Salvation by Grace – Legalism vs. Antinomianism
by William Wachtel
This study of salvation by grace follows an earlier one, entitled, This Thing Called “Legalism.” Those who are legalists hate the doctrine of the new birth—the truth that one can and must be “born again” in order to be a real Christian and to have the hope of eternal life. Legalism, on the contrary, seeks to obtain salvation by works, by earning merit before God as one obeys certain laws or fulfills certain requirements. Legalists do not understand that salvation comes first, and then one goes on to do the works God has set before His faithful children. It is not—as they think—“do so and so” in order to be saved, but rather “do so and so” because you have been saved. Being saved, then, precedes the works that God requires.
This order is clearly revealed in Ephesians 2:4-10. Verses 4 and 5 declare that it was “because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.” This salvation, expressed in the past tense, refers to our being pardoned and renewed through Christ, in the midst of our unworthiness, helplessness, and sin. Christ died for sinners, and it is as sinners that we get saved—not as worthy, functioning saints!
The Apostle Paul goes on to repeat that “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (verses 8-10). From these statements it is clear that good works play an essential role in the Christian life—but only after one has entered the new relationship with God through Christ Jesus.
“Salvation” is found in three tenses in the Greek New Testament—past, present, and future. Past tense: we have been, or were, saved when Christ died for our sins and when we through our own personal decision of faith in Him were joined to Him in God’s eyes. At that moment our sins were forgiven, we were justified or accounted righteous before God, and we were “born again” by the power of God’s Holy Spirit. Present tense: as justified believers, we are “being saved” day by day, as we walk with the Lord and let God’s Spirit work in and through us to do God’s will. Future tense: we “shall be saved” at the return of Christ, when our mortality and carnal nature will be taken away completely and we will be resurrected to be “like Him”—sinless, immortal, and glorious.
All of this is in direct opposition to every form of legalism and any insistence that we can somehow deserve our salvation because we have fulfilled a set of divine requirements. It forgets or ignores the fact that even our obedience as Christians to God’s will is dependent on the constant indwelling and work of the Holy Spirit within us. “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil. 2:12,13). God gets the glory, not our-selves, for whatever good is done through us. And notice that Paul does not say “work for” your salvation, but “work out” your salvation. There is a vast difference here! It is a salvation that has already been wrought in us by God’s grace, and then becomes our responsibility to work out in daily experience! Grace does not rule out the need for our active cooperation with God, but simply reveals that salvation is entirely a matter of undeserved favor, bringing all the glory to God and permitting no man to boast of his own worthiness to be saved!
Salvation by grace, through faith, strikes a balance between two extremes. One extreme, as we have seen, is legalism—the idea that one must somehow earn or deserve salvation through compliance with God’s law or following some set of divine requirements.
The opposite extreme is called “antinomianism”—the teaching that it doesn’t matter what you do or how you live, because God will save you despite your willing disobedience to His law. The word antinomian means “against law” or “instead of law” and describes those who feel they can safely oppose or ignore what God has revealed to be His will, through the commandments and instructions He has given to His children.
Antinomians claim that “grace” takes away the need to obey God. Since salvation is by grace, they teach that believers can do what they please and grace will cover their deliberate disobedience. Paul denounces this error in Romans 6:1—“What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” This is precisely the goal of the antinomians—to multiply the expressions of God’s grace by making Him forgive intentional and un-repented disobedience. For Paul this was the ultimate travesty on the real meaning of grace, and a perversion that made God an accomplice in men’s wicked-ness. He combated such a monstrous libel on God’s character when he said, “By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Rom. 6:2)
The Christian believer is regarded as dead to sin, having been given a new birth at his conversion, so that he might live for righteousness. It is a horrible misunderstanding of “grace” to use it as an excuse for sinning and disobeying God! Such an excuse cannot stand in light of Paul’s further explanation: “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Rom. 6:3,4). This new life is intended to be a life of righteousness and obedience to God, to walk in the good works that God has laid out for us to do by means of the power He has provided for us through His Holy Spirit dwelling and working in us.
It is essential for believers today to understand the difference between salvation by grace and the two perverted extremes of legalism and antinomianism. In the grace of God there is a joy and victory that comes from the blessed assurance of His acceptance of us through our being “in Christ.” One can know he has been “born again” because he experiences the new nature in himself and realizes that he loves God and that God loves him. He knows that he wants to obey God and follow Christ faithfully, even though at times he fails. He knows that he hates sin and longs for holiness in all his thoughts and deeds. These are clear evidences that he is truly a “born again” child of God, saved from the condemnation and power of sin and on the road that leads to eternal life in God’s Kingdom (Matt. 7:13,14)!