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Legalism and Antinomianism

A friend of mine with a Ph.D. in biblical studies joined a small neighborhood church. He was hoping to find there a church home that he could disappear into, and become an “ordinary” member without having to wear his degree on his sleeve. It didn’t last long. A controversy blew up in the church surrounding another new member, a single woman whose loose-fitting apparel offended certain of the congregation, including the pastor. When he confronted her about the need to wear something more formal to church, she refused, and accused the pastor of being a legalist. He in turn told her that she misunderstood God’s grace if she thought that her behavior was Christian. Eventually he decided in consultation with the church board to excommunicate her. My friend was asked to lend his considerable academic authority in support of the pastor’s decision. But he could not do that, partly because he had not been consulted, but neither would he have agreed with the action if he had been. The result was that both the woman and my friend’s family were invited to leave the church.

Legalism is the tendency within the Christian life to favor legal assurances and practices in one’s journey of faith. Antinomianism (from the Latin “against the law”) is the tendency to disparage or underemphasize the place of precepts, commandments, and ordinances in one’s Christian journey of faith, in the intention of affirming that salvation is by grace. To refer to them as tendencies acknowledges that they rarely if ever emerge as pure positions in the Church or in church communities. Further, they are not names chosen by the groups themselves, but labels that are applied in debate by opponents; that is, Christian groups accuse others of being legalistic or antinomian, but none adopts either designation for itself.  They did crystallize as distinct theological stances shortly after Luther commenced his work of reformation, assisting the clarification of his doctrine of justification by faith alone.1 Even then, however, the positions were relative rather than absolute, and each debater insisted that he was on the side of the gospel of grace, while the opposition, legalistic or antinomian, was perverting it.

Nevertheless the pair of terms represents an important perennial issue in Christian belief and ethics, as witnessed by its persistence in Christian talk. At what point does a group become so concerned with pursuing a Christian ethic that their Christianity is no longer a testimony to grace, but instead to law? Or when does a Christian in his or her affirmation of God’s forgiving mercy exchange the Lord of the commandments for a mushy enabler of indulgence that bears no relation to the God of the Old and New Testaments? In all the subjectivity of our experience of law and grace, are there any objective helps in bringing about a resolution to this age-old argument, at least in particular cases, or in specific moments of our own spirituality?

If Luther’s writings spurred the issue historically, Paul’s writings address it most pointedly in the New Testament. He wrote the Epistle to the Galatians, for instance, to intervene against a group that were telling new Gentile converts in Galatia essentially that if they wished to experience full Christianity, they had adopt Jewish practices, and important elements of the Law of Moses.2 What is notable is that in the course of his very urgent intervention he warned these new Christians of the danger both of a return to the lawless tyranny of the “flesh” as well as a cultivation of law as a means of salvation; both antinomianism and legalism were antithetical to Christian faith and indeed salvation (Gal. 5:2, 19-21). Over against both of these, he proffers Christian freedom.

Paul lays out his challenge in two parallel statements in the fifth chapter of Galatians, after he has propounded in ch. 1-4 the basis of his gospel of justification by faith. In 5:1 he writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” The “yoke of slavery” is clearly a reference to the law, as the verses immediately preceding and succeeding show (4:21-31; 5:2-4). But in 5:13 he warns in similar terms against indulgence: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh.” There is some history of debate as to why Paul should attribute two such disparate temptations to the one group; surely they were either legalistic or antinomian! This has led some to see the paraenetic section of Galatians (ch. 5-6) as less relevant to or connected with rest of the latter, composed of short pieces of advice that had not much to do with the particular issue in Galatia. This impression is confirmed to some extent by the series of one- or two-liners that makes up chapter 6. A second opinion has held that Paul was fighting on two fronts in Galatia; some leaders pushed the Jewish law, while others of more Gnostic tendency advocated a release from legal obligation.3 Perhaps a recent consensus is forming around the analysis of John Barclay. In Obeying the Truth: God’s Ethics in Galatia, he suggests that in their conversion to Christianity the Gentile Galatians were particularly challenged (in a way that Jewish converts would not necessarily be) by the ethics of self-denial common to Christianity and Judaism. In their enthusiasm to conform, they would have found a strong appeal in the strictness of the law, and may well have seen in it the possibility of achieving a sort of super-Christianity. In that view the Gentile converts would have been on something of a pendulum swing between antinomianism and legalism. Thus it would be Paul’s task to offer a clear alternative to both, an alternative that was opposed to both legalism and antinomianism as firmly as “gospel” is opposed to “not the gospel” (1:6-9).4 

A value of such an analysis is that it construes the legalism-antinomianism tension as occurring in several different levels at once, which is probably also the way we deal with it ourselves. It is in one sense a tension between Paul’s churches and traveling teachers from Judea preaching a different spirituality. We too can detect and judge legalism or antinomianism in groups tangent to the ones we belong to, in variations of belief, community organization, preaching, or practices. In another sense the tension in Galatia resides within one of Paul’s churches, in a group that worships together and knows each other well. So also we may feel that others of “us,” people with whom we have some commitment as a worshiping body, are negotiating this tension in an unadvised way. Thirdly, Paul is very much aware that the unresolved tension is personal for many of the members of the Galatian church. And this third level of tension is where he focuses most of his rhetoric. While he has disparaging comments about Judean leaders,5 and harsh criticism of those who manipulate groups within the Galatian church,6 his letter is written the Galatian believers as such, to reestablish the truth and security of the gospel in their hearts and minds.

Taking this cue from Paul, let us propose that the heart of the issue of the legalism-antinomianism tension can be best addressed in the believer’s own experience—that is, in our experience. If our own understanding is settled on where it stands with us, we might assume that we will be more efficient at addressing the issue as it arises in intramural or extramural exchanges. But if we are not settled about it, then all such discussions will hardly avoid the nature of a projection of our own unease and confusion.

Years ago I heard an interpretation of Gal. 5:1 and 13 that made a clear and lasting impression, although I don’t think it can be the final word. A Christian psychologist explained to our seminary chapel group that the legalism of v. 1 and the antinomianism of v. 13 could be seen to correspond to the Freudian construal of the human psyche as composed of the ego, the superego, and the id. In this construction, the superego is the continuing influence of the regulating “parental” voice, the id is the undomesticated mass of instinct and desire, and the ego is the proper self, which achieves and sustains healthy personhood by asserting itself appropriately in relation to both superego and id. The application is obvious: each of us has a pull toward legalistic authority, as well as a pull toward undisciplined indulgence. Neither of these properly represents the responsible self, but rather each represents a way of escaping from the responsibilities of circumstance and reality. The way forward for personal integrity is to face the superego on the one hand making its dictums one’s own, choosing some, rejecting others, modifying as necessary—and on the other hand to face the id and begin to discipline the untamed subconscious through listening, acceptance, understanding, and again choice. In this dialogue with legalism and antinomianism, the Christian emerges from the tyranny of either (or of both) into the freedom that Christianity affords.

This analysis of the problem may be as good as any to get at the question of why it is that this issue has remained so much a part of the experience of the Church generation after generation. I’m not as certain that the solution it provides—to be therefore the principle decider in determining the shape of the self—is the same one Paul provides in his letter to the Galatians. As we noted, Paul does call his people to oppose each of these tendencies with Christian freedom. But for Paul, that freedom implies something different in at least two ways.

First, Paul takes care to define freedom, in a powerfully ironic way, as service—really “slavery”—to others in the name of love. Thus the continuation of 5:13: “do not use your freedom as an opportunity for lawlessness, but through love become slaves to one another.” This freedom, this love, rediscovers the self in service rather than in security, in self-giving rather than in self-determination.

Second, freedom for Paul derives principally from a dynamic of engagement with God that leaves other voices in the shadow. “The only thing I want to know from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” (3:2) “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” (5:16) Paul has confidence in the grace of God to help us transcend this particular tug-of-war by ushering us into a new life, a life whose fascination and focus lie elsewhere entirely. In effect we are called away from being merely reactive, whether to law or flesh or both, and summoned to responsiveness to relationship and partnership with God. As the theologian G.C. Berkouwer put it, “These dangers can be overcome only by a faith that yields itself wholly to the grace of God. If this surrender be genuine, there cannot but be an open ear for the voice of the Good Shepherd who says: ‘My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me’ (John 10:27).”7 

These comments do not help us to arrive at a point of clear objectivity from which we might easily judge behavior or belief to be legalistic or antinomian. They do however commend an approach to discussion that would start with being open to an inappropriate defensiveness of our own, and continue with fostering a loving concern among all of those most particularly affected by the controversy.




1 Timothy J. Wengert, “Antinomianism,” in Hans Hillerbrand, ed., The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 1.51-53. Wengert suggests that these “struggles in understanding Christian freedom from an evangelical perspective” indicate in particular “the tension within Luther’s own thought, and the interaction between a Luther doctrine of justification and a hermeneutic based on the relation between law and gospel” (p. 53).

2 The identity of Paul’s opponents in Galatia in not a settled matter. Richard Longenecker reviews the history of debate and finds that at least one element of emerging consensus in that Christian Jews had arrived in Galatia preaching “the importance of observing the law not only for being fully accepted by God but also as a proper Christian lifestyle;” Galatians (WBC. Nashville: Nelson, 1990), p. xcv. See James Dunn’s similar conclusion; The Epistle to the Galatians (BNTC. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993) pp. 9-11.

3 John Barclay, Obeying the Truth: God’s Ethics in Galatia (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1988), pp. 150-151.

4 Barclay’s suggestion that the temptation to legalism was in fact the only manifestation of the flesh has been less convincing, given principally the list of the “deeds of the flesh” in 5:19-21 which points to a broader array of problems. Compare Dunn, 284-288.

5 Notably in 2:4-6.

6 As in 1:6; 4:17; and 5:12.

7 G. C. Berkouwer, Faith and Sanctification (ET Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), pp. 188-189.