Preaching: The Threat of Legalism and Antinomianism


Today, at long last, we come to the final topic of this series on preaching: the threat of legalism and antinomianism. I use the word “threat” because preachers must always be on guard against both of these dangers.

The Relationship Between Legalism and Antinomianism

Before we talk about that, however, let’s first try and define these terms. Legalism – which is perhaps our default nature as fallen creatures – is the belief that a person can in any way earn favor with God through obedience to the moral law (that is, the Ten Commandments). Antinomianism is defined by James Thornwell as “a system of doctrine which naturally leads to licentiousness of life. Those who deny that the law of God is the measure of duty, or that personal holiness should be sought by Christians, are those alone who can properly be charged with Antinomian principles.”

At first glance, legalism and antinomianism might seem to be opposite to one another. After all, a legalist clings to the law of God in a misguided effort to earn salvation, while an antinomian discards the law of God as the way of righteousness in a misguided desire to live as he pleases. On the surface, legalism and antinomianism seem to be distinct and opposite problems, but they are actually more alike than one might think.

Usually what happens is something like this: a believer is raised in the context where the moral and ethical demands of Scripture are emphasized and taught apart from the context of God’s redeeming grace. And so, this person comes to believe that God requires certain behaviors in order to be made acceptable to Him and receive His blessing. Since the fall, man’s default view is legalistic; so this kind of teaching comports well with our natural inclinations.

The believer who is reared in such a context may remain a legalist; however, when he is exposed to (and embraces) the proper teaching concerning the extravagance of God’s grace to us in Christ, he often becomes an antinomian, believing that God’s grace does away with the law. The turn from a legalist to an antinomian is an easy and natural one to make because in both instances, God’s law is viewed as the enemy; and, in both views, God’s law is viewed as separate and distinct from God, Himself.

So, while legalism and antinomianism may seem opposites of one another, “legalism and antinomianism are, in fact, nonidentical twins that emerge from the same womb” (Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ, 84). Here, I’m quoting from, and indebted to, Sinclair Ferguson. Years ago, I ran across some audio recordings online in which Dr. Ferguson explained the history and relevance of “the Marrow controversy,” a theological controversy in the Scottish Presbyterian church in the 18th century. The audio recordings of that three-part lecture series are still available online here.

More recently, Ferguson has written a book – based on the content of those lectures – called, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance – Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters. Concerning this idea that legalism and antinomianism are nonidentical twins that emerge from the same womb, Ferguson shows how both arise from a distorted view of God and His law:

Within the matrix of legalism at root is the manifestation of a restricted heart disposition toward God, viewing him through a lens of negative law that obscures the broader context of the Father’s character of holy love. This is a fatal sickness. Paradoxically, it is this same view of God, and the separation of his person from his law, that also lies at the root of antinomianism. The bottom line in both of these -isms is identical. That is why the gospel remedy of them is one and the same. (The Whole Christ, 85).

You see, both legalism and antinomianism fail to see that both law and gospel are expressions of God’s grace.

The Relevance in Preaching

So, how does this relate to preaching? Well, as noted at the beginning, preachers must always be on guard against these twin dangers of legalism and antinomianism. In fact, one of the greatest dangers for preachers is to over-react to one of these dangers and thereby fall into the other. You see, on the one hand, out of a fear of being labeled a legalist, a preacher may be tempted to never preach the imperatives or commands of God’s Word. On the other hand, out of a fear of being labeled an antinomian, a preacher may be tempted to never give assurances in the grace of the gospel.

However, the law is not contrary to the grace of the gospel, but sweetly complies with it (WCF 19:7). Therefore, the preacher must learn to put away the fear of false labels and trust the Holy Spirit to work as he seeks to preach the whole counsel of God. As Herman Bavinck writes, the law must be proclaimed in the context of the gospel:

The law, after all, is an expression of God’s being. As a human being Christ was naturally subject to law for his own sake. Before the fall the law was inscribed on Adam’s heart. In the case of the believer, it is again engraved on the tables of his heart by the Holy Spirit; and in heaven all its inhabitants will conduct themselves in accordance with the law of the Lord. The gospel is temporary; the law is everlasting and precisely that which is restored by the gospel. Freedom from the law, therefore, does not mean that Christians no longer have anything to do with that law, but that the law can no longer demand anything from them as a condition for salvation and can no longer judge and condemn them. For the rest they delight in the law in their inmost being [Rom. 7:22] and meditate on it day and night [Ps. 1:2]. For that reason that law must always be proclaimed in the church in the context of the gospel. Both law and gospel, the whole Word, the full counsel of God, are the content of preaching. Accordingly, among the Reformed the law occupies a much larger place in the doctrine of gratitude than in that of misery. (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 4: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, 454-455)

Or, as a former seminary professor of mine, Mike Glodo, once wrote:

“While it’s true what Lloyd-Jones said – ‘If your preaching of the gospel…does not provoke the charge…of antinomianism, you’re not preaching the gospel…’ – it’s also true that if you’re not accused of being a legalist or moralist, you’re probably not preaching the gospel.”


Here’s the main point – and really the bottom line of this entire series on preaching: those who are called to preach the gospel must have faith in the power and purposes of God’s Word by preaching the main point of the text before them; and those who hear must trust the Holy Spirit to convince and convert sinners, and build them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation through the preaching of the Word (WSC 89).

I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. (2 Timothy 4:1-2)

The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch