Pulling the Weeds of Legalism

Colossians 2:6-15

October 11, 2001 | Brian Bill

Almost every state in our nation still has laws on their books that would surprise most people.  For instance, 

  • In Florida, a woman may be fined for falling asleep under a hair dryer. 
  • In Indiana, citizens are not allowed to attend a movie house or ride in a public streetcar within four hours after eating garlic.  That seems like a good law.

And, a little closer to home in Illinois…

  • In Eureka, a man with a moustache may not kiss a woman.
  • In Moline, ice-skating at the Riverside pond during the months of June and August is strictly prohibited.
  • In Normal, it’s against the law to make a face at a dog.

I also checked the statutes in my home state of Wisconsin and discovered that in the Dairy State…

  • At one time, in an effort to help the sale of butter, margarine was considered illegal, especially when smuggled in by the “flat-landers” of Illinois.
  • It’s against the law to serve apple pie in public restaurants unless there is cheese on top of it.

And, it’s probably a good thing that I’m not a pastor in Nicholas County, West Virginia because no member of the clergy there is allowed to tell jokes or humorous stories from the pulpit.  Or, maybe that wouldn’t apply to the humor I use…

We may laugh, or groan, at these out-of-date laws, because many of them seem absurd and ridiculous.  But, if we were to list all the rules, expectations, and laws that are on the books in many churches today, chances are we’d stop laughing pretty quickly.  Most of these religious regulations are not written down anywhere but many of us either attempt to keep them, or expect others to do so.

Last week, we learned that we’re not to just focus on our conversion.  Instead, we’re called to demonstrate our commitment to Christ on a daily basis by going deeper with Him.   Our knowing should lead to growing.  

This growth can be stunted, or even choked to death by the weeds of legalism.  Legalism can be defined as a strict adherence to the law.  Specifically, as it relates to faith, a legalist is one who believes that performance is the way to gain favor with God.  Legalism is the human attempt to gain salvation or prove our spirituality by outward conformity to a list of religious “do’s” and “don’ts.”  It’s often disguised in Christian terms and behavior.


Before we jump into our text this morning, allow me to make some observations about legalism.

  1. We tend to think others are legalistic, but that we’re not.   The fact is that we’re all legalistic by nature.  We tend to judge others by our own standards of what is acceptable and what isn’t.  In essence, we think our sins smell better than other people’s.  As I’ve said before, we have very little tolerance for people who sin differently than we do.
  2. Legalism is highly contagious.  While it’s usually less conscious and systematized in our minds than it was among the Pharisees, legalism can spread like a bad virus through an entire congregation.  That’s why Jesus reserved some of his harshest criticism for legalistic list-makers in Mark 7:6-8: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.”
  3. Legalism can take a vibrant faith and make it dull and lifeless.  It can evaporate enthusiasm, jettison joy, and stifle spirituality.  Instead of finding freedom through Christ, many believers become burdened by the church.
  4. Legalism produces large quantities of self-righteousness, judgment and condemnation. It majors in guilt and misguided sacrifice, urging its followers to evaluate their relationship with God on the basis of standards and scores – and expects others to do the same.  Superficial spirituality short-circuits the work of grace.
  5. Legalism makes us narrow and divisive.  The legalist insists that everyone live up to the standard they have adopted.  In other words, everyone needs to be like me.  When we think this way, we miss the delight of diversity in the church.
  6. Legalism makes it impossible for people to see Jesus.  There is nothing that pushes a seeker away faster than a list of rules and regulations.  We inadvertently portray Jesus as a drill sergeant instead of the Savior.

That’s exactly what was starting to happen in the church at Colosse.  The New Testament books of Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews also lampoon legalism.  We must be taught over and over that everything is by grace.  We’re saved by grace and we grow by grace.  In our text for this morning, Paul argues that if we want to pull the weeds of legalism, we must focus on two truths…

  • Remember our legal standing (Colossians 2:9-15).
  • Resist the lures of legalism (Colossians 2:16-23).

Remember Our Legal Standing

The best defense against a performance-based faith is to remember our legal standing before God.  If we understand God’s divine decree as a result of what Jesus has done on our behalf, we’ll experience amazing grace and live with the freedom that is ours in Christ.  As Jesus said in John 8:36, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

At conversion, God issues four rulings, or decrees.  

1. We are complete (9-10). 

Let’s look at Colossians 2:9-11: “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority.”  The phrase, “in Christ” shows us that Jesus is the center of God’s saving activity.  When we put our faith in Christ, we are included in what He has done.  All the fullness of deity lives in Him.  As we’ve already established in Colossians, if you want to know what God is like, then look at Jesus.  The phrase, “lives in bodily form,” means to “dwell permanently.”  Jesus is not just a way to God; He is the only way because He is God Himself.

Listen carefully.  Not only does all the fullness of God dwell in Christ, all believers are filled with the fullness of Christ.  The tense of this verb in Greek indicates that this fullness is a permanent experience.  One translation puts it this way: “And you are in Him, having been completely filled full with the present result that you are in a state of fullness.”  If you have put your faith in Christ for forgiveness of sins, then there is nothing lacking in your relationship with God.  There’s not some extra blessing or another experience you need to have.  

Friend, you do not need anything more than you already have!

You have everything you need if you have Christ because the fullness of God comes into your life when you receive Jesus.  Friend, you do not need anything more than you already have!  You merely need to understand and appropriate that which you’ve already been given.

2. We are alive (11-13a). 

One of the many good reasons to preach through an entire book of the Bible is that it forces me to address subjects that might not normally come up in a conversation.  I’m thankful for the insights I received from Warren Wiersbe’s commentary on this passage 

Verses 11-13a establish some parallels between circumcision and our new life with Christ.  Let’s read it: “In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.  When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ.”

God initiated circumcision in the Old Testament as part of His covenant with His people in order to set them apart and identify them as true followers.  One of the problems at Colosse was that some legalists were demanding that Christians submit to circumcision and obey the Old Testament Law.  These false teachers were a bit different than those Paul refuted in Galatians.  In that context, they were insisting that circumcision was necessary for salvation.  In the church at Colosse, the false teachers were suggesting that obedience to Old Testament regulations would help them become more spiritual.

Though circumcision was a physical procedure, it had some sacred significance.  The trouble was that Old Covenant followers insisted on the physical act without emphasizing a change of heart.  It had become a religious ritual.  That’s why Jeremiah 4:4 states that believers were to circumcise their hearts.   Physical acts are never meant to be the substance of our faith.  Instead, a spiritual change on the inside, accomplished only through the redemptive work of Christ, is what God demands. 

When we put our faith in Christ, Jesus spiritually circumcises, or cuts away, our sinful nature in order to prove that we belong to Him.  Since we are alive, and no longer dead in our sins, Paul next uses the illustration of baptism.  The word baptize has both a literal and figurative meaning.  The literal meaning is “to dip, or immerse.”  That’s what we witnessed last Sunday afternoon when six believers were baptized by immersion.  The figurative meaning is “to be identified with.”    

It’s important to keep in mind that just as the physical act of circumcision did nothing to change someone’s heart, so too, the waters of baptism itself do not save anyone.  When we place our faith in Christ and are born again, 1 Corinthians 12:13 states very clearly that we are “baptized,” or “identified” with Christ: “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body-whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free-and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.”

Water baptism is a wonderful picture of an inner reality.  When we go under the water, we are symbolizing our burial with Christ, and when we come up, we become a picture of what it means to be raised with Christ.   The Greek words are very expressive in verse 12.  We are co-buried, co-raised, and co-made alive.  We died with him, we are raised with him, and we have life because of him.  Baptism vividly portrays the death and burial of the believer’s sinful way of life.  When Christ died, our old nature died with Him.  That’s our spiritual circumcision.  When we come up out of the water in baptism, we symbolize that just as Christ was raised from the dead, so too, we will be raised to resurrection life.

Remembering that our old sinful nature is dead and buried with Christ gives us a powerful motive to resist sin.  We can keep sinful desires from controlling us by treating them as if they are dead.  Romans 6:11-14 provides a practical gameplan to use in order to live with the freedom that Christ has promised us: “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.  Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires.  Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness.  For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.” 

3. Our sins are canceled (13b-14). 

Look now at the last part of verse 13 and verse 14.  Here we see that we’re not only complete and alive, but our sins have been canceled: “He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.”

Notice that Jesus forgave “all” of our sins.  That means every single one, even those that you have a hard time forgiving yourself for.  The “written code” is the Law.  Jesus not only took our sins to the cross, He also took the Law and nailed it there, forever out of the way.  The Law was against us and stood opposed to us because all it could ever do was point out our sinfulness.  In Romans 7:7, Paul concludes that he “would not have known what sin was except through the law.”

The written code was like a handwritten ledger of our trespasses against the law.  In Bible times, records were often kept on parchment, and the writing could be washed off.  Paul is saying that our sins have been wiped away.  Our rap sheet has been canceled.  All of God’s legal requirements have been taken away once they were nailed to the cross.  No regulations or man-made rituals have power over us.

4. We have victory (15). 

We have completeness in Christ, we have new life, and we have been completely forgiven.  Our legal standing involves one more thing: we have victory.  Verse 15 is a wonderful picture of Christ’s triumph over evil: “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”  The word for “disarmed” is literally “stripped,” as in stripping a defeated enemy of armor on the battlefield.  

The powers and authorities of this evil world stripped Christ of his clothing and popularity, made a public spectacle of him on the cross, and thought they had triumphed over him by putting Him to death.  Little did they know that the victory actually belonged to Jesus.  Friends, evil no longer has any power over you because Christ has stripped Satan’s weapons from him.  He is disarmed.  The only power he has is what we give him when we allow him to deceive us and create fear in our lives.  

The cultural background to this verse is rich with meaning.  When the Romans went off to fight their enemies, after winning the war, they would bind their vanquished foes together by the hands and march them single file back to Rome where they would have a huge celebration.  Thousands of Romans would line the streets to watch this “public spectacle.”  

At the front of the parade would be the conquering General.  Following him would be those soldiers who had acted heroically in battle.  The rest of the army would follow.  And then at the rear of the procession would be all those who had been conquered.  As they would march past the crowds, the people would jeer at them, cast insults, and even throw things.  You didn’t want to be the main attraction at one of these pubic spectacles!  

Jesus has turned his captors into captives, displaying them in His victory celebration.  The Colossians had participated in that victory, and so have we.  We don’t have to follow false teachers and we don’t have to succumb to sin or fear Satan.  Jesus is the victor and He has triumphed at the cross.  1 Corinthians 15:54-57: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.  Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?  The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Resist the Lures of Legalism

The best way to pull the weeds of legalism is to remember our legal position before God – we are complete, alive, forgiven, and we have the victory.  In this next section, which we will cover rather quickly, we’ll see that we must also resist the lures of legalism.  I love how the Philips translation renders Galatians 3:2-3: “I shall ask you one simple question: Did you receive the Spirit of God by trying to keep the Law or by believing the message of the Gospel?  Surely you can’t be so idiotic as to think that a man begins his spiritual life in the Spirit and then completes it by reverting to outward observances!”  Colossians 2:16-23 gives us three warnings so that we can avoid being idiotic.  We must be vigilant or we’ll lean toward legalism on a daily basis.

1. Refuse to judge by externals (16-17). 

Since Jesus has done what was necessary for our salvation, don’t let other people evaluate your spiritual life by their external standards

Look at verses 16-17: “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.  These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”

Whenever you see the word “therefore” in the Bible you should always ask what it’s there for.  Paul is drawing a conclusion based upon what he has just written previously.  Since Jesus has done what was necessary for our salvation, don’t let other people evaluate your spiritual life by their external standards.

Food restrictions, special diets, observance of ceremonies and holy days rose out of specific practices in the Old Testament.   Religious festivals were annual, New Moon celebrations were monthly, and the Sabbath was weekly.  Since Christ has now come, special diets and obligatory days are no longer necessary because every Old Testament feast looks forward to Christ.  They were just shadows of the reality that is fulfilled in Jesus.  Hebrews 10:1 puts it succinctly: “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming-not the realities themselves.”

It’s relatively easy to judge by externals.  If there’s something you’re not supposed to eat and you avoid it, then everything’s kosher (no pun intended).  If you attend when you’re supposed to attend, then you must be doing OK.  If you kneel when you pray, then you must be close to God.  We must be alert to make sure we’re not evaluating what we’re doing, or what others are doing, according to external standards.  

2. Reject false authority (18-19). 

Look at verses 18-19: “Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize.  Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions.  He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.”

The word, “disqualify” means “to declare unworthy of a prize.”  It’s the idea of an umpire who is calling you out because you have not obeyed the rules.  Paul describes these people in four ways:

  • They have a false humility.  They present themselves as humble and holy but in reality they are filled with spiritual pride and superiority.
  • They worship angels.  Their focus is on other spiritual beings rather than on Christ.
  • They have seen visions.  They love to give people the “latest word from the Lord.”
  • They are puffed up with idle notions.  Their “inner secrets” gave them big heads but not burning hearts.

As a result, because of their subjective bias and experiential expressions, they had actually become disconnected from the head.  They were severed from any hope of spiritual vitality because they were not getting their orders from Christ.  We must make sure we are not seeking experiences that do not correlate with Christ.  Even though there is a fascination with “religious mysticism,” our focus is to be on Jesus.  

I’ll never forget a conversation Beth and I had with a fellow American Christian when we lived in Mexico.  We were telling her that we missed Christian radio and bookstores.  Before we could finish explaining how difficult it was to be involved in church planting and not have all the resources that are available in the States, she told us that she didn’t miss it at all!  She went on to describe how she could just focus on her Bible without feeling like if she hadn’t read the latest book, or attended the latest seminar, that she was somehow less spiritual than those who had.  I’ve often thought about that.  As good as books, seminars, and tapes are, and I take full advantage of them, we must come back to the cry of the Reformation: Sola Sriptura!  That means that the Bible alone is the standard and measurement for everything else.

3. Repudiate religious rules (20-23). 

Let’s refuse to judge by externals and reject false authority.  Finally, if we want to pull the weeds of legalism, we must also repudiate religious rules.  Drop down to verses 20-23: “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle!  Do not taste!  Do not touch!”?  These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings.  Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”

The false teachers focused on personal denial as the way to curb their appetites.  This sounds really good on the surface because we all agree that we need discipline in our lives.  But they were teaching that these disciplines were necessary for fellowship with God.

According to church history, Anthony, the founder of Christian monasticism, never changed his vest or washed his feet.  He was outdone, however, by Simon Stylites, who spent the last 36 years of his life on top of a fifty-foot pillar.  He mistakenly thought that if he withdrew from the world then he would be truly spiritual. 

Paul tells us that we don’t belong to the world anymore.  We don’t get to heaven by following a list of do’s and don’ts.  And, we don’t live the Christian life that way either.  We cannot earn God’s favor.  All we can do is receive it.  Charles Spurgeon puts it this way: “I have found, in my own spiritual life, that the more rules I lay down for myself, the more sins I commit.”

Verse 23 states very clearly that regulations, though they may look and sound good, “Lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”  Rules don’t abolish the appetite because they feed the flesh.  Why is that?  Because no matter how hard we work we can’t force sin out of our lives through devotion to man-made dictates.  We need God’s power working within us.  It’s His grace, not a regimen of rules and activities that affect real life change.  

We must teach grace before commitment, because once grace is understood and embraced, it will lead to commitment.  But, required commitment and rule keeping always leads to legalism.  Titus 2:11-12: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.  It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.” 


As we close this morning, let me ask you, “What is your Christianity like?”

  • Is it focused on yourself or on Christ?
  • Are you a list-keeper, or a grace-giver?
  • Is your faith anchored to personal experiences or on the Word of God?
  • Has it set you free or tied you up?

Rules are like religious training wheels that keep us from tipping over.  But they’re also confining because they keep us from breaking free.  A bishop once said to Louis XI of France, “Make an iron cage for all those who do not think as we do, an iron cage in which the captive can neither lie down nor stand straight up.”  The king agreed and had it constructed.  A short time later, the bishop somehow offended King Louis, and for 14 years he was locked in that same cage.

Friend, have you constructed a cage for those who don’t think the same way you do?  Be careful, because you may end up in bondage yourself.

Christianity is not a matter of what you do or what you don’t do.  Christianity is what is done for you.   Its not spelled D-O but rather D-O-N-E.  When Jesus died on the cross, He said, “It is finished.”  The price has been paid.  The debt has been erased.  You are complete in Christ.  You are alive.  Your sins are forgiven.  And you have the victory!

What old laws are still on your books this morning?  Are you ready to nail them to the Cross so that you can be set free?   Give your list to Jesus right now.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?