In my last post I covered the topic of legalism. I used a definition of legalism from
Geerhardus Vos that is not common, but is what, I believe, gets to the heart of legalism.
Essentially it’s this: knowing God’s law apart from knowing his love. God has a list of rules that
we must follow, but he does this only to restrict us and not because he cares for us. His
commands are divorced from his care. It stems from the dark face that Satan craftily placed on
God when he asked Eve, “Did God say you shall not eat from every tree.” While it is technically
true that they were not allowed to eat from every tree, this is not how God framed it. God said in
Genesis 2:16, “you may surely eat of every tree of the garden” and then goes on to tell them of
the one tree from which they were not allowed to eat. Whereas God said “you may surely eat of
every tree” Satan said “you may not eat of every tree.” Thus, Satan shaped the narrative to make
God look restrictive, withholding, and thus unloving and uncaring. This dark face made Eve look
at God as a “hard man” (Matt. 25:24).
And, as I mentioned last time, this legalism is the main cause to antinomianism.
Antinomianism is a compound word: “anti,” meaning against, and “nomian” from the Greek
word for law, nomos. So antinomianism means to be against God’s law – that is, against keeping
his law. Why do I say that legalism causes antinomianism? Well, again, I must acknowledge my
great debt to Sinclair Ferguson’s book The Whole Christ in making this connection. At its core,
antinomianism is a false escape from the burden that one’s legalism creates. We see this in the
Garden where Satan first convinced Eve that God was a hard, restrictive master (again, our
definition of legalism). Once convinced of this, Eve then decides to go against God’s law and
take from the forbidden tree. We see how crafty Satan is here. He didn’t just come out and say
“take from the tree, I double dare you!” Neither did he entice her by talking about the pleasure of
the fruit of the forbidden tree. Rather, Satan placed the focus squarely on the restriction and
insinuated that God was a hard, unnecessarily restrictive master. He divorced God’s love from
his law, his care from his command. This caused the woman to go from “neither shall you touch
it” (adding law in accordance with legalism) to breaking out against God’s law (antinomianism).
Once we do not trust God’s love and goodness towards us, we become convinced that his law is
not good, but rather an unnecessary burden that we must break away from. Antinomianism, then,
becomes a false escape from the burden of legalism, of coming out from underneath the burden
of the law that stems from the skewed view of God created by Satan in the Garden and that all
the sons of Adam are born with. And this is even more so the case now that we carry within us
great guilt and shame for not measuring up to the law.
However, Jesus, knowing this, issued his call to those who are “burdened and heavy-
laden.” He knows the legalistic spirit of the fallen man - that it is a burdensome and heavy-laden
spirit. But Jesus bids them come and find rest in him (Matt. 11:28). Jesus counters Satan’s false
view of God with the truth that he is gentle and lowly in heart (Matt. 11:29). He bids us come to
find rest for our souls in him, for he has fulfilled the whole law for us by living a perfect life of
law-keeping in our place for which we get credit when we place our faith in him. And he took
the awful load of our guilt and shame off of our shoulders and carried it himself to the cross
where he suffered the wrath of God in full for us. We find rest from the burden of our legalism
and the condemnation of the law by trusting Christ alone. Then, and only then, can we take his
yoke upon us which is easy and light. This is not because it is less law, as if Jesus scratches out
some of the Ten Commandments to make the burden easier. Rather, it is because he has carried
that load all away, justified us, forgiven us, adopted us as his own, and has shown his great love
for us by dying for us while we were yet sinners. And so, now his law becomes a delight and a
joy to keep rather than a burden, even though we will continue to struggle with this til the day we
die. God has done much better than giving us every tree in the Garden: he has given us his very
Son on a tree. If there is any proof that God is not a hard, restrictive master, but a good Master
who loves us gives his law for our good, it is at the tree of the cross. The gospel, then, is the true
escape from both legalism and antinomianism.
Brian Onstead is pastor of Trinity Bible Church in Powell, WY (https://tbcwyoming.com/). He was born and raised in Omaha, NE where he was saved and met his wife Jackie. He then spent three years in San Diego, CA where he attended Westminster Seminary California and the Institute for Reformed Baptist Studies. After graduating in 2015, he moved to Montana where he pastored a church for 4 years. In 2019, he moved to Powell, WY where he currently resides. He and his wife have been married for 10 years and have two young children. You can find his sermons on sermon audio and follow him on Twitter (@brianonstead).