In Scot McKnight's fine commentary on Galatians he writes about legalism as we find Paul addressing the problem found in the churches in Galatia. And from that understanding of legalism, problems we have today in our churches. Legalism amounts to making something "law" that undermines the sufficiency of Christ and the activity of the Holy Spirit.
"...here is the essence of Christian living to Paul: living in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit." (p 35) The Judaizers had brought in a version of "gospel" ("good news") that insisted "the Law of Moses" was a necessary central element of one's faith. Yes, you put your faith in Christ, but also you must obey the Law (Tora).
Paul roundly condemns this teaching in Galatians. He stresses the sufficiency of Christ and his work, and the centrality of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives (p 38).
Scot has some great insights into legalisms today which can hinder the gospel and our growth in Jesus. His first of four: "At times laws and regulations are added in such a way that they could distort the gospel as they relegate Christ and the Spirit to the periphery." (p 39)
Scot mentions the discipline of daily Bible reading as one example of "'laws' that easily develop in Christian circles." The point here is that doing these good things, which have their rightful place in helping us in our lives, do not, in themselves, "make us acceptable" or "relationally closer to God." Only Christ's work for us and the work of the Holy Spirit enables us to live in the freedom of a love relationship to God and to each other. "We have compromised Christ and sacrificed the power of the Spirit on the altar of discipline if we think we cannot live spiritually without reading the Bible every day."
The importance of Bible reading is not at all being denied here. It's only the assumption that one must get their daily read in, or daily praying, etc., to be acceptable to God. False. It is good for us to read the Bible daily on the basis of what Jesus has done for us, looking to the Spirit to help us. And we will want to grow in doing so if we see Christ as our sufficiency and the Spirit as our helper.
There is more to explore here, as Scot has helpfully laid it out in this book, a great read: neither beneath the scholar nor above any Christian. I hope Scot is not turning over in his bed as I use material from his book(s) to help us look at this (and other) subject(s).
Legalism is a great danger to the church, just as much so as licentiousness (= an "anything goes" kind of morality). Galatians bears witness to that fact. So we want to explore some more interesting facets of it in coming posts.