If someone asks exactly how to grow in Christ, one important way to answer that question is to talk about how not to grow in Christ.
Take Colossians 2:16-23.
In this passage Paul’s giving us a crash course in how not to grow. He begins by describing a legalistic attitude towards our spiritual lives. Or to put it another way, he makes it clear that if you are going to grow in your Christian life you’ve got to recognize and reject legalism.
“…let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon, or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”
When Paul talks about passing judgment, he’s talking about condemning someone as guilty, judging someone as unacceptable in God’s sight. These false teachers were saying that the Colossian believers were guilty before God, meaning they were not right with God, because they weren’t doing certain things. They reduced the Christian life down to a list of rules that the Colossians had to keep instead of a deep, vital relationship with Jesus Christ. Specifically, the Colossian false teachers were telling these believers that it wasn’t enough to have Christ, they also had all these other stringent regulations they had to satisfy if they were going to be saved and experience the fullness of the Christian life.
We see that Paul identifies some of the key issues they harped on. He talks about food and drink, festivals, new moons and the Sabbath. It’s hard to tell for sure exactly what food or drink they were so passionate about, and what exactly they were saying about festivals and new moons and Sabbaths. Some people think they were talking about the Old Testament ceremonial laws, saying that even though you are a Christian you have to go back and live your life in strict observance to that. The Old Testament obviously has a lot to say about foods, festivals and the Sabbath. Though it doesn’t say so much about drink. But still, I think Paul’s probably referring to these Old Testament ceremonial laws in light of what he says verse 17 about these things being a shadow of things to come. Most likely it was some sort of perverted understanding of these Old Testament ceremonial laws in light of what Paul says in verse 8 about their false teaching being tied to the elemental spirits and then in verse 21 about human precepts and human teachings.
While we can’t be too dogmatic about all the ins and outs of what these false teachers were teaching, we do know for certain that whatever the specifics were:
One – they were making all these regulations, that’s what Paul talks about down in verse 20 and 21, they were going around saying, “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch…” And two – they were making these rules the basis for one’s acceptance with Christ. If you don’t do this you are guilty and you are disqualified.
Now we’re not talking about having standards. We’re talking about thinking and acting like adherence to those standards is the way you earn your approval with God. That’s the problem here. Did Paul think it was wrong for someone to not eat certain foods and eat other foods? Not necessarily. Did Paul think it was wrong for someone to treat one day as particularly special? Not necessarily.
In fact, you might remember in Romans 14 he deals with this issue very differently than he does here in Colossae. He says one person eats, one person doesn’t eat, and that’s o.k. just don’t despise or pass judgment one each other. He doesn’t say look if you think it is wrong to eat, then you better change and start eating. No, he says it is o.k. for you, just don’t start judging others about it. And then he goes on to say that one person observes a day as special, another person doesn’t observe a day as special, no big deal, just be convinced in your own mind and do what you do for the honor of the Lord.
But here in Colossae, he obviously see this as a very big deal.
You’ve got to reject someone who comes and passes judgment on you for eating and drinking and not following their little list of rules. If someone comes and says don’t eat then you need to stand up to them and you need to refuse to allow them to condemn you.
What’s the difference?
The difference is in the attitude. It’s not about the food, it’s about the attitude. Or I guess you could say it’s about the motivation.
In Colossae, these false teachers were acting as if a person’s status with God was based on that person’s adherence to certain man-made rules and regulations. They were acting as if Christ’s work alone was not enough to satisfy God.
And that’s a serious issue.
If it’s just about eating and drinking, no big deal. That’s not the issue. The issue is motive and our understanding of what it means to be saved by grace. If you actually think that you can earn merit for yourself by not eating and drinking, that is a big deal, a very big deal.
And it’s one that we find Paul getting very passionate about.
You remember how Paul lays into the Galatians over in Galatians 4. “Formerly when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.”
This is a serious, serious issue.
Paul says in Galatians 5, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Look: I Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” There’s no both and here. If you listen to these men who are telling you that your relationship with God is based on what you do and you let them pass judgment on you, you reject Christ.
Paul even goes on and I’m just going to say this to indicate how passionate he is about this, he says that he wishes that those who were preaching this legalistic false gospel which says you had to do certain things like get circumcised in order to be saved would, Galatians 5:12, “emasculate themselves…”
Obviously, when we read something like that, we’re kind of like whoa, Paul settle down but that only indicates we need to come back and think about why legalism is such a problem.
Paul gets so passionate about legalism because he realizes it is anti-gospel.
You see the little word that begins verse 16? It says therefore. That means to understand what Paul is about to say, you have to understand what he just said. “In light of what I just said, this is why you’ve got to stand up against anyone who acts and behaves like we can earn favor with God by keeping a list of rules and regulations.” Well, what did Paul just say? He spent the previous seven verses explaining that “we are saved by Christ and Christ alone.” That was the whole point. It’s all about Christ.
It was “In Him” that you were “circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ…” You “were dead in your trespasses and sin and the uncircumcision of your flesh” but “God made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”
The Gospel is about God doing what you couldn’t do and that’s why the gospel and legalism are so incompatible. That’s why Paul gets so worked up. They are two different religions. You can’t be a legalist and be a Christian at the same time. The legalist believes that you somehow earn approval by what you do and that is the exact opposite of the gospel message that we find in the New Testament.
The gospel comes to us and says that there’s nothing that we can do that can somehow make us acceptable with God. The gospel comes to us and says that no matter how hard we try we can’t clean ourselves up, that we can’t work hard enough, that we can’t do enough rituals, that we can’t keep enough regulations. As B.B. Warfield once put it, the gospel reveals to us that if we are going to be accepted by God “we must always be accepted for Christ’s sake, or we cannot ever be accepted at all.”
Now get this and this is important.
For as someone has explained, that’s “not true of us only when we believe. It is just as true after we have believed. It will continue to be true as long as we live. Our need of Christ does not cease with our believing; nor does the nature of our relation to Him or to God through Him ever alter, no matter what our attainments in Christian graces or our achievements in behavior may be. It is always on His “blood and righteousness” alone that we can rest.”
You can’t trust in your own works and in Christ at the same time. Trusting in your own works is not trusting in Christ. It’s absolutely impossible to do both. It’s one or the other. It’s either trust in what you do or trust in what Christ has done.
Do you understand that?
A lot of people don’t. A lot of people basically think that a person is a Christian because he’s a nice guy, a religious person, a moral man. When that’s not the point at all. A person is a Christian because God has caused him to understand that he is much more sinful and much more flawed and much more wicked than he could ever possibly begin to imagine. He is a Christian because God has brought him to his knees and caused him to realize the depth and heinousness of his own absolute rebellion against God. He is a Christian, in fact, because God has opened his eyes to his complete inability to clean himself up. He is a Christian because God has enabled him to make a deliberate choice to stop trusting in his own works for salvation but instead has decided to completely and entirely rely on Christ and His works for forgiveness from his sins and the salvation of his soul.
Look at how Paul explains it over in Philippians 3.
Paul says in verse 4, “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews, as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”
In other words, Paul is saying my credentials were impressive. If you wanted to put it modern language, Paul was the type of person most of us would like to have in our church.
He would be the guy who grew up in the church, whose father and grandfather and great grandfather were all believers, who was at every service, Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday night, who seemed like a very moral, good guy. He would be the person the world would look at and say this man is right with God.
Yet Paul says verse 7, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I gain Christ.” That little phrase, counted as loss is picturesque, it was a nautical term, literally meaning to throw overboard. Here Paul saying that I deliberately chose to take all those religious and moral achievements and “throw it all overboard.”
Now when Paul talks about throwing those things overboard what’s he talking about? He’s not saying that all the sudden he stopped being concerned about the law, that all the sudden he stopped being a Jew. No that’s not what he’s talking about at all. He’s saying that he decided to stop trusting in them. To stop looking to them to gain him approval with God. He’s saying that he had to make a choice. He had to decide whether to hang on to those religious achievements or gain Christ. He couldn’t have both.
I hope you are hearing this.
Jerry Bridges puts it like this, “Paul had come to the conclusion that his religious background was not only dangerous to his spiritual safety but in a sense it was no more than garbage – something to be deliberately dumped down the chute? Why? Because he had discovered something far more valuable. He had discovered the righteousness that comes from Christ. Paul had previously counted on his religious attainments as the basis of his acceptance with God. Like his fellow Jews, he had sought to establish his own righteousness through keeping the law. But there came a time…when he realized that his efforts to become righteous through law-keeping were going nowhere. They kept him from the only means of salvation that God has provided. As he realized more clearly the perfect righteousness that God has provided through His Son, Jesus Christ, he saw his own efforts to be righteous as no more than garbage to be dumped overboard. So Paul made what I call his great exchange. He exchanged his own righteousness for the perfect righteousness of Christ. He not only threw his own righteousness overboard, he regarded it as mere garbage compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as his Savior, and being credited with His righteousness. He exchanged the garbage of his own goodness for the unsearchable riches of Christ.”
The point being – and this is how it connects with Colossians 2 – if the Colossians chose to go back and start acting like their acceptance with God is based on what they had done, if they accepted the false teachers judgment of them – that they were guilty because they didn’t keep the ceremonial law perfectly – they were choosing to reject Christ and God’s way of salvation – because the religion of morality and the gospel don’t mix.
Isn’t that what he is saying in verse 19 of Colossians 2?
Paul says these false teachers are “not holding fast to the Head…” Who is the head? Jesus Christ. Because they are clinging to their own achievements they are not connected to Christ, “from whom the whole body is nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.”
He wants to take this legalistic attitude seriously because it is an arrogant attack on the work of Christ on the cross. The legalist is saying I can do what Christ has already done and what the Bible tells us only Christ could do.
Although we may not many people going around judging us about food and drink, festivals, new moons and Sabbaths like these Colossian heretics did, we do have many whose attitude is the same. We do have a lot of people who make man-made rules the basis for one’s acceptance with God. We are confronted every day with people who behave as if as someone has said, “they can earn God’s approval and forgiveness through personal performance.”
When we think about dangers to our Christian lives we often think of out and out gross sins like pornography or adultery or some other form of blatant wickedness. But just as dangerous, if not more dangerous, is a self-righteous attitude that sneaks in and changes the way we view the things we do for Christ.
When we talk about a legalistic attitude we’re not talking about having standards. We’re not somehow saying that we shouldn’t be serious and earnest about reading our Bibles and going to church.
We’re talking about an attitude. An attitude that begins to look on our religious activities as the basis for our acceptance with God. To start relying on self instead of Christ. To think that somehow our activities can earn blessings from God. To slip into thinking that it’s by all our Bible reading, all our church going, all our praying that we become acceptable with God.
As Sinclair Ferguson explains, “Our greatest temptation and mistake is to try to smuggle character into God’s work of grace.” We so easily become preoccupied and proud about what we do and drift away from the grand and glorious truth of the gospel which tells us very plainly that every single blessing you and I have has been purchased for us by Jesus Christ.
Therefore if we are going to grow we’ve got to watch out for any legalistic attitudes in our own hearts, for any tendency to rely on our own works instead of Christ. It’s obviously so easy to slip back into this. That’s why Paul has to deal with this particular problem in so many of his letters. He talks about it in Galatians, he talks about it in Philippians, he talks about it in Romans, he talks about it in Colossians because we even as believers have such a strong temptation to fall into the legalistic trap.
Are we praying, are we reading our Bibles, are we engaging in all sorts of different good spiritual activities because we think we can somehow atone for ourselves? Because we can’t. We can’t justify ourselves. Or are we praying, reading our Bibles and engaging in all sorts of different good spiritual activities because we are rejoicing and glorying in the fact that Christ has completely made the atonement for us?
If we are going to grow, we must commit ourselves to continually rejecting a legalistic spirit.
As Charles Swindoll explains, “A theology that rests its salvation on one ounce of human performance is not good news, it is bad information. It is heresy. It is antithetical to the true message that lit the spark to the Reformation – Sola Fide – faith alone. A salvation that begins with God’s love reaching down to lost humanity and is carried out by Christ’s death and resurrection results in all the praise going to God. But a salvation that includes human achievement, hard work, personal effort, even religious deeds distorts the good news because man gets the glory, not God…”