We are all naturally Judaizers, whether we admit it or not. Sometimes we talk a lot about legalism and antinomianism as errors in opposite directions, like falling into the ditch on one side of the road or another. And it’s true, to an extent, since legalism and antinomianism present themselves in different ways. But so often I see people fall into one or the other of these errors because they don’t actually know what they are. A “legalist,” to some, is one who cares about the law of God and tries hard to keep it. An “antinomian,” to others, is someone who refuses to be bound by all your made-up rules. I want to be a legalist and an antinomian, if this is what it means.
But what a legalist really is is someone who believes that their law-keeping can merit God’s favor in some sense. An antinomian is someone who doesn’t care at all about God’s law. And really, even though these two things do in fact look like the opposite error, they are ultimately the same error.
This is true because we don’t get to define our relationship with God. God defines it. The Bible describes the formal establishment of a relationship between God and man on specified terms as a “covenant”, and it is impossible for man to relate to God outside of covenant. This is built right into the nature of who God is and who man is. God is transcendent, benevolent, and sovereign. So, He blesses His people richly but according to a set of terms that always recognizes His absolute sovereignty, and since we can’t just know what those terms are, they must be revealed by God to us. Thus, covenants.
There are only two covenants that have ever existed, as Paul helpfully teaches us in Galatians (see Galatians 4:24). These are the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace. You will be under one or the other. If you are under the Covenant of Works, you will relate to God in terms of merit, in terms of earning God’s favor through your lawkeeping. If you are under the Covenant of Grace, then you freely receive from God’s hand all of His blessings on the grounds of the perfect righteousness of Christ.
Everyone starts under the first covenant. By faith in the death of Christ, you can exit the Covenant of Works and enter the second, the Covenant of Grace. The Covenant of Grace is the only way out of the Covenant of Works. This is why everyone is either under the one covenant or the other.
But if you’re under the Covenant of Works, then you’ve got a major problem, and that is that the Covenant of Works was broken long ago by our first parents Adam and Eve in the Garden. You’re already living under the penalty of that covenant, which is death, spiritual death. As a result, you cannot keep the law of God. But that doesn’t keep you from trying. In order to try to fulfill the terms of the Covenant, men under this Covenant make up laws for themselves that they can obey, and think by this means they will gain God’s blessings once again. They may not describe it as God’s blessings or favor, but instead think of it as “the good life” or “happiness” or whatever, but it comes to the same thing.
The legalist is more honest about one part of this- he says he is trying to earn God’s favor through law-keeping. But he is dishonest about what that law is. In order to reduce the law of God to something he can actually keep, he alters it, focuses on outward rituals and behavior and ignores those parts of the law that are internal or too hard for him. He may even say he believes in the grace of Christ, and sees that grace as necessary for him to earn these blessings, or that the grace of Christ makes up for that part which he cannot do himself. But he still sees his works as meritorious, as good enough on their own to earn something from God. So he is a legalist, because of his attempt to earn God’s favor through law-keeping, but he is an antinomian, because he has substituted his own definition of that law for God’s definition.
The antinomian is less honest about one part of the question, and more honest about another. He is more honest about the nature of the law of God itself and what it requires. He knows that God is a holy and righteous God, and that His law must be perfectly obeyed, which he knows he can never do. Thus, he says he relies on God’s grace for salvation. But he changes what salvation is. He does not desire to be righteous and makes no attempts to do so. The Covenant of Grace stipulates that the blessings of God’s righteousness are worked in us through faith in Christ; a man who is not interested in God’s righteous law is not in the Covenant of Grace. When a man refuses the blessing of being made Christlike by being brought into conformity with God’s law, that man has showed he has no interest in the covenant of grace. Yet, man cannot live without law, so the antinomian makes up laws for himself, laws by which he determines whether someone is under God’s favor or not. This is the part he is less honest about. He is under the covenant of works every bit as much as the legalist, and therefore he relates in terms of merit. Perhaps it will be worshiping just the right way; perhaps his focus will be on gaining for himself the good life through hard work and good choices; perhaps his legalism will be that having just the perfect doctrinal formulations is necessary to salvation. So he is an antinomian, because he has invented his own laws rather than striving to be in conformity with God’s own law, and he is a legalist because he sees himself earning God’s favor by the keeping of God’s law.
So, we are all Judaizers. Of ourselves, in our natural state, we all are engaged in the process of trying to secure God’s favor through the keeping of laws we have invented for ourselves. We are all under the covenant of works, and that is what makes us Judaizers, the vain and endless attempt to keep a covenant that was long ago broken, the pointless struggle to work our way back to the Garden by the works of our own hands.
The only alternative is the Covenant of Grace, in which God delivers the blessings of His kingdom, His rule within our hearts and minds, through the merit and grace of Christ freely received by faith. The one in the covenant of grace submits fully to the Law of God and desires to see obedience to that law formed within him. He does not seek to merit anything through this law, for all the blessings of salvation are already merited by Jesus Christ, including the blessing of law-keeping. He puts away both the legalism of attempting to merit something from God through law-keeping, and the antinomianism of inventing his own ways of doing so.