The antinomian, in an attempt to overthrow the law of God for lawlessness, finds himself, of necessity, creating his own basis for morality. The void will not go unfilled. The end result is legalism, that is, the establishment of his own laws that he attempts to enforce on others. The ironic thing about lawlessness is that it actually produces the worst kind of law: legalism. Whereas antinomianism and legalism are normally pitted against each other as two ditches on either side of the road (which in fact they are in many respects), the deeper reality is that they are extremely complimentary and inextricably tied together, one giving rise to the other. Antinomianism ironically produces legalism and many times the worst forms.
Legalism is quite a charge. When someone is imposing a legalistic vision upon others, they are saying that unless they do certain things, they are out of God’s salvific favor. Christ + something = justification. So when a person is charged with this, it is serious business. You’re stating that they are preaching a false gospel. Galatians is a case study.
Many times, however, believers who are like-minded on many core, essential things, yet butt heads, sometimes vigorously, over what Christians should or shouldn’t be doing as a result of their salvation, lay this charge of legalism against the other. In all fairness, legalism is probably not always the right term to use. You can usually discern what they’re trying to get at when using the term, overstated though it may be, but legalism is a high charge and doesn’t necessarily fit. The problem though is that there is some truth to the charge, but not exactly in the same way. It needs some redefining.
Whereas legalism puts the “offending” persons’ relation to God in question, legalism light puts the offending persons’ relation to the community in question. In other words, if you don’t do X, well, this isn’t the place for you. Or, since we’re with these people now, doing X, we can’t hang out together. It may not be so overt, just implicit in action. I have a hard time seeing how this squares with what I’ve been reading from Paul on unity among believers in 1 Cor 1:10-17 and 1 Cor 3:1-15.
The words ‘piety’, ‘holiness’, ‘righteousness’ amongst others are words few hear today from church pulpits without thinking of the evils of legalism. Even the word ‘religion’ has been lambasted to the point of being equal to that of the ideology of the Pharisees.
What has occurred though to a great degree is that the idea of piety itself, properly defined, in Biblical terms has been left by the way side, in the wake of moving from one extreme to the other. Personal holiness is something that is lightly if ever talked about. We talk about our mistakes or external sins here and there, for sure, but how often are we admonished to pursue virtuous piety, in the terms the Bible describes? It is a shame personal holiness is not advocated the way the Scripture advocate it. The problem is that you risk offending people, which is exactly what Scripture does to sinners (like myself) who are in violation of God’s law. It brings rebuke and correction, something our “enlightened” American society has a hard time with.