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.

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