Serving Christians Seeking to Live a Holy Life

Legalism and Antinomianism

"Two Gutter Balls"
Leon L. Combs, Ph.D.

Salvation is by faith. But what kind of faith saves? The faith that saves is a faith that has the right object and the right qualities. A faith that holds Christ and his atoning work as its object and a faith that is application-oriented, these compose saving faith. There are those who hold the wrong object of faith. These are those who put faith in their works. Then there are those who claim to believe the right thing, but have no applications to their faith. Among these later ones are what are called antinomians. They take that doctrine of salvation by faith alone to the extreme. The Protestant faith isn't simply mental assent to a set of doctrines, but rather a faith that is application oriented - Faith being the source, and works being the inevitable outcome.

Catholic theology can be represented by the equation Faith + Works --> Justification.

Protestant theology can be represented by the equation Faith --> Justification + Works. Perhaps we can even extend this last equation to lead to sanctification by indicating it as:

Faith --> Justification + Works --> Sanctification. Of course the sanctification is never complete while we remain in this present state. The completed process will actually be glorification, again done by God, Himself.

Let's think about this topic by imagining that we are bowling. Let the figure below represent a bowling lane with the triangle the pen setup. For those of us who have bowled, we remember with embarrassment the throwing of gutter balls. We want to make a strike, but we sometimes throw a gutter ball. In the Christian walk we also always want to throw strikes, but we also sometimes throw gutter balls. One gutter ball that we sometimes throw is gutter ball left as indicated below: legalism. Another gutter ball that we sometimes throw is antinomianism as indicated below as gutter ball right.

Most Christians are familiar with the term "legalism", which applies to someone who is trying to achieve justification before almighty Holy God by his/her own works. It doesn't take a lot of Biblical knowledge to understand how futile such an effort is. However it is easy for a Christian (saved by faith from God and due to no work of his/her own) to fall into legalism, so it is something that we need to always be on guard against.

However, perhaps not as many people are familiar with the concept of antinomianism. The word comes from "anti" meaning against and "nos" meaning law. The New American Dictionary defines antinomianism as "The doctrine or belief that the Gospel frees Christians from required obedience to any law, whether scriptural, civil, or moral, and that salvation is attained solely through faith and the gift of divine grace." Or "The belief that moral laws are relative in meaning and application as opposed to fixed or universal."

The antinomian has taken "sola fide" to an extreme not ever meant by the reformers. A faith that doesn't work or one that is even anti-"good works" is not saving faith as the Bible describes it, but rather is a dead faith, as we find in James 2:17, "faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead."

We must always remember that God alone justifies as indicated in the Scripture below.

Mark 10:45 "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."

Also we must also always remember that God is the one who regenerates us as stated below.

But we are not justified and regenerated to just sit in a pew and do nothing as indicated below (underlines and bold is my addition). Note that Jesus also said that we have work to do as indicated in the following Scriptures:

Luke 9:23 And He was saying to {them} all, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.

Note in Matt 25:40, Jesus refers to them doing work for "one of these brothers of Mine". Of course not every human being is a brother of Jesus; it is only the ones who have justified and regenerated that are brothers of Jesus. So Jesus here is telling us that we need to do the works that He mentioned to fellow Christians.

Or as Paul clearly states:

Certainly all of the above Scriptures tell us that antinomianism is not acceptable behavior for a Christian. We love Jesus so we want to obey Him and do the work that He has prepared for us. However in doing those works, we must guard against falling into legalism. Another question remains: "How do we know all the works that we are to do?" The answer is to study the Word of God and we will quickly and easily see many commandments that we are to obey, including 2 Peter 1:5,6 for this is a command. You can quickly find many more as you allow the Holy Spirit to guide you in your study of Scripture.


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Web Author: Dr. Leon L. Combs
Copyright 2000 by Dr. Leon L. Combs - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED