Legalists add personal obedience as a requirement for justification, and antinomians reject obedience as a necessary consequence and requirement of justification. Or in other words, legalistic “Law-People” mix the theological concepts of justification and sanctification, while antinomian “Grace-People” divorce them. But how can one avoid the errors of legalism and antiomianism, and still cherish Law and Grace? How can one be a “Grace Based Law Keeper?”
In theological circles, there is a persistent tension between “Law People” and “Grace People.”
Legalists are those people who believe one’s relationship with God is dependent upon one’s right-keeping of the Law. Depending upon their theological camp, one either receives eternal life through keeping the Law (Judaism), or one keeps his or her eternal life through obedience to the Law (Roman Catholicism, Charismaticism, Federal Vision). For this later group, Christ provides great grace through his work of atonement, but man has his responsibility to keep covenant and not give away the salvation procured for him by God.
In contrast, Antinomians are they who believe one’s relationship with God is unaffected by keeping the Law. According to them, God graciously saves the individual from the condemnation of the Law. In addition, God saves such a person from the obligation to keep the Law. One is wise to accept Jesus Christ as Savior, and one proves to be wise as they accept him as Lord. However, one is not required to keep God’s Law in order to please him, and one is not required to keep God’s Law in order to avoid heavenly anger, chastisement, displeasure, discipline, and punishment. To these friends, keeping or not keeping the Law has no impact on the relationship enjoyed between the Heavenly Father and his adopted children.
However, in my religious tradition and personal theological view, both of the above camps are in serious error. Legalists add personal obedience as a requirement for justification, and antinomians reject obedience as a necessary consequence and requirement of justification. Or in other words, legalistic “Law-People” mix the theological concepts of justification and sanctification, while antinomian “Grace-People” divorce them.
But how can one avoid the errors of legalism and antiomianism, and still cherish Law and Grace? How can one be a “Grace Based Law Keeper?” How can one walk without fear of damnation while maintaining the proper fear of the Lord? Perhaps a quick glance at Jeremiah 46 might help:
But fear not, O Jacob my servant, nor be dismayed, O Israel, for behold, I will save you from far away, and your offspring from the land of their captivity. Jacob shall return and have quiet and ease, and none shall make him afraid. Fear not, O Jacob my servant, declares the Lord, for I am with you. I will make a full end of all the nations to which I have driven you, but of you I will not make a full end. I will discipline you in just measure, and I will by no means leave you unpunished (Jeremiah 46:27-28).
In this passage, God promises destruction towards those who are not his people. He will make a “full end” of those who stand in opposition to him and will not bow the knee. Their lawlessness results in damnation.
And in this passage, God promises underserved sovereign grace to those who are his people. Despite their opposition and rebellion, God promises to save Israel and her children; they will not be brought to a “full end.” He will be their God, and they are assured of obtaining the sabbath rest for which they long. God will bring his people home and they shall have quiet and ease. Their lawlessness results not in damnation.
But also in this passage, God promises chastisement to his people. While they will receive undeserved sovereign grace, they will also receive discipline and punishment. The Gracious Savior says, “I will discipline you in just measure, and I will by no means leave you unpunished.”
Therefore, in this short text I find a description of the Gospel.
- The Good News is that God will judge the wicked who despise his rule and his Law.
- The Good News is that God will save the wicked, who have despised his rule and his Law, and turn to him in faith and repentance. There is nothing that can separate these recipients of grace from the Fountain of Grace.
- The Good News is that the God of grace will discipline and punish his beloved children, not out of malice to harm them, but out of loving obligation to transform them into the image of Christ.
So do not think you can keep the Law and merit eternal life? And do not think you can keep the Law and keep the gift of eternal life given to you through the work of Christ? And do not think you can be truly saved and disregard the Law of God, for God promises not to allow you to walk in your sin without his divine intervention? As a father disciplines his children, so the Lord promises to discipline those who belong to him. In the end, all men will either receive destruction or discipline. To those who break the Law and do not know Christ, destruction will be their just reward. To those who break the Law and do know Christ, discipline, punishment, and eternal peace will follow them until the final day of glorification when all God’s people will be godly through and through.
Joseph A. Franks IV is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is Pastor of Palmetto Hills Presbyterian Church in Simpsonville, South Carolina. This article first appeared on his blog, and is used with permission.