While most believers recognize that we are set free from the Old Testament Law, there is still the danger of a New Testament version of the law that creeps into our thinking, our churches, and our approach to living the Christian life. Our attempts to keep things as black and white as possible, as well as looking for a holiness that we can measure, often lead to a new set of rules to follow. This rule-following approach to living the Christian life is known as legalism.
In Colossians chapter 1, the apostle Paul summarizes the mystery of the gospel, “Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, that I might fully carry out the preaching of the Word of God, that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations; but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:25-27). The mystery of the gospel is, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
Paul then goes on in Colossians chapter 2 to expand on what “Christ in you” looks like. And his focus is clearly on Christ and our connection to Him. Observe how many times Paul refers to you as “in Christ”.
- “Your faith in Christ” (vs 5)
- “As you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him” (vs 6)
- “Being built up in Him” (vs 7)
- “According to Christ” (vs 8)
- “For in Christ all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (vs 9)
- “In Him, you have been made complete” (vs 10)
- “In Him, you were also circumcised in the removal of the body of flesh” (vs 11)
- “You were buried with Him in baptism” (vs 12)
- “You were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God” (vs 12)
- “He made you alive together with Him” (vs 13)
- “Having triumphed over the rulers and authorities of the world through Him” (vs 15)
In this chapter, describing so many aspects of “Christ in you”, the emphasis is clearly on Christ. When we fall into legalism, the focus is on us. Are we following the rules? Are we measuring up to earn God’s acceptance? The Christian life is uncovering, exploring, and experiencing who we are in Christ and living into that identity; understanding what it means and looks like to have Christ literally living His life through us. When we reduce the Christian life to a set of rules, we are missing the power and mystery of who we are in Christ. We are missing the God-sized faith growing times of responding to His Spirit’s message to us moment by moment. Our focus should always be on Christ.
We know the apostle is comparing who we are in Christ to rule-keeping because of how he closes out chapter 2 in verses 16 through 23. Paul writes, “Let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or a festival or a new moon or in keeping the Sabbath – things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one defraud you of your prize by delighting in and promoting self-abasement, which appears pious but is actually fueled by pride. When you died with Christ, you died to these elementary arguments – which are really just teachings of men – over what to handle, taste, and touch” (Col 2:16-22). These rules are really just the teachings of men.
Paul then finishes the chapter in verse 23 with a fascinating conclusion that not only is legalism the wrong approach to living the Christian life, but at its core it does not even work in moving us toward the holiness we desire. “These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence” (Col 2:23).
Ouch! The very thing that we think will stop sin in its tracks – a severe adherence to rules – is of no value in the big picture of our relationship with sin! Look at Paul’s words. “The appearance of wisdom … self-made religion … no value against fleshly indulgence.” Legalism is a self-made religion with nothing to fuel the Christian life. Can I encourage you? Throw off the chain of legalism. Pray for God’s Spirit to move your focus onto Christ and His life in you.
Looking ahead, legalism not only enslaves us, but also has a deadly side effect. Do you know what it is? We will talk about it next time.