In recent years, pastors and theologians in Evangelical and Calvinistic churches have laid a great deal of emphasis on two theological terms that seek to describe the two main categories of theological error into which professing Christians may fall. These categories, under which much theological error occurs, are legalism and antinomianism. These terms are certainly not novel (albeit, the latter has certainly been employed with much less frequency in our day than the former). Theologians throughout the history of Protestantism have used these two terms when addressing doctrinal error in the church—as their historical context demanded. That being said, it is right for us to understand that these two errors always pose a threat to true Gospel ministry. In his short essay on Antinomianism, James Henley Thornwell made the following illustrative statement about these two errors into which God’s people are ever prone to fall:
The natural vibration of the mind is from the extreme of legalism to that of licentiousness, and nothing but the grace of God can fix it in the proper medium of Divine truth. The Gospel, like its blessed Master, is always crucified between two thieves—legalists of all sorts on the one hand and Antinomians on the other; the former robbing the Savior of the glory of his work for us, and the other robbing him of the glory of his work within us. (1)
It is vital that we come to terms with this reality as we seek to protect our own hearts and minds from that which constantly seeks to rob God of his glory by perverting the grace of our God in Christ. It is helpful for us to remember that the Legalist (whether consciously or not) will only seek to oppose antinomianism and the Antinomian (whether consciously or not) will only seeks to oppose legalism. In contrast, the true believer will always see these two thieves as the great enemies of the Gospel, and will, with earnest resolution lift up a Gospel standard against them. So, how do we define these two errors? How do they surface in the lives of believers? And how does the grace of God “fix it in the proper medium of Divine truth?”
Legalism is, by definition, adding anything to the finished work of Christ—and trusting in anything other than, or in addition to, Christ and His finished work—for one’s standing before God. Antinomianism is the intentional or unintentional denying or setting aside of God’s law in the life of the believer in the name of grace. The former error downplays the sinfulness of man and the reality of indwelling sin in the life of the believer. The latter error downplays the heinousness of sin and the detrimental nature of sin in the life of the believer. On the surface, it might seem that these two definitions limit the first error merely to the realm of justification and the second merely to the sphere of sanctification; however, it is important for us to remember that both errors inevitably end up affecting each of these previous doctrines.
When our Lord Jesus interacted with the Lawyers, Scribes and Pharisees during His earthly ministry, He noted that they were those who were seeking to justify themselves before men on the basis of what they did (Luke 16:15). They wanted the acknowledgement and praise of men. When Jesus gave the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector He noted that the Pharisee had convinced himself that God’s grace had made him better than others and that he was, therefore, accepted by God on the basis of what he did and did not do. The tax collector, on the other hand, put his head down, beat his breast and cried out in heartfelt desperation, “Have mercy on me a sinner.” Jesus explained that the tax-collector went home justified rather than the Pharisee. This account proves that the heart of legalism is self-trust for standing before God.
There is, however, another dimension to Legalism. Legalism actually turns out to be a worse form of Antinomianism than the Antinomianism it seeks to battle. In Matthew 15:3 and 6, our Lord essentially told the Pharisees that by adding commandments to God’s Law they had subtracted from God’s Law. They laid aside the commandments of God in seeking to establish righteousness through their own commandments. This is important for us to understand. Legalism always ends in antinomianism and antinomiansim always ends in legalism. They are two sides of the same coin of human autonomy.
Antinomianism in the Apostolic age was a doctrinal error that sprung out of reaction to the legalism that Jesus and the Apostles were battling. James Gidley makes the following important observation about James’ use of the word “justified” in James 2 in light of the Antinomian reaction to the Legalism that the Apostle’s were battling:
Some of James’ hearers were using the doctrine of justification by faith alone as a pretext for being complacent about ungodly living. What better way to awaken them than by using words that at first glance seem to be a shocking departure from what they have been taught? James 2 is a bombshell that explodes carnal confidence at its foundation. The complacent can scarcely be moved by anything less. (2)
To be sure, there are various forms of Antinomianism that need to be highlighted. There is a doctrinal antinomianism that outright denies the application of God’s law to the believer in the realm of Christian living. It is a blatant denial of what has been termed, “the third use of the Law.” Conversely, there is a practical antinomianism that renders lip service to the applicability of the moral law to the life of the believer, but denies it in practice. The difficulty of this subject is found in the fact that a true believer—one indwelt by the Spirit of God—may have more or less doctrinal antinomianism in his teaching and yet not have it in his life, while a hypocrite may not have it in his teaching but have it in his life. We tread carefully on account of these realities. There is a fascinating statement in Thornwell’s essay in which he made the following about Tobias Crisp (who has often been tagged one of the most influential of the English Antinomians of the Puritan era):
The Antinomianism of Dr. Crisp consisted more, however, in loose and unguarded expressions than in real licentiousness of principles. He was an humble and a godly man. The testimony to his excellence and worth, signed by a divine whom none can charge with the least tincture of libertinism —Rev. John Howe—deserves to be seriously pondered by those who can find no epithets too scurrilous to apply to Dr. Crisp. It may be found prefixed to Flavel's " Blow at the Root." From the statement there given, Dr. Crisp's Antinomianism seems to have been very questionable. (3)
While we must exert our utmost care in handling this subject, we must boldly assert that antinomianism in any form is a perversion of the grace of God that “teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly lust and to live soberly and righteously in this present age.”
As we have already noted that legalism becomes a form of antinomianism, so we must acknowledge that antinomianism also becomes its own form of legalism. When men and women set aside a continuing validity of God’s law in the name of “grace” they inevitably end up replacing it with some other set of rules and regulations. It is impossible for someone—in the name of Christ—to live as a consistent Antinomian. To do so would be complete licentious anarchy. In fact, some of the most graceless and legally spirited people I have met have been those who most strongly insist that God’s Law is, in no sense, binding on those who are in Christ. There is an irony here that should drive home for us the severity of the error.
Because the two errors stem from the same fleshly motives, seeking to correct the one error with the other will always be the default reaction of the old nature. Sinclair Ferguson has helpfully explained that we do not cure the error of legalism by sprinkling in a little antinomianism and we do not cure the error of antinomianism by sprinkling in a little legalism—no matter how much easier a corrective it may seem. While almost all reading this would echo a hearty ‘Amen!’ to his sentiment, the reality is that we all often end up doing that very thing when we notice the first traces of one or the other errors in our Christian experiences.
As we give greater consideration to the various aspects of these two great Gospel thieves we observe that there are a variety of ways in which these two errors often creep in unnoticed. There is often an imperceptibility of these two errors when they manifest themselves in our lives. Here are a few case studies to help us pinpoint their presence in our doctrine or practice:
Subtle Forms of Legalism
Because our consciences are hardwired to the Covenant of Works, we must ever be on guard against subtle forms of legalism. The first way that legalism can creep in unnoticed is through the proclamation of the demands of Christian discipleship without the proclamation of the Savior who redeems a people to make them disciples. It is quite possible for a minister to preach the demands of discipleship, as taught by our Lord Jesus, without proclaiming the inability of the natural man to obey them—and the need that all men have for the saving grace of Christ crucified to enable them to carry those demands out. In his sermon The More Excellent Ministry, Geerhardus Vos made the following important observation about the subtle way in which some have divorced the ethical teaching of Jesus from the saving grace of the cross of Jesus:
There prevails still a subtle form of legalism which would rob the Savior of his crown of glory, earned by the cross, and would make of him a second Moses, offering us the stones of the law instead of the life-bread of the gospel. (4)
Jesus never gave the demands of Christian discipleship so that they would be proclaimed apart from the saving work that He Himself would alone accomplish at the cross. One of the marks of discipleship that Jesus gave to the twelve was, “Whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 10:32-33). Interestingly, it was Peter, being one of the original recipients to whom that teaching was directed, who would go on to deny the Lord three times before men. What is striking about this is that Jesus did not deny Peter before His Father because Jesus went to the cross to atone for the sin of Peter’s denial of Him. So too it is with all true believers. While the goal is holiness and the realization of the demands of discipleship, these must always be viewed through the lens of what Jesus did for His own at the cross.
The apostolic interpretation of the history of Christ in the Gospels lends further support to the idea that Gospel commands must be viewed through the lens of the finished work of Christ. Nowhere in the epistles do we find Christian imperatives divorced from the great indicatives of what Christ has done for us and what we have in union with Him. Christ’s work is efficacious not only for our justification, but also for our continued growth in grace through His Spirit working in us. As Ferguson has somewhere noted, “our indicatives must be weighty enough to carry to load of our imperatives.”
Another way in which legalism can creep into our lives is through the back-door of sanctification. When the Apostle Paul comes to tackle the threat of legalism in Galatia he intimates that it was brought in through a faulty understanding of sanctification and the Christian life. In Galatians 3:3 he writes, “Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit are you now made perfect in the flesh?” Reflecting on this verse, Eric Alexander suggests that “as we go on in our Christian experience we can easily imagine that it all depends on our ourselves and what we can do and what we can achieve…There are so many people who imagine that they begin their Christian experience by trusting Jesus Christ and Him alone for the beginning of it and then think that they progress by some other means—and I tell you, it is a fatal trap.” (5) We too can stop trusting Christ and start trusting in the flesh for our continuance in the Christian life. This is a legal sanctification and it is, as Alexander noted, “a fatal trap.” Sanctification is an incredibly complex doctrine, which—if we are not careful—can be perverted to the detriment of our souls. If, for instance, we adopt a mindset that views sanctification as primarily our work, we will slide into a works-righteousness mentality. If, in our zeal for holiness, we forget what we are by nature and what we have received by grace in Christ we can switch gears and forfeit the grace that we once acknowledged our need for. We should always be zealous for holiness but we should also always remember that Pharisaism was, after all, a holiness movement.
Additionally, if we convince ourselves that we can come right up to the line of attaining God’s standard of holiness--coming near to the perfection demanded in the Law and in the call to discipleship—we will either live in spiritual paralysis because of our failures or we will convince ourselves that we are better than others because we have deceived ourselves into thinking that we are doing better than we actually are. Heidelberg Catechism Q. 104 captures the balance between properly assessing how far we all fall short of what God demands, and yet diligently pursuing obedience:
“Q. Can those converted to God obey these commandments perfectly?
A. No. In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience. Nevertheless, with all seriousness of purpose, they do begin to live according to all, not only some, of God’s commandments.” (6)
If we fail to grasp the first part of the answer, and yet hold on to the second we will fall into a functional legalism. Of course, the converse is true with regard to antinomianism.
A third way that legalism creeps into our Christian experience is by turning faith into a work or by sliding works into the definition of saving faith. This was the error of Richard Baxter and the Neonomians. Baxter viewed faith as a “new law”—as something of a more easily attainable law. In this way, he perverted the grace of God in the Gospel. It was also this error that the Marrowmen (i.e. Thomas Boston, Ralph Erskine, Ebenezer Erskine, et al) so vigorously opposed. When many in the church were suggesting that we must repent in order to come to Christ as Savior, they saw this as a subtle way of making reformation of ourselves a condition of Christ’s reception of us. Instead, the Gospel teaches that we come to Christ as sinners and find that He grants us repentance in the coming. No legal repentance can ever make us acceptable to Christ.
This sort of legalism also lies at the foundation of the more recent error of Shepherdism (7) and some of the theology of proponents of the Federal Vision. Norman Shepherd essentially taught that one is justified by an obedient faith or faithful obedience. The Westminster Shorter Catechism declared plainly that “Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel” (WSC Q. 86). Saving faith will always culminate in a life of holiness and obedience (as James so clearly teaches); however, if one makes trust and obedience one and the same for justification, this is a subtle form of legalism.”
Related to this, is yet another form of legalism—one that comes in through the biblical-theological construct of eschatological justification. There have been many biblical-theological developments in the last Century in regard to the already/not-yet structure of soteriology. This, in many respects, is a welcomed development. However, it has, also served as a platform for confusion about the eschatological nature of justification and the role of works in the final judgment of the believer. The gist of this theological construct teaches that just as there is an already and a not-yet to the saving blessings of regeneration, adoption and sanctification, so too is there an already and a not-yet to the saving blessing of justification. Among those who hold to such an approach are those who insist that good works are merely the necessary evidence of a living faith on judgment day. In other words, they teach that final judgment will be in accord with our good works. However, some proponents of eschatological justification—such as N.T. Wright—hold to a position of eschatological justification on the basis of our works before God. The latter approach is a highly nuanced form of legalism. For a more detailed treatment of this discussion see my post “Paul, the Law and Eschatological Justification: Three Views on Romans 2:13.”
Subtle Forms of Antinomianism
Perhaps less perceptible than the subtle forms of legalism are the subtle forms of antinomianism that surface in our lives and doctrine.
The first way that antinomianism surfaces in our churches is by setting aside the commandments of God in the name of justification. There are many well-meaning Christians who think that because the Apostles boldly assert that we are free from the condemnation of the Law, they are saying that we are free from the obligation to the Law. Whether it is in laying aside the fourth commandment, or all ten, this is a blatant form of antinomianism. If Jesus died for our transgressions of the Law; and He died to free us from the power of sin; why would we conclude that we are free to continue to transgress God’s Law. The Law sets the boundary markers of our sanctification. We should uphold the goodness and rightness of God’s moral Law.
Another way that antinomianism can sneak into our thinking is through an over-emphasis on the indicatives of Christianity to the exclusion (or downplaying) of the imperatives. This may come in the form of a hyper-redemptive-historical approach to the Scriptures. It may come in the form of someone saying something along the lines of, “ The Bible isn’t about you, it’s about Jesus.” While this is certainly true in a redemptive-historical sense—in an experiential Christianity sense it is incomplete. The Bible is both about Jesus and about what God wants for me in my life in union with Him. In other words, the Bible is both about who Jesus is and what He did (and it was written to Jesus, the Covenant-keeping, true Israelite - Gal. 3:16); but, it is written to me with a view to my repenting of my sins, embracing Christ as Savior by faith and living a life worthy of the Gospel. To emphasize the former to the neglect of the latter can be a subtle form of antinomianism. To say, “Jesus paid it all” is unequivocally biblical. To say, “Jesus did it all to merit all of our saving blessings” is also gloriously biblical. To say, “Jesus did it all so you don’t have to do anything” is—whether intentional or not—absolutely unbiblical. Jesus does not repent and believe the Gospel for me (though repentance and faith are a gift from God). Jesus does not live the Christian life for me—though He supplies me all the grace for the Christian life by virtue of my union with Him in His death and resurrection. If we err in a theological imbalance between the indicatives and the imperatives here we will fall off into the ditch of antinomianism.
Additionally, there can be an antinomianism that encourages a spiritually complacent attitude toward fighting sin in our lives. It might come in the form of the true statement: “You’re a lot worse than you think you are and Jesus is a lot better than you know He is.” After all, the Apostle Paul declared, “where sin abounded, grace abounded much more” (Rom. 5:20). This is one of the most comforting verses in the Bible; but it is also one that can easily be misused to dismiss or downplay sin. The Bible gives us warning after warning and admonition after admonition so that we would put sin to death in the Spirit. Those who have been united to Christ have been given power over sin. This means that those who fail to teach the urgent call to put sin to death in the power of the Holy Spirit—even if in the name of the greatness of God’s pardoning grace—are teaching a form of antinomianism.
There can also be a subtle form of antinomianism that slips into the Christian life under the guise of Christian liberty. Many a Christian has been delivered by the legalism of fundamentalism only to fall into an antinomianism of so-called “Christian liberty.” Knowing that we are free in Christ from the rules and regulations of men—and knowing that the Scriptures do not forbid such things as drinking alcohol and watching movies—it is not uncommon for Christians to fall into a practical antinomianism in these the exercise of Christian liberty. This is a difficult subject precisely because we are free from the doctrines and commandments of men. However, the Scriptures call us to a life of self-control and watchfulness. We are to be sober and to eat and drink to the glory of God. I have heard Christians joke about drunkenness as if it was not sin. The Psalmist said, “I will set nothing wicked before my eyes” (Psalm 101:3). Anyone who becomes careless in what they watch has fallen prey to a subtle form of antinomianism.
How the Gospel Cures the Subtlety of Legalism and Antinomianism
The cross solves the duel problem of legalism and antinomianism. In the death of Christ, the power of sin was broken so that we would no longer seek to establish our own righteousness or continue to live in lawlessness. When we see Christ crucified and risen for us, we are convicted of both our self-righteousness and our lawlessness. When we fix our eyes on Jesus, we take them off ourselves and we stop trying to establish righteousness by our performance. When we fix our eyes on Jesus, we take them off of the world and the sinful pleasures with which we once indulged ourselves. The cross simultaneously shows us the holiness and the graciousness of God. In the death of Christ we receive both justification and sanctification.
The cross continually cures us of our legalism and antinomianism. The longer we have sought to live our Christian lives the more painfully aware we are that “the natural vibration of the mind is from the extreme of legalism to that of licentiousness.” The more we become aware of this truth, and the subtle forms in which there errors manifest themselves, the more we grow in our love of the Gospel and the One who died to deliver us from them. We realize more and more that “nothing but the grace of God can fix these errors in the proper medium of Divine truth.” The more we abide in the doctrine of Christ the more we learn to revel in the grace that has covered all of our sins, provided us with a righteousness from outside of ourselves and which freed us from sins dominion. We will pursue holiness out of faith and love. With the Apostle Paul the cry of our hearts will ever be: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain” (Gal. 2:20-21). May God give us grace to see these thieves whenever they attempt to steal glory from Christ in our lives.
- J.H. Thornwell, “Antinomianism” in The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell (Richmond: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1871) p. 386
- James Gidley “James and Justification” in New Horizons, 2005.
- Thornwell, “Antinomianism” in Works pp. 386-387.
- Geerhardus Vos, “The More Excellent Ministry” in Grace and Glory p. 102
- An excerpt from Eric Alexander’s sermon on Galatians 3:1-9.
- Heidelberg Catechism Q. & A. 104
- For a careful treatment of the history and theology associated with the Norman Shepherd controversy at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, see O. Palmer Robert’s The Current Justification Controversy.
Rev. Nicholas T. Batzig is organizing pastor of New Covenant Prebyterian Church in Richmond Hill, Ga., a church plant of the Presbyterian Church in America. Nick graduated from Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He is currently enrolled in the Th.M. program at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and is married to his beautiful wife, Anna. The Batzigs have three sons, Micah, Elijah and Judah. Nick blogs at Feeding On Christ, has written numerous articles for Tabletalk Magazine, Reformation 21, and is published in Jonathan Edwards and Scotland (Dunedin, 2011). You can find several of his published book reviews here. Nick is also a regular panelist on Christ the Center a podcast of The Reformed Forum. In addition, Nick is the host of East of Eden, a podcast devoted to the Biblical and Systematic Theology of Jonathan Edwards. You can friend him on Facebook here and follow him on Twitter @nick_batzig.