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4 Problems with Legalism

June 3, 2018 Speaker: Kit Johnson Series: Colossians

Topic: Expository Passage: Colossians 2:20-23


Read vv. 16–23

Colossians 2:16-23 (NKJV)

16 So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths,
17 which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.
18 Let no one cheat you of your reward, taking delight in false humility and worship of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind,
19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom all the body, nourished and knit together by joints and ligaments, grows with the increase that is from God.
20 Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations—
21 “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” 22 which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men?
23 These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.

Over the past 2 weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand Paul’s point in this passage and how to accurately apply it to our context. It’s a hard passage to preach because the situation at Colossae is so distant from our situation, but the principles Paul gives are so valuable in any context. The challenge is knowing exactly how they apply to us.

As I was sitting in my office on Wednesday thinking about how the Colossians were being deceived and how we can are often similarly deceived, I was struck by just how many creative ways there are to get off course in the Christian life.

It is because the human heart is terribly complex and deceitful. There are all sorts of ways we can wander off God’s golden path to holiness and not even realized it. Therefore, I want to challenge you to put on your thinking caps and do you best understand Paul’s point. And then put a magnifying glass on your heart (not the hearts of everyone around you) because these four verses that in some respects seem so distant from our world actually have a lot to say to 21st century Christians living in Apple Valley.

My title today is “4 Problems with Legalism.” But before we get to the 4 problems, we first need to understand the Colossians’ context and what Paul is confronting. Therefore, I first want to ask and answer the question…


I.  What was being taught?

  1. Last week I said that the false teachers were telling the Colossians that they must obey OT laws and participate in mystical worship practices (that were probably a mixture of Jewish and pagan ideas) in order to be right with God and receive his favor. And vv. 20–23 continue to address the same issues, but they go after two issues in particular. The first and primary issue is…
  2. Asceticism: Again, asceticism is the idea that I can earn favor with God by denying myself the basic pleasures and even necessities of life. For example, an ascetic may starve himself or for only eating dull, plain foods. They may reject the sexual relationship, sleep on the floor or in the cold, or wear uncomfortable clothes. There are many, many ways people have made themselves miserable thinking that it will bring them closer to God.
  3. Verse 21 mentions 3 of the prohibitions that were being pushed on the Colossians. Paul is probably sort of mocking the absurd strictness of the regulations. “Don’t do this! Don’t do that. Don’t do that either!”
  4. The middle one “do not taste” is fairly clear. They were being told they must abstain from certain foods and drinks. The 1st and 3rd verbs are basically synonymous, but it’s not clear what was being prohibited. The third verb can be used for the sexual relationship, but it’s hard to tell if Paul specifically has that in mind. Or it may be that they forbade even touching good food, let alone eating it. Or Paul may be mocking how the false teachers seemed to oppose every physical pleasure.
  5. Verse 23 mentions 3 more practices of the false teachers, and the 2nd and 3rd clearly refer to asceticism. Paul already mentioned “false humility” in v. 18. I said last week that the Pharisees were notorious for this sort of asceticism. They would take long fasts and make themselves look miserable and supposedly humble, but it was just a prideful show. Similarly the false teachers loved to show off their “humility.”
  6. The 3rd description, “neglect of the body” applies to many expressions of asceticism. “Neglect” is actually a rather weak translation. The idea is “severe treatment of the body.” There are all sorts of examples in most world religions of people putting themselves through terrible rigors in an effort to earn God’s favor or to come closer to him.
  7. It’s all very sad because the Bible consistently says that physical pleasure is a good thing as long as we enjoy life in obedience to God for his glory. We should enjoy food and comfortable homes as God provides. And married couples should enjoy their physical relationship. But ascetic practice is also sad because God never commands it and because it distracts from the gospel and real godliness. The second issue he mentions is…
  8. Mysticism: Verse 23 mentions, “self-imposed religion,” which is probably another reference to the angel worship. And it’s very likely that the asceticism and mysticism were tied together, that they abused themselves thinking it would help gain the ear of the angels. Think of Elijah’s encounter with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. They cut themselves in order to get Baal’s attention and to get him to rein fire down from heaven.
  9. In sum, the false teachers were pushing strict religious practices, which God had not commanded in order to gain favor with the angels and acceptance with God. And they were very proud of their supposed superior holiness and mystical knowledge. So what was the problem with all of this, and what is the problem in general with most legalistic religious practice? First…

II.  Legalism denies our liberty in Christ (v. 20). Verse 20 trumpets the fact that…

  1. Christ has freed us from slavery. We talked a couple weeks ago about the fact that the Christian has died with Christ to the old way of life. According to 13, we were once “dead in trespasses,” but “He has made (us) alive together with him.” We are no longer slaves to sin and the deceitfulness of Satan. We are free to live for God because we see him clearly.
  2. But the Colossians were being pushed to submit to “the basic principles of the world.” There’s a lot of question about what Paul means by this phrase, and a lot of translations change this phrase to say something like “elementary spirits of the world” referring to angel worship.
  3. But the Greeks typically used this word (stoicheia) to describe the basic elements that make up the physical world. And since Paul further explains what he means by saying, “why as though living in the world,” I believe he is speaking generally of the world system and its legalistic religions.
  4. And this is an important point for understanding v. 20 and this entire text. Paul is not condemning obeying the ethic of Scripture. Rather, he is condemning submitting ourselves to a worldly ethic that denies salvation by grace alone or that makes godliness about worldly matters rather than about the heart and eternal values.
  5. And notice how Paul makes his point. He starts with a conditional statement that is not intended to cause them to question if they died with Christ but to cause them to really ponder its significance. He is saying, “Didn’t you already die with Christ? Didn’t he already free you from the law and from slavery to the world system with its false religions, fears, and deceptions? If Christ already did this for you, then why would you willingly put yourselves back under the worldly, legalistic ‘regulations’ of the false teachers?”
  6. If they took this step, it would be a denial of what Christ has already done and of the liberty he provided. It would be a terrible step with potentially eternal consequence. Therefore, because Christ has freed us from slavery…
  7. We must not put ourselves back in slavery. Paul is especially clear about what is stake if we stray from salvation by grace alone into legalism in Galatians 5:1–5. The Galatians were being told they must be circumcised and obey other OT laws in order to complete the salvation they had in Christ, and notice how strongly Paul draws a line in the sand (read).
  8. If someone ever comes along and tells you that you must do something more than what Christ already did on the cross in order to go to heaven (I want to say again that we aren’t talking about obeying NT commands, we are talking about salvation through works), run the other way. “Stand fast in the liberty by which Christ has made us free.” We are saved by grace alone.
  9. But returning to Colossians 2, even if we understand that we are saved by grace alone, we can still miss the full significance of our liberty in Christ, and our Christian walk can be clouded by the darkness of a worldly view of faith. Even people who are saved can define their Christianity by worldly standards that are about impressing people. We think, “I’m godly because of what I wear, what I eat, where I go, how I parent” and on and on.
  10. I am not saying that these things don’t matter because they do. God gives commands about all of these things. But notice the next exhortation in 3:1–4. My Christian practice must not ultimately be about meeting an earthly standard, impressing people, or feeling good about myself. No, I must be motivated by the fact that I am alive with Christ, I’m going to heaven, and I want to live for Christ and the things of eternal significance. Christian, keep your focus there, and do not get entangled in a worldly view of spirituality because Christ died to free you from legalistic slavery. A second problem with legalism is that…

III.  Legalism focuses on physical, temporal matters (v. 22a)

  1. Before I go on, I want to clarify that there are 2 levels of legalism. The most severe form is what we saw in Galatians 5, where someone compromises the gospel by adding works to salvation. Those people are not saved.
  2. But there is a second level of legalism that often creeps into the heart of Christians where we define our Christian experience by worldly standards. This sort of legalism won’t keep you from heaven, but it will compromise your growth and divide God’s people. We’re going to see in this point and the next how we are prone to this kind of legalism.
  3. That being said, notice that Paul says of the rules being pushed on the Colossians that they “all concern things which perish with the using.” In other words, these rules were all focused on material things like food and rituals rather than the heart. And this is a problem because…
  4. Material things are temporary. Turn in your Bibles to Mark 7 because Paul is almost certainly using the words of Christ to make his point in this verse ( 1–4). The Pharisees were upset that the disciples were eating without having ceremonially clean hands. But Mark clarifies that their anger was not based on God’s Law but on traditions they had added (read vv. 5–8). Paul basically quotes v. 7 in Colossians 1:22b, which is why we know Paul is thinking of this account. We will get to Jesus’ point in v. 7, But notice for now that the Pharisees are upset that the disciples are not keeping their extra biblical traditions, but Jesus says their concern is pure hypocrisy.
  5. (Read vv. 14–19): Verse 19, Jesus makes the same point Paul makes in vv. 22a. The Pharisees had their stomachs in knots over food, but Jesus says food is temporary. It goes into your body, and then (not to be crass) it comes out of your body. It’s not that big of a deal, and it certainly is not what “defiles” a person and destroys his relationship with God. Rather, 20–23 say that what is in your heart and what kind of spiritual fruit your heart produces is what really matters to God. Therefore,
  6. God cares about the character of my hear than he does about material things. This is Paul’s point in vv. 22a. Like the Pharisees, the Colossian false teachers had all these laws that ultimately had nothing to do with the heart and everything to do with outward, material conformity. And Paul is saying that material things do not define spirituality. Rather, my heart defines my spirituality, which is why he gives a very similar exhortation in 3:5 to what Jesus gave in Mark 7:20–23. I’ve got to care a whole lot more about what is in my heart than about what’s in my pantry or my closet because it is not what goes into my stomach that defiles me; it’s what comes out of my heart.
  7. But lest we thumb our noses at the Pharisees and false teachers too quickly, we must recognize the tendency in all of us to do the exact same thing. It is very easy for us to begin to define our godliness by temporal things. We think, “I’m better than so and so because I don’t drink alcohol, I eat healthy foods and exercise, I dress modestly, I dress up for church, I tithe and give to missions, and I never miss a service.”
  8. Am I saying that these things don’t matter? Absolutely not. Rather, the question is where do they come from. Do I dress modestly because I want to obey the God I love and because I want to deflect attention away from myself and to the Lord or because the way I dress defines me as godly? Do you see the difference? It’s subtle, and it’s not always easy to sort out the difference within the complex hearts of sinners. But the difference is vitally important. Legalism defines spirituality based on physical, temporal concerns. Godliness defines spirituality by the heart, by the purity of the heart, and by its submission to Christ. A third problem with legalism is…

IV.  Legalism distracts from genuine godliness (v. 22b)

  1. Verse 22b says that a problem with legalism is that all of its concerns with temporal things are not rooted in the commands of God but in “the commandments and doctrines of men.”
  2. Again this wording comes almost exactly from Jesus’ words in Mark 7:6–7. Again the situation is that the Law commanded Israel to stay pure. But over the centuries the Pharisees had added all sorts of regulations to define purity. And these laws were not necessarily bad in themselves as practical applications of the Law, but v. 7 say they became a problem when the Pharisees presented them not as personal convictions but as God’s Law. Therefore…Legalism distracts from genuine godliness by setting up manmade rules as equal to or superior to the revealed law of God.
  3. And 6 adds that it wasn’t just that they were demanding something that God never actually said; it was that keeping these standards ultimately took precedence over maintaining a godly heart that loved the Lord and that was committed to loving the things God loves and hating the things that God hates. Therefore, a second way that legalism distracts from genuine godliness is…Legalism distracts from genuine godliness by placing a higher emphasis on outward conformity than on maintaining a godly heart.
  4. And folks, it’s not just Catholics or Mormons or Jews who do these sorts of things; we are all prone to making the same mistakes as the Pharisees. And typically, these mistakes begin with a genuine biblical concern.
  5. For example, when feminism began to sweep through our country, Christians rightly resisted the call to eliminate distinctions between the genders. That was a good thing. And one of the ways they practically resisted feminism was by resisting how feminism was affecting women’s dress. In particular, women began wearing pants as a symbol of their power. Many Christians wanted to honor the distinctions between the genders and not be associated with feminism, so they developed the conviction that women should not wear pants. In was a reasonable application of Scripture.
  6. But over time a legitimate application became a doctrine that defined godliness. And even after women wearing pants lost any cultural significance, they had to continue holding the standard because they had said for years that it is a sin for women to wear pants. And the end result is that they set up a false standard of godliness, and they continue to harp on that false standard to the neglect of pushing people to love God and hold fast to his Word.
  7. We can all do that very same thing so easily if we aren’t careful. When the Bible speaks, we must obey. And obeying is going to require that we set up standards of application. But we have to keep a clear sense of where the Bible ends and my application begins. And I’d say to parents, grandparents, and teachers, that we’ve got to be very clear in our teaching about what the difference is. This is because if those under us hear us say that our applications are Bible truth, we will either raise hypocrites who hold to a false standard of godliness, or they will go in the other direction and hate the church because they see us as hypocritically holding the line on nonsense. Neither of these are acceptable. The 4th problem with legalism is…

V.  Legalism cannot transform the heart (v. 23)

  1. Verse 23 begins by acknowledging a major reason why legalism is so pervasive.
  2. Legalism looks great, and it appeals to our pride. Paul acknowledges that all the stuff the false teachers were doing had “an appearance of wisdom.” They had developed a system of religiosity that fit very well in the broader Greek culture of Colossae. It looked wise and spiritual.
  3. And we are very good at doing the same thing. For example, there are all sorts of hip diets and natural remedies in our culture. And there are lots of examples out there of Christians who have taken these things and not just embraced them as a way to be healthy (which is a good thing) but as steps that godly people must take. It appears very wise. But ultimately…
  4. Legalism cannot tame the sin nature. The way Paul ends this passage is so powerful. The false teachers had this elaborate system they had established, and they were so proud of their superstructure. But Paul says that all of it has “no value against the indulgence of the flesh.” They were working so hard to keep food laws and festival laws. They were severely treating their bodies and avoiding pleasure, but all of their effort couldn’t curb the sin nature. All of this stuff couldn’t make them godly.
  5. Folks, that’s because the heart of man, in the words of v. 13, is “dead in trespasses.” All the rules in the world can’t give life to the dead. Only Christ can do that, and v. 20 says that he has done that for his people.
  6. Therefore, spiritual growth must be firmly rooted in the gospel, and in the power of Christ working mightily in our hearts. That’s not to say that we don’t need to work hard or that we don’t need to have standards to help us apply what God commands us to do to our particular context. But those standards must never become a replacement for the supernatural work of God. If we are going to honor God with our lives, we must understand the truth of v. 10 that we are “complete in Christ,” and we must obey 6. In light of all the ground we have covered the last two weeks, I’d like to end by summing up what we have said about legalism by playing a little game I’m going to call, “You might be a legalist if…”

VI.  You might be a legalist if…

  1. You believe that works contribute to salvation. Going back to what we saw in Galatians 5, this is the most serious form of legalism. And if you are hoping that you will be in heaven someday because of your baptism, your church attendance, your community service, or anything else in addition to Christ, I pray that you will see today that salvation is by grace alone through Christ alone. Come to Christ today and be saved. But second…
  2. Your convictions are an end in themselves rather than a means to obey God’s will. I hope that no one will walk away from these 2 weeks thinking convictions don’t matter. What matters is that they must stay clearly tied to obeying what God has clearly said. If you can’t clearly make that connection or the conviction has become more important than what God said, you need to repent and reevaluate. Third…
  3. You claim that your extra biblical conviction is God’s will for all time, for all people. We have got to understand that convictions are very much tied to our cultural setting and our own personal sin struggles. There is no such thing as a universal standard for modest dress because modesty is largely tied to culture. The same goes for music. A musical beat can mean something very different in one culture as compared to another. And we better know what these cultural values are, so that we can do our best to honor God with our dress and our music, but we better be humble enough to recognize were the Bible ends and my application begins. And we better recognize that the Bible always stands while my applications may need to change. Fourth…
  4. You are using an external work to mask an ungodly heart. Don’t be a Pharisee. Don’t ever judge your spirituality or the spirituality of others based on anything other than what God has said in his Word. A skyscraper built on sand is doomed to fall, and you better make sure that your Christian walk is in the words of v. 7 “rooted and built up in Christ.” Fifth…
  5. You are proud of the claim that you aren’t a legalist. If you have spent the last two makes mentally criticizing everyone in this room other than yourself, you’re proud, and you need to do a mental check of your own heart.
  6. Folks, the Christian life is hard, and as I said at the outset, there are infinite off ramps from godliness, so I again want to bring us back to 6.

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