Nomism comes from the Greek word nomos, meaning “law.” In theology, nomism refers to the view that obedience to moral law, especially as found in the Old Testament or Torah, is necessary for salvation. This view sees law-keeping as a prerequisite for justification and right standing before God.
The opposite view is antinomianism, which believes that faith alone is sufficient for salvation apart from obedience to law. Throughout church history, there has been debate over the relationship between law and gospel – the roles of God’s grace versus human effort in salvation.
Old Testament Law
In the Old Testament, God gave the Law to Israel as part of His covenant with them. This included the Ten Commandments as well as the extensive legal code found in books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Obeying these laws was tied to Israel’s status as God’s chosen people. Disobedience would lead to punishment and exile, while obedience brought blessings and prosperity.
The purpose of the Law was multifaceted. It revealed God’s holy standards. It exposed human sinfulness and guilt. It provided instruction for righteous living and worship. It also functioned as a guardian or tutor pointing ahead to Christ (Galatians 3:24). The sacrificial system offered means of atonement for sin under the Law.
Hebrews 10:1 states that the Law was a shadow of the good things to come but not the realities themselves. It could not provide permanent forgiveness of sins but only foreshadow the complete redemption found in Christ. The animal sacrifices had to be offered repeatedly as ongoing reminders of sins.
Law and Gospel in the New Testament
In the New Testament era, debate emerged among Jewish Christians over the role of the Mosaic Law. Did Gentile converts need to keep the Law and be circumcised to be saved? The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 concluded that certain parts of the Law applied but not circumcision or full obedience to the Law. Salvation was by grace through faith alone.
Paul’s writings address nomism extensively. He adamantly opposed requiring Law obedience for justification, saying no one is justified by works of the Law (Galatians 2:16). Righteousness comes through faith in Christ, apart from works (Romans 3:21-22). To require Law obedience nullifies the grace of Christ (Galatians 2:21).
However, Paul also upholds the Law as holy, righteous and good (Romans 7:12). It brings knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20). It serves an instructive purpose in teaching God’s standards (1 Timothy 1:8-11). But it cannot justify or save. Obedience flows from salvation; it is not a prerequisite for salvation.
Paul resists antinomianism, making clear that saving faith is demonstrated through love and the fruit of the Spirit. Christians are not under the Law but under grace which itself teaches godly living (Titus 2:11-14).
Dangers of Nomism
Nomism contains inherent dangers the New Testament warns against:
1. It makes obedience to law a works-based righteousness that nullifies grace and distorts the gospel (Galatians 2:21).
2. It leads to pride in one’s own efforts at law-keeping rather than humble faith in Christ (Philippians 3:2-9).
3. It reduces salvation to an external, rule-keeping religion rather than an internal change of heart by grace (Romans 2:28-29).
4. It leads to self-righteous judgmental attitudes toward others, like that of the Pharisees who despised tax collectors and sinners (Luke 18:9-14).
5. It burdens consciences with guilt and religious obligations that only Christ can lift (Matthew 11:28-30).
6. It makes holiness a matter of external behavior modification rather than the Spirit’s inner working (Romans 8:3-4).
7. It leads either to hypocrisy or discouragement at inability to keep the whole Law perfectly (James 2:10).
8. It makes Jewish ceremonial laws a requirement for Gentiles contrary to the Jerusalem Council’s decision (Acts 15:5-11).
Rightly Applying the Law
If salvation is by faith alone apart from the Law, what role does the Law rightly play for believers today?
1. It brings conviction of sin and reveals one’s need for Christ (Romans 3:20).
2. It acts as a guardian pointing to Christ, the ultimate fulfillment of the Law (Galatians 3:24).
3. It provides righteous standards and principles for living, but believers are empowered to fulfill it by the Spirit (Romans 8:4).
4. It serves an instructive purpose in defining sins to avoid and righteous conduct to pursue (1 Timothy 1:8-11).
5. It shows more clearly the holy character and will of God.
6. It gives wisdom for navigating ethical dilemmas and practicing discernment (Psalm 119:66, 105).
7. It shows the universal, unchanging moral standards that reflect God’s nature.
The Law shows believers what pleases God, but it cannot justify. Only by faith does the Holy Spirit empower believers to walk in love and obey God’s commands from the heart.
Covenant Theology Perspectives
In covenant theology, different views on the relationship between the Old and New Testaments impact understandings of nomism.
Dispensationalism sees a strong distinction between Israel under the Law and the church under grace. The Law is fulfilled in Christ and no longer directly applies. Salvation has always been by grace through faith, but the legal code served a specific purpose for national Israel under the old covenant.
New covenant theology also views the Mosaic Law as fulfilled in Christ. Sabbath and dietary laws do not apply literally. The New Testament brings a new law of love written on the heart by the Spirit, not external legalism.
Reformed covenant theology sees more continuity between old and new covenants. The moral law continues as the perfect rule of righteousness. Salvation has always been by grace through faith. Ceremonial laws are fulfilled in Christ. Judicial laws reflect enduring principles but require contextual application.
So reformed theology upholds the moral authority of the Law while rejecting imposition of Old Testament legal codes on believers today. Salvation depends on grace, not law-keeping.
Cultic and Sacerdotal Nomism
Within Judaism, some forms of nomism involved priests and the temple cult. Salvation required involvement in temple ritual and offerings. Access to God’s presence depended on priests as mediators.
The New Testament book of Hebrews addresses this by teaching that Christ’s sacrifice made the temple sacrifices for sin obsolete. He is the ultimate high priest giving direct access to God for all believers. So cultic nomism finds fulfillment in Christ.
Legalistic Tendencies in Church History
While Protestant theology has upheld salvation by grace through faith alone, various legalistic tendencies have emerged at times:
1. Overemphasis on external rule-keeping.
2. Requiring strict sabbath-keeping and other regulations.
3. Moralism focused on outward behaviors over the heart.
4. Reliance on circumcision and other rituals.
5. Imposing Old Testament laws meant only for Israel (dietary restrictions, etc).
6. Failure to distinguish the moral, civil and ceremonial aspects of the Law.
7. Neglect of the Law’s conviction of sin which drives one to Christ.
8. Works-righteousness requiring merit from law-keeping.
These legalisms arise from our tendency as fallen humans to rely on our own efforts. But the solution is not antinomian license. Rightly understood, the Law and gospel work together – the Law convicts of sin and shows our need for grace, while the gospel provides forgiveness and empowers righteous living in the Spirit.
Nomism remains a danger today whenever the subtle message is conveyed that we must prove ourselves worthy of grace by living a certain way. But the gospel offers salvation and forgiveness as a free gift. At the same time, it comes with a transformative power, not license to sin.
Believers demonstrate saving faith by a changed life growing in obedience, love and the fruit of the Spirit. But this flows from grace, not an effort to earn salvation. Obedience stems from having a new heart, new desires and the inner working of the Holy Spirit, not external conformity to rules.
The Law shows God’s standards. But only Christ could fulfill it completely on our behalf. And only in Him does the righteousness of the Law come to fruition in our lives as we walk by the Spirit in faith. Through Christ we have died to the Law so that we may belong to Him and bear fruit for God (Romans 7:4-6).