Fighting Legalism


Continuing our look at Colossians 2:16-19 … Paul is addressing what many refer to as “legalism”. Words have meanings, and often times we use the same words but mean different things. I hear this word tossed around a lot, wrongly tossed around a lot, carelessly tossed around a lot, often times to justify our own self, often rooted in pride. So let me define legalism for us, as that is what Paul is addressing here, so that we are working with right and same definitions moving forward.

What legalism is NOT…

First off, let me say this because the Bible says this: Simply seeking to obey and align your life with the Bible is not legalism. That is how we misuse and misunderstand what legalism means. We sometimes use the words legalism and grace as an excuse for spiritual laziness. Nothing could be farther from the truth. This verse does not negate the importance of obedience as a believer. Often times as well we use legalism as a way to ease our own guilt of disobedience, to justify our own disobedience.

The Bible contains commands. And believers are called to follow those commands under the guidance and filling of the Holy Spirit. Someone who genuinely seeks to glorify God thru their life and who seeks to align their life with the Word, someone who really takes their walk with the Lord seriously, who desire this for others and who calls sin what it is, people around them might accuse them of legalism, but that is not legalism. When someone is seeking to align their life with the Word from an overflow of being saved, motivated by love and gratitude from what Christ has done, that is not legalism, but rather, that is called Christianity. This is done out of a spirit of humility and gratitude for having been saved. Obedience as a response to the gospel is not legalism. Fueled by the Spirit. A heart towards obedience to the Word and the glory of God is not legalism.

What legalism IS…

Legalism is treating a Biblical standard of conduct as a means of earning our salvation and standing before God thru our own power, and then judging people’s salvation based upon self-generated externals rather than the work of Christ.

Legalism is when a person is trying to be ethical and obey Scripture in their own strength rather than relying on the power of God thru Christ and the Spirit in them, and depending on their own doing as establishing or maintaining their standing before God. When people add works as necessary for salvation, and then judge people according to these works. The legalist will be a very moral person. Please don’t miss this. And that is the real danger behind what we see here and why Paul fights legalism so often in his writings.

What Paul points to here is judging whether a person is a believer or not based upon mere externals. And thus condemning them if they do not hold to some list rather than holding to Christ (v. 19). Not that obedience doesn’t matter, but one cannot determine one’s salvation merely thru externals, thru what someone eats or drinks, or holidays or such.

The prob­lem with that kind of evaluation is this: the non-believer can qualify on every one of the externals Paul gives here in the text or that we hold onto in our flesh. That's the problem.

It isn't that the true believer won't display behavioral patterns according to the Bible, they will and should, but the problem is that phony believers can always conform to externals, but that doesn’t make them believers, and thus doesn't make a very good way to judge. In that day it was the list Paul gives here. Today the list would be dancing, drinking, cigarettes, tattoos, certain movies, etc. Admit is - we have lists too.

There are Christians who see a person with a cigarette, or a drink, and they immediately draw conclusions about that person’s spirituality. There are Christians who would see perhaps somebody eat or drink something somewhere and they would immediately draw conclusions about their Christianity because they have a certain standard of what Christians do or do not do.

From a salvific standpoint, we cannot judge whether someone is a Christian based upon these standards. Whether that standard establishes or maintains the relationship. That is legalism. That's what Paul is saying. To do so is to make Christianity a game that you can play on the outside. And true Christianity goes beyond mere externals to the heart, to faith. The non-believer can do all these externally in the flesh too. But they lack faith as the root.

Any obedience that is not from faith is legalism. Romans 14:23. Seeking to establish or maintain our own righteousness based upon what we can do in our own strength.

What Paul shows us here is that we are to live in the light of what Christ has done and its supremacy and sufficiency, to dwell always on the fact that we are the dwelling place of God, that we are complete in Christ as we have saw in 2:10, and that from that position we are to love Christ and one another out of the overflow of having first been loved thru the giving of Christ, and that from this new heart and new position in Christ we are to build each other up in that love and faith at every turn of our lives.

What we need more than anything is a deeper comprehension and understanding of the work of God in the gospel and then let our lives be lived as an overflow of gratitude for that work of God thru the gospel all to His glory thru the power of the Spirit in us. That God’s glory and love for us and our love for Him and others would regulate our lives, rather than external rules and our own glory.

If you are a believer in Christ, in His work at the cross, that He was God’s promised King, Savior, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, if you are trusting in that work of Christ alone for the forgiveness of your sin, then you are a part of the family of God. We cannot dumb down or add to what is required for entrance into God’s people and kingdom. We cannot take away repentance and dying to self and living for God’s glory and a commitment to Christ’s lordship over our lives as believers, that there is an exclusive nature to the entrance into God’s family.

But we also cannot make up our own rules regulating entrance either. We do not have the freedom to make our own rules and add to the work of Christ and in doing so imply that Christ’s work is insufficient and inadequate. The church belongs to Christ, He is the head, and he gets to establish the rules for entrance. This is huge. Christ is enough. Supreme. Sufficient. Unrivalled.

We must see legalism for what it truly is – an evil that must be rejected. WHY? Because legalists aren’t content being legalists themselves. They want others to fall into their trap as well as we see in Colossians and elsewhere. Look at Matthew 23:15. We must see legalism in opposition to Christ and as a subtle tool Satan uses to draw people away from Christ and His sufficiency and supremacy. I say subtle because on the surface it seems to promote holiness, but it actually leads people away from a dependence upon Christ and results in pride and self-exaltation.

Externals do not get us to God and make us righteous or unrighteous. Look at Matthew 15:10-11. What goes into our mouths is not the issue in and of itself. The Bible could not be clearer about that. It is the heart that is the issue, and it is the heart that Christ circumcises. Christianity involves a new heart. Not conformity to externals.

These things do not help our standing before God – diets, calendars, festivals, days of week – all point to Jewish practices and the law which was a mere shadow of things to come (v. 17). They pointed to the actual substance, but in and of themselves were not the substance.

That is the point of a shadow – it points to something greater with greater substance. Shadows only represent that which is real. But a shadow lacks real substance. Christ is the real substance. It is in His work that we are complete, not the law and adherence to the law.

Hebrews 10:1 makes it clear that the law is involved here. Look at it. Notice the parallel. The law is a shadow and notice this, cannot make you perfect or complete. That is exactly what Paul says only Christ does – makes us complete. See 2:8-10. Paul is going to great lengths here to show the inadequacy of human traditions in comparison to the finality and sufficiency of Christ and His work. The false teachers in Colossae are saying it isn't enough to know Christ, you have to know Christ and keep the Jewish law. See the danger and harm and why Paul so regularly confronts this?

Look at Galatians 3:24 says the law was a tutor to lead us to Christ. We have the real substance in Christ. No need for a tutor any longer. Christ alone offers us the righteousness we need and lack in order to be reconciled to God. Christ is enough. Paul’s point is showing that Christ is unrivalled in getting us to God, reconciling us to God. If Christ has given you complete salvation as we saw in verses 10 to 15, if Christ has given you complete forgiveness, if he has given you complete victory, if everything is complete in him then don't let anybody come along and make a spiritual judgment on you, depending on what you do or don't do ritualistically.

Don’t let anyone judge your salvation based upon mere externals. That is the essence of legalism. Rather than dealing with a new heart and internals. This is why legalism is so dangerous and harmful - in essence, in legalism, a person could secretly be enslaved to pornography or greed or coveting or gluttony, but if they keep the rules that everyone can see, then he is viewed as spiritual. That is not Christianity.

Look at verse 18. See the word “inflated”? Paul is exposing the real motives behind the actions of the legalist. Whereas the heart of obedience is humility, the heart of legalism is pride. The legalist prides themselves for keeping certain standards and judges others who do not keep those same standards. The legalist thinks that they are made more acceptable to God, either for salvation or spirituality, by their conformity to certain rules, usually rules that they pick and choose.

Look at Matthew 23:23-28. Pick the ones they like, pick the ones they are good at obeying or don’t struggle with, and neglect others that are hard or that they struggle with. Exalts self over Christ. The legalists judges from their own lists and preferences.

Most of us, if we are honest, have a tendency to fall into legalism. This is especially dangerous for us because of the fact that we have grown up in a culture like America that has been historically built upon Judeo-Christian values and most people live as what we would call moral people. It is a morality based upon and inherited from their forefathers and family rather than being rooted in a humble reliance and response to the work of God thru the gospel of Christ. That is the real issue here –the attack on the sufficiency of Christ and His work.

Legalism boasts in self and the sufficiency and supremacy of self rather than the sufficiency and supremacy of Christ. Relationship to angels, visions, etc. here in verse 18. Externals. Boasting in flesh. It is the opposite of everything Paul has put forth here in Colossians about Christ and His unrivaled supremacy and sufficiency. It is the picture of the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son. Focused on self and all the great things he did himself.

May we at TCO fight legalism, individually and corporately because it is deadly. Don’t settle for or get fooled by mere externals.