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The Path Between Legalism And Antinomianism

As long as the church has existed it appears that there have been some people making too much of the law and some people making too little. The Apostle Paul spent a great deal of his time pushing back against those who were making too much of the law. To the Galatians he said things like:

“we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (Galatians 2:16 ESV)

“For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.” (Galatians 2:19 ESV)

“if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” (Galatians 2:21 ESV)

“Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” (Galatians 3:2 ESV)

The Galatians were making too much of the Old Testament Law and Paul was pushing back on that.


But less than a generation later, the Apostle John is having to push back equally hard in the exact opposite direction. He appears to have been dealing with an outbreak of antinomianism in his churches. The term “antinomian” refers to someone who is opposed to the law. There were people in the early church who saw NO VALUE in the law and NO NEED to respect or use the law, since people were saved by grace. To these sorts of people John said:

“And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. 4 Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:3–4 ESV)

“whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.” (1 John 3:22–24 ESV)

“By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. 3 For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” (1 John 5:2–3 ESV)

It is interesting to note that John avoids using the word “law” – it does not appear in his epistles – but he does speak a great deal about “commandments”. Specifically, John regularly uses the phrase “his commandments” as opposed to “the commandments” – and that is a significant difference. For John, it isn’t adherence to a legal code written on stone that marks the true believer, but rather, a loving submission to an authoritative Master.

The Creed of the Christian for John is captured perfectly in 1 John 5:2:

“we love God and obey his commandments.” (1 John 5:2 ESV)

So was John one of those nasty legalists that the Apostle Paul was pushing back on?

Absolutely not!

The Apostle Paul was on precisely the same page. Paul was not opposed to authority; he did not intend for his people to live lives of anarchy and unfettered libertinism, but nor did he want them slavishly obeying the letter of the law. They were grown-ups! They were brothers, sisters, friends of Jesus Christ and it was his love that should now compel them. He said to the Corinthians:

“For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; 15 and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” (2 Corinthians 5:14–15 ESV)

They way of the Apostles steers a straight path between the path of legalism on the one hand and antinomianism on the other. It is the path of glad allegiance to the person and Lordship of Christ. Through his office as King, the moral excellence of God and the timeless wisdom of God continue to be proclaimed and cherished in the hearts of his people. Born again, Spirit filled people do not “obey the law”, they follow Christ, who wrote the law, obeyed the law, fulfilled the law and who now embodies the law in all its enduring perfections – thanks be to God!

Pastor Paul Carter

To listen to the most recent episodes of Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. To access the entire library of available episodes see here. You can also download the Into The Word app on iTunes or on Google Play.