In Tim Keller’s book Center Church he focuses throughout the book on what he believes to be a fundamental balance in the Christian life, between legalism and antinomianism. I appreciated this focus, though I didn’t always agree with where he found that balance on various issues. But I think he’s right. Legalism and antinomianism are the twin enemies of the gospel, and either one of them will shipwreck our souls.
Legalism is the desire to establish our own merit or righteousness before God, or to secure for ourselves our own blessedness through our own efforts. Paul addresses that sin especially in Galatians and Colossians. Legalism comes in lots of different forms. Many of the cults like Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses are explicitly legalistic, teaching that we are required to save ourselves through our good works, to earn our places in heaven, even if they say that Christ in some fashion made it possible for us to do that.
Antinomianism is a rejection of God’s law altogether, often under the guise of grace. It is sometimes characterized as a belief that sanctification or repentance is unnecessary for the Christian. I think it might be more accurate to say that antinomianism involves the denial that personal righteousness is the fundamental goal of the gospel. Some say (and I think Keller is a little bit guilty of this) that the gospel is basically about forgiveness of sins, and that sanctification and good works are laudable, even necessary responses. I think this is still a bit of an antinomian tendency because it divorces good works from the gospel itself, which I think is a mistake. Freedom from sin is an essential part of the gospel. Having a people that are free of sin is constantly presented as the whole point of the gospel- see Ezekiel 36, Jeremiah 31:31-34, etc. So I believe that any separation of repentance and good works from the heart of the gospel itself tends in an antinomian direction.
Different people will locate the distinction a little differently though. And it is a balance- one must avoid extremes on either side.
But the balance isn’t really like a tightrope or a high beam that a gymnast walks, where one has to avoid making any error in either direction or one will fall to one’s doom. It’s a lot more like a bobsled run. The bobsled may at different times go up one side of the run or the other, but gravity normally brings them back down to the center.
Christ is the bobsled run. If we rest in Christ, then we may at times err in one direction or another, but Christ will always bring us back to Himself. The gravity of that relationship always pulls us to the center. With the twists and turns of life we may get pushed up one wall or the other; we may for a time be imbalanced in our thinking, but if we are in Christ we will return to a Biblical balance. It takes a concerted and intentional effort or a really catastrophic error to get all the way out of the track. Likewise in the Christian life, it’s never by simple accident that one slides into fullblown legalism or antinomianism. Only if one is not resting in Christ at all can one fully escape the gravity of that relationship.
One of the ways we often get unbalanced is by fear of the other extreme. So one starts focusing on good works and their importance to the neglect of God’s forgiveness and grace because one fears lawlessness, fears rebellion against his rightful king. Another fears relying on his own sinful flesh and so focuses entirely on forgiveness and grace to the neglect of proper spiritual discipline. But both really are focused on serving Christ, though in unbalanced ways. Ultimately their dedication to Christ will correct either imbalance. But the one who truly desires to be responsible for his own salvation will not be so corrected; lacking a focus on Christ he will fall into true legalism. Another one desires to please himself with his own life, rejecting the rule of God’s law and using grace as a cloak for self-worship. He will become a true antinomian. The relationship with Christ is absent in both cases. The problem is not a lack of theological precision, but a lack of trust in Christ. Legalism and antinomianism therefore ultimately end up in the same place, a trust in self rather than a trust in Christ.
So it’s a mistake to live in fear of either extreme, of policing every expression and word to make sure one isn’t erring in one direction or another. I’m all for theological precision and we should strive for it. But fundamentally it is not theological precision which will save us from either extreme. It is Christ. So our focus should be on Him, on what He has done for us and what He has called us to. That will ground us right in the Christian life, and though we may be a bit unbalanced at times we will always return to center. The gravity of our relationship with Christ will not permit us to slide all the way out of the track to the ruin of our souls. He will preserve us in Himself to the end.