Just and the Justifier: The Relationship Between Legalism, Antinomianism, and the Gospel

pexels-photo-24899Few things are more confusing for a Christian than the relationship between law and grace. Legalism and Antinomianism are the two ends of a fluid spectrum of law and grace that can send the same Christian from hardline fundamentalism to the fringes of liberalism and back again. In my own wrestling with the importance, value, and role of the law in the life of a Christian who has been saved by grace, and not on the basis of works of the law, I have learned that both legalism and antinomianism result from the same source–a misunderstanding of the gospel. Legalism adds to the gospel. Antinomianism takes away from the gospel. Legalism robs the gospel of its liberating power from the burden of the law. Antinomianism robs the gospel of its liberating power from slavery to sin.

At minimum, it seems there is a lack of understanding when it comes to what the law is and how it functions in our lives. At most, there seems to be a disdain for the law. Theological error, which directly impacts the way we live, exists when the law is viewed as a ruthless slave driver meant to burden the people with legalistic demands, or when the law is viewed as an ancient relic with no relevant purpose. But the truth is there is a great intersection of grace and law in the Bible.

The law itself is a grace from God that serves many purposes for his people. Alec Motyer has written, “The grace of God precedes the law of God.His grace reaches out to save, & it is to those whom he has saved that he reveals his law.” God didn’t give his law to the people to keep in order to be saved. It was only after God rescued his people that he gave them the law. So, we must assert from the beginning that obeying the law is nothing more than a proper response to God’s grace, which produces delight. Motyer continues,

“God’s law is not a ‘ladder of merit’ by which we try to climb, by grim obedience, into his ‘good books;’ it is a way of life revealed to those who are already by redemption in his good books. He brings us to himself and then requires us to live so as to please him.”

In the first five books of the Bible, there are 613 commands or laws from God. They range from moral laws to laws about social justice to laws regarding circumcision and food. Jesus would later teach that the whole law depends on the two greatest commands—that we should love God with all that we are, and that we should love others as much as we love ourselves. However, with each of these laws comes a consistent expectation: perfect obedience. Leviticus 19:2 makes the Lord’s expectations clear: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” The kind of holiness God requires is perfect. The problem is, we personally fail to properly respond to God’s grace through loving obedience.

Obeying the law of God is faith in action. Trusting that the Lord is the sovereign and all-satisfying God of the world produces a faith that works through obedience to the Lord’s commands. Though we all fail to keep his law personally and perfectly, Christ never failed to do so. He always responded to his Father with loving obedience. By trusting in his work to obey the Lord and die for our disobedience, we are empowered to obey God from the inside out as the law he requires is written on our hearts.

This is where the rubber meets the road with regard to the relationship between law and grace. If God acts on our behalf by ignoring his law or by adding to it, his action is actually of no benefit to us. If God is legalistic or antinomian, there is no salvation. God has revealed himself in the Bible to be incomparably glorious and holy. He dwells in unapproachable light. So, a God who “saves” legalistically or by ignoring the law, is not only a God who is unable to save, but he isn’t even God at all.

The good news of the gospel is that God is neither legalistic or antinomian. And I’m glad he isn’t.  I’m glad he identifies with my suffering, not my sinfulness. I’m glad God doesn’t violate his law to save me, but instead fulfills his law in my place and bears the weight of all my lawbreaking. In other words, I’m thankful Romans 3 is true.

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:23-26)

Just and the justifier. God doesn’t forsake his righteousness for our justification. His righteousness is the foundation of our justification. Knowing the gospel is more than just a mental exercise. Knowing the gospel shapes not only our entire theology, but the way we live and minister every day. Knowing and believing the gospel will free us from slavery to the law and free us to obedience to the law.


Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is a M.Div student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mathew is married to his high school sweetheart, Erica. Mathew and Erica live in Tupelo with their son, Jude. You can follow him on Twitter @mat_gilbert.

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