Antinomianism comes from the Greek meaning lawless. In Christian theology it is a pejorative term for the teaching that Christians are under no obligation to obey the laws of ethics or morality. Few, if any, would explicitly call themselves "antinomian," hence, it is usually a charge leveled by one group against an opposing group.

Antinomianism may be viewed as the polar opposite of legalism, the notion that obedience to a code of religious law is necessary for salvation. In this sense, both antinomianism and legalism are considered errant extremes.

Antinomianism in the New Testament

Paul, in his letters, mentions several times that we are saved by the unearned grace of God, not by our own good works, "lest anyone should boast." He used the term freedom in Christ, for example Galatians 2:4, and it is clear that some understood this to mean lawlessness, for example Acts 21:21 records James explaining his situation to Paul:

"...they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs." The early history of Christianity records conflict between "Pauline Christianity" and the Jerusalem Church led by James the Just, Simon Peter, and John, the so-called "Jewish Christians." In Galatians 2:14, part of the "Incident at Antioch," Paul publicly accused Peter of judaizing, perhaps legalism. He goes on to say that sins remain sins, and condemns by several examples the kind of behaviour that the church should not tolerate. This confusion is most likely the cause of the statement in 2 Peter 3.16 that some of Paul's Letters are hard to understand, "which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures" (2 Peter 3:16b).

The Epistle of James, in contrast, states that our good works justify before men our faith after salvation and we are to obey the Law of God, that faith without works is death (2:14-26).

According to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught:

"Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'" Matthew 7:20-23 According to the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus taught:

"The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord,' and not do what I tell you?" Luke 6:45-46

Antinomianism among Christians

In the case of Christianity, the controversy arises out of the doctrine of grace, the forgiveness of sins and atonement by faith in Jesus Christ. If God forgives sins, what exactly is the disadvantage in sinning, or the reward of obedience?

There are several issues that are addressed by the charge of antinomianism. The charge may represent the fear that a given theological position does not lead to the edification of the believer or assist him in leading a regenerate life. Doctrines that tend to erode the authority of the church and its right to prescribe religious practices for the faithful are often condemned as antinomian. The charge is also brought against those whose teachings are perceived as hostile to government and established authority.

The first people accused of antinomianism were found, apparently, in Gnosticism; various aberrant and licentious acts were ascribed to these by their orthodox enemies; we have few independent records of their actual teachings. In the Book of Revelation 2:6-15, the New Testament speaks of Nicolaitans, who are traditionally identified with a Gnostic sect, in terms that suggest the charge of antinomianism might be appropriate.

Roman Catholicism tends to charge Protestantism with antinomianism, based in part on the distinctively Protestant doctrine of _sola fide_, salvation by faith alone, and the typical Protestant rejection of the elaborate sacramental liturgy of the Roman church, and its body of canon law. Within Roman Catholicism itself, Blaise Pascal accused the Jesuits of antinomianism in his Lettres provinciales, charging that Jesuit casuistry undermined moral principles. Charges of antinomianism have also been bandied about within the Protestant camp as well; Martin Luther accused Johannes Agricola of antinomianism and rejecting the notion of a moral law; other Protestant groups that have been so accused include the Anabaptists and Mennonites. Calvinists have also drawn charges of antinomianism. In the history of American Puritanism, Roger Williams was accused of antinomian teachings by the Puritan leadership of New England.

Theological charges of antinomianism typically imply that the opponent's doctrine leads to various sorts of licentiousness, and imply that the antinomian chooses his theology in order to further a career of dissipation. The conspicuous austerity of life among surviving groups of Anabaptists or Calvinists suggests that these accusations are mostly for rhetorical effect.


  • Badenas, Robert. Christ the End of the Law, Romans 10.4 in Pauline Perspective 1985 ISBN 0905774930 argues that telos is correctly translated as goal, not end, so that Christ is the goal of the Law, end of the law would be antinomianism
  • James Dunn Jesus, Paul and the Law 1990 ISBN 0664250955
  • Hall, Robert W., Anchor Bible Dictionary, Antinomianism ISBN 0385193531

See also