Antinomianism Is Not the Antidote for Legalism

PILL

We can rejoice that Sinclair Ferguson succumbed to years of pressure to turn his three (now somewhat famous) Marrow Controversy lectures into a book, and the book is done and launches soon from Crossway under the title, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance — Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters.

[Download the original audio files here: part 1, part 2, part 3.]

Yes, this old Scottish theological debate matters, and Ferguson’s three lectures proved life changing for me. I doubt I will ever forget the place I was walking when I first heard Ferguson explain why antinomianism is not the antidote for legalism, and why legalism is not the antidote for antinomianism. One deadly poison cannot cure another deadly poison, but each poison calls for the counterpoison of grace.

Here’s how he says it in the new book (pages 151–170):

Perhaps the greatest misstep in thinking about antinomianism is to think of it simply as the opposite of legalism. . . .

Antinomianism and legalism are not so much antithetical to each other as they are both antithetical to grace. This is why Scripture never prescribes one as the antidote for the other. Rather grace, God’s grace in Christ in our union with Christ, is the antidote to both. . . .

There is only one genuine cure for legalism. It is the same medicine the gospel prescribes for antinomianism: understanding and tasting union with Jesus Christ himself. This leads to a new love for and obedience to the law of God, which he now mediates to us in the gospel. This alone breaks the bonds of both legalism (the law is no longer divorced from the person of Christ) and antinomianism (we are not divorced from the law, which now comes to us from the hand of Christ and in the empowerment of the Spirit, who writes it in our hearts). . . .

In some ways the Marrow Controversy resolved itself into a theological version of the parable of the waiting father and his two sons.

The antinomian prodigal when awakened was tempted to legalism: “I will go and be a slave in my father’s house and thus perhaps gain grace in his eyes.” But he was bathed in his father’s grace and set free to live as an obedient son.

The legalistic older brother never tasted his father’s grace. Because of his legalism he had never been able to enjoy the privileges of the father’s house.

Between them stood the father offering free grace to both, without prior qualifications in either. Had the older brother embraced his father, he would have found grace that would make every duty a delight and dissolve the hardness of his servile heart. Had that been the case, his once antinomian brother would surely have felt free to come out to him as his father had done, and say: “Isn’t the grace we have been shown and given simply amazing? Let us forever more live in obedience to every wish of our gracious father!” And arm in arm they could have gone in to dance at the party, sons and brothers together, a glorious testimony to the father’s love.

But it was not so.

It is still, alas, not so.

Severing Our Love Affairs

Thomas Schreiner, Galatians (Zondervan, 2010), 392:

The cross plays a bookends role in the letter [of Galatians], for just as Paul begins the letter by featuring the freedom won in the cross, so too he closes the letter by underlining the significance of the cross.

Paul’s only boast is in Christ’s cross, by which he is crucified to the world and the world is crucified to him (6:14). The cross and eschatology are inseparable. Just as the cross liberated believers from the present evil age (1:4), so too it crucifies attachment to this world (6:14). The opponents boasted in circumcising converts and took pleasure in external accomplishments because they lived to win the applause of others (6:12–13). They lived for comfort in order to avoid persecution.

The cross severs a love affair with the world and grants a person (by grace!) a desire to boast only in the cross. A new reality—a new age—has begun through the cross, and Paul summons the Galatians and all believers to find their joy only in the cross and to renounce any boasting in human accomplishments.

Letting Go of Self-Righteousness

Paul in Galatians 6:12–15:

12 It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13 For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. 14 But far be it from me to boast nexcept in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15 For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.

Thomas Schreiner comments on 6:15 in his Galatians commentary [(Zondervan, 2010), pages 379–380; my emphasis]:

Since the world has been crucified to Paul (and by extension to all Christians), whether one is circumcised or not is utterly irrelevant. What is remarkable is that circumcision is assigned to the old world order, to the old creation rather than the new creation. The law is part of the old age, while the cross inaugurates the new age.

The centrality of the new creation functions as an envelope with the introduction to the letter, where the death of Christ delivers from the present evil age (1:4). The new creation has dawned, in other words, through the cross of Christ.

We see the same dynamic in 2 Cor 5:14-21. There Paul also features the new creation, and again it is tied inextricably to the cross of Christ. The new creation has been inaugurated in Christ and will be consummated at the eschaton, when the groaning that characterizes the old creation will pass away (Rom 8:18-22).

Remarkably, in the midst of a great conflict over circumcision, Paul does not elevate uncircumcision either. Those who find significance in uncircumcision belong to the old world order as well. There is no particular virtue in uncircumcision, which explains why Paul was willing to circumcise Timothy (Acts 16:3). If circumcision is practiced for cultural reasons and not to achieve salvation, observing it is up to one’s individual conscience.

Verse 15 parallels both 5:6 and 1 Cor 7:19. The faith that expresses itself in love (5:6) is now a reality because the new creation has dawned. The ability to keep God’s commands is a reality in the new creation (1 Cor 7:19). Eschatology, then, plays a vital role in Galatians, for the Judaizers were attached to the old age and failed to see that the new has come. Their error, however, was not merely eschatological; there were anthropological corollaries and causes, for those who are attached to the old age cling to it because they desire to establish their own righteousness instead of receiving the righteousness from God (cf. Rom 10:3).

This is one way that eschatology reframes the personal struggle with self-righteousess and legalism (but without in any way diminishing the priority of personal obedience).

If you find it difficult to release your grip on your own self-righteous before God, you’re not alone, it is a problem we all face as sinners. The solution is found in turning away from the old age and living in light of the new age that began in the death and resurrection of the Savior. The eschatology of the New Testament, here in Galatians, will serve us well in our struggle to release our grip on self-righteousness.