Christians are always at risk of going to the opposite extremes of Legalism or Antinomianism (Aunty-Gnomey-Anne…ism). If Jesus is Lord, we should live the way God would want us to, so the Legalists among us insist on following every letter of the biblical Law…the way they understand it, of course. “BE GONE, PHARISEES!” we hiss at the legalists!
Antinomians focus on the Jesus as Savior side of it all… Jesus saves us so hard it don’t matter what we do, dawg! You got that ticket to heaven because you said the prayer of salvation, got baptized, believe Jesus is real, whatever. The early Methodists defined antinomians as those who “make void the law through faith,” meaning 1) Jesus fulfilled the moral law of the bible, therefore 2) “Christians are not obliged to observe it,” 3) Jesus set us free from having to obey the biblical law, 4) it’s bondage (not freedom) to do something because God commands it, therefore 5) believers are not obliged to do good works (commanded by God), also 6) Preachers should not tell people to do good works because it’s offensive to unbelievers and unnecessary to tell believers. You got all that? No? Let me put it into a gourmet cupcake for you…
The typical response to legalism today is to say, “Well God meant that for those people then, but that’s not my context today, bro. And besides, Jesus sets us free, he forgives us no matter what we do…so it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission, amiright?!” It’s a common defense for people who don’t really study the bible but use the argument that the Old Testament doesn’t allow people to eat shrimp, and I eat shrimp, therefore the sexual ethics of the Old Testament don’t matter.*(PS-I am saying that the church deserves stronger arguments for gay inclusion than this one). At its most devious, it is a common way for us to deliberately sin and console ourselves by saying that God will forgive us no matter what.
The Wesleyan response to Antinomianism is Christian Perfection. I know, it sounds like the swing back to legalism, but it really and most simply means this: Christ says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). Wesley understood this to mean perfect love for God, and perfect love for neighbor. The response is not blind adherence to Law, but rather, love. We know what love is because God first loved us. Christ’s fulfillment of the law does not make it null and void, but instead transforms it and reveals to us that sacrificial and selfless love are at its very heart and soul. To the Antinomians, Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord!” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt 7:21). The Wesleyan movement has always sought to provide a balance between the beautiful grasp that free grace has on us with the partnership of holiness that God invites us all into.