It seems to me that when a person is converted to Christianity as an adult, and then becomes a parent, there is a common pitfall they fall into. It is not easy to recognize the real nature of our fallen state, and it is the most natural thing to love our children dearly and want the best for them. So it seems common that this adult convert to Christianity will believe, perhaps even only on an unconscious level, that his children can be spared all the pain and sorrow that he himself experienced from falling into sin, if only he raises their children right. He will simply put in place all the right rules, strict discipline, and thorough indoctrination in the Christian faith, and the result will be that his child will have a relatively trouble-free life, without falling into any of the gross and destructive sins which he himself experienced. Or even more simply, he will simply shelter his child from anything that might corrupt him, and expect him to turn out fine. Any parent can be tempted with this, of course, but it seems like it’s a particular temptation for the first generation Christian parent, who perhaps doesn’t realize that he would still have been a sinner, a bad sinner, even if he grew up in a Christian home.
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.
Legalism and antinomianism always end up looking the same. The devil tricks us into thinking we’re correcting an error when we end up just committing the same one. Reacting against legalism, the devil lures us with antinomianism, saying, “Don’t go that way, go this way instead!” And then we just end up falling off the ditch in the other direction.
This is because we can’t live without law. We must have principles that guide our lives and judge the appropriateness of actions. The only question will ever be whether it’s man’s law or God’s. So the legalist might begin by looking very concerned about God’s law, like the Pharisees, but condemned by the actual law of God, they reduce it merely to doable outward observances and add to it their own hedges and glosses, claiming to have great respect for the law but in fact teaching as law their own commandments. Thus they have become antinomians, substituting their own law for God’s. The teetotaler movement, for example, is both legalistic and antinomian- it imposes law-keeping on people, but it is not God’s law, but man’s.
The antinomian on the other hand might start looking like he has a great appreciation for God’s grace, resting in the fact that Christ has completely satisfied the demands of the law on their behalf. But they ignore the purpose of this salvation, which is that we walk in good works in glory to God (Ephesians 2:8-10). And then, because man cannot live without law, they invent other principles by which they justify themselves and judge others, whether it is political values, diet, money management or other things. Some antinomians ironically become extremely judgmental whether or not you are preaching the gospel in exactly the way they think you should, talking about God’s law in exactly the way they think you should, or following exactly the liturgical formula that they prescribe. Man cannot live without law, so having rejected the law of God as a normative guide for our lives, the antinomian inevitably substitutes his own law, and thus becomes a legalist.
It’s never a question of whether or not you will live by law. It’s only a question of whether that law will be God’s law or one you make up. That is the only real choice. If we recognize that Christ has completely satisfied the demands of God’s law on our behalf, for the very purpose of conforming us to that law, then we will avoid either error.