There are a couple of issues related to legalism, from our segment that we started last week; for our purposes I am going to bring out the same text from Colossians, that I mentioned last week, to explore this issue and figure out the nature of legalism. The first thing to note is that most “religious rules” have their origin in the Old Testament – for most churches, regardless of denominational bent. Here is an example of it – the text from Colossians 2:
Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day– 17 things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. (Colossians 2:16-17 NAS)
In the most general scope of things, Paul is saying that the formal religious practices, ceremonies, and traditions of the Old Testament are now fulfilled in the person of Christ. This tells us two things: first, that those practices obviously had value or God would not have instituted those practices. Second, it tells us that in an Old Covenant relationship with God this never replaced the idea that even Israel’s salvation was by God’s grace. Their freedom from the slavery of Egypt was purely a work of God’s grace and mercy in providing a sacrificial lamb to absorb the judgment that fell on Egypt; it was their only protection and provided freedom. The religious practices of the Mosaic Law were the conditions of living in the land and dwelling in peace and prosperity. If they abandoned that Law they would perish and God would remove His blessings and His people would fall under the discipline or curses because of their disobedience. The tendency is that many Christians can fall into the temptation of “rules” that they think make for a good Christian; but that is a problem.
For us now, many of these Old Testament practices are a concrete illustration and beginning-point to teach us the heart of God for His people. However, for those who are “in Christ” our authority and motivation completely shifts:
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 the using) — in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? 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. (Colossians 2:20-23 NAS)
The idea of legalism is clearly captured in this passage in Colossians so let’s make a few observations:
- If we have died with Christ (mode of existence has gone from spiritual death to life through faith in Christ) then the point of authority in our life is NO LONGER rules and regulations but relationship with Christ. The point of authority has changed and it is not built on regulations of the Law but relationship with His Son. Our motivation and power comes out of abiding in Him not a requirement of the Law.
- The key to the Christian life is our love for Christ, not a list of rules to keep in order to be a “good Christian”. Men will always create commandments and teaching that support what they think is right but it is clear here that for us to operate this way will choke your walk with Christ.
- Legalism is really self-made religion that may look spiritual but has no value (I will add “power”) against the fleshly indulgences. The Christian life is not about “self-abasement” or “severe treatment of the body” so we avoid the bad stuff; that does not work. It might impress others somewhat but as the text says, won’t work on the real issues of the Flesh that we struggle with. It is out of a loving relationship with Christ that we take great joy to experience the freedom of righteousness and life as God intended it. But does this mean there are not expectations in the Christian life… more on this next week…
In His grace,