Do's and Don'ts Can't Make Us Holy
Topic: Legalism Passage: Colossians 2:26–2:23
The Preeminence of Christ
Grace Community Church
July 16, 2017
Do's and Don'ts Can't Make Us Holy
In the movie “Saving Private Ryan” 8 soldiers are sent on a mission to find Private Ryan and have him sent home immediately. The reason for this dangerous mission is that Ryan is the youngest of 4 brothers and the other 3 have all been killed in the war within a few days of each other. To spare the mother the grief of losing all her children in the war, priority is given to finding Private Ryan and getting him out of the war and home.
In the end all eight soldiers have sacrificed their lives to save Private Ryan, and as Captain Miller (played by Tom Hanks) is dying, his last words to Ryan are “Earn this…earn it!” Ryan goes on to live his life with this impossible weight of trying to be worthy of the sacrifice of 8 lives. 50 years later, as an old man he desperately seeks to feel that he had earned their sacrifice and begs his wife to “tell me I’m a good man!”
A Christian reviewer of this movie saw the Christian message in this. He enthusiastically wrote: One character gives his life for another and instructs him to "be good" and to remember the sacrifice made for him. The saved one remembers this for the rest of his life, feeling unworthy. Very seldom does one see so many Christian themes in a big-budget Hollywood movie treated in such a serious manner…
He is thrilled to see so many Christian themes being treated seriously in a big budget, well produced movie. The problem is what he describes as being "Christian themes" simply aren't Christian themes. The picture of a man living his life with the weight of trying to earn what was given to him and tormented by the thought that he wasn't a good enough man to justify it isn't the Christian message, it's the message of legalism. Legalism is trying to earn God's acceptance and approval by our own efforts. Sadly, many churches are as unaware of the difference between the message of grace and the message of legalism as this reviewer was
We don't know exactly what the heresy Paul is warning the Colossian church about, but he gives us enough of a profile to see that it is definitely a form of legalism, characterized by rules and regulations and "do's and don'ts". If you grew up in a church where the message - spoken or unspoken - was "do this, don't do that, be good, don't be bad, keep this set of standards, don't break that set of standards, and you'll be a good Christian" then Paul's message to the Colossians is for you.
Title: Do's and Don'ts Can't Make Us Holy
Before we look at Paul's warning about legalism, let's take a minute to remind ourselves of the message of grace, the Christian message, that is so precious to us.
As Jesus hung on the cross, his last words weren't "earn this". His last words weren't "be good". His last words were "it is finished." Jesus fully accomplished our salvation on the cross - there is nothing we can add to his finished work, and if we try to add our own efforts to Jesus' work, we empty the cross of its power (1 Cor. 1:17). Our part is simply to believe that Jesus did it all. No amount of good works or keeping of strict religious rules can make us a good enough man or woman to earn Jesus' sacrifice. We are all sinful and our best good works are filthy rags to God. But Jesus' work on the cross, his atoning sacrifice, was and is fully pleasing to God and has the power to save us to the uttermost. Breath that in deeply church, because only the grace of the gospel can protect us from the toxic fumes of legalism. So with our spiritual lungs filled with grace, Paul takes us into a room filled with the poisonous fumes of legalism, in order to warn us not to let people pressure us or shame us into what they consider the deepest and purest Christian theme but in reality is simply legalism dressed up in super-spiritual clothing.
Paul opens this section with this warning: Therefore 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. (vs. 16) Whenever we see a "therefore" we need to look at what came before in order to know what the "therefore" is there for. In the preceding verses Paul has declared what Christ accomplished on the cross - Jesus nailed the record of debt that we owed to God to the cross and defeated the powers of sin and Satan on the cross. Therefore, he says, because of this, don't let people look down on you cause you don't ride their favorite religious hobby horses, whether it be what you eat or drink, or their special religious holidays. These things are just a shadow. In the OT, keeping kosher and keeping the Sabbath, and other religious ceremonies were commands from God, but they were never the real thing, never God's objective - their purpose was to point to the real thing: Christ. They were the shadow, Jesus is the substance. The OT teaching of being defiled by eating unclean food was a shadow, not the substance. Our defilement has always gone a whole lot deeper than eating bacon or pork, which is a good thing since we're having a pig roast today! Greed, hatred, lust, murder, lying, apathy, selfishness, rebellion - these are the things that defile us and none of these things are the result of eating a lobster puff at a dinner party. The ceremonial laws of the OT weren't unimportant, but neither were they what God was really after in our lives. They were the shadow, not the substance. Jesus, by giving his life for us, made it possible for our record of sin to be forgiven by nailing it to the cross. Greed, hatred, lust, anger, rebellion - forgiven. But there will always be people who will pass judgment on you if you don't play by their religious rules.
Spiritual weirdness doesn't equal spiritual maturity
Then he goes on to say don't let people disqualify you because you don't buy into their spiritual weirdness. The word "disqualify" has to do with disqualified to compete in the Olympic games to win the prize. People do weird things in the name of being close to God and they will tell you that you're disqualified if you don't go along with their weirdness. Some go in the direction of ascetism - denying themselves any worldly pleasure because they think if they take a vow of poverty and say no to everything enjoyable they will be holy.
Now Jesus tells us that self-denial is an important part of following him (Luke 9:23), but what type of self-denial is he talking about? Jon Bloom of Desiring God writes: the only things that Jesus asks us to deny ourselves of are what will rob us of eternal joy. Like Moses in Hebrews 11:25-26, we are called to deny ourselves the passing pleasures of sin and consider the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the world's treasures.1
Jesus calls us to deny ourselves the trinkets of sin so we can enjoy the treasures of heaven. Ascetism isn't that. Ascetism isn't denying sinful desires, it's denying pleasures and enjoyable things so that God will look down at us sitting there miserable when everyone else is laughing and having a great time, and He will say, "what a holy person!" Ascetism tries to help save us by nailing poverty and misery to the cross along with Jesus.
Then there are others who show how spiritual they are by the mystical experiences they have. They see visions. They get obsessed with angels - worshipping angels, Paul says. Now, God does give His people visions at times, and there are angels all around us. But when people get focused on mystical, experiential things like visions and angels, they invariably lose sight of Christ and get weird. No other way to put it, they are weird. I've had people tell me they see angels often, hanging out in the corner of a room. One couple told me how the pastor stopped the service and described how he saw a demon run through the church wearing a business suit. These things come off as very spiritual and elite - regular people don't see these kinds of things, they must have a special "in" with God. Others get into weird speculations about tangential things that are not central to the gospel.
There's a seductive appeal to feeling like you're spiritually elite and special. Mysticism does that - we see things and know things that ordinary people don't see or know. Beware of people who focus on speculations about scripture or God or angels or demons or whatever, and lose sight of what God's word clearly and plainly tells us. Paul says they are puffed up by their sensuous mind (without reason - their minds are playing tricks on them). It feels spiritual but its sensuous, worldly, fleshly. The sign of spiritual maturity isn't seeing or saying or teaching things no one else is seeing, saying or teaching; the sign of spiritual maturity is proclaiming Christ and the clear teaching of scripture. Anything else, Paul says, is to be disconnected from the Head, Christ. He writes this very clearly in 1 Tim 1:
3 As I urged you when I went into Macedonia—remain in Ephesus that you may charge some that they teach no other doctrine, 4 nor give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which cause disputes rather than godly edification which is in faith. 5 Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith, 6 from which some, having strayed, have turned aside to idle talk, 7 desiring to be teachers of the law, understanding neither what they say nor the things which they affirm.
What does spiritual maturity look like? Not endless speculations and mystical revelations. It looks like love, a good conscience, and a sincere faith. That's not flashy, that's not very sensational, but it's healthy and it's pleasing to God. Hold onto the Head, Christ, and you'll grow in love, in keeping a clear conscience, and a sincere faith. Simple and healthy.
Paul then warns about the bottom line of legalism: a human-centric approach to God that is based on do's and don'ts:
20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
Legalism tries to deal with our sinful flesh by restraining it with rules, and regulations, summed up by the word "don't": "Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch". A Christian or a church that is in the grip of legalism will think the road to God is paved with do's and don'ts. Rather than the atmosphere being be filled with grace, it's filled with spoken and unspoken rules. Those lists can differ from one group to another, but the common thread is to restrain sin with do's and don'ts that help us to walk the straight and narrow. And they can have the appearance of wisdom Paul says. They can look like they work…for a while. But no matter how severe we are on ourselves, rules and regulations and self denials can't stop the flesh. Do's and don'ts can't make us holy. The flesh will always win out.
Flesh leaks out
On one of our visits to Jenn and Jordan's about a year ago, Janice and I slept on an air mattress that had a very small slit in it right at a seam. The first night we awoke several times nearly on the ground with no air, so we'd have to pump it back up. Then I tried patching it up but because the slit was on a seam, there was a raised part that kept any patches from lying flat and making a strong seal. So night after night we'd actually hear the air leaking out and a couple times each night we'd have to pump it back up. I tried different kinds of patches and tape, and I tried extending the tape far beyond the leak, hoping that if the tape went far enough beyond the slit it would seal it up tight. But the air would create channels in the tape and eventually, maybe not right away, it would find its way to the edge and we'd hear the air leaking out again and we'd wake up in the middle of the night almost on the floor. We could see the path the air would channel out in the tape to find a point to start leaking. Our flesh does that - no matter how we bind it with rules and regulations, the flesh will leak out. Religious rules have no power to stop the leaking. They have no value in stopping the indulgence - the sinfulness - of the flesh from leaking out. It's only a matter of time.
But there is an appearance of wisdom, of godliness, of holiness for a time. When I was a teenager and a new Christian, one of the Christians we looked up to was a man named Bill Gotthard. I can still remember how exciting it was to go to his Basic Youth Conflicts seminar - a week long event that had thousands of people gather with large notebooks to be taught Gotthard's highly disciplined, rules-oriented brand of Christianity. A lot of what he taught had some biblical basis but was taken to extremes and turned into unwavering spiritual principles that must be followed in order to receive God's blessing. Young men and women who grew up under his training at the Institute in Basic Life Principles seemed so impressive, like world-shapers. It was hard to argue with such impressive results.
Then the flesh leaked out. Starting as whispers at first, but growing louder and louder, accusations that Bill Gotthard had sexually manipulated and molested young teen age girls began to leak out. In 2014 he had to resign as over 34 women brought sexual abuse charges against him. And other scandals about the ministry itself leaked out. No matter how tightly you try to restrain the flesh, it will leak out. Over the coming years thousands of families would realize that they had been held in the grip of legalism, not the grip of grace.
Doug Phillips was another well known leader, as an elder in his church and president of Vision Forum, he passed a strict form of moralism as Christian teaching, one that was greatly admired around the world until he was exposed as having an immoral relationship with his young aid. The point isn't to condemn Doug Philips or Bill Gothard - I pray they truly repent and receive God's mercy and forgiveness. The point is that rules and regulations can't keep the flesh from leaking out. They have the appearance of holiness, but they have no power to stop the flesh. You can't stop the flesh by the flesh. Do's and don'ts can't make us holy.
The Christian life is to be marked by true holiness, but it can't be a holiness that's powered by legalism, by rules and regulations. Where legalism powers holiness, grace isn't powering holiness. We need the power of God.
Christ has brought us into a loving relationship with God our Father, making it possible for us to be forgiven of sin and adopted as beloved children. God's answer to the flesh isn't to put it in a strait jacket, it's to kill it at the cross, and give us a new heart, a heart that wants to obey God. Our life and holiness isn't the result of our efforts, it's the result of our abiding in Christ. Of being attached to Christ.
holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. 2:19
The healthy spiritual life is the life that is securely attached to the Head, Christ. He nourishes us and knits us together as a healthy community of faith growing up, not in spiritual weirdness, but in growth that is good and clean and healthy because it's growth that comes from God.
Paul will share some glorious insights about how holiness and sanctification takes place in our lives in chapter 3, but let me close with this thought. Often legalistic churches and spiritually mystical groups appeal to our desire to be a part of something special, something elite. They convey - often without so many words - you're part of something unique, special. We have a corner on the truth. We are more serious about God than other churches. God is moving here in ways He's not moving in other churches. We are more disciplined and obedient than other churches. You get the idea.
Let me say this from the heart. This church isn't special. I love you and I love this church, but we're not special. You're not special. You're something better than special. You're loved. You're loved by the Father. You're loved by Christ. Let that be what fills your heart and powers your pursuit of holiness. And then know that God loves the person next to you too. And God loves the church down the road too. "Special" points our focus on ourselves - pride. Loved points our focus on Christ and what he did for us out of love. He didn't say, "earn this" cause we never could. He said, "it is finished." He did for us what we could never do for ourselves. Why? Because he loved us.
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Gal. 2:20
Knowing this, and being attached to the Savior who loves us, enables us to grow in holiness with a growth that comes, not from human effort, but with a growth that comes from God. Let's pray.
1 Let Him Deny Himself. Jon Bloom. http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/let-him-deny-himself