This last Sunday I preached from Colossians 2:16-23. It is a power packed passage in which Paul is warning the church against false teachers looking to ensnare them in a legalistic view of the Christian life. These teachers were judging the Colossians for falling short of ultimate spirituality and were looking to point to themselves as examples of all that Christians were meant to be. Paul points them back to their union with Christ and reminds them that every Christian has all that he or she needs through their connection to the Head, the Lord Jesus. In preaching that passage for our church I drew out three common tendencies of legalism that we must all guard against, either from false teachers or from dangerous thinking in our own hearts.
1. Legalism Misuses the Bible
Legalistic teaching rarely abandons the Bible entirely, but rather picks certain passages or commands and applies them without reference to their Biblical context or other Scriptures that provide a balancing perspective. For example, in the Colossian situation, the false teachers were apparently emphasizing the calendar and dietary laws of the Old Testament, but without referencing how the coming of the Lord Jesus had fulfilled and transformed those particular regulations. Almost all legalism will make use of Old Testament commands without discussing how they are impacted by the coming of the Lord Jesus, or New Testament commands without celebrating how they are fueled by our union with Christ. We must not be impressed by a teacher who can merely quote a Bible verse, but rather look for a person who can interpret the entire Scriptures in connection to the person and work of Christ.
2. Legalism Misrepresents Maturity
For the Colossian false teachers, maturity was defined by rigorous practices of humility, transcendent spiritual visions and experience, and the worship of angels–all without a central focus on union with Christ. Most legalistic teachings will reference some aspect of Biblical maturity, but will neglect to mention the source of true maturity in Christ and will also smuggle in false practices or exaggerated emphasis in the midst of their teaching. Humility is good. A longing for powerful spiritual encounters with God is good. Defining maturity by an exaggerated description of these commands and neglecting the priority of union with Christ is deadly.
3. Legalism Manufactures Restrictions
In this passage Paul quotes the slogans of the false teachers–“Do not handle”, “Do not taste”, “Do not touch”–as a way of summarizing their commands. The Bible is not reluctant to issue commands, and even commands about very practical issues of real life–but legalism seeks to manufacture additional commands and apply them with Bible-like authority in the church. Legalism assumes that true maturity is more stringent than the Bible in some area or other. We must believe that God knows what He is doing and that He finds pleasure when we enjoy his gifts just as he does when we refuse to idolize them.
As an additional note, legalism is no respecter of sectors of Christianity–extra-biblical standards can be manufactured regarding dietary choices and community life, social action and devotional habits, evangelistic expectations and domestic routine. All of us face the temptation to manufacture commands that become a legalistic snare.
As an additional, additional note, legalism can also creep into the passionate pleas of the anti-legalist. Some anti-legalistic teachers can make it sound as if true maturity is a race away from the imperatives of Scripture. This is forbidding what God has given his people to enjoy–the freedom to obey His Word. It informs Christians who still struggle but who neglect the study of Biblical commands that they “just don’t get the gospel enough”–leaving them condemned for their insufficient view of Christ. Yet God gave Biblical commands as a gift of grace that all Christians should benefit from. Failing to encourage Christians to enjoy this gift is manufacturing extra-Biblical restrictions. This too is legalism.
Legalism will always lurk in the path of the Christian. Like a landmine, it strikes indiscriminately against mature Christians and new believers. Its greatest damage is done when it turns us away from confidence in Christ and toward confidence (or condemnation) based on our character or discipline. We must be watchful for the characteristics of legalism in our own thinking and in the teaching we receive. Ultimately, rejoicing in our union with Christ and the submitted freedom that we have in him is our safety against legalistic landmines that will always border our path.