How to change, part eleven

Before you can grow spiritually you need to identify and reject wrong ideas of spiritual growth and maturity.

In Colossians 2:16-23, the apostle Paul helps us do that by highlighting three characteristics of the kind of teaching about spiritual growth and change we have to avoid if we are going to move forward in Christ.

The first is that it tends to be legalistic.

If you are going to grow in your Christian life you’ve got to recognize and reject legalism.

You see.

How Paul says in verse 16 and 17.

“…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.”

And when Paul talks about passing judgment, he’s talking about condemning someone as guilty or judging someone as unacceptable in God’s sight.

In other words, these particular false teachers were saying the Colossian believers were guilty before God. Meaning they were not right with God and the reason they said that weren’t right with God was because they weren’t doing certain things the false teachers thought they should.


Not eating certain foods.

Or celebrating certain festivals. 

Or even keeping the Sabbath.  

This wasn’t a case of looking at the Bible and the believer’s life and saying, “I wonder, you are clearly breaking this command, and there doesn’t seem to be any repentance, so you know, let’s go back and think about what that unrepentant attitude says about your relationship with God.” Instead, this is some people cherry picking some ideas they found in the Old Testament ceremonial laws and saying even though you already are a Christian and united to Christ, to really be right with God and to experience the fullness of the Christian life you need to live in strict observance to all those kinds of rules as well.



If we are going to get specific, it’s actually a little hard to tell all the exact ins and outs of the specific false religion that was being promoted there in Colossae.

But really.

Whatever the exact specifics were.

It’s clear.

In general.

These false teachers were doing what legalists do.

They were making all these extra rules and regulations for how people were supposed to live and then acting as if those rules and regulations were the basis for one’s acceptance with God instead of Jesus. 



The key.

Acting as if these regulations were the basis for one’s acceptance with God.

Because sometimes we throw around the word legalism.

“Watch out for legalism.”

And it’s more just a way to get people off our backs if we are sinning, honestly.

I mean.

You can just say they are legalists.

What Paul’s talking about is not someone having rules and standards and even convictions that he’s serious about.

If that’s what was going on, if these people were just like I really want to honor God with what I eat, Paul wouldn’t be going on and on.


Legalism is not the same thing as having convictions.


It’s not the same thing as being serious about holiness.  

I know.

There are some people who any time you talk about the need to be holy, and, they are like, you can’t t talk to me about that.


“That’s legalism.”

That’s not legalism.

Otherwise Paul would have been a legalist, because there are all kinds of things, he tells us, we are supposed to do.


I like how one author puts it,

“Is not obedience to God and His law. Legalism is not learning to obey all that Christ has commanded us. Legalism is not pursuing holiness. Legalism is not striving to please God and glorify God in all that we do. Legalism is not being zealous in our good works and in bearing fruit in keeping with repentance.”



Is thinking and acting as if your obedience and pursuit of holiness somehow adds to the already finished work of Christ. 

“By definition. That’s legalism.”

As someone else has explained, it is trying to get forgiveness from God and acceptance by God through obedience to God.

In other words. legalism wants to make me the hero.

A legalist is anyone who behaves as if they can earn God’s approval and forgiveness through personal performance.

Which is sometimes so obvious.

It’s like.


That’s legalism.”

Like the Pharisees, who thought they were righteous on the basis of how they kept God’s law.

But sometimes it is not so obvious, actually.


Our hearts, kind of by default, are legalistic, we like to think it’s about us and what we do, and so even after we become believers, legalism can find a way to sneak in and do its damage.


Is more what was going on here.

With the Colossians.

I don’t think these men were coming into the church and denying Jesus. I am not sure they even would have denied salvation by faith. It’s just that somehow by the way they were focusing on all these rules and regulations.

They were minimizing Jesus and what He did.

Which is why we have to watch out.

Sometimes legalists are easy to spot because they are like coming and saying you need to do this or that work as a requirement for salvation. But other times they are are a little less obvious, in that they affirm, we are saved by what Jesus has done, that’s their doctrinal position, only, in practice, you find, they end up making spirituality and holiness all about this long list of man-made rules, instead.

It’s a shift of emphasis, really.

Where, you’ll find them, maybe, requiring others to submit to these rules they made up as if they were God’s law itself.

And the focus is on them, not Jesus.

Or you’ll find them basically making religion about what God wants people to do or even what they want people to do instead of what God has done.

So the focus is on you and your performance, and not Jesus.

Or, maybe more personally, you’ll find they are motivated themselves, to try to be holy, because they think their works somehow earns them favor with God.

And maybe that’s even how they try to motivate others. 

Which for Paul.


Characteristic number one.

Of the kind of teaching about growing and changing and maturing spiritually that absolutely has to be rejected.


The kind of talk about the Christian life that if you listen closely.

Is missing Jesus. 


To use the illustration Paul does in verse 17.

That focuses on the shadow, and as a result, misses the substance.

Which I think is so tempting.

Even today.

For us.

I mean.


These false teachers, were going about it a certain way. In that, they were using the Old Testament law to distract the Colossians from focusing on Jesus, which may not exactly be how people always go about it today.

We don’t always have people talking about festivals and new moons and Sabbaths.


Whether they are actually using the Old Testament law or not, you’ll still find a lot of teaching about the Christian life that is focusing our attention primarily on issues that are not really at the center of what the gospel is about.

You see.

Satan loves distraction. He doesn’t want you to focus on Jesus. Because that’s how Christians grow, that’s how they change.


One of the best ways he can get your eyes off Jesus, is to get your eyes on you instead. We love looking at ourselves.

Which, honestly if you boil most false teaching down to its core, is what’s going on. It’s giving people the impression that it’s mostly about us and what we do and Jesus, if he’s talked about, is the add on.

He’s the extra.

It’s Jesus and.



To be forgiven, blessed, accepted, you name it, you need something more than Him.

Which, of course, I am saying is what’s at the heart of legalism.


The problem with legalism is not that it talks about what we need to do. I mean, we have to talk about what we do.


We’re going to get there in Colossians 3. But, you’ll find, with legalism. Instead of talking about what we do in such a way that we keep being brought us back to Jesus, and we are forced to focus on what He has already done.


Keeps Jesus on the outside.


If you look Paul and the other writers of Scripture, they give lots of commands. They talk about marriage. They talk about parenting. They talk about the specifics. But if you took Jesus and His work on the cross out of what they have to say about how we are to live, it wouldn’t really make sense.

It would fall apart.

Legalism is different.

In that, while it might use His name a lot, if you listen very carefully, you actually could leave Jesus out of what’s being said, and you could leave His work on the cross out and it wouldn’t make much of a difference.


It’s mostly about you.

Which of course is the first characteristic of the kind of teaching, you need to reject, if you are going to grow, spiritually.

Any approach to the spiritual life that acts as if you are the hero will end only in defeat. 


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