Two Words to Know, Two Dangers to Avoid

People sometimes talk about how Christians can speak “Christianese”- using terms that only make sense to other Christians and would make no sense to people outside of the church or who have not gone up in the church culture. (for more on that, see this list of words).

I realize that there can also be something of “pastor-ese” or “theologian-ese,” using specialized terms and ideas that very well might only make sense to those with theological training. Now, not everyone needs to be a “theologian” (though I would submit that we are all theologians -- as we all have thoughts and ideas about God, which is the definition of “theology”), but there are some terms and ideas in the realm of “theologian-ese” that would be good for all of us to know because they make us aware of dangers we are prone into.

These two words are “Legalism” and “antinomianism.” Pastor and author Tim Keller defines them this way in his book, Preaching (p. 49)

  • Legalism = “the view that we can put God in our debt and procure his blessing with our goodness”
  • Antinomianism = “the idea that we can relate to God without obeying HIs Words and commands”

Functionally, legalism is using the law as the way to earn favor with God and antinomianism (literally, “against the law”) is ignoring the law of God. These attitudes can be seen in both Christians and non-Christians. Some people who are not Christians think they can earn favor with God through their works (legalism) while others think that it doesn’t matter what they do because God is love, so he will take them as they are and never call for them to change their lives or behavior (antinomianism). Legalism in Christians is shown in thinking that God loves us because of what we do and therefore we need to be careful to develop good rules and following them (which takes away joy in Christians); antinomianism thinks that because God loves me, it doesn’t matter what I do. Both are distortions of the gospel message that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, but that this faith is never alone, as God transforms us through His Spirit to obey His law. While legalism and antinomianism might seem like opposites, in his book The Whole Christ, Scottish professor and pastor Sinclair Ferguson highlights that they have the same cause and the same cure.

The same cause is that both separate God’s love from His law, His character from His commands. This separation fails to see how the law of God and the love of God are connected and causes one to view God as one who has conditional love for us, as one whose favor must be earned. In essence, we do not trust God and thus do not trust God’s law as being good for us, which leads us to either break or ignore God’s law; we do not feel it is good for us and do not want this burden on us (antinomianism) or we view it as a tool or means to get God’s blessing, convincing him of our worth for blessing by our obedience (legalism). Essentially, Ferguson notes both legalism and antinomianism are related to how we feel and think about God - is he a gracious Father or “He whose-favor-has to be earned” (p. 82)? The issue is not the law or commands of God but our hearts and dispositions toward God.

Which danger are you more likely to fall into? Are you more likely to be following the law as a way to make sure God is on your side, or are you more likely to run away from any form of commands for your life because you view them as restrictive?

Regardless of which one are prone to, the answer is the same. The solution to both dangers is Christ and the beauty of God’s grace in him, as the issue is not really our view of the law or commands of God but our view of God Himself. When we look to Christ, we see that we have a loving God who has sent His son for us; this leads to a relationship that is assured of love (against legalism) but also produces trust in the commands of the God who loves us (against antinomianism) -- and even the empowerment of the Spirit to follow these good commands that come from a good God. We now delight in the duty of following God.

This is why we proclaim Christ week after week; we seek to confront both the attitude of legalism and the attitude of antinomians. We call people to obey God’s Word, not to earn God’s favor but because of the grace that is given to us in Christ. As Paul tells Titus in Titus 2:11-13 “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passion, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessing hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”

Legalism and Antinominanism: Two words to know, two dangers to avoid, one common cause, and one awesome cure in Christ.

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