Legalism, Antinomianism, And The Obedience Of Faith

What is ‘legalism’? Does the Law of God have any role to play in a Christian’s life? Philip P. Eapen answers these questions in the light of Christian’s call to the ‘obedience of faith.’

airplane taxiing



  1. Introduction
  2. 1. Highways in the Sky
  3. 2. Antinomianism
  4. 3. What Legalism Is Not
  5. 4. What Is Legalism?
  6. 5. Discipleship: A Life Of Obedience
  7. Conclusion

    Imagine you overheard a conversation between an airline pilot and a young passenger.

    “You are like birds. Once you take off, you can fly your plane anywhere!”

    “Who told you that?” the pilot asked the boy.

    “I have always observed planes flying overhead.”

    “Haven’t you seen yellow lines along the centre of taxiways?”

    “Oh! Those lines are for planes on the ground,” the boy said. “Once you take off, you won’t find any lines in the air. You can go anywhere!”

    “That’s not true, young man. There are as many lines in the air as there are on the ground.”


    A child’s presumptions may be excused. After all, how many little children know about the intricacies of airline operations? But how do we respond to Christians who say similar things about Christian life with absolutely no regard for the whole biblical counsel?

    There are Protestants who believe that every aspect of a Jew’s life is controlled by the Law. That reminds us of Ground Traffic Controllers who control the movement of airplanes on the ground. (As for the Gentiles, they were never given any Law except the Law that was written on their conscience.)

    The moment Jews turn to Christ, we are told, they are set free from all obligations to the Law. They are like aircrafts that have just taken off to “perfect liberty!” They say the Law of God has no role to play in justification and in sanctification.

    airspace infrastructure flight path
    A data visualisation video created by NATS shows incoming flights from north Atlantic into the UK air space. The highways in the sky are a part of our invisible infracture.

    Highways In The Sky

    Anyone who knows even a little about how airliners operate, know that there are highways in the sky. If the lines on the runway or taxiway indicate the precise paths intended for aircrafts, the highways in the sky prescribe the exact altitute and speed expected of each plane during each stage of their flight.

    Similarly, the Spirit-led life of a born-again Christian is well defined. It is not an exercise based on some abstract notions about the will of God. Instead, the Spirit-led life follows well-defined paths—paths laid out by the Law of God. How do we know that?

    In Romans 8, the apostle Paul, while describing salient features of the life in the Spirit, contrasts the mind led by the Spirit with the mind led by the “flesh.”

    “They who follow their earthly nature are earthly-minded, while they who follow the Spirit are spiritually minded. To be earthly-minded means death, to be spiritually minded means life and peace; because to be earthly-minded is to be an enemy to God, for such a mind does not submit to the law of God, nor indeed can it do so.”1

    What does that tell us about the spiritually-minded people? They submit to the law of God!

    That should not come as a surprise to us. Just a couple of verses before the above passage, Paul says that God sent His Son to set us free so that the “righteous requirement of the law” might be fully met in us. The Contemporary English Version renders it even more clearly.

    “If you belong to Christ Jesus, you won’t be punished. The Holy Spirit will give you life that comes from Christ Jesus and will set you free from sin and death. The Law of Moses cannot do this, because our selfish desires make the Law weak. But God set you free when he sent his own Son to be like us sinners and to be a sacrifice for our sin. God used Christ’s body to condemn sin. He did this, so that we would do what the Law commands by obeying the Spirit instead of our own desires.”2

    But any mention of the Law triggers an adverse response from many Evangelicals. They see a red flag with “LEGALISM” written on it.


    I have come across many preachers and teachers who fight legalism without a proper understanding of what constitutes legalism. As a result, they end up advocating the gross error of antinomianism commonly found in some Lutheran and Methodist churches.

    In Greek, nomos is law. Antinomianism is the failure to understand and appreciate the place of God’s eternal Law in the life of a Christian. It is a rejection of God’s written Law in favor of a nebulous “internal law of the Spirit”—as if the Spirit works independently of the written Word!

    Antinomianism is the failure to understand and appreciate the place of God’s eternal Law in the life of a Christian.

    Why do Christians resort to antinomianism?

    1. A misunderstanding concerning Paul’s teaching about the Law can make one think that the Law of God has no value or place in a Christian’s life. Such misunderstanding is common among those who follow a Lutheran interpretation of Paul’s letters. (Please read my essay on Covenantal Nomism and the Obedience of Faith to know more about it.)
    2. Some Christians resort to antinomianism in their attempt to flee the legalism they had embraced earlier in their life.
    3. Some othere Christians might have been involuntarily subjected to legalism. They may have suffered emotionally under spiritually abusive leaders.

    These antinomian Christians consider “religion” as a dirty word that refers to the observance of endless “rules.” It is fashionable to say that Christianity is not a religion but a relationship. But the scriptures describe the practice of true Christianity as “pure and undefiled religion.”

    “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”3

    In fact, Christianity is a religion founded on a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. It is the only true religion because it was established by the one and only true God. Therefore, instead of hating the word “religion,” we must make a distiction between man-made religions and the religion that came by divine revelation.

    What Legalism Is Not


    Before we understand what constitutes legalism, we need to know what is not legalism.

    What Is Legalism?

    Legalism in churches refers to a strict adherence to man-made religious laws, rules, or traditions, often at the expense of observing higher principles such as love and compassion. Legalism also creates laws concerning matters of personal conscience and free will. Legalism imposes those laws on others.

    Legalism comes up with rules that are useless in one’s personal battle against sins. Yet, such rules have an appearance of wisdom and godliness. The rules are often harsh. Often, it involves the promotion of a false sense of humility. Those who follow such man-made rules might think that they are closer to God than those who do not follow their rules. This can lead to pride and judgmentalism.

    A legalistic approach places a heavy emphasis on external appearances rather than the condition of one’s heart. Church members and visitors are judged on the basis of their appearance or on the basis of how they express their devotion to God. The obvious disadvantage of this approach is that Christians who lead a life of sin can win the favor of the church by maintaining an external appearance of godliness. Legalism breeds hypocrisy.

    More often than not, legalism encroaches into matters of personal conscience. It creates rules about what others should wear, eat, and drink. It decides how people who spend their leisure or find their life partners. Sometimes, practices limited to one culture are elevated to the status of divine law. Christians from another culture are not allowed to do things their way.

    An example of legalism in churches could be a church that enforces strict dress codes, condemning anyone who doesn’t conform to a particular style of clothing as sinful. If a church insists that all members must wear white clothes and if it excludes defaulters from fellowship, that is legalism. White clothes may be a sign of piety in one culture. In another community that follows a different culture, white clothes may symbolize mourning. On the other hand, if a church, in accordance with the New Testament, bans clothing that indecently exposes the body, it is not legalism.

    Some churches in Scotland do not sing any song other than the Psalms. If they prohibit the singing of songs written by Christians, it is legalism.

    Discipleship: A Life of Obedience

    The word “Christian” was a nickname given to “disciples” of Jesus Christ. A disciple is a student who learns to obey his Master. The Master’s primary call was, “Follow me.” Christian life is a long walk along the road of humble learning and obedience.

    The Great Commision includes the mandate to teach new disciples to obey everything that the Master commanded. If a Christian has to teach others to obey everything that the Lord commanded, he must first catalogue the Master’s commandments. The Master’s commandments are not an abstract set of unwritten commandments. They are written in the Word of God.

    thy word is a lamp unto my feet
    Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.

    The commands of the Lord Jesus are found primarily in the Gospels. Apostolic commands are found in other books of the New Testament. Besides, the Lord Jesus and his apostles affirmed all of the Ten Commandments as relevant and binding upon Christians. If you are shocked by this statement – as if I were taking you back to live “under the Law” – you have neither understood Romans nor the Sermon on the Mount.

    First of all, you, a Gentile, were never “under the Law.” There is no question of taking you “back to the Law.” Stop assuming that every statement in the New Testament addressed to Jewish Christians is directed at you, a Gentile Christian.

    Secondly, Paul was not opposed to the Mosaic Law. He praised it and affirmed it time and again. Paul found no fault with Israelites who sincerely tried to follow the Law. In Romans 7, he even exonerates the “I” who kept sinning even though he wanted to obey the Law.

    Jewish Christians and “Works of the Law”

    What, then, was Paul opposing in Romans and Galatians? Paul was opposed to Jewish Christians’ belief that their identity as “God’s People” (that is, their righteousness) was derived from their possession of the Law.

    No other nation had the Law. Therefore, even Jewish Christians stood firm in their belief that Gentiles could never be counted as God’s people. Jewish reliance on their national identity as the basis of their status as God’s People was described by Paul as the “works of the Law.” The Jews forgot that the Law was given to them after they were saved by grace so that they may remain in God’s grace. They were not God’s People because they had the Law. They were given the Law because they were God’s People.

    Paul wanted Jewish Christians in Rome to abandon their false notion that Gentiles could not be God’s People. He wanted them to know that Jewish identity or Abrahamic pedigree did not offer them any special advantage over Gentiles in getting membership in God’s covenant community (The Church). It was open to all who believed in Jesus Christ.

    What did Paul mean when he said that a Jewish Christian had “died to the Law”? A Jew who turns to Christ steps down from his “high horse” of ethnic pride. He stops boasting in Abrahamic lineage. He realizes that he is a sinner under a curse because he did not keep the Law. He seeks liberation from that curse by identifying himself with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus in water baptism. Once baptized into Christ, he is no more a part of the Adamic race. He is a new creation belonging to the Jesus, the Second Adam. He is a citizen of God’s Israel in Christ. He is a branch of the True Vine.

    Now that he is no more a Jew who takes pride in his Jewish identity, must he lead a lawless life? By no means!4 He has to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. A Jew who “dies to the Law” is set free from the Covenant of the Law—not from the commandment of the Law which was affirmed by the Lord Jesus and His apostles. Please read my essay on Covenantal Nomism and the Obedience of Faith to get a more elaborate and complete explanation regarding this.

    A Jew who “dies to the Law” is set free from the Covenant of the Law—not from the commandment of the Law.

    New Testament Rules for Christian Living

    The Gospels and the epistles contain numerous legitimate rules for Christian living that do not amount to legalism. Those rules are based on the core principles of Christianity. They focus on nurturing a sincere and loving relationship with God and others, rather than emphasizing rigid adherence to human regulations. They promote spiritual growth, inner transformation, and the expression of Christian faith in daily life.

    Take chapters 12 and 13 of Romans, for instance. After an elaborate defense of “justification by faith” in Christ Jesus, Paul issues a list of ‘dos and donts’. This is my question to those who resist such lists: What will you do with Romans 12 and 13, and similar passages in the New Testament?

    Here’s the list of ‘donts’

    The beauty of these instructions is that these are derived from the Law of God! Paul has cited several verses from the Hebrew Scriptures. And finally, as a fitting conclusion to a long list of instructions, Paul appeals to the Ten Commandments.

    For the commandments, “Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not covet,” (and if there is any other commandment) are summed up in this, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
    Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.5

    The ethics and morality of the New Testament is derived from the Hebrew Scriptures. The New Testament commandments – “Love God” and “Love thy neighbour” – are summary statements of the Jewish Torah, the Law of God. No wonder Paul considered it his mission to bring Gentiles to “the obedience that comes from faith”?6

    This new life of obedience to God’s Law under the enabling power of the Holy Spirit is not just for Gentiles who turn to Christ. It is for Jewish Christians too. Gentiles had no knowledge of God’s law. Therefore, Paul considered it his mission to bring Gentiles to the “obedience of faith”7 in accordance to the original purpose of the Law.

    The New Testament’s teaching regarding personal and corporate holiness also is directly derived from the Mosaic Law? Peter cited Leviticus 19:2 while exhorting a Gentile church to live a holy life instead of living in “debauchery, evil desires, drunkenness, carousing, drinking bouts, and wanton idolatries.”8

    Like obedient children, do not comply with the evil urges you used to follow in your ignorance, but, like the Holy One who called you, become holy yourselves in all of your conduct, for it is written, “You shall be holy, because I am holy.”9

    Where do we get instructions for holy life other than from the Law of God? Apostle Peter had no where to turn to except the Torah. Leviticus 19 is a catalogue of prohibited relationships. The command, “You shall be holy, because I am holy,” was given in that context.

    Rules For Personal Spiritual Discipline

    If a Christian adopts spiritual disciplines in his own life in order to draw closer to God and to grow in holiness, he acts in accordance with the New Testament. (This is not about imposing harsh rules on others.) Aversion to rules will result in indiscipline.

    The apostle Paul did not prefer a life that was adrift. Personal discipline was the key to his success as a minister.

    “I subdue my body and make it my slave, so that after preaching to others I myself will not be disqualified.”10

    “Also, if anyone competes as an athlete, he will not be crowned as the winner unless he competes according to the rules.”11

    As Christians, we too will benefit from spiritual disciplines. A disciplined approach to spiritual disciplines is needed. However, these must not be imposed on others.

    The Spirit And The Law

    It is unfortunate that antinomians think that Christian life is a like a journey in a trackless desert. They assume that the Spirit will guide them without the help of the commandments or instructions recorded in the Word of God.

    The Holy Spirit is always ready to help a Christian obey God’s commandments. But the Holy Spirit will not “install” God’s Word in a person’s heart without the latter’s involvement. Christians have to read and study the Bible. They are commanded to saturate their mind with God’s Word.12 The Spirit uses the Word that is stored in their hearts to encourage them in the path of obedience.

    Paul commanded Timothy to continue reading and studying the Hebrew Bible—including the Torah.

    You, however, must continue in the things you have learned and are confident about. You know who taught you and how from infancy you have known the holy writings, which are able to give you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
    Every scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the person dedicated to God may be capable and equipped for every good work.13

    If every scripture is useful for training in righteousness, how can anyone claim that God’s eternal Law has no role to play in the sanctification of a Christian? Isn’t the Torah a part of the holy scriptures?

    It is indeed in this very epistle that Paul warned Timothy that those who fail to divide the Word of God accurately will be put to shame. That’s not all. The Lord Jesus himself warned his disciples:

    Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.
    For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.
    Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.14

    In Romans 7, Paul describes the plight of a Jew who tries hard to obey the Law. The more a Jew embraces the Law, the more he realizes that he is guilty before the Law. His attempts to obey the law fail because of his sinful tendency to break the Law. Such a Jew’s cries, “What a miserable person I am. Who will rescue me from this body that is doomed to die?” The answer is found in Jesus. Jesus rescues Jews from their bondage to the Covenant of the Law through his own death. The liberated Jew is not freed from his obligation to obey God’s Law. Instead, through Jesus, he gets the Holy Spirit’s help to obey God’s Law. Paul says this in one of the most power-packed passages in Romans.

    But God set you free when he sent his own Son to be like us sinners and to be a sacrifice for our sin. God used Christ’s body to condemn sin.
    He did this, so that we would do what the Law commands by obeying the Spirit instead of our own desires.15

    Ferguson summarises the message of the above passage:

    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.16


    A Christian is called to live by the power of the Holy Spirit in obedience to God and the Lord Jesus. A Jew who believes in Christ discovers the goal of the Law in Jesus in whom it was fulfilled. Jesus’s death set Jews free from their sins and from the old Covenant of the Law. He can now belong to Jesus Christ, along with Gentile disciples, and fulfill the demands of God’s Law by the power of the Holy Spirit. This obedience is not legalism; it is our proper response to God’s love and grace. It is the “obedience of faith”17 to which Paul invited both Jews and Gentiles.

    1. Romans 8:5-7 OEB.↩︎

    2. Romans 8:1-4 CEV.↩︎

    3. James 1:27 ESV.↩︎

    4. “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Absolutely not!” Romans 6:15.↩︎

    5. Romans 13:9-10 NET.↩︎

    6. Romans 1:5 NIV.↩︎

    7. Through [Christ] we have received grace and our apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles on behalf of his name. – Romans 1:5 NET.↩︎

    8. 1 Peter 4:3 NET.↩︎

    9. 1 Peter 1:14-16 NET.↩︎

    10. 1 Corinthians 9:27 NET.↩︎

    11. 2 Timothy 2:5 NET.↩︎

    12. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and exhorting one another with all wisdom, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, all with grace in your hearts to God.”Colossians 3:16 NET.↩︎

    13. 2 Timothy 3:14-16 NET. Emphasis added.↩︎

    14. Matthew 5:17-19 ESV. Emphasis added.↩︎

    15. Romans 8:1-4. Contemporary English Version.↩︎

    16. Sinclair Ferguson, The One Genuine Cure for Legalism and Antinomianism.. 2017. Accessed on 10 Sept 2023.↩︎

    17. Romans 1:5↩︎


    About the author

    Philip Eapen, an environmental scientist by training, devoted his life to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ ever since he realized that the world needs Jesus Christ more than anyone or anything else. Apart from sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, Philip teaches Christians in order to equip them for service. He is supported by donations from readers. Philip is married to Dr. Jessimol and they are blessed with three sons and a daughter.

    Date: 25 September, 2023



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