After 50 years of listening to people’s stories, you would think I would have heard it all, but I keep getting surprised. It makes me feel better to know that Paul was shocked by folks in Galatia who were being seduced back into a common form of legalism: “If you’re really saved, you will keep the Law of Moses.” The essence of legalism is to make salvation conditional on performance of some kind. Whether it’s circumcision, diet, external rituals, or grandma’s traditions, legalism claims that salvation comes by faith in Jesus Christ plus somethin’-or-other. To quote a recent president’s favorite phrase, “let me be clear”: Salvation is by grace through faith. Anything else is manmade.
I am shocked that you are turning away so soon from God, who called you to Himself through the loving mercy of Christ. You are following a different way that pretends to be the Good News but is not the Good News at all. You are being fooled by those who deliberately twist the truth concerning Christ.
(Galatians 1:6-7 NLT)
Now to the other side of the question. In church-world today, I hear folks applying the “legalism” accusation to lots of things that are simply not. Apart from salvation, most of the Bible’s promises have conditions. It is not legalism to report the teaching of Scripture concerning the pre-requites for receiving a conditional promise. Give and it shall be given to you: No give, no receive. (Luke 6:38) If you don’t renew your mind, you will not be transformed and live out the will of God. (Romans 12:2) If you want to experience supernatural peace, then stop worrying, start praying, and get grateful. (Philippians 4:6-7). Hopefully, you get the point. If you’re not seeing the “then” of God’s promise, maybe you’re not doing the “if.”