The Lies of Legalism and the Sufficiency of Jesus

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A great obstacle to proclamation of the Gospel is the lies of legalism. Legalism is when we try to hold other people to rules and standards that God does not require and judge them based on those standards. It’s a perennial problem; we are constantly tempted to make conformity to man-made rules the measure of spirituality - this is legalism.

Legalism was a primary characteristic of the Pharisees during the time of Jesus and it has never ceased to threaten the church. As Paul writes to Colossians his goal is to remind them of the preeminence and centrality of Jesus, but he knows that the church is being threatened by the lies of legalism; false teachers are present who are holding out standards that go beyond the Gospel of Jesus. They are imposing rules and standards on the Colossians that undermine the sufficiency of the work of Jesus for salvation.

As Paul writes to the Colossians he wants them to see clearly. He wants them to see the lies of legalism in light of the sufficiency of Jesus.

A Lie of Legalism – Your salvation is dependent on your adherence to rules or religion (2:16)

  • Many of the Colossian believers were Jewish converts and it was very common for them to struggle with the distinction between the Law and the Gospel. As a result many allowed false teachers to burden them with the yolk of the Law – a standard that they could never keep.

The Truth of the Gospel – Your salvation is through faith in Christ alone (2:17)

  • While the Law was given by God the Scriptures are clear that salvation cannot be earned by adherence to the Law; salvation is through faith in Christ alone.
  • The New Testament teaches that the Old Covenant system (including the Law) was meant to point to a greater reality and the true source of salvation, Jesus Christ (Hebrews 8:5-7, 10:1; Galatians 3:23-29; Titus 3:3-7).

A Lie of Legalism – The growth and unity of the church is dependent on our own efforts and experiences (2:18)

  • In addition to the confusion surrounding the use of the Law there were other false teachings being spread in the church at Colossae. These teachings included the promotion of asceticism and the need for spiritual experiences in order to see growth or unity in the church.
  • John MacArthur –There is a tendency in human nature to move from objectivity to subjectivity—to shift the focus from Christ to experience. This has always intimidated weak believers and threatened the church.

The Truth of the Gospel – The growth and unity of the Church is through dependence on Christ alone (2:19)

  • What Paul makes clear is that the growth and unity of the church isn’t dependent on spiritual acts or experiences; the growth and the unity of the church comes through Christ alone. He is the head by which the whole body is nourished and knit together.

A Lie of Legalism – The fight against sin and temptation is dependent on our own ability and self-discipline (2:20-22) 

  • The trap we often fall into as Christians is that we try and achieve holiness by building systems of legalism and religious conformity. This is what Paul’s describing: The Colossians are trying to live in holiness by creating systems characterized by restrictions and separation from temptation.

The Truth of the Gospel – The only way you can win your fight against sin is through dependence on the power of Christ alone (2:23)

  • This is the reality: We have to recognize that any outward obedience that we can muster up through systems of legalism isn’t what God is calling us to; He wants our hearts. Paul says that these efforts have no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh because they only deal with the outer man.
  • The only way we will ever truly experience victory in our fight against the flesh and sin is through reliance on the power of God and what He has accomplished in ending our slavery to sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus. (Romans 6:5-11; 8:1-11).