C. J. Mahaney, “Breaking the Rule of Legalism: How the Cross Rescues You from the Performance Trap,” chapter 11 in Living the Cross-Centered Life: Keeping the Gospel the Main Thing (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2006), 111–21.
A legalist is anyone who behaves as if they can earn God’s forgiveness through personal performance. (p. 112)
[Legalism is] a danger that we’ll never outgrow in this lifetime. The tendency for legalism exists for each of us each and every day—because of the pride and self-righteousness of our indwelling sin. (p. 114)
Douglas J. Moo, “Legalism,” in New Living Translation Study Bible (ed. Sean A. Harrison; Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2008), note on Col 2:16–23 (formatting added):
Legalism ([Col] 2:16–23)
At the time of Christ and the early church, Jews made much of rules and laws in their understanding of religion.
- This was natural to them because God had given his law to the Jewish people as a mark of his favor upon them and as a way for them to ratify the covenant agreement he had made with them.
- However, many Jews added to the laws that God had given his people, trying to develop rules for virtually every situation in which they might find themselves.
- Their motivation was often a positive desire not to transgress any of God’s laws.
- As Jesus often pointed out, however, the rules developed by rabbis sometimes became obstacles to obeying God’s rules (Mark 7:1–15).
- Furthermore, many Jews thought that following the law would automatically endear them to God.
Paul apparently confronted a situation of this kind in [Col] 2:16–23.
- False teachers, influenced by Jewish beliefs, were insisting that Christians follow certain rules as a way of expressing their faith.
- Paul criticized this in light of faith in Christ. As the culmination of all God’s plans and purposes, Christ is the center of all true piety.
This does not mean that rules for conduct are inherently bad.
- Some rules, such as the prohibition on lying (3:9), clearly manifest an aspect of Christ’s character.
- Paul also had no problem with individual Christians imposing rules on themselves that they think are conducive to their own growth in Christ (cp. Rom 14:5; 1 Cor 8).
- But they must not require others to obey these self-imposed rules.