Powerless Practices and God-Given Growth
Passage: Colossians 2:16–2:23
Powerless Practices and God-Given Growth
In our passage today Paul confronts one of the most insidious, one of the most deceitful errors the church will ever encounter. This error is old, having taken up residence in the human heart nearly as soon as Adam fell into sin. This error is subtle, with the ability to sneak into even the most upstanding life. And this error is devastating, having the ability to distort the truth to the point of denial. Now, as I say this, some of you are scanning over the passage again, looking for Paul’s discussion of immorality, or his denunciation of idolatry, or perhaps his rebuke of skepticism or secularism. But as serious as those things are, that’s not what Paul confronts here in Colossians 2. The insidious error that Paul confronts in these verses is the error of legalism. You hear there in v21. What were the false teachers preaching to the Colossians? V21, “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch.” That is the essence of legalism. It is the idea that you can earn a right standing before God merely by your adherence to rules and regulations. And in saying this, legalism makes two deadly shifts – it diminishes the holiness of God, and it overestimates the ability of humanity. Legalism brings God down, so to speak, so that he is still above us, but not so far that we can’t reach him. And at the same time, legalism raises us up by claiming we have the ability to attain favor or status with God.
I hope you see why I say legalism is insidious. The great danger of legalism is not that it claims the gospel is untrue. No, the great danger of legalism is that it says the gospel is unnecessary. And that little twist appeals to sinful human hearts. That subtle distortion feeds my prideful self-reliance, and it allows me to wriggle out from underneath the crushing truth that I cannot save myself. If left to fester, legalism will tarnish the grace of God, diminish the glory of Christ, and return people to slavery under a burden they can never carry. It is an insidious error that distorts the gospel.
But the good news is that God’s Word gives us the remedy this morning that crushes this deceitful error. Here in Colossians 2, the apostle Paul powerfully accomplishes two objectives – he exposes the futility of relying on rules and regulations to know God, and he reminds us, again, of the all-sufficient gospel of Jesus Christ. Ultimately, legalism is a false promise. It’s the false promise that rules will free you to know God. How do we resist such a false promise? With the promise of something better, and as Paul shows us today, that something better is the all-sufficient Savior, Jesus Christ.
If you’ll look at the text with me, you can see the outline of Paul’s response to the legalistic practices of the false teachers. The passage has three sections, and each section has a negative statement followed by a positive one. The negative statements describe the futility of these legalistic practices, while the positive statements point to the sufficiency of Christ. What I’d like to do, then, is draw your attention to those positive, Christ-focused elements in hopes of rooting us more deeply in the gospel. The result is three truths concerning the Lord Jesus. Only Christ provides true salvation – that’s vv16-17. Only Christ sustains true growth – that’s vv18-19. And Only Christ brings true deliverance – that’s vv20-23. Let’s consider each truth together, beginning in vv16-17 – Only Christ provides true salvation.
Only Christ provides true salvation
As we saw last week, Paul has been laboring to remind the Colossians that they are already complete in Jesus Christ. Since Christ is the fullness of God, those who belong to Christ have been filled in him. That was vv9-10 from last week. Well, as we come to v16, Paul continues to build on that truth, and he does so now in the form of a prohibition – a negative command. Notice what Paul writes, v16 – “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.” The idea here is not to be criticized or condemned on the basis of merely outward practices. It appears the false teachers were very much in favor of religious regulations. They had taken some elements of Judaism, like dietary laws, and they then combined them with some elements of the local pagan religious, like new moon festivals. And the result was a Frankenstein-like mash-up of religious regulations.
Now, we don’t know precisely what these regulations required, but we can sketch an idea from the context. The false teachers were likely saying the Colossians had to follow their prescriptions in order to be right with God. You have to abstain from this food, you have to avoid this drink, you have worship on these days. Even without precise details, you get the picture, right? According to these teachers, it was adherence to the rules that determined who was in or out. And that’s the problem. The false teachers could very well have had a genuine desire for purity and right worship, but they were going about those pursuits in entirely the wrong way. They had substituted adherence to regulations in place of walking by faith.
And this allows us to make an important clarification. The problem with legalism is not an emphasis on obedience. We need to make this clear. The gospel calls us to obey God’s Word, and we do that by faith, trusting that God’s Word leads us to walk in a way that pleases God. The issue with legalism is not obedience. The issue is the motivation and the goal of that obedience. This is where legalism and the gospel go in separate directions. The gospel calls for obedience in response to the grace of God; legalism calls for obedience to earn the grace of God. The gospel says obedience is an expression of my right standing before God; legalism says obedience is the basis of my standing before. Do you see the difference? Legalism takes what very well may be a genuine desire, but it disconnects that desire from who God is and what he has done in Christ.
And that, it seems, is what was happening in Colossae. The false teachers were saying, “If you want to be in on what God is doing, if you want to be pure and right before God, then you’ve got to get with our regulations. Don’t eat this, don’t drink that, only worship on these days.” And while those things might have sounded devout, and while they may have even had echoes of the Old Testament, they ultimately missed the point. And so, Paul urges the Colossians, “Don’t let them judge you based on these merely outwardly regulations.”
But it’s v17 that wrecks the legalism of the false teachers. In v17, Paul gives the reason for his prohibition. Why should the Colossians not let anyone pass judgment on them? V17 – “These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” Here Paul undermines the idea that religious regulations can bring us to God. Those religious regulations were but shadows, while Christ is the Substance. Christ is the Reality. Under the Old Covenant, there was a place for things like dietary restrictions and certain religious festivals. God instituted such practices for a time, but here in Colossians 2, Paul says the goal of those practices was ultimately something greater. It was to point God’s people to Christ, the Messiah. Dietary laws were a shadow; Christ is the Substance. Christ is the Living Bread that gives life to God’s people. Festivals and holy days – they were shadows; Christ is the substance. Christ is the One who holds all things together; the great High Priest who brings God’s people into God’s presence.
By insisting on dietary restrictions and holy days, the false teachers were trying to make external rules do something God never intended them to do. They were trying to make those rules the means of salvation. But that was never God’s plan, and that’s why Paul calls these things shadows. Shadows point to something greater, and when that something greater arrives, what do the shadows do? They fade away – not because they were unimportant but because the fulfillment, the Substance has come.
And so, this is Paul’s warning. Merely outward rules, even religiously oriented regulations – they cannot save us. Only Christ provides salvation, for Christ is the Substance, the Reality of all that God has been doing throughout redemptive history. If a religious practice is not pointing us to Christ and encouraging our faith in him, then we’re in danger of following shadows and missing the Substance.
I want you to think for a moment about the practice of fasting. I want to try and give us some practical thinking about this. Fasting, as you may know, is a purposeful abstaining from food for the goal of focused prayer. The hunger you feel in fasting should drive you to hunger for the Lord and his presence, and then to seek his face in prayer. And the NT, including Jesus himself, presents fasting as something that a Christian may do at points in his or her life. Jesus says, in Matthew 6, “When you fast,” so clearly it’s something the Lord sees as a part of the Christian life.
And yet, here in Colossians, Paul is railing against dietary restrictions, saying they are legalistic and cannot save. How do we put this together? Or to say it another way, “How can I guard my devotional practices from drifting over into legalism?” Well, think of what we said earlier about the motivation and goal behind these kinds of practices. When our motivation shifts away from Christ’s work and focuses on our work, then we know we are drifting towards a legalistic mindset.
For example, if I believe that God is more likely to hear my prayer when I’m fasting, then I’m drifting toward this error. If I begin to tell other people that they must fast in order to truly pray, then I’m drifting toward this error. Do you see how the motivation and the goal are key? But now, consider the alternative. If through fasting my faith becomes more focused on Christ, more attuned to my need for his faithfulness, more aware of my weakness and my dependence on him, then my fasting – my religious practice – actually serves to strengthen faith and honor the Lord Jesus. In this second scenario, I’m not trying to save myself or raise myself up with my own performance. Rather, I’m becoming more dependent on Christ, who is the Substance, the Reality of all that God has done for his people.
Do you see the difference? I want us to be a devout people, and I want us even to labor to know the Lord. “Let us press on to know Christ,” Paul tells the Philippians. I want us to know the Lord. But I want us to do so with our eyes fixed on Christ, not our own performance and especially not any merely outward regulation. That is Paul’s first response to the practices of the false teachers. He reminds us that Only Christ provides true salvation.
Only Christ sustains true growth
The second response comes in vv18-19 – Only Christ sustains true growth. Again, Paul issues a prohibition, another negative command. Notice what he writes, v18 – “Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind.” Now, if the first prohibition focused on religious regulations, then this second prohibition takes on religious experience. It seems the false teachers were claiming to have experienced some sort of vision that brought them into greater communion with God. Perhaps they believed this vision enabled them to join the angelic realm in worshipping God, or perhaps they believed they were actually worshipping angels in these visions, and that the angels would then serve as mediators for them before God. Again, the precise details are difficult to pin down, but the main idea is clear enough. The false teachers pointed to their own experience as the key for spiritual communion with God. “If you want to worship God, then you’ve got to do what we do. You’ve got to enter into these rituals and visions, you’ve got to call on angels, you must follow our experience.”
But here’s the interesting part. The false teachers attempt to pass this off as humility. The word the ESV translates as asceticism in v18 is also the word often used for humility. Paul’s point here is that these teachers display a false humility. They treat themselves harshly, they forgo certain things in pursuit of visionary experiences, but in the end, it’s really just pride. It’s pride masquerading as humility. In fact, notice where Paul says, again v18, that these teachers are puffed up without reason. They think highly of themselves, in other words. They may act humble and lowly, but inwardly, they’re boasting in their own experience. This is a key feature of legalism. It may appear very humble, very devout, but it’s actually pride. Legalism puffs us up and ultimately leads us to depend only on ourselves, which I might add, is the very definition of false worship. The false teachers are prideful about their so-called visionary experiences.
But in v19, Paul explains why this prideful insistence on experience is so troubling. Notice again what Paul writes, v19 – “and not 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.” Put very simply, the false teachers have substituted their own experience for Christ. By worshipping angels and relying on visions, they have created another gospel, a false gospel. Instead of Christ as mediator, they’re relying on angels. Instead of trusting in Christ’s atonement, they trust in their own experience. And by doing so, what have the false teachers done? They’ve cut themselves off from the Head, Paul says, which means they’ve cut themselves off from life.
And that’s the real takeaway of v19. In speaking of Christ as the Head of the body, Paul reminds us that true spiritual growth is sustained only through Christ. If we put anything else at the center of the Christian life, then we cut ourselves off from growth. We sever our tie to the One who is our life. This is a reminder we need to hear in our day. It’s good to read the Scriptures regularly, it’s good to grow in Bible study, it’s good to gather with God’s people, to listen to expositional preaching, to be a member of a healthy church. All of those things are spiritual experiences, and they can be very good things. But they’re only good insofar as they point us to Christ. They’ve only helpful insofar as they strengthen our faith in the Lord Jesus. You can be entirely committed to expositional preaching and still miss the point. You can be sold out to the idea of a healthy church and still lose sight of Jesus. Those experiences, those practices are good, but they’re good only so far as they point us to Christ, who is the Head.
I know I’ve said this a number of times already in the series, but I’m going to say it again. Aim to know Christ, brothers and sisters. In all of the individual experiences and pursuits of the Christian life, aim to know Christ. Aim to know his person – how he is fully God and fully man, united together for us and our salvation. Aim to know his work – how he alone reconciles sinners to God through the shedding of his own blood. Aim to know his faithfulness – how he manifests himself in the life of the local church, where brothers and sisters in the faith are means of Christ’s grace to you. Aim to know his glory – how he holds all things together, unfailingly, so that the universe itself rests on his power. Aim to know his sufficiency, his mercy, his humility, his compassion, his strength, his goodness. That’s where we grow, brothers and sisters – in Christ, as we look to him day-by-day through faith.
But there’s another aspect of v19 that I want us to note here as well. The false teachers, as we saw in v18, were prideful and puffed up. But notice in v19, how the centrality of Christ undercuts pride and actually leads to unity. Paul uses the image of a body where all the joints and ligaments are nourished and working together. I take those joints and ligaments to be you and me – the individual members of Christ’s body. As those joints and ligaments hold fast to the Head, the whole body is knit together. The entire body grows through its connection with Christ. That’s the unifying work of the gospel in the life of the church. One of the marks of true spiritual growth is that it leads us to be concerned for others, and to labor for their growth as well as our own. That was one of the fatal mistakes of the false teachers – they thought spiritual growth was exclusively about them. They missed how the whole body was meant to grow together in connection with the Head. And that’s why Paul uses these striking image of a body in v19 – in order to remind us that truth spiritual growth leads to unity, as each member grows together.
But then notice the final phrase in v19. This is astounding to me. As the body holds fast together to Christ, what happens? We grow with a growth that is from God. When we are dependent on Christ, we come to experience the very power of God at work among us. Do you see the irony of the false teachers’ prideful claims? They thought their experiences connected them to God’s power, but in reality, Paul says the opposite is true. Do you want to know the power of God? Then aim to know Christ. Even more so, aim to know Christ in community with his body, the church. Look around, brothers and sisters. Though the outward trappings of our gathering are not much, this is where the power of God is working. The experience may not be flashy, but it’s here – in the gathering of the church, with Christ at the center – it’s here that God gives us what we could never attain for ourselves. He gives us an experience of his power that leads to growth.
Only Christ brings true deliverance
That brings us to Paul’s final response, in vv20-23 – Only Christ brings true deliverance. Here at the end, Paul switches from prohibitions to a question that exposes the futility of these legalistic practices. Notice again Paul’s question, vv20-22 – “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 – Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch (referring to things that all perish as they are used) – according to human precepts and teaching?” Paul returns to the truth that has defined nearly all of chapter 2 – the truth of union with Christ. And Paul’s point is plain to see. If believers have died with Christ to the powers of this world, then why would we live as if those powers had any authority over us? Believers belong now to Christ. Believers live under Christ’s authority. There is no need to submit to legalistic regulations. They are unnecessary.
But Paul goes a bit farther, doesn’t he? Not only are these regulations unnecessary, they are also powerless. Notice where these regulations come from, end of v22. They come from human tradition. The false teachers are perpetrating a fraud, a scam. They claim to offer superior spiritual truth, but in reality, there is nothing spiritual about their rules. Their regulations are merely human. They are man-made, earthly, and therefore, they simply cannot deliver what they promise. That is Paul’s point here in vv20-22. Having been set free in Christ, why would you ever return to live under such powerless, man-made restrictions?
And it is this idea of powerlessness that concludes the passage. V23 is one of the clearer statements you’ll find in Scripture as to why legalism cannot deliver us. Note what Paul says, v23 – “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.” On the surface, Paul says, legalism looks good. When we set up man-made regulations and harsh rules, it looks like we’re very serious about spiritual growth. It may even appear that we’re on the road to deliverance from sinful temptation. But the reality, Paul says, is much different. All of these man-made regulations – they don’t add anything. They’re powerless, useless even. They cannot deliver us from sinful desires. They cannot stop us from indulging in the sinful flesh. Again, legalism is a false promise. It promises spiritual life through your own effort, but in the end, it falls short. In the end, it’s useless. It might look good on the surface. It might even appear very religious, but inside, at the heart level, it has done nothing to restrain sin.
Where does that leave us now? For 8 verses, Paul has railed against legalistic practices and self-made religion. He has relentlessly warned us not to fall prey to this fraudulent vision of Christian life. Where does that leave us? Well, not to sound simplistic, brothers and sisters, but it leaves us with Christ. It leaves us with the gospel. It leaves us with this wonderful but simple calling to embrace a daily dependence on the gospel, a dependence that is lived out by faith, through God’s Word, in believing community with fellow Christians. It leaves us with the recognition that we are prone to wander, just like we sang earlier, and that we never outgrow our need for the Lord Jesus. It leaves with a healthy fear of how much pride still resides in our hearts and how easily that pride can bend us toward self-made religion. It leaves us with a deeper desire to know Christ by faith. That’s where the passage leaves us. It leaves us with Christ and with Christ alone.
I was reading this week about this passage, and one of the commentators I enjoy called this section of Colossians stubbornly Christ-centered. I’ve never thought of the Bible as stubborn, but I like that description – stubbornly Christ-centered. We might be ready to move on to something else, but the Bible keeps saying, “No, look right here. Don’t look away. Don’t miss this truth.” It’s stubbornly Christ-centered.
And then I thought, “What a great description that would be of a local church?” Oh, you know Midtown Baptist – they’re always preaching Christ and his gospel. Wouldn’t that be a good testimony, brothers and sisters? Even more so, wouldn’t that be a good way to live each day – stubbornly focused on seeing and trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ? May God make it so among us, to the praise of his glory. Amen.