In Galatians 5:7-12 Paul expresses the belief that if someone tries to keep part of the Law, he must keep all of the Law. If this refers to just the Works of the Law (circumcision and table fellowship), then where is the application to the church after the “parting of the ways,” when Judaism and Christianity became clearly separate entities? Usually pastors will preach against “legalism” at this point and then draw an analogy between Jewish practice and some current version of legalism. For example, if a church has recently installed a drum set on stage, the pastor might try to defend a more modern form of worship by strongly implying that people who want piano and organ music only are legalists. Fill in your own modern practice (fashion, style, etc.) and you will get the idea.
This can be exceedingly lame, not to mention a misunderstanding of what Paul is getting at in the book of Galatians. In Galatians, the people who are attacking Paul are saying that a Gentile cannot be saved unless they conform to the Works of the Law. This is a critically important issue, if Paul is right, the Gentiles in Paul’s churches are not even right with God because they fail to keep the Law. On the other hand, if Paul is right, then the people who do rely on “works of the law” for their righteousness may also be unsaved.
With respect to present-day legalism, I would ask two questions:
What effect is legalism having? Paul reminds his church that God would not hindered them in by requiring the to convert to Judaism, but he has done something in their life which may be even more of a burden! The Lord had given them a radically new life; He had not let them run freely in order to trip them up and burden them down (v. 8). They are now in Christ, they are adopted into the family of God and now everything is different! Legalistic rules in the modern Church can have the effect of separating us from that new life by creating a list of things by which we can say we are “righteous.” (We dress right, listen to the right music, vote for the right candidates).
Where will legalism lead? Paul is confident that the Galatian Christians will realize their error return to the free life (v. 10a). But what about someone who does continue to insist that people follow some “work of righteousness” in order to be “actually saved”? It is dangerous, since if we are going to believe Galatians, it can lead to a person not ever accepting Christ as savior but thinking that they are saved. God does not treat false teachers lightly Indeed, since He holds those who teach more accountable (James 3:1)
Maybe I just committed the same preachy lameness I decried in the first paragraph. I do believe that modern legalism is a sin, one is not right before God because of conformity to a community standard of any kind; one is only saved through the person and work of Jesus. Take your shots.