Antinomianism means against the Law. It sees God’s Law as a real enemy, legalism is, paradoxically, a type of antinomianism. It proposes that since the believer is saved by grace alone, he must henceforth have no dealings with the moral Law. The age of the Spirit, it is said, has superseded the age of the Law. But, says the late Dr John Robbins, “antinomianism is the essence of the sinful human condition, for: “sin is the transgression of the law” (1John 3:4). Paul declares, “the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (Romans 8:7). Antinomianism in one form or another is undoubtedly a principle error in today’s churches. Conscientious obedience to the objective word of God is often branded as legalism. As an unprecedented flood of lawlessness, crime, and moral corruption are sweeping away the foundations of society, the church itself appears like a shorn Samson before the Philistines. How can a church which has become riddled with antinomian sentiments have any real word of the Lord for a sinful, permissive society? Instead of standing unflinchingly for the moral absolutes of the Ten Commandments, the professing church is often found accommodating God’s Law to current social norms. It is perilous to discuss sin. When Eve entered a dialogue with the devil about the forbidden tree, she surrendered her only vantage ground. The mere fact that she entered the dialogue was compromising. What business has the church to talk with the ungodly about the pros and cons of adultery or homosexuality? If God’s word does not clearly define sin, each man is left to define it for himself. Man, and especially religious man, attempts to take the place of God himself as Law-giver and judge of all. That is why antinomians turn out to be legalists. Arminians tend to be antinomians for they believe that Christ died for all men. The logic of their core belief implies that God will punish none. Antinomianism needs to be recognised in its varied and deceptive plumage. It does not always blatantly say, “Christ died for our sins so that we can live as we please since he will not punish anyone.” But many live that way.
That would be too strong for some Christians to swallow. The lethal pill may be chocolate-coated, sugar-coated, and honey-coated: but it is a lethal pill just the same. To start with, we have to agree with the Puritan Walter Marshall, who said that legalism is the worst form of antinomianism. Legalism always pretends to honour the Law of God. Yet it does not honour the moral Law, but dishonours it. The Law of God demands perfect righteousness, and this is satisfied by nothing less than the holy obedience of Jesus Christ. To present to the justice of God’s Law anything less than the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ is not legal (lawful), but illegal (unlawful). The legalist must inevitably try to cut the Law down to his size. This is what the Pharisees did. In trying to cut the Law down to their puny standard, they made void the Law through their traditions. On the other hand, Jesus magnified the Law to terrifying proportions. In the light of his exaltation of the Law, we see that only in him is their righteousness with which the Law is well pleased. But let us not run to the opposite error and brand the spirit of conscientious obedience to the commandments of God as legalism…It is a corruption of the message of grace when people think they have to live like the world and despise a disciplined, well-ordered life just to prove that they are not legalistic. This lack of Christian discipline is a form of legalism, the legalism of thinking that such indifference to Law makes a man-pleasing to God.
Subjectivism is Legalism
Luther referring to the papists and enthusiasts of his day likened to Samson’s foxes, their tails all tied together although their heads are pointing in different directions. So it is with the errors that overrun the church today, which obscure the clear light of the gospel. Some of them may be opposed to each other but they have a common bond in their denial of the gospel. Subjectivism is another form of legalism, again, the late Dr John Robbins, “Subjectivism is another form of legalism because it tends to substitute the inward.” (In ‘Against the Churches” 1989-1998, Justification and the Clarity of the Bible). The experience of ‘love’ or ‘the Spirit-controlled life’ for the objective Law of God. Without the objective Law of God, love becomes blind sentimentalism or situation ethics. Those who are over-confident about being led by the Spirit are in danger of confusing the human spirit with God’s Spirit. Who is harder to convince with “it is written” than the enthusiast who is intoxicated with his experience “in the Spirit?” The objective word means nothing to him when it contradicts his experience. The notion that love or the Holy Spirit takes the place of the objective Law of God goes hand in hand with the teaching of dispensationalism. Dispensationalism proposes that the age of the Law has been superseded by the age of grace, and sets one against the other. Oswald T Allis was right when he wrote that dispensationalism is based on antinomian premises. What does the great doctrine of justification by faith alone say to all these forms of antinomianism? In the first place, God’s grace justifies the sinner on the grounds of the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ (Romans 5:18-19). This righteousness consists in Christ’s obedience to the Law of God on our behalf. By his sinless life, Christ fulfilled every precept of the Law, and by his death, he satisfied every penalty on behalf of all who would believe in him. God did not save any man by skirting around his Law. He did not send his Son to weaken its force or to create a lower standard. As John Flavel said, never was the Law of God more highly honoured than when the Son of God stood before its bar of justice to make reparations for the damage done…Salvation is not only salvation from sin, but salvation to holiness. While it is certain that no man is saved by his holiness, it is also certain that he is saved to holiness. No one is saved by keeping God’s commandments, but all are saved to a new life of keeping God’s commandments. It is impossible to be justified without being sanctified. Holiness is no blissful euphoria or ecstatic froth and bubble. It is a life of obedience to God. This, I fully realise is not popular teaching in the visible church today, which has generally speaking become, thoroughly antinomian. But is there, was there ever, such a thing as a popular Christianity.
(©️ James R Hamilton, February 2020)