Something often strikes a chord in us when we see people past their prime performing arduous tasks. Think of a single grandmother raising her grandchildren or George Marshall coming out of retirement to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Lighter examples include Rocky in the boxing movie “Rocky Balboa” (the sixth in a series) or Peyton Manning in last year’s Super Bowl. People show this type of perseverance only when the task is extremely important to them.
The Apostle Peter wrote 2 Peter just before his death — a death that he knew was quickly coming (2 Peter 1:14). Perhaps by this time, the Emperor Nero had already begun persecuting Christians. Peter still wouldn’t back down from the assignment before him. This task was so important to him that even in the shadow of his coming death, he would hold fast to his calling by fervently speaking truth into a dire situation (2 Peter 1:13, 15). What was happening?
Peter loved his fellow believers (2 Peter 3:14), but false believers had joined their churches and become leaders (2:1). The Church had an infection, and Peter’s last recorded words in Scripture were the antibiotic. He calls these false leaders out for their “sensuality” (2:2), ungodliness (2:6), brash confidence (2:10), self-indulgence (2:10), irrationality (2:12), wild partying (2:13), adultery (2:14), greed (2:14), and devotion to the “flesh” (2:18). They, moreover, were luring others to their own position (2:3) and hurting the reputation of the churches (2:2) as they took part in fellowship meals (2:13). The most dangerous part of the situation was how they looked genuine. Though the Lord “bought” them (2:3) and they had some sort of knowledge of Christ (2:20), this knowledge wasn’t saving knowledge, and final judgment was imminent (2:1, 3, 9-10, 12-14, 18, 21).
What is the name of this view? Although scholars disagree about some of the details, we can call the general view “antinomianism.” The name comes from the Greek words for “against” (anti) and “law” (nomos). Antinomians, therefore, are those who are against the law, and they often oppose morality altogether. The individuals Peter describes were comfortable being church members, but they saw themselves as free from moral obligations (2 Peter 2:19). Jesus had said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15, ESV). Peter’s words simply apply to them. We could paraphrase this application: “If you disregard my commands, you do not love me.”
In thinking about antinomianism, legalism is important for two reasons. First, we can better understand God’s will if we keep legalism and antinomianism in view. To use Gilbert Meilaender’s language again, grace gives us both pardon and power. Legalists ignore pardon. They have no room for brokenness and forgiveness. Antinomians deny the need for God’s power to transform their lives. For antinomians, how you live doesn’t matter because you’re saved by grace. God wills that, unlike the legalists, we recognize our need for forgiveness and that, unlike the antinomians, we recognize our obligation to live differently. The grace that cleanses us changes us.
Secondly, if we, like Peter, love the saints and speak truth, contemporary antinomians will call us legalists or something similar like “moralists,” “self-righteous,” or “holier-than-thou.” Knowing what legalism is helps us know how to respond to the charge that we ignore grace. Grace brings pardon for sin and power for change.