Anytime we engage in legalism, we put chains on Christians that Christ already broke.
Chuck Swindoll, in his book, "The Grace Awakening," tells the following story:
One of my favorite stories comes from a man who used to be in our church. He and his wife were close friends of our family, but they have now moved to another part of the country. We really miss their joyful presence.
Jack Deere, touching on the same subject is quoted as saying,
"The essence of legalism is trusting in the religious activity rather than trusting in God. It is putting our confidence in a practice rather than in a Person. And without fail this will lead us to love the practice more than the Person."
In both the story and the quote, we see what Freedom In Christ is not. We see what Freedom In Christ Doesn’t Look Like.
The false teachers in Colossae were teaching heresy. They were teaching a form of elitist spirituality and holiness that was found independent of Jesus Christ. It was a spirituality based on actions and rituals and traditions and putting confidence in making sure something was “done just right” rather than putting their full trust in Christ alone. They elevated their prescribed lifestyle and religious activity to the height of being definitional to the Christian faith. Anytime we attempt to do this we engage in a form of legalism and put chains on Christians that Christ already broke.
These false teachers pushed an ascetic lifestyle of rigorous self-denial and false humility including the following:
1. Abstaining from certain foods and drink.
2. Insisted on a strict adherence to the celebrating of and observance of certain festivals and holy days.
3. The worshiping of angels.
This is seen clearly in what Paul describes in the 2nd chapter of Colossians.
Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day - things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. (Colossians 2:16-17 NASB)
These false teachers in Colossae were not any different than the Pharisees of Jesus’ day with all their rules and regulations and things that had to be done in a certain way and at a certain time. Teaching against legalism does not mean or imply that rules and moral law and submitting to what God has said in His word is wrong. No, what it means is that anything that is elevated to a test of fellowship whereby one’s acceptance by God is in jeopardy if they do not comply with a particular religious test or extra-biblical requirement is what we are to be against.
These teachers coming into Colossae were teaching all of these things and worshiping angels and claiming that it was because of this spiritual enlightenment that they were able to have these special “visions” and that the ordinary, common people would not have them unless they performed as they did.
So, what you had was a situation where these so-called spiritual elite were judging everyone else and calling their fellowship with God into question because they were not in submission or acquiescing to their legalistic demands.
Today’s world is not much different. In Christian circles today and in churches all over America there are legalistic and judgmental elitist people who demand adherence to their own prescribed way of living the Christian life or their way of doing church.
One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God.
This is not dealing with those areas of God’s Word that are clear in terms of our conduct, or how we are to act and live. This is not dealing with areas of God’s Word where He has made it clear how a church is supposed to operate or how we are to engage in discipleship, etc. This is dealing with those areas that are either not as clear or are a matter of conscience or are trivial. It is those things that these false teachers were elevating to the definitional level in terms of our acceptance before God.
Everything from how one dresses to what one eats or drinks to how they celebrate certain days or don’t celebrate certain days. There is a judgment on anything that would require a greater dependence on God than them for guidance or a prescription on how to move forward. It is the ultimate promotion of what man thinks over what God has said.
Notice once again what it says in verses 16 & 18:
Therefore no one is to act as your judge...
Paul tells his readers not to let those so-called spiritual elites judge or disqualify them from their freedom in Christ just because we don’t submit or follow what man thinks in the place of what God has said.
If you have Christ, if you have the Spirit of God indwelling you, then you have no need of anything less than Christ.
Paul is writing to Christians who…
v.10 – are complete in Christ
v.11 – In Him, we received a circumcision of the heart
v.12 – We died and were buried with Him and we are also united with Him in His resurrection
v.13 – He made us alive and forgave us of our sins
v.14 – He canceled out our debt
We live in freedom in Christ. We are no longer slaves of sin but slaves and bond-servants of Christ. We are free in respect to rules and law and those things which are destined to perish with use and are temporal.
If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, "Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!" (which all refer to things destined to perish with use) - in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? (Colossians 2:20-22 NASB)
We are free to obey Christ and to grow into conformity and greater unity with Him and obey His law and not be put under a yoke of bondage by man’s standards. The problem the Colossian believers were encountering is what we see a lot of today. Too many have a man-centered theology and approach to the Christian life and to Church rather than a God-centered one.
These elitist, judgmental, legalistic types which we most clearly in fundamentalism but it is also seen in every walk of life if it is not properly dealt with. They have a “man-made” form of holiness and godliness.
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.
It may appear to be wise or humble but in reality, it is Satanic because it did not come from God. It is a man-centered program that promotes self and religious agendas rather than a true Christ-centered theology that sees us further united and conformed to Jesus Christ.
The problem is that it looks so wise and may even “work” by human standards but it won’t be of any value against sin or the flesh and it won’t help you grow as a Christian because as verse 19 points out, one must be united to and held fast to the head which is Christ in order to grow. Only by being unified with Christ will we see growth.
So many Christians are sucked in by the latest self-help book or religious improvement or latest Christian fad. Many churches fail in the same regard. They will seek out or follow all of the latest church growth fads or will go the opposite way and worship the past, or resist the change required to pursue the mission and vision altogether.
Legalism and man-centered religion is so deceptive that it creeps into your life or church often times under the radar and before you know it you are going after what man thinks rather than what God has said and what is truly tragic is the greatest and fastest way to lose joy and growth in the Christian life and in a church is to ignore or refuse to submit to what God has said and rather submit to what man thinks.
These legalistic approaches, these judgmental attitudes, the elevation of the trivial above the much bigger and far more important God-centered things is a great danger to one’s Christian life and to any church. If your focus is on the trivial things then it is not on God and you will miss out on so much of what He has for you and how He wants to bless you because God will not bless disobedience.
False teachers and all false religious systems always focus on something else other than Christ. They elevate things above Christ and do not consider what Christ wants but what they want. So, in other words, it is a mindset that says, “You must worship as I do, you must use the translation that I use, you must do your service as we do or as I want, you must perform those rituals like the Lord’s Supper like I prescribe, you must eat as I do, you must drink as I do, you must live as I do.
What Paul is saying is that this is NOT HOW A CHRISTIAN OPERATES. It is not what Freedom in Christ looks like.
When a Christian or a church is focused on the trivial, when you focus on a man-centered way of thinking and operating, when you elevate that which is independent of God and is not in submission to what God has said and does not seek God above all else, even if it means that some of our traditions have to die, then what it means is you will only go as far as what man can take you.
Sadly, those who follow man and man’s ways and those who submit to the ordinances and teachings of man which may have the appearance of wisdom and growth but will only lead to a lack of joy and decline and a yoke of bondage. And what is ultimately missed by the person or church that pursues man’s wisdom over God’s is they miss out on what God can do because they are too focused on what man can do.