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Defining Legalism

May 27, 2018 Speaker: Kit Johnson Series: Colossians

Topic: Expository Passage: Colossians 2:16-19



One of the ways that little kids tend to manipulate each other is by name-calling. One little boys get mad at another little boy, and he can’t make any sort of actual argument, so he just calls the other boy, “Stupid.” And the other boy is devastated as if the first boy just shattered his world. “He called me ‘Stupid,’ and I don’t want to be stupid.”

And unfortunately, name-calling doesn’t always go away when we grow up, even among Christians. In our day, one name that we throw around sloppily in order to dismiss others and their beliefs is the name, legalist. For example, we don’t like a standard that another Christian holds, and we feel a little insecure, and so we make ourselves feel better by dismissing him or her as a legalist.

In so doing, we divide God’s people, and we squash productive conversation about important matters. And when there is a legitimate case of real legalism, we fail to appreciate just how serious it is.

But at the end of Colossians 2, Paul confronts real legalism, and it is no laughing matter (read vv. 16–23). Paul has been laying the foundation for this section since the beginning of the book, but especially in 2:6–15. In v. 6, Paul commands us to “walk in Him,” meaning that Christ must be the center of the Christian life. And in v. 8, he commands us to beware of anyone who would move us away from walking in Christ.

He follows in vv. 9–15 by demonstrating why anything other than Christ is ultimately less than Christ. We are already “complete in Christ” (v. 10), he has already paid our sin debt (vv. 13–14), he has given us the spiritual life we need to battle sin (vv. 11–12), and he has defeated every spiritual power (v. 15).

And based on this foundation vv. 16–23 now put the Colossian heresy directly in the crosshairs, and Paul gives the third and fourth commands in Colossians. “Let no one judge you” (v. 16), and “Let no one cheat you” (v. 18). In the process, he gives some very significant instruction regarding the danger of real legalism.

Here’s my summary of the “take-home-truth” of this passage. We must reject any path to holiness that is not rooted in the sufficiency of Christ or that strays from the law of Christ. Today, I want to prove this from the text, and discuss what it means for us. The main points of my outline are two commands. First…


I.               Reject any view of godliness that is not rooted in the gospel (vv. 16–17).

a.     I’d like to ask and answer 3 questions of these two verses. First…

b.    What was being taught? This is a very important question to answer if we are going to make sound applications of this text. We have to understand what Paul is confronting in order to understand his application. The basic answer to this question is that the Colossians were being told, “You must submit to the Law of Moses.”

c.     The reason we know that Paul was talking about regulations from the Law is because v. 17 calls these laws “a shadow of things to come.” Paul would never describe a pagan law that way, and the NT consistently uses this kind of language to describe a purpose of the Law.

d.    In particular, v. 16 mentions two types of laws that were being forced on the Colossian church. First, Paul mentions “food and drink.” The Law of Moses includes many laws about what meats the Jews could eat and about how animals must be slaughtered. It includes only a couple of drink laws and only for narrow situations, but many Jews who lived in Gentile contexts refrained from all meat and wine just to make sure they didn’t violate the Law (e.g., Daniel). This was probably the stand that some in Rome had taken, which led to the controversy in Romans 14–15, which we will get to.

e.     Second, the false teachers were pushing the Colossians to observe, “a festival, or a new moon or Sabbaths.” These three terms commonly appear together in the OT to describe the Jewish holy day schedule. Apparently, the false teachers were pushing the Colossians Christians, the vast majority of whom were Gentiles, they must submit to at least certain aspects of the Law, which brings us to a second question…

f.      What was the problem with this teaching? First…

g.     They denied the significance of the new era in which we live. In v. 17 Paul compares the era of the Law to a “shadow” and the new era following the death and resurrection of Christ to “substance.” This kind of language had a rich history in Greek thought going to back to Plato, and his illustration of shadows in a cave.

h.    And Paul uses this language to drive home the fact that we live in a new and ultimately superior era to the era of the Law. The Law established all sorts of regulations about sacrifice and worship and holiness. But these things were not the ultimate reality; instead, they were intended to point us to the ultimate reality, which is Christ.

i.      We saw in vv. 9–15 that Christ is the perfect revelation of God, the perfect sacrifice for sin, and the perfect source of true holiness. Therefore, if these Gentiles put themselves under the Law, it wouldn’t be an innocent return to tradition; it would undermine the significance of the fact that Christ has fulfilled the Law and established a new era.

j.      And the Colossians needed to understand clear, as do we, in the words of vv. 9–10, that “in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him.” As I’ve said a number of times, anything more than Christ, ultimately distracts from Christ and is less than Christ. Therefore a second problem with this teaching is…

k.    They denied the sufficiency of the gospel. Based on how strongly Paul speaks we can assume that the false teachers were saying that obeying these commands is necessary to your salvation, that they added something to what Christ already accomplished. And Paul will not tolerate any such idea. Anytime someone claims that Christ is not sufficient to save, they dishonor the gospel, and they deny the gospel.

l.      It’s worth noting that Paul takes a much stronger stance here than he does in Romans 14. Apparently in Rome, there were Christians who had converted from Judaism. They understood that they were saved by grace alone, but they had lived so long under the Law that their consciences just weren’t convinced that they could let go of certain regulations. And Paul says, that’s fine. As long as you are right on the gospel, don’t violate your conscience. That’s not legalism, that’s maintaining sensitivity to God’s Word.

m.  But this is a different situation because Gentiles, who had no conscience issues were being told they must obey the Law to be right with God. This teaching denyied the sufficiency of the gospel and that Christ is the substance on which our faith must be built. And this brings us to our third question.

n.    What does it mean for us? The answer is we must reject any path to godliness that minimizes my completeness in Christ. I want to be clear that the NT clearly says that I must live a life that is pleasing to the Lord. It also says that if I disobey God’s Word, I grieve the Holy Spirit and I displease the Lord. Therefore, calling people to obey God’s Word is not legalism; it’s biblical. And the Bible is also clear that I must work hard at pursuing godliness and use wise strategies to help me do so. Therefore, having convictions that help me pursue holiness is not legalism; it’s biblical.

o.    But when someone comes along and says that you must obey our extra biblical rules in order to go to heaven, that’s legalism. And we must absolutely reject it because it claims that I am not already complete in Christ.

p.    And folks, there are all sorts of off-ramps from completeness in Christ into legalism. In particular, most of the world’s religions are legalistic because they say that in order to go to heaven you must get baptized, pray certain prayers, light a candle, or visit a holy place. And any time we add these things to the gospel, we fail to exalt the sufficiency of Christ, and we must absolutely reject them.

q.    Therefore, Paul commands us in v. 16 not to submit to any judgment other than the judgment of the gospel. I am complete in Christ, and I am going to heaven because of him. Do not be moved off that foundation, and never give someone the impression that they are okay with God based on a legalistic standard that diminishes salvation by grace alone through Christ alone.

r.     But maybe all that I have just said is making your head spin because what I have just called legalism is what you have always believed. You have your set of practices that you believe are necessary to earning salvation. Verses 6–15 are abundantly clear that Christ is all you need for salvation and that there is nothing you can add to his work. He calls you today to forsake your legalism and trust in Christ alone for salvation. I pray that you will do that today. Then the second major challenge of this text is…

II.             Reject any view of godliness that is not directed by the law of Christ (vv. 18–19).

a.     By the law of Christ, I mean the ethic and standard of godliness that is presented in the NT. I’d like to work our way through these verses using the same questions I used for vv. 16–17. First…

b.    What was being taught? Here’s my basic summary. You must follow our path to reach superior godliness. Verse 18 mentions three extra biblical requirements that the false teachers were pushing the Colossians to embrace. First, Paul mentions “taking delight in false humility.” Humility is always presented in Scripture as a quality of godliness, so Paul can’t be condemning legitimate humility. This is why the NKJV adds “false” to the translation.

c.     Pretty much everyone agrees that Paul is probably referencing some form of asceticism. Asceticism is the idea that I can earn favor with God by denying myself the basic pleasures and even necessities of life. It’s a common idea that is present in just about every major religion.

d.    The Bible does commend fasting when we do it in order to focus our minds on the Lord, but Jesus frequently condemned the Pharisees for fasting as a means of public show. They would make themselves look miserable by not eating or not caring for their bodies, but it wasn’t actual humility. As Paul says here, it was a false humility ultimately intended to impress people and even God. In Luke 18 Jesus condemns the Pharisee who boasts to God of how he fasts twice a week. And the false teachers were pushing this sort of asceticism that the Bible nowhere commands. It was a standard of righteousness that they had added to the law of Christ.

e.     Second, Paul mentions the “worship of angels.” We’ve talked a lot about this throughout the series because Paul has brought up Christ’s superiority over angelic powers several times. Most likely, Paul is referencing a belief that the angels possess various types of control over our lives and over our ability to fellowship with God. And so the ancients had come up with all sorts of ritualistic practices to gain the blessing of the angels.

f.      And the false teachers were telling the Colossians that they needed to follow these rituals in order to gain the angels’ favor and ultimately God’s favor. But Paul has already established this was just a bunch of nonsense. The Bible commands us to worship God alone, and it tells us that we come to God through Christ alone. Adding angel worshi

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