Legalism and Antinomianism
Legalism is a denial of the gospel. Antinomianism is a denial of the law. They would seem to be polar opposites and in many ways they are. In other ways, legalism and antinomianism are friendly cousins. In the end, they promote the same things—just in different ways, from different starting points.
Of the two heresies, legalism is the most dangerous and the most neglected. When I was writing my book, Historic Christianity and the Federal Vision, I searched diligently for works by the Puritans against legalism. I found only a few books that had legalism in the title and even those books spent more time attacking the error of antinomianism. Yet, there are a number of Puritan works that were written against antinomianism. Many of the books that have been written against legalism touch the subject in terms of man-made laws. Such man-made laws are certainly legalism, but they are not the main type of legalism that the Scripture addresses. Legalism in the Scripture is the attempt to attain righteousness through moral works of righteousness (keeping the law) or ceremonial works of righteousness (Circumcision, baptism, etc.). Those man-made laws often deal with such things as smoking, drinking, etc., which the reformed faith considers to be adiaphora—matters of indifference in which believers have the freedom of conscience. For instance, the Scripture surely warns believers to not ‘be drunk with wine, but be filled with the Spirit.’ The Scripture also teaches that Christ turned the water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana of Galilee as the first of His signs. As one who almost never lets a drop of alcohol even touch my lips (and I could gladly live without alcohol for the rest of my life), I would never teach that anyone who ever drinks a glass of wine has committed a sin. I also remember that Colonial pastors in Virginia and the Carolinas were often paid their annual stipends in tobacco leaves which they then sold on the open market.