A wise and mature Christian teacher recently commented, “I am concerned that in running from legalism, we don’t become totally antinomian.”
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By “legalism,” my friend meant the notion that we can obtain God’s favor through our own record of obedience. “Antinomian” is a double-jointed word from two Greek words meaning “against law,” and it refers to that error which twists God’s mercy into a license to sin.
Both errors are as old as the New Testament. Some first-century Jews tried to make circumcision and observing the Torah conditions of salvation (Acts 15), and some Gentiles tried to enhance their position toward God through secret rituals and esoteric “knowledge” (Colossians). At the other extreme were those who argued that grace means living any way one wishes, thus abusing God’s kindness and perverting true grace (1 Cor. 5:1-2; 6:9-30; 2 Pet. 3:1-3; Jude 3-4). New Testament authors responded to both errors with the same apostolic cure — a proper devotion to, dependence on and understanding of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul uses that “cure” against legalism in Romans 3-4 and Galatians 2-3, and he uses it against antinomianism in Romans 6, Colossians 3, Galatians 5-6 and Ephesians 4-6.
These twin sharks of legalism and license have always followed the gospel ship down through the ocean of time. If we never sight either predator, I should wonder whether we are preaching the gospel as radically and purely as we ought. When we do see them, we have the gospel answer — the Lord Jesus Christ, who both justifies and sanctifies everyone who through faith receives the Father’s grace (2 Cor. 5:17-6:2).