Legalism and Antinomianism Vs. Law and Gospel
Trinity 13| Galatians 3:15-22 (& Luke 10:23-37)| Pastor James Preus| September 11, 2022
Today, I want to teach you two words, so that you can avoid at all costs becoming one of them: legalist and antinomian. A legalist is someone who, claiming to hold a strict interpretation of the law, manipulates the law to his own advantage, condemning others and justifying himself. Antinomian means against the law. Anti means against. Νομος (nomos) is Greek for law. So, an antinomian is a person who is against the law. Both legalism and antinomianism are isms, which oppose the Christian religion.
In our Gospel lesson, a certain lawyer stood up to test Jesus. Our English translation of the Bible calls him a lawyer. The Gr eek word is νομικός (nomikos). But he wasn’t an attorney at law, which you normally associate with the title lawyer. He wasn’t a criminal defense attorney, he wouldn’t help you if the government accused you of cheating on your taxes, or help you sue a fast-food chain if you spilt hot coffee on your lap. Rather, this lawyer was an expert in the Law. So, far from being an antinomian, he devoted his life to the Law, specifically, the Jewish Law, known as the Torah. He studied the Torah diligently. He learned the rules in organized categories. And he sought to live according to the Law, to the best of his ability. However, this lawyer was a legalist.
Now, some will define a legalist as one who holds a strict interpretation of the Law. But if that were so, Jesus would be a legalist. Jesus held a much stricter interpretation of the Law than this lawyer. It is Jesus who said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17-18) It is Jesus who said that whoever is angry at his brother is liable to the judgment of a murderer and that whoever lusts after a woman has already committed adultery in his heart. It is Jesus who forbids divorce and requires us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, and to give to the needy without seeking praise from others.
The legalist lawyer, on the other hand, sought to manipulate the law to his own benefit. “Love your neighbor? Well, who is my neighbor?” He said this, so that he could make the commandment more doable, and so that he could avoid the responsibility to love each person, whom God gave him to love. Jesus, on the other hand, tells a story of perfect, unconditional love in the Good Samaritan, and commands, “Go and do likewise.” Jesus is not a legalist, rather, he teaches the Law perfectly.
Well, if the lawyer is a legalist, then St. Paul must be an antinomian, right? It’s St. Paul who writes that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Galatians 3:11) St. Paul clearly teaches that no one will be justified by works of the Law, but through faith in Christ Jesus (Galatians 2:16). He goes on and on about the superiority of the promise to grant righteousness and eternal life through faith over the law, which relies on your works. So, certainly, Paul must be an antinomian. He is against the law.
Nothing of the sort! St. Paul is not an antinomian! St. Paul is not against the Law! He simply teaches along with all of Scripture, that a person is not justified, that is, a person is not declared righteous and an heir of eternal life by his works, but rather through faith in Christ. The term antinomian was coined during the Reformation. Martin Luther taught with St. Paul that a person is not justified by his works, but through faith in Christ alone, who has made satisfaction for our sins by his death on the cross. Good works, Luther taught, did nothing to contribute to a person’s salvation. However, some misinterpreted this teaching to say that the Law was no longer useful for Christians. Christians, having been born again through faith, no longer needed the Law, they only needed the Gospel. However, this is a great mistake, because Christians are still sinners. Christians still need to learn to repent of their sins every day. And as sinners, Christians need to be taught what is pleasing to God.
This is why St. Paul, who although teaches that a person is justified apart from works of the Law, but through faith alone, also warns Christians against the works of the flesh: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, etc., warning that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God, and he exhorts his Christians to “walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” Although Christians desire to do what is right according to their reborn nature, they still have that old Adam luring them to do what is evil. So, they use the Law to curb their sinful nature and as a guide to do what their newborn-self desires to do.
The original antinomians didn’t say that Christians should commit adultery, murder, and steal. They taught that Christians didn’t need to be taught these things, because Christians wouldn’t do these things. What developed was an oppressive legalism, which made those who said they were free of the law twice as much slaves of the law as they were before. Yet, another extreme of antinomianism, which is common today is called license. A licentious person lives as he wills and ignores the law entirely. Licentious people believe they have every right to fornicate, to commit sexual immorality, to get drunk, to lie, gossip, steal, or whatever their fancy is. However, even this form of antinomianism is not the opposite of legalism, because even licentious antinomians have rules, and if you break their rules, then they will condemn you. We Christians see this clearly today, as many have embraced homosexuality, transgenderism, fornication, and abortion in the name of God’s love, yet, if you speak what God actually says about these things, you will be condemned as a judgmental bigot. Legalism and antinomianism are two sides of the same coin. Neither of them extols the Law of God. Rather, both the legalist and the antinomian exalt themselves above God’s Law, twisting and manipulating it to serve their own purposes.
Instead of twisting, manipulating, or trying to abolish the law like the legalist and the antinomian, Scripture teaches you to put the Law and the Gospel in its proper place. The Law does not justify you before God. That belongs to the Gospel alone. St. Paul proves this by pointing out that the Gospel promise was given to Abraham 430 years before the Law was given through Moses. God promised that all families of the earth would be blest through the promised seed, which is Christ. Abraham believed God, and God counted his faith as righteousness. God did the same for Isaac and Jacob, for the patriarchs, and many other generations before he ever gave the Law to Moses. So, to say that a person is justified by the Law or that the inheritance of eternal life is given by the Law would be to say that God changed or abolished the promise or that he did not give it to Abraham, which he did!
Why then the Law? If the Gospel promise was already in place, and if it is through faith in the Gospel that a person is saved, then why did God add the Law? St. Paul tells us, because of transgressions. You see, the Law does not fail to justify you, because it is bad. The Law is good. The Law fails to justify you, because you are bad. The Law depends on your works. It is not the hearers of the Law who are justified, but the doers. This is why St. Paul writes, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” (Galatians 3:10) And of course, no one, except Jesus alone, has ever abided perfectly by the Book of the Law.
So, God added the Commandments of the Law to hem us in as sinners (Galatians 3:22). Through the Law comes knowledge of our sin (Romans 3:20). You recite the Ten Commandments or listen to Jesus’ strict interpretation of the Law, and it is like looking in a mirror and seeing your sins as God sees them. This should bring you to repentance. A Christian is a repentant sinner. A repentant sinner does not argue with God on whether he’s broken the Law or not. A repentant sinner calls the Law good and confesses to having broken it. The fornicator hears the Sixth Commandment, which teaches, “You shall not commit adultery,” and says, “Amen.”, and asks God for forgiveness, and seeks to live a better life. The gossip hears the Eight Commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” and says, “Amen,” asks God for forgiveness, and seeks to speak well and truthfully of others.
It is only when you recognize that you are a sinner that you recognize your need for a Savior. If you think that the Law does not condemn you, which is what the legalist and antinomian convince themselves of, then you will not look to Christ for forgiveness. Then the Law truly will condemn you to hell. But, if you acknowledge that you have broken God’s Law and that you need to do better, then you see Christ Jesus as your Savior from sin.
Although the commandments of the Law were added because of sin, the spirit of the Law has aways existed. From eternity God has desired that we love him with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and that we love our neighbors as ourselves. And in the beginning before the Law was ever given, this is how it was. Before the fall, Adam had perfect trust, fear, and love for God. And Adam loved his neighbor as himself. He said of his wife, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.” No more loving words have ever been spoken by a man to his wife. Yet, sin made the commandments necessary. As sinners, Adam and Eve and their children no longer desired to do what is right. Now, we are selfish from our birth.
Yet, Jesus came to fulfill the Law in our place. He fulfilled every commandment God gave, not simply because it was written down, but because he knew it was God’s desire and it was his own desire as well. Although the Law condemns you as a sinner, the Law declares Jesus righteous and without sin. Yet, according to God’s holy will, Christ Jesus, our God and brother, suffered the punishment for your sins on the cross. It is through faith in Jesus alone that we have no fear of the Law. Now, we can seek to do the works of the law without cheating or manipulating them, because we are justified through faith before we even begin to do works of the Law.
Without Jesus, you’ll waver between legalism and antinomianism, trying to escape the law’s commands with your own cunning. But it won’t work. God’s Law will condemn every sinner. Yet, with Jesus, you escape the condemnation of the Law, receiving God’s love and forgiveness for the sake of Christ. And having received God’s love through faith, then you can have boldness to do likewise for your neighbor, to love and do good to others without fear of judgment.