The Difference Between Antinomianism and Legalism in a Christian’s Life

The Difference Between Antinomianism and Legalism in a Christian’s Life

When it comes to the Christian life, there are two opposite but dangerous errors when it comes to understanding the law – antinomianism and legalism. Antinomianism is the teaching that since Jesus fulfilled the law, we have no law to follow and are free to do anything we want. Legalism is the opposite and teaches that to be saved, we need to receive Jesus as our savior and keep the law. A legalist might invent new laws for believers to keep. Paul’s letters will help guide us through these errors.

At first, it might seem that it would be okay to be legalistic as a way to be holy. But Paul speaks against this way of thinking very harshly in Galatians 5:1-4. Paul says trying to be justified by the law is to be “severed from Christ” and to be fallen away from grace. Paul does not mean that those who believe in this way have lost their salvation, but that they have placed their salvation in the wrong place.

Sometimes legalism can come from an understandable place. A Christian might not drink alcohol because of the damage it has caused in their life. But to carry it to the next step and say that no true Christian can ever drink alcohol is to put a restriction in place that God has not.

On the other hand, there is antinomianism. This belief comes from a misunderstanding that since Jesus fulfilled the law, we no longer have to obey it. It is true that we cannot be saved by the law, but it does not mean that we have no law to obey. As Christians we still sin, but we should no longer enjoy it and should consider ourselves dead to it. Paul speaks against this false teaching in very clear terms when he says, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it (Romans 6:1-2)?” He repeats this theme by listing the sins that must be avoided in many of his letters to churches (see Romans 1:24-32, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Galatians 5:19-21, Ephesians 4:19, Colossians 3:5-6, 1 Thessalonians 4:4-8).

If both legalism and antinomianism are wrong, what do we do? How do we balance these out? Again, Paul helps us out in two key passages.

First, we look at Romans 14:1-3 where Paul illustrates this by talking about how a strong Christian should relate to one weaker in faith. The principle is clear – if a behavior is not prohibited by God but a fellow believer who is “weak in faith” chooses to abstain, then the stronger believer should honor the weaker one and abstain as well. Paul says that we will give account to God how we act in these situations (Romans 14:12) and then says, “pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding (Romans 14:19).”

Next, we look at Colossians. When we are unsure if our actions are sinful, we remember Colossians 3:17, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” Ask yourself, “can I do _____ in the name of Jesus and thank God through it?”

Let that be your guide prayerfully as you seek to receive the grace of Jesus, glorify God and love Him forever.