The Misuse of 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 trust of radical holiness. What does legalism really mean? It is the proper word whenever ever 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.”
– Derek Thomas



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