I have been thinking a lot about this lately in Colossians. And the context in Colossians states that we as believers are already ‘complete in Christ’ we lack nothing (Col. 2.10). God has given us everything we need in Christ Jesus.
In this admittedly long post I want to highlight some of the dangers of legalism.
What is Legalism?
In its most basic sense legalism believes that we can earn or keep God’s favor by what we do.
1. Legalism Promotes unbiblical standards (self-authority)
Legalism may take things that have been biblically true but not biblically applicable and attempt to make them binding.
The clear teaching here in Colossians is that you are complete in Jesus Christ. To elevate any other standard outside the work of Jesus Christ is to promote an unbiblical standard; it is to make a law that is not binding.
So it may be what you eat or drink, what you do on Sundays, or it may be what you wear for clothes, what kind of music you listen to, or whether you have piercings or tattoos, wear a suit or don’t on Sundays, or home school or not, or whatever.
It is to take something that cannot bring or keep your favor with God and make it binding on yourself and others. This is so dangerous, but it is so prevalent.
2. Legalism Promotes performance (self-righteousness)
In addition to promoting unbiblical standards it promotes personal performance.
Legalism says, “I do or do not do.” Gospel says, “I can’t do, but Jesus did.” There is a big difference.
Legalism promotes the earning and keeping of God’s pleasure based upon what I do or do not do. When legalistic thinking is prevalent you are always trying to cut a deal with God or your conscience. You may feel guilty about what you have done and instead of running to Christ you run to Sinai, the Law, and look for something to do.
Legalism is a relentless task master that promotes your personal performance as your continuing personal atonement.
3. Legalism Promotes Division
We have been studying Galatians in our evening Care Groups. One of the more helpfully illuminating moments for me in this study was the connection between legalism and strife. Or, to put it another way, with the absence of the gospel you have the presence of strife.
In Galatians chapter 4 (vv. 9-20), you see Paul agonizing about the way in which the Galatians have changed in terms of their reception of him and his message.
What has changed for the Galatians since Paul came and preached the gospel to them?
It is their view of the gospel.
Now they hate Paul and chapter 5.13 says, they are ‘biting and devouring one another.’ Why is this?
It is because legalism is a system that thrives on personal performance, personal supremacy, and sadly, the trampling of others. It relentlessly squashes grace, mercy and humility.
Legalism believes the prize is one through personal exertion and sees any who be in the way of the prize not as people to be served but obstacles to be removed.
You may recall that a few Friday’s ago, on the Nation’s biggest shopping day that there was tragic occurrence at a Wal-Mart in Long Island, NY. Shortly before the doors opened shoppers pushed through the door and trampled the workers in their way. One Wal-Mart employee was crushed in the selfish stampede.
This is the way legalism functions. It is an environment of competition. The Wal-Mart stampede occurred because there were a limited number of Blue Ray’s. We act like there is only a limited number of spots available for us, and so we have cut others down, biting and devouring one another, in pursuit of our prize. We falsely think that the competition is between us and other people, so we set up rules and tear down others; judging and defrauding one another.
In this we fail to see that the issue is not between us and others but us and God. And no amount of physical or physical exertion on our part can bring us to the coveted place of divine favor. For here it is through Christ and Christ alone.
And this brings us to our final quick feature of legalism…
4. Legalism Demotes Jesus (and his sufficient righteousness)
This really is, at its core, the offense of legalism.
To maintain that you can merit God’s favor outside of the work of Christ is to say that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus either was not necessary or was not sufficient.
To cling to personal merit through doing things (however good or biblical they may seem) is to demote Jesus from his place of supremacy.
Legalism thinks that God accepts us because we do this or don’t do this…no, God accepts sinners because Jesus lived an obedient life in our place and died the death penalty that we earned!
We must see that fastening your grip upon other things is a loosening of our grip upon Jesus. This is the pattern here in our verses:
Colossians 2:8 8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.
Colossians 2:17 17 things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ
Colossians 2:18-19 18 Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, 19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God.
Colossians 2:20-22 20 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, 21 “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” 22 (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)– in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men?
Colossians 2:23 – 3:1 23 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.
And Paul jumps in with some more in Galatians:
Galatians 2:21 21 “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.”
Legalism is a dangerous system. In it the sheep are hurt, the gospel is veiled, Christ is marginalized, and we are exalted. There is little wonder that the Apostle Paul finds himself agonizing with sweaty earnestness for the church in Colossae (Col. 1.28-2.3)