Law and Legalism

CC BY NC-ND, Wally Gobetz Flickr
CC BY NC-ND Wally Gobetz Flickr

In Colossians 2:16-23, the apostle Paul presents a straightforward defense against legalistic injunctions being forced upon the Colossian church. To the quick reader it may seem as though Paul is being critical of the Law of Moses since many people lump anything having to do with rules and religion in the word legalism. But this is not the case.

In fact, Paul shows great respect for the Law of Moses in Galatians 3 and Romans 7. For instance, he says, “Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law” (Rom. 7:7) and “So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (v. 12).

Distinguishing Law and Legalism

What the apostle is doing for the Colossian Christians is liberating them from human rules. Paul understood Torah very well—remember that great resume of his in Philippians 3? He was once a Pharisee. Judaism was his heritage and the ground from which Christianity—Christ himself—sprang.

I think it would be fair to speculate that he could respect the devout Jew who did his or her best to follow God’s requirements apart from the knowledge of Christ or with hesitance or resistance to the new Jesus religion. The Law was indeed the tutor in righteousness (Gal. 3:24); however, altering one’s understanding of religious conviction is always difficult. Paul would have recalled his own dramatic crossroads.

What Paul is fighting in Colossians are additional, burdensome do’s and don’ts that false teachers would make these new Christians believe were obligatory for acceptance with God. This is legalism. Moreover, these teachers used the Law of Moses as a guise for their own extra rules, thus turning people away from Christ and back to works religion and locking their minds to wrong teaching.

The Treachery of Rule Givers

The implications in these verses are many. In fact, the warning remains as important to Christians today as it was then. I find in Paul’s words the increasing need for biblical teaching. The apostle was cutting away the excess that kept these Christians laden down. In a day when pulpits are overrun with newfangled concepts, self-help tactics, and glitzy preaching, Christians too stand in need of strong biblical teaching that will excise anything that is not verily the word of God.

CC BY-SA, J. Nathan Matias, Flickr
CC BY-SA, J. Nathan Matias, Flickr

We would be remiss to think that teaching like this comes devoid of ulterior motive, which is often the grasp for human control, a notion present in Paul’s argument. Rules, religious and otherwise, can be powerful because they bear, or are assigned, moral and ethical value. For this reason they can be used to control and manipulate. Rule-givers and paragons typically gain control when adherents go astray or are too weak to question authority.

This is exactly what Paul explains about the Law in Romans 7:7-25. The law of God was (and is) good for us, but, sin being found in us, we are beaten down with condemnation for our moral failure resulting from the command (Rom. 7:8). Now to the Colossians, Paul tells them that not only has Christ liberated them by fulfilling this Law completely and perfectly, but these false teachers are adding requirements that God never authorized.

It is also the character of the rule, or the spirit of the law, that is important. God’s rules never come to bash or condemn (cf. John 3:17; Rom. 8:1-2); so we can be confident that our honest effort counts with God. He is always firm but loving. This is yet another way of discerning what is and is not of God.

The End of the Matter

The significance is this: Sin must be sin for God’s sake, never for humans’ sake. What God calls good and bad, right and wrong, is what is indeed moral and immoral, ethical and unethical, and no person can add to it. Also, what we can assess to be the heart of God on an issue, by careful study of God’s holy character, the example of scripture, and the teaching of historical Christian writers, is sufficient to answer the questions of generations today and tomorrow.

This should make an end of debates on “petty sin” issues, like dancing and drinking, and some larger issues fit here, too.

We have to be sure that our answers do not make God and the Bible say things they never do. Sometimes our brand of religion promotes extra-biblical requirements, and we should be resolute to get biblical answers about why those requirements exist. What we may discover is that, although sincere, there is more to be gained by the leadership with certain rules being kept than for the laity being saved by their strict obedience.

Ragamuffin Saint

CC BY, JD Hancock, Flickr
CC BY, JD Hancock, Flickr

Blessed are the Linuses of the world, for they shall indeed see the Great Pumpkin!

What is the world without Linus? He is the spiritual one swept away in his belief and set high upon his conviction. Never dogmatic, he is often discovered to be the most grounded of all—if walking on air can be so considered! Life takes all kinds, but it needs Linus because he sees it in perspicuous detail, for he looks with eyes of faith.

What a parable is that episode, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! The world really is a dark pumpkin patch without the scantest clue that it is being stalked. But along comes Saint Linus, hailed in rolls of laughter and guffaw, to snatch up the apathy and announce that belief matters. “Oh, if you could only see as I do!” he tells them. “The Great Pumpkin seeks to reveal himself, but you must be a sincere patch.”

In the cartoon Linus’s Great Pumpkin never comes, and this is always enough to justify the partygoers. In life there is sure to be a Lucy for every Linus to remind him how blockheaded he is for being superstitious; to remind the trusting how much their irrationality costs them: the trick-or-treating, the festivity, the candy, the spectacle of it all.

Still, Linus van Pelt cannot be unconvinced. His heart is pure and his sight has not failed him. When the fun ends, the masks come off, and the sweetness becomes a bad aftertaste, it will be to Linus whom everyone will turn, waiting in the patch, and the Great Pumpkin will come.