What Are Legalism and Antinomianism?
How can I share the gospel with those who hold to these forms of false teaching? Focus on the biblical teaching about the depravity of the human heart. Since legalism and antinomianism stem from the sinful depravity of the human heart, we can help others move away from these errors by pointing to what the Scriptures teach about our sinful condition. The Bible teaches that all people by nature are “dead in . . . trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1–5). In ourselves, we are unable to do anything spiritually pleasing to God (Rom. 5:6; Eph. 2:12). All our deeds apart from Christ are violations of God’s law, for which we deserve God’s eternal wrath and judgment (Matt. 7:23).
The terms legalism and antinomianism describe two false teachings regarding the relationship between the law and the gospel. Legalism is the insistence that a person is accepted by God on the basis of his law keeping. It teaches that we are declared righteous before God through our own observance of either God’s law or man-made rules and regulations. Antinomianism says that God does not require a believer to obey the moral law (i.e., the Ten Commandments). In its more extreme and perverted form, antinomianism permits immoral behavior based on the leniency of grace.
When did they begin?
Legalism and antinomianism are rooted in the fall of Adam. All mankind is predisposed to these two moral and theological errors. Accordingly, countless forms of legalism and antinomianism have surfaced throughout history. Legalism and antinomianism undergird all forms of false teaching and heresy.
Who are the key figures?
Jesus rebuked the religious leaders in Israel for their hypocritical, self-righteous teaching and lives (Matt. 23:4; Luke 18:9). The Apostle Paul stridently defended the gospel against the doctrinal legalism with which the early church was infected (Gal. 1–3; 1 Tim. 1:6–7).
The Roman Catholic Church has long promoted an elaborate system of religious legalism, which is most evident in its monastic asceticism, penitential system, sacramentalism, and emphasis on merit.1 Roman Catholicism denies the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone, teaching that a person is justified by faith in Christ together with his Spirit-wrought good works.
Doctrinal and practical legalism has surfaced in evangelical and Protestant churches over the centuries. By imposing obligations on members to observe man-made rules and regulations, many churches have advanced a form of man-centered legalism (Col. 2:20–23).
In recent decades, proponents of the New Perspective(s) on Paul have taught that a person’s final right standing before God is based on his obedience to God’s commands.
False religions such as Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism, because they teach a works-based salvation wherein we enter heaven or experience Nirvana because of our good deeds, are non-Christian forms of legalism.
In the early church, certain false teachers promoted the idea that God’s grace tolerates lawless living (see 2 Peter and Jude). Some wickedly dismissed sexual immorality in the name of grace (Jude 4). The Apostle John contended against antinomian ideas in his first letter (1 John 2:4).
Throughout church history, antinomianism has appeared in less overt and perverse forms than that in which it appeared in the early church. Martin Luther wrote Against the Antinomians to refute the erroneous teaching of the neo-Lutheran antinomian Johannes Agricola. Edward Fisher wrote The Marrow of Modern Divinity to address the undercurrents of legalism and antinomianism in certain streams of the Puritan movement. This book was also at the center of a debate over antinomianism in the Church of Scotland in the eighteenth century.2 In the twentieth century, notable dispensational teachers promoted a form of antinomianism called “easy-believism.”
What are the main beliefs?
In the church, legalism surfaces when people teach or believe these ideas:
- Get in by grace; stay in by law keeping. While most forms of legalism in the church deny strict merit in the sense that they affirm the necessity of grace, almost all insist that an individual’s good works are necessary for his final justification before God on judgment day. Roman Catholicism teaches that a person is initially justified at baptism;3 however, his final right standing before God is dependent on a life of continued adherence to religious rituals and Spirit-wrought good works.
- Meriting righteousness. Legalism teaches that people can cooperate with God in order to gain a right standing by their works. Though this view does not involve strict merit, it still reflects a meritorious scheme of salvation. Legalism is often accompanied by a self-righteous spirit in those who advance it.