Antinomianism vs. Legalism

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Antinomianism vs. Legalism

By: Frank J. Verderber


Does Justice and Mercy Ignore Proper Discipline?

Depending upon the denomination or the specific congregation of Believers, secondary doctrines can take on differing views. Whether the call is to give money or time, involves proper dress, or deportment, or as well, what can be considered proper food, or political discussions, differences quickly degrade into name calling - couched behind religious language. This one is a legalist and his antagonist is a liberal – she may be called a heretic, and others the apostates.

Since the Contemporary Church Universal is made of numerous denominations and traditions, the unanimity that was once the calling card of the Early Church, has been scattered - a host of differences are prevalent. Congregations and denominations have unknowingly accepted beliefs that are based upon pagan religions, secularism, psychology, commerce and politics. The only way to expose error is by proper doctrine. It is the truth gauge that church leaders and mature Christians make the determination as to what it is that God desires.

What God desires is the first indication of wisdom - to fear God. What follows is the Greatest Commandment, to Love the Lord our God. Then the second command will come next - to love your neighbor. But here is a thought: does love constitute saying nothing, in the face of obvious unrighteous and immoral activities? Secondary doctrine answers this query - “Better is open rebuke than hidden love,” so says Prov.27:5. Its corollary maxim follows:

Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you. Instruct a wise man and he will be wiser still; teach a righteous man and he will add to his learning.” [Prov.9:8-9]

What is acceptable to God, when one church decries any use of alcoholic beverages, while another serves up wine and beer at the church picnic? Perhaps, one church has boisterous sermons and rock music, while another has tastefully bland homilies augmented by organ music. Or consider a congregation that wears disheveled clothing in services, while another argues for formal attire. Who is right and who is wrong?

The Apostle Paul dealt with some of these issues and those issues, though clearly reviewed by scripture, apparently create more doubt today, as to the proper position within the modern Church. The Devil has slipped in unnoticed, and left his “doctrines of demons” as Paul warned it in Acts 20:30-31 and Titus 1:9-16.

Before the fireworks and name calling starts, within a family of God, it is good procedure if the leadership reviews similar events of the Early Church, and observe the response of the Apostle Paul and others. So let us consider the Bible’s method of “rightly dividing” the word of God with its dependence upon the original Greek, as we make our desire to love God and our neighbor - to do justly or judge rightly.


To label someone a legalist or a libertine, within a church body, is an easy thing to do, especially when confronting protocols of worship or general Christian behavior [obedience to the faith]. What is missing from the ranks of the name-callers is the understanding of Antinomianism and the true definition of a Legalist. God’s grace may be free, and we are called to liberty in Christ, but few in the modern American Church give thought to the effects of unfettered freedom. If there are no bounds, no requirements for worship or personal conduct, then the Church is a carnival, with each person doing as he pleases. To use a political simile, one may say: “as Legalism is to Right Wing politics, so is Antinomianism to Left wing politics.” The political euphemism is used only to build a general correlation of perspective.

There is nothing new under the sun, when confronting behavior, protocol, or doctrine. All of us would like to be sure that what we have believed is appropriate and settled, and yet the disciples learned to change their minds about a great many things, even after spending three intimate years with Christ. A good example of this is Peter’s attitude toward eating “unclean things.” Growth is exemplary in the life of a true disciple - hence Peter states in his second epistle:

“…add to your faith, goodness, to goodness knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control, perseverance, and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. [2Pe.1:5-7]

What each one of the eight attributes of growth means, cannot be articulated properly in this article, however, Peter wrote the eight attributes to demonstrate that behavior is a growth phenomenon. It is not stagnant. The purpose of personal spiritual growth is to help Christians become productive and effective in their knowledge of Christ - to prevent spiritual nearsightedness, and blindness, and allow the Christian to “…make your calling and election sure.” [2Pe.1:10]

Although the body of Christ may in general agree, from an intuitive response, that certain denominations tend to be Legalistic, the greater portion of American denominations are Antinomian in flavor – and therein lays the problem. If the prospective is made with blinders and a dull mind toward academics - with ears covered - then the argument from either side is un-debatable.

After all, Antinomianism is the easy way – totally selfish, indulgent, and motivated by adorning the flesh of man - accepting everyone and everything, never discriminating or obviating what is before them. Conversely, Legalism is the hard way – totally vain, self-absorbed in being superior than everyone else, and motivated by adoring the mind of man – critiquing, cataloguing, and criticizing everyone, everything, sustaining a negative view of all things until the person, object or idea meets with an individual or esoteric standard.

Most of us have seldom met people at either end of the spectrum, but all of us, at one time, have played the part – either as an Antinomian, or a Legalist – but the greater part of Christianity plays the Antinomian, simply because it is natural to hide our own sin, behind the veil of accepting the sins of others.

In the 1980’s, the humanists advertised the jargon of accepting bad behavior into a potpourri of, “you’re ok, and I’m ok, so let’s not say anything bad about one another.” [coined by Thomas A. Harris, MD, on Transactional Analysis.] This attitude is very evident in Christian circles today. It creates some peace, but neuters righteousness. It does nothing for Christian growth.

Legalism is properly defined as: 1. [IN GENERAL] Strict adherence to the Law, especially the letter rather than the spirit. 2. [THEOLOGICALLY] The doctrine that salvation is gained through works.

Antinomianism is properly defined as: [From anti, meaning against, and nomos, meaning law.] 1. [IN GENERAL] The rejection of socially established morality. 2. [THEOLOGICALLY] (a) A doctrine that maintains that Christians are free of moral law, by virtue of grace. (b) moral law is of no use or obligation because faith alone is necessary for salvation.

[Random House College Dictionary(1975), and Merriam Webster (2003)]

These principles of vanity are at both ends of the Christian spectrum. Legalism tries to regulate sin through domineering rules, while Antinomianism offers unfettered freedom to indulge sin and thus prove that grace just keeps on coming. However, we all know intuitively that sin is no more than what the individual wants in opposition to the desires of God. It also opposes the needs and desires others. In this, both systems are in agreement, in that they are in the realm of what man wants, not what God wants.

The two terms are of modern vintage - coming from the Reformation controversies of the late 1500’s. Calvin’s doctrine of salvation by faith ONLY, was inherently contradictory to Luther’s through scripture ONLY [Sola Fida]. One doctrine secures eternity for the believer based upon a simple personal revelation and God’s desire, while the other secures eternity by adherence to the revealed will of God – The course of the debates gave rise to other predicaments of Reformation - election verses free will or Calvinism vs. Arminianism. Neither Legalism nor Antinomianism can be found in the Bible, but the basis for them is presented early in Paul’s epistles.


Historically, the angst with legalism was first brought to the Churches attention by the Apostle Paul who in his epistle to the Galatians, argued against the demand for circumcision, as a right to follow Christ. Paul was so angered by the insistence of circumcision (a requirement of the Old Testament Ceremonial Law) that he railed out in sarcastic derision:

As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves.” [Gal.5:12]

The original Greek is more enlightening, in that it was a major play on words that expressed not only a physical cutting of their total manhood, but also their being cut off from God and the Church.

From this, came the term Judaizers or Circumcision group. The legalistic term of Judaized salvation, was, in its most base state, defined as: Atonement for Sin constituted a combination of the Sacrifice of Christ plus adherence to certain ceremonial approbations, the most important being circumcision. Paul rebuked this philosophy soundly in his letters to the Romans 2-4 and in his letter to the Galatians.

Paul expresses to the Galatians to “stand free,” and not be burdened again by the yoke of slavery - but slavery to what? The answer is slavery to Ceremonial Law, and specifically, circumcision. By accepting the ceremony of circumcision, they would be obligated to accept the rest of the Mosaic Ceremonial Law. [Gal5:1-3]

Paul taught justification by faith [Romans 4], but he never taught against the moral law, and as a matter of fact, Paul wrote regulatory commands and authoritative opinions about church regulation, as well as moral and civil behavior - the largest portion to be found in the Corinthian letters, I and II Timothy, and Titus.

The end of this is: that Calvin arrested some of the scripture for purposes of freeing the Reformationist from Roman Catholic doctrines of ceremony and superstition - and by doing it so succinctly, he cut out [to follow Paul’s reasoning] the moral obligations expected from a faithful follower of Christ.

Does God want us to practice philanthropy, and service, engage in proper public conduct, use protocols of worship, and have sexual propriety, or does he save us that we spend our lives on self-indulgence, no moral restraint with every man a law to himself? A repentant follower would intuitively recognize the obvious answer. If then a positive response is accepted toward philanthropy, service, and propriety, then there are standards to be found within the word of God. If they are found within the Word, then they are obligatory, out of love for what God desires.

Legalism has evolved since the days of Judaistic requirements of circumcision and holy days of obligation. It was Calvin’s fancy to reduce salvation to a simple declaration of faith only, but it lacked the full measure of Christ’s revelation. To be sure, salvation is by faith, not of works [Eph.2:8-9], but salvation’s first act is repentance [Mk.1:15; Ac.3:19] and is followed by daily obedience [Mt.10:38; 16:24]. Growth in Christ is a sign of a true disciple. Stagnation is a sign of heresy or apostasy, the end there in, if left unchecked, is death. [Heb.6:4-8] “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked, a man reaps what he sows.” [Gal.6:7-8]

Since Legalism is steeped in demands to Old Testament ceremonial law, it is unprincipled and stands as a false testimony to charge a brother as legalistic, who is encouraging or looking for obedience to Christ’s commands. It is especially unprincipled if that brother is arguing for growth in moral, civil, and spiritual behavior within relationships, and as well, conformity to worship protocols – especially from the ranks of Church leaders.

But obligation or obedience does not come about by virtue of peer pressure or fear. The obligation to please Christ comes from a person’s resulting life in Christ – their joy welling up to the point that the individual desires to pour out gifts to God, as well as to find God’s direction for their life. There is a strain existent between a church body’s direction, as a whole group, and the direction pursued by the individual. In general, the two directions should not be in opposition.

Every Church functions or rests upon a set of principles or regulations inherent in the New Testament. These general guidelines are to be taught by the leadership to preserve wholeness, as an aim of the Church body. However, individual needs and personal directions can, at times, not conform to the wish of the whole. An independent study of the general precepts of church protocols and a prayerful introspection will lead an individual and /or the Church leadership, to the proper response - if done sincerely.

One simple example of this would be: Members are to not to give up the assembling together, on a regular basis. It is God’s desire that they should meet at regulated times and places. However, if a person is called to be an evangelist, then that person will more often be absent from his church body, because of ministry constraints.

It may also be that some believers have responsibilities toward employment on regular days of worship, and they miss many meetings. The early church had this problem, since many of their members were slaves, who had duty to their masters. It was solved by having two worship serves each Sunday – one at sunrise and one at sunset. As well, the churches had other smaller meeting at house churches throughout the week.

Believers may miss a service, because of family requirements or recreational considerations, but their general intention should be the desire to be present with the body. If the desire is the perusing of worldly activities, then it demonstrates a lukewarm attitude toward Christ, his gift, and his church. In this case the Leadership should respond by encouragement, comradeship and dialog.

However, there yet remain activities that are fundamentally and directly opposed to the direction of the will of God for his church. Uncomely deportment or dress, drunkenness, improper speech, sexual misconduct etc, require immediate correction, and this, by way of rebukes, not patient endurance.

Legalism is not to be confused with discipline and obedience. Paul who argued for faith in God for salvation also said, “Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among the gentiles to the OBEDIENCE that comes from faith.” [Ro.1:5] Real faith in Christ is measured by obedience and conformity to the revealed will of God, in Christ.

References: NIV Bible; The Interlinear Greek-English New Testament; Schaff’s History of the Christian Church; The Cannon of Scripture by F.F. Bruce; Legalism – Wikipedia; Random House College Dictionary; Merriam Webster’s Dictionary.


Antinomian comes from two Latin words: anti meaning against, and nomos, meaning law – and so, “against law.” It can be used of those who are against secular as well as religious or spiritual law.

The word was coined by Martin Luther who wrote fiercely against Johannes Agricola (1530’s), who misused and twisted the Calvin’s Reformed doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone – pressing it to the farthest conclusion. His view was that Justified Christians are incapable of losing justification, holiness, and salvation from acts of disobedience, to include direct violation of the will of God.

This theory, or muse idea, was met by Luther who used the Romans 3:31, Eph. 5:6 and Pe.2:18-19 to combat the heresy. The three scriptures articulate that Christians do not: (a) nullify the law, but uphold it; (b) neither do they practice immorality in any of its variations, because God’s wrath is coming upon those that are disobedient; (c) hold to this theory because to teach “no-law” appeals to the desire of the fallen nature and ensnares the weak within the Church. (1)(2)

At first it appears that Luther is arguing against sexual license, however he is looking down the road at what final fruit lawlessness [the reject of God’s Law] will bring. Arguments of Israel in the desert bring to mind the Baal of Peor, and the Golden Calf incidents that ended in revelry and sexual promiscuity and reprobate worship.

The word Antinomian, a dysphemism (substitution to make inoffensive), is not found in the Bible, but it has an equivalent in the Greek adjective, anomos, and its noun anomia that mean, lawless or without law. A review of a few Biblical examples will evince the reason why Antinomian as a word, works so well as a descriptor under the following circumstances.

Ro.6:19 Don’t yield your bodies “…to ever increasing wickedness…” [iniquity - anomia]

Mt.7:20-23 Jesus rebuked those that profess him, but did not live as if he was lord. “…I never knew you. Away from me you evildoers.” [iniquity – anomia], [also see Mt.13:41]

Other examples: 2Th.2:7; Titus 2:14; Heb.1:9, 8:12, 10:17 (3)(4)

The first place we see this Antinomian controversy is in the scriptures, specifically, Romans 6 and Revelations 2. The books of Acts and Galatians are the only books that dealt with Legalism, beyond what Jesus had to say to the Pharisees.

In Ro.6:1, 15, we see Paul asking the main question - if we are saved by Justification should we practice our own brand of flesh, so that grace would abound to us? His answer was, NO! Paul’s augment was generated in response to the Gnostic cultus that Peter and the other apostles met upon during public evangelism [Acts. 8 and 13]. The Gnostics were keen on the idea of absorbing portions of Christianity into their potpourri of esoteric religion and philosophies. The Gnostics always appealed to the flesh and to freedom and personal choices. Paul was well read in the area of the Greek, Cretan, and Persian philosophies, and he sensed the flesh ready to receive a half-truth in order to work its self away from obedience.

We next see the fruit of Gnosticism which is the mother of Justification of unregulated freedom, in Christ or out. In Revelation, the glorified Christ walks among his churches [the good ones and the bad ones] much as Yehovah of the OT walked about the camp of Israel, in Leviticus and Numbers, to ferret out iniquity.

The church of Ephesus, in Rev.2, might be argued for as legalistic, because of their fastidiousness, yet they were commended for it. It was their taking Christ for granted that caused the rebuke. However, the churches of Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, and Laodicea had the pre-Gnostic habit of ignoring moral law, and it led to witchcraft, and sexual misconduct and pride. Pergamum accepted anyone into the congregation, even those who held occult knowledge, and taught the secrets of sexual power. Thyatira had leadership that openly taught freedom through sexuality and idolatry. Sardis’ Antinomian flavor, taught that worship quality need only be “good enough.” They were sloppy. They practiced a kind of, “here a little, there a little” philosophy [Is.29:7-15].

In his rebuke of Sardis, it is noteworthy that Jesus defines a proper relationship with him in terms of CLOTHING - clean clothing - and states that some had “…not soiled their clothes.” Although this prophesy ultimately points toward spirituality and future heavenly gifts, it is not unusual for the church to conform outwardly, as an act of faith, to demonstrate the future reality. Hence, most Christians come to the House of God in proper attire.

At Laodicea, Justification by wealth and pride attended their services, so much so, that anyone could enter. Again, where do we find the effeminate [Gk. – malakos] males in the churches of America? Are they in the poor inner city, or within the superfluous communities? Jesus gave us the answer in Mt.11:8 – they are to be found in the “palaces.” Overabundance of wealth, indifference, self-promoting freedom, and secretive knowledge, leads to Antinomianism – which defined is, iniquity [ammonia].

As a quick note: the word effeminate, comes from the Greek, “malakos,” and is used three times in the New Testament:

Mt.11:8 uses the word to describe the raiment or type of clothing worn.

Lk.7:25 uses the word as a metaphor that connotes a bad sense – something indiscrete.

1Cor.6:9 uses the word to mean lewdness, engaged in the sins of the flesh, voluptuousness, cupidity and homosexuality. So it is that Jesus, within his Gospel accounts, recognized the full expressions of the sins of the flesh that were rampant at Herod’s palace - and those in Jerusalem, who enjoyed riches and pleasure.

The next place Antinomianism was found was in the second century, under the Gnostic cults of Marcion, and the Carpocratians. Marcion taught that Christians were FREE, not only from the ceremonial law, but also the whole of the Old Testament. The Carpocratians taught that Christians were FREE to engage in every sort of idolatry and licentiousness. (1)(5)

After the controversy between Agricola and Luther, we find the Antinomian controversy in America, in the City of Boston, circa 1630.

A woman of influence, Mrs. Hutcheson who had recently come from England, joined the Boston church and began to push a new doctrine, concerning Calvin’s Justification by Faith. In it she stated that justification is an immediate, divine revelation to the individual, by the will of the Holy Spirit, and that any other outward descriptions and acts are not necessary. Any person, who believed they were saved, need not prove a thing to anyone else – neither must they provide any works, nor fruit, etc. She added that since this is so, the Christian need never do any good works at all. She and her followers were judged by convocation of Puritan-Calvinist leaders at the Synod of Newton in 1636, and she left the church soon after. (6) As Calvinists, they thought her ideas were apostate.

Contemporary Christians would argue Freedom in Christ [2Co3:17], but 1Peter2:16 argues that we should NOT use our freedom to cover up sin. The Apostle Paul backs-up Peter twice, with the statement, “all things are permissible, but not all things are beneficial” [1Cor.6:12; 1Cor.10:23]. Paul does so in 1Cor.6:12 - in relation to sexual freedom - reminding them that they are bound to Christ. In 1Cor.10:23, concerning matters of conscience, he states that we are bound to one another, and that we should not seek our own good, but others good.

The fact is, although Paul presented justification by faith, in Romans 5, he made it plain that our justification came about according to obedience [Ro.5:19.]

It is in Ro.5:20 that Gnostics and Antinomians arrest the following scripture:

The law was added so the trespass might increase. But were sin increased, grace abounds all the more…” [Ro.5:20]

This is the reason behind the effect of grace [the why? of it] - that is, the key to understanding the whole proposition. Continuing this line of understanding:

“…just as sin reigned in death, grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life.” [Ro.5:21]

In conclusion, grace (free gift) and righteousness (obedience), go hand in hand, to produce eternal life.

Paul immediately recognized that the wicked heart would take liberty, so he starts Chapter six with rhetorical question:

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning that grace may increase? By no means!” [Ro.6:1] And he reiterates a similar query: “Shall we sin because we are not under law, but under grace? By no means!” [Ro.6:15]

Paul’s first appeal, obedience to the moral law of God, is by virtue of our identification with Christ’s burial and resurrection. His second appeal is that we have offered ourselves to Christ for obedience to him. If we use our freedom to cover up our sin, we are then offering ourselves as slaves to sin. [Ro.6:1-23] He ends the chapter with the warning:

For the wages of sin are death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.” [Ro.6:23]

The previous scripture clearly follows that we are bound for obedience to Christ, and this by virtue of his obedience to the moral law - so we also are bound to it. Justification is by faith and obedience, and the two demonstrate love - as the opening of Romans proclaims:

Through him and for his name sake we receive GRACE and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the OBEDIENCE that comes from FAITH.” [Ro.1:5]

The conclusion of the matter: Justification, without obedience, is no Justification at all. Mature leaders will be willing to correct disobedience [2Co.10:5-6]. As followers of Christ we learn through obedience and suffering [Heb.5:8]. The Elect are sanctified through obedience and the blood of Christ. [1Pe.1-2]

I shall boldly say it again – Justification is NOT by faith ONLY, but by faith and obedience, unto the revealed will of God, his moral law, his desire and pleasure, and the needs of our brothers!

If then obedience to the law is necessary, in order to be sanctified, and to grow in grace, to what moral laws do we submit, out of respect and love for Christ? The answer: all the moral prerogatives bound within the Old Testament and the New Testament, as well as, what our conscience gathers. For his sake we are bound to obey what pleases God in accord with worship.

We do NOT keep Sabbath days because they are ceremonial. However, the Sabbath day has been reset into an eight day, which has become every day in Christ [Heb.4:1-11]. We do NOT keep dietary laws because they are ceremonial, but use some for good health. However, we tithe, because the tithe was before the law [Heb7:1-10]. To honor God with our first fruits of our hands is acceptable as a fellowship offering.

Would not any of us help a neighbor retrieve his animal from a pit on Sunday? We would help our neighbor, because it is the moral and loving thing to do, even though the same law is found in Ex.23:4-5 [also see Lk.13:15; 14:5]. Out of love for our brothers, Christian’s reject gossip and the spreading of false rumors, even though the prohibition is found in Ex.23:1 [see 2Co.12:20]. The fact that the prohibition, or demand, is found in the Old Testament, as Christians we keep it freely, because it is a moral prerogative, and justified by love acting in faith.

CONSIDER that Old and New Testament assemblies had worship that involved: avoiding idol feasts, not mixing the profane or common with the holy, sobriety, cleanliness of self and clothing, appropriate clothing, timely assembly, orderly worship, joyous singing and instrument playing, and serious presentations of the word.

Of these topical desires of God that concern worship, Paul reiterated these very items in 1Corrintians, chapters 10-14. So, herein lays the concept of keeping the moral code of the Old Testament, as well as those that are mentioned in the New Testament.

It would follow that all proper activities found in the Old and New Testament that correspond to being a good neighbor or citizen - all behavior concerning compassion and truth are binding upon the Elect - through obedience and faith - for purposes of discipline and sanctification.

This method of worship is our “reasonable service.” [Ro.12:1] It is NOT Legalism, but is designed to help us not conform to the pattern of the world [Ro.12:2]. It is good doctrine.

For a Christian to avoid the moral law in preference to Antinomianism [his own desires] is rebellion, and as we all know, “Rebellion is as witchcraft.” [1Sam.15:23]

Paul feared this of the carnal Corinthian church, when he wrote, “I fear that there may be quarreling, jealousy, outbursts, of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance, and disorder” [2Co.12:20]

Christians are bound to obey the moral law, because Christ obeyed it, and we are bound to Christ. A disciple of Jesus cannot say, “Love everyone and do as I will” - the Wiccans keep that command. But a disciplined learner of Jesus Christ will say,

Love the Lord my God, and Love my neighbor as myself, and this, according to the commands of the Lord.”


(1) Antinomianism - Catholic Encyclopedia, at

(2) Agricola, Johannes – Encyclopedia Americana Vol. 1, pg. 341; (1982Ed.)

(3), Pastor Gary R. Jepsen, Maple Lake, Mn.

(4) Vines Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, pg. 600, ISBN 0-917006-03-8

(5) Schaff’s History of the Christian Church, Vol. 2, pg. 445-493, ISBN 0-8028-8048-7

(6) Sheldon’s History of the Christian Church, Vol. 4, pg. 229-231