lead to a lack of accountability and a tolerance for behavior that is harmful to oneself or others.
Antinomianism, as opposed to legalism, asserts that the law has no role to play in the Christian’s life.
While legalism exalts the law in such a way that it excludes grace, antinomianism exalts grace in such a way as to lose sight of the law as a rule of life.
Paul knew about this danger when he wrote to the Romans: “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?” (Rom. 6:1).“If sinners have no idea of the majesty and holiness of God, nor of the inconceivable hell to which they are heading, grace loses its transforming power.”
For the antinomians, when grace reaches us, any kind of law is no longer necessary. But to believe that the reception of so stupendous gift, as is the forgiveness of sins, does not create any obligation, is to forget that the covenant that God makes with his creatures always carries with it its requirement.
We do not think that true Christianity can exist based on such a frivolous grace that the Christian does not value God’s law.
When salvation is nothing more than a signature on a decision card or a raised arm at an evangelistic meeting, the disregard of this infinitely valuable gift becomes inevitable.
It turns out that if sinners have no idea of the majesty and holiness of God, nor of the inconceivable hell to which they are heading, grace loses its transforming power.
The grace of the antinomians is a cheap grace, requiring nothing. But God’s grace is transformative and motivates the Christian to seek the kingdom of God and to want to fulfill his will prescribed in the law.
Aware of these two dangers, we can neither embrace the law in such a way as to diminish God’s grace, nor embrace grace to the exclusion of God’s law altogether.
It is necessary to find the biblical view on this. The apostle Paul understood this when he wrote:
21) Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law.Galatians 3:21 (KJV)
Legalism, Antinomianism and the Church
Both antinomianism and legalism are distortions of the gospel of grace and can undermine the health and vitality of the church.
To address these problems, the church must seek to maintain a balance between the demands of the moral law and the freedom of grace.
This involves a commitment to the importance of moral responsibility, while also recognizing that obedience to God’s commands flows from a transformed heart, not from legalistic adherence to rules and regulations.“God’s grace is transformative and motivates the Christian to seek the kingdom of God and to want to fulfill his will prescribed in the law.”
Although we are not saved by keeping the law (Eph. 2:8-9), the law remains indispensable in the work of sanctification.
The law remains a standard of justice that serves to govern our lives; it shows us the extent of our obligations to Christ and through the action of the Holy Spirit, we become convicted of sin, repentance, and faith.
The Christian, therefore, is free from the law as a system of salvation to gain acceptance with God, but he is under the law of Christ as a rule of life.
The Reformed faith has, over the centuries, struggled to teach and live the truth of the gospel and the law, keeping the balance between law and liberty, avoiding the immorality generated by antinomianism and the prison of legalism.
Both one and the other can generate chaotic results for the life of Christians and society. No one better than the Lord of the Church to show us the most excellent way to interpret the law.
The Example of Jesus
Paul’s vision and concept of the law is determined by the cross of Jesus Christ, that is, he always interprets the law through the eyes of Christ’s death and resurrection. For this reason, we see in his writings that he both denies and confirms the law.
The denial of the law is stated in Galatians 2:21: “I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.”“The Reformed faith has, over the centuries, struggled to teach and live the truth of the gospel and the law, keeping the balance between law and liberty.”
Here we see Paul denying the law as a basis for justification, that is, because of the fall (Gen. 3), humans are unable to keep the law. The apostle denies the law as a means of gaining acceptance with God.
By confirming the law, the apostle teaches us that God’s law prohibits sin, that is, Paul emphasizes the negative character of the law, stating that it is the Word of God directed against sin, as we can observe in Romans 3:19…
19) Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.Romans 3:19 (KJV)
In other words, through the law, the power of sin is exposed, and it leads fallen man to Christ, even though he is unable to fully observe it without the action of the Holy Spirit.
In Galatians 3:24, when Paul tells us that the “the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ” he does not mean that the law, because of its sacrifices, priests, and cleansing prescriptions, offered a picture of Christ.
The function of the law intended here is not, in a positive sense, to gradually lead those under the law to Christ, but to prepare them for the redemption which was manifested in Christ as deliverance from that bondage.“The gift of justification leads to the recognition of the task of obedience.”
According to Galatians 3:22: “But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe,” that is, man is locked up under sin by the law, and when in fact we understand the function of the law, the same law prevents man from trying to be right with God by any other means than faith in Jesus Christ and his work.
Although the Christian is not under the law as a means of acceptance with God, he seeks to obey God’s will in accordance with the standard set forth in the law.
The gift of justification leads to the recognition of the task of obedience. When God’s grace reaches us, we enter into a new life and sin no longer has any authority over us, as we belong to God, who freed us from the previous slavery.
God bestows upon his people the free gift of eternal life in Christ, and then, united with Christ, the Christian living in sin becomes a contradiction in terms.“Although we cannot be accepted for keeping the law, after we are accepted by God’s grace, we seek to keep the law because of the love we have for God, who accepted us and gave us his Spirit to enable us to keep it.”
And only grace can make this change. The law could declare the will of God, but it could not give power to do that will.
The law could show man’s sinfulness, but it could not free man from the bondage of that sin.
This is why a person could be under the law, recognize its authority, and still be under the control of sin.
And when God’s grace frees those who are bound by sin, new inner power is given to those people, enabling them to accomplish what they could not before.
In this article we looked at legalism, which is the idea that one can earn salvation through good works or strict adherence to a set of rules or regulations, and we also looked at antinomianism which is the rejection of the moral law as irrelevant to the Christian life.
Throughout the lesson we learned, through the writings of Paul and example of Jesus, how to live a well-balanced Christian life between these two extremes.
In sum, although we cannot be accepted for keeping the law, after we are accepted by God’s grace, we seek to keep the law because of the love we have for God, who accepted us and gave us his Spirit to enable us to keep it.“Our obedience to the law does not and can never happen outside of Christ.”
In New Testament terminology, although our justification does not depend on the law but on Christ crucified, our sanctification consists in our obedience to God’s law.
This is not a matter of conforming to outward rules, but of giving expression to inward, Spirit-generated love. The law of Christ, or the law of love, is totally different from the law of slavery.
Love is generated by an inner spontaneity and cannot be forced by penal sanctions. Therefore, God’s grace has the power to generate in us the desire to fulfill God’s law, not with the aim of achieving salvation, but because this is God’s will, and this is what pleases God.
The law of love sums up and encompasses the entire law of Moses, and that is why Paul says that the fulfillment of the law is love (Rom. 13:10).
We can say then that our obedience to the law does not and can never happen outside of Christ. Trying to submit to the law without Christ leads to bondage, but submitting to the law with Christ, looking to Christ and with the help of God’s grace, is freedom and life.
It is in this sense that the apostle Paul can say in Romans 10:4 that “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.”
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Moses with the Tables of the Law, by Pieter Gaal (1803). The Rijksmuseum. SK-A-4828.