How are legalism and antinomianism similar? What is the solution to both errors? In this video, Dr. Sinclair Ferguson explains the origin of these errors and the solution.
Often, you know, if you said to people, if you gave them a word association test and you said “black” and they said “white” and various words like that, and you said “legalist” and they would say “antinomian,” because they think of these as complete opposites of one another. But, I think, if you go back to the origins of both, you actually find them in the opening verses of Genesis 3. The serpent comes along, and one of the things he has in view is to turn Eve into a legalist. Because what he wants to do is to distort her sense that God is good and kind and generous. And so, everything God said, every commandment that He gives is a good, kind, and generous commandment. And Satan takes one of those commandments and he says, “Don’t you see how restricting God is? God is really saying that ‘you’ve got to earn things from Me.’” And, in a way, that gives her a legalistic view of God. Legalism, in its essence, is to take God’s law away from God’s loving person. That is what Satan actually accomplishes in the temptation. But then, interestingly, what does Eve the legalist do? She becomes an antinomian. Satan says, you know, “Go on and take it.” And so, she breaks God’s law. So, I think one of the things we can learn from this, and certainly the masters of the spiritual life, as far as I can see, have understood this, that because of our sin, we are all legalists by nature. This is why I think, often when people hear the gospel—the free grace of God in Jesus Christ—they will say: “I’m so glad you’ve told me this. I’m going to try harder. I’m going to start trying to keep the commandments,” because they basically have a legalistic heart. And some people simply harden that and other people try to escape it by becoming antinomians. They think, “If I can ignore the law, it will go away.” And the fact of the matter is that neither legalism nor antinomianism is able to bring us back into the kind of fellowship with God that we need. And so, what we find in the New Testament, fascinatingly, is that, for example, when Paul is dealing with legalism or when Paul is dealing with antinomianism, in a sense, he prescribes the same gospel remedy for both in Jesus Christ, the grace of God in Him and in our union with Him.
Editor’s Note: This post was first published on July 8, 2019.