Skip to content ↓

The Word You Can Use Once a Year (and No More)

The Word You Can Use Once a Year and No More

I recently discovered Readwise, an app that has a neat feature—it sends a daily email with a randomized selection of highlights from books in my Kindle library. This has proven an interesting way to encounter information I have read but long-since forgotten. A few days ago Readwise surfaced a quote from a book I read years ago, Derek Thomas’s How the Gospel Brings Us All the Way Home. And, wouldn’t you know it, it was just the quote I needed that day. Here is Thomas explaining when to use the oft-used but oft-misused term “legalism.”

The word legalism is overused. Sometimes I tell my students at the seminary where I teach that they may use this word once a year and no more. All too often legalism is employed whenever we consider obedience inconvenient. Legalism then becomes a “scare tactic word” masking an underlying indifference or mistrust of radical holiness.

What does legalism really mean? It is the proper word whenever one of the following is true:

  • I am being asked to obey in order to win God’s favor. A works-based view of salvation is essentially legalistic.
  • I am being asked to obey a command over and above that which God has given to me in the Bible. Essentially, I am being asked to obey against my conscience, which is subject to Scripture alone. “All members of this church must refrain from growing facial hair,” for example, is an example of legalism.
  • I am obeying God’s commandments from impure motives. When the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son viewed his obedience as a form of slavery, his obedience was legalistic.

Is obeying from a consideration of gain—reaping life through actions of mortification—a form of legalism? Yes, if we think that Paul is teaching us that “life” is the reward given to those who put sin to death. But Paul is not saying that. Life is the fruit, not the root, of justification.


  • Making Good Return

    Making Good Return

    I don’t think I am overstating the matter when I say that this has the potential to be one of the most important books you will read. It’s a book that may shape years of your life and transform the way you carry out one of the key roles God assigns to you…

  • A La Carte Friday 2

    A La Carte (June 14)

    A La Carte: 3 steps to find your voice / 7 things good dads say / One day leads to another / Let’s stop hyper-spiritualizing counseling / Enjoying the many flavors of the Word / What I wish you understood about the ethnic-specific church / and more.

  • A Whole Batch of New Books for Kids

    A Whole Batch of New Books for Kids

    Every month I put together a roundup of new and notable books for grownup readers. But I also receive a lot of books for kids and like to put together the occasional roundup of these books as well. So today I bring you a whole big batch of new books for kids

  • A La Carte Thursday 1

    A La Carte (June 13)

    A La Carte: Were the earliest Christians illiterate? / Our new religion isn’t enough / Why do evil and suffering exist? / The missing ingredient in too many marriages / Is Genesis literal or allegorical? / The death of fear / and more.

  • Tear Down Build Up

    It’s Easier to Tear Down than Build Up

    In my travels, I encountered a man whose work is demolition. When buildings are old and decrepit, or even when they just need to be removed to make way for others, his job is to destroy them and haul them away. New or old, big or small, plain or fancy—it makes no difference to him.…

  • A La Carte Collection cover image

    A La Carte (June 12)

    A La Carte: Does Bach’s music prove the existence of God? / Living from approval, not for approval / A surprising test of true faith / Do you have the support you need to grow? / Who was the “black Spurgeon?” / and more.