Legalism and Antinomianism

The longer I live, the more I find myself agreeing with Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones on so many things. I do not have an exact passage from which to quote, but I remember in his writings that he often said that you are in the wrong position when you have an enemy on only one side. The true Christian position is that we must be in the middle between two enemies, one on the right and the other on the left. This is especially true when we consider the matter of salvation. The correct doctrine will have two great enemies—legalism and antinomianism. Antinomianism is a word that throws many people. It comes from the Greek word for law, ‘nomos’. Thus, our enemies are legalism or anti-legalism, nomism or antinomianism. 

Legalism is a denial of the gospel. Antinomianism is a denial of the law. They would seem to be polar opposites and in many ways they are. In other ways, legalism and antinomianism are friendly cousins. In the end, they promote the same things—just in different ways, from different starting points. 

Of the two heresies, legalism is the most dangerous and the most neglected. When I was writing my book, Historic Christianity and the Federal Vision, I searched diligently for works by the Puritans against legalism. I found only a few books that had legalism in the title and even those books spent more time attacking the error of antinomianism. Yet, there are a number of Puritan works that were written against antinomianism. Many of the books that have been written against legalism touch the subject in terms of man-made laws. Such man-made laws are certainly legalism, but they are not the main type of legalism that the Scripture addresses. Legalism in the Scripture is the attempt to attain righteousness through moral works of righteousness (keeping the law) or ceremonial works of righteousness (Circumcision, baptism, etc.). Those man-made laws often deal with such things as smoking, drinking, etc., which the reformed faith considers to be adiaphora—matters of indifference in which believers have the freedom of conscience. For instance, the Scripture surely warns believers to not ‘be drunk with wine, but be filled with the Spirit.’ The Scripture also teaches that Christ turned the water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana of Galilee as the first of His signs. As one who almost never lets a drop of alcohol even touch my lips (and I could gladly live without alcohol for the rest of my life), I would never teach that anyone who ever drinks a glass of wine has committed a sin. I also remember that Colonial pastors in Virginia and the Carolinas were often paid their annual stipends in tobacco leaves which they then sold on the open market. 

For all their supposed differences, legalism and antinomianism are closer to one another than most people realize. By the law that opposites attract, legalism and antinomianism are often on the same side of most issues. I like to say that their imbalance by trying to stand on only one foot causes them to fall towards the other side which they seem to be opposing. For instance, for all their claim of trumpeting the virtues of the law, none are so antinomian as legalists. In their legalistic system, they openly acknowledge that none are able to perfectly keep the law. Thus, they reduce the demands of God’s law to their definition of “sincere obedience” which thereby allows them the freedom to disobey the law they say they uphold. Paul made that point in Romans 2:21-23: “You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that one shall not steal, do you steal? You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the Law through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God?” The legalists were very antinomian in their lifestyles. 

On the other hand, there are the hyper-grace people who deny the third use of the law that it is a rule for the behavior of Christians. Their position is that Christ has taken on Himself not only the guilt and punishment but also the stain and impurity of their sins. Thus, they can sin without regret or any need of repentance. As Bavinck wrote: “The sins they themselves commit are no longer sins, do not torment them in their conscience, no longer require forgiveness, and are only acts of the flesh, the old ‘human.’”[1]One shudders to even think that there are Christians who could hold to such a position. Yet, there are. This hyper-grace movement is a large growing movement in all Christian denominations today. Interestingly, though, these hyper-grace people are the first ones who will rebuke someone else if they are doing something or believing something contrary to the “orthodoxy” of hyper-grace. I learned that truth by personal experience through my association with some hyper-grace ministers about 20 years ago. In other words, these self-proclaimed antinomians (under the banner of their definition of grace) quickly become the greatest legalists when you do something with which they disagree. They will tell you, “You do not understand grace. You do not understand the gospel.” And, thereby, they fail to show any grace to those people while talking incessantly about how they believe in grace.

The nexus of the problem with both legalists and antinomians is that they deny the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Read their writings and you will find that the Holy Spirit simply is not mentioned. The antinomians do not need the Holy Spirit because they are saved by grace—their definition of grace which we call hyper-grace. Their grace is a grace that allows them to sin without any problems or pains of conscience. The legalists do not emphasize the need of the Holy Spirit because they believe that obedience to the law is already within their power. I have known people in both groups who sincerely believed that John Calvin was on their side. In that, they are wrong. John Calvin was called the ‘theologian of the Holy Spirit’ because of his numerous references to the Spirit. Both legalists and antinomians need to read and re-read Romans 8 again and again and again. Romans 8:3, 4 condemns both the heresies of legalism and antinomianism while exalting the work of the Holy Spirit in applying the work of Christ for our salvation. 

Prayer request: The city of Lubbock, Texas has cited Vanguard’s mission church there to meet with the city council this Thursday. The city is alleging that the church does not have the right to meet in a home. This mission work has about 60 people in attendance. This is just another instance of how Christians and Christian churches are being persecuted in the US at this time. Please be in prayer for Ryan Denton and the Lubbock Mission Church. 

Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL 

www.vanguardpresbyterianchurch.orgPlease send any donations to: Vanguard Presbytery, PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540. 

[1]Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ, Volume Three (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2008), 399. 

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