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.”

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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.