On this Fourth of July weekend most of us give at least a passing thought to the value of our freedom as a country. But have you ever given much thought to our freedom in Christ?
We hear much today about the increasing restrictions the government is placing on our Christian practice. These changes and laws are most troubling. We have a right and even a responsibility to speak up as bigotry toward Christianity becomes more and more acceptable. But I am less concerned about these things than I am about the threats that Paul talks about. Attempts at political repression usually result in bolder proclamation. The threats to our spiritual freedom are so subtle that they threaten the very fabric of the gospel.
The dangers Paul lists this morning could be called the threats of legalism, mysticism and asceticism. However, I don’t think that communicates to most people. So I will call them the threats of: Those who Judge by Externals; Those who Advocate a Different Authority and Those Who Enslave by their Restrictions. Each of these is prevalent and acts like a cancer in the Body of Christ. These things arrive unnoticed and often when they are noticed . . . the damage is irreparable.
Those who Judge by Externals (16,17)
In the Old Testament when David was chosen to be the next King, nobody thought he was the man for the job. His brothers were bigger, stronger, more experienced. Samuel anointed David with these tremendous words, “Man looks at the outward appearance, God looks at the heart”.
One of the perennial problems of the church has been the problem judging each other by external behavior. This is generally referred to as legalism. Legalism is a focus on what we DO. It adds to the gospel of grace a number of “qualifying clauses”. Philip Yancey writes, “legalism contains enough inherent dangers to elicit the strongest warnings in the Bible. NO other issue-not pornography, adultery, violence or the things which most rankle Christians today-inspired more fiery outburst from Jesus.
Listen to Paul’s words again,
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.
As always, the “Therefore” at the beginning of the text means it is a conclusion drawn from what has come before. In the verses preceding these verses we were reminded that Christ has done what was necessary for our salvation. He changed us, He made us alive, and He has forgiven us in Christ. The job is done. We have received His fullness.
So, Paul says, don’t let other people evaluate your spiritual life by their external standards. We are not saved by externals. We are saved by the internal work of God in our life. Legalism, therefore is deadly to the church because:
- It gives power to the wrong person. Paul says these are only a “shadow of the things to come.” When we focus on rules and regulations we are not focusing on Christ. There are plenty of people that would like to control our lives. But if we let them “call the shots” then we have given them the position that is alone reserved for Christ. We are turning away from Christ to the one who seeks to control us. This is idolatry!
- It puts the focus in the wrong place. Legalism focuses on superficial spirituality. It is a lot easier to keep external rules than deal with the issue of the heart. It’s easier to “not play cards” than it is to deal with bitterness in our heart. It is easier to put on clothes that conform with acceptable standards of the group, than it is to put on the nature of Christ. What legalism does is distract us from the real issues of discipleship and life.
- It gives people a false sense of security. They feel good that they are fitting in and don’t realize that all they have done is conform to peer pressure . . . they have not come to Christ at all.
- It makes us narrow and divisive. The legalist insists that everyone attain the standard that they have adopted. In other words, everyone needs to be like me. These people miss the delight of diversity and the growth that can come from others of different experience and culture. The legalist chooses to walk in a tunnel when the Lord has given us a great and wonderful world to enjoy.
- Legalism alienates the world. There is nothing that pushes people away faster than legalism. Steve Brown writes,
My friend, Jim Green, told me about an interesting incident that happened on the first live nationwide television broadcast. Because it was a first, a number of prominent people were asked to address the nation. Conrad Hilton was among those who had that opportunity. Everyone waited to see what this great man would say to such a tremendous audience. He said, “A number of you have stayed at Hilton hotels. Let me ask you to do something for me. When you take a shower, make sure the shower curtain is on the inside of the tub.” (Living Free , Steve Brown p. 105)
What an opportunity missed. Mr. Hilton could have told people how much he appreciated their business. He could have shared his philosophy of service. He could have encouraged people to persevere. Instead he whined about the shower curtain.
This is the way Christians sound when they spend all there time talking about rules. They portray Jesus as someone who is more like a Drill Sargent than a friend. He is concerned that you: “Stand up straight, cut that hair, put out that cigarette, turn off that radio, don’t read that book, sing this song, read this version of the Bible, pray this way, seek this experience.” Is it any wonder that many want nothing to do with the Savior? Legalists make it impossible for people to see Jesus. No one is going to get to Heaven by keeping rules. They can only get there by trusting the Savior who loves them and has set them free from the drudgery of rule keeping.
THOSE WHO ADVOCATE A DIFFERENT AUTHORITY (18,19)
Paul moves on to a second threat to our spiritual life: the threat of those who advocate a different authority. The text says,
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 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.
Notice the stern warning that is given here. Paul says, “don’t let these people “disqualify you for the prize”. The word for disqualify carries the idea of an umpire who is calling you out because you have not obeyed the rules. This is a very serious danger so it’s important we understand what we are dealing with. Let’s look at how Paul describes these people,
- they have a false humility. They present themselves as humble and holy but in reality are filled with themselves and feel a sense of spiritual pride and superiority over other Christians.
- they worship angels. Their focus is often on other spiritual beings other than Christ.
- they have seen visions. These people are eager to tell you the “latest word from the Lord”.
- they are “puffed up with idle notions”. They draw false conclusions. They come up with all kinds of aberrant teaching that promises to lead a person TO God but is really leading them AWAY from Him.
Do you see the inherent dangers here? First, there is the reality of subjective bias. We simply cannot trust our own emotions and imaginations. We have all been “sure” of things in our life only to find out we were wrong. Why? Because we wanted what we wanted so bad that we projected it as coming from God.
Everyone of us has weird dreams on occasion because of something we ate or something we watched on television. It is dangerous to try to seek to draw a spiritual meaning from these things. It is also dangerous to make our experience the measurement for truth. There is only one objective (unbiased) standard of truth. That is the Word of God. It must be given careful attention and placed alone in a position of supreme authority.
In the Great Awakening two of the prominent leaders were Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. At that time they saw many strange and different things happening among their people. Edwards wrote extensively against the excesses he saw in those days. He and Whitefield for awhile disagreed on the issue of “new” revelation. Whitefield believed that God often spoke through visions, dreams and impulses. I quote the rest of the story as recorded by John MacArthur.
George Whitefield learned the hard way that subjective impulses can be tragically fallible. When Whitefield’s wife was expecting her first child, he prophesied that she would have a son who would become a preacher of the Gospel. The child was indeed a boy, but he died at the age of four months. He was Whitefield’s only child. Murray writes,
“Whitefield at once recognized his mistake saying: ‘I misapplied several texts of Scripture. Upon these grounds, I made no scruple of declaring ‘that I should have a son, and that his name was to be John.’ When back in New England, in 1745, he could say feelingly of what had happened there, “Many good souls, both among clergy and laity, for a while, mistook fancy for faith, and imagination for revelation.’ (MacArthur, RECKLESS FAITH p. 188)
What is happening in some churches today is that some “prophets” are encouraging people NOT to evaluate and weigh their teaching. These people are told instead to simply take these truths “by faith” (which is a synonym for without evaluation.) Anyone who questions is considered to be a skeptic and a non-believer. In other words, it is impossible to evaluate what these people are saying without being called a non-believer. They have removed any check on the subjective bias.
The second danger is this, We will be lead away from God. Paul says that these people have “lost connection with the head.” Let me ask a simple question: How much life is left once the head is severed from the body?
In the same way, the church is no longer the church when we drift after these false teachers. We begin seeking an experience rather than holiness. We look to men rather than to God. We ignore our minds rather than check out everything that is said. We begin to look inside ourselves rather than look outside ourselves to the Savior.
This was the argument at the time of the Reformation. The Catholic Church said the Bible, the Pope and the Church had equal authority. The Reformers responded with the phrase “sola Scriptura” meaning Scripture alone is the standard and the measurement for everything else. We have come full circle! Now some believers are claiming that they have authority equal to the Word of God. This is deadly.
Those who Enslave by their Restrictions (20-23)
Paul has one more threat to our Christian freedom,
“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.” (vv. 20-23)
These rules focus on personal denial. They were telling people not to handle, taste, touch in order to curb in their appetites.The thing is, this sounds really good on the surface. Certainly we are called to “deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him.” We need some discipline in our lives. But these men were after something different. They were telling these people that these disciplines were necessary for fellowship with God. They urged a rigorous introspection.
According to the church father Athanasius, Anthony, the founder of Christian monasticism, never changed his vest or washed his feet. He was outdone, however, by Simeon Stylites, who spent the last thirty-six years of his life atop a fifty-foot pillar. Simeon mistakenly thought the path to spirituality lay in exposing his body to the elements and withdrawing from the world. Even Martin Luther, before discovering the truth of justification by faith, nearly wrecked his health through this rigid introspection.
Luther became a monk so he could be more isolated. He did all the acts of penance. He went without food. He denied himself every and any pleasure. He hoped that these acts would give Him a sense of God’s presence. It was only when Luther understood that we are made right with God through Christ’s work and not our own did he find life and peace.
Listen to Paul’s reason for avoiding this kind of extreme prescription. First he says we have a new Perspective. Paul reminds us that we don’t belong to the world anymore. We don’t try to get to God the same way as the rest of the world does. We aren’t trying to earn our place in heaven. We have received the gift God has given in His Son. We are children of Heaven. We live by grace, not by works. The false teachers may sound spiritual but we see through them . . . we know we cannot earn God’s favor. We can only receive it.
Second, We have a new Value System. Paul tells the Colossians that we shouldn’t sweat the stuff the teachers were concerned about because “these are destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings.” We understand that the things of this earth are temporary and the only thing that lasts is the eternal. We can deny ourselves all we want in this life but it will make no eternal difference. In fact, Paul says, “these things lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” Why? Because no matter how hard we work we can’t will sin out of our lives . . . we need God’s power working within us. Luther worked harder than most of us would ever work . . and all he found was frustration. That is, until he stopped working and starting trusting Christ’s work on his behalf.
Finally, we have a new attitude. Rather than the constant introspection and always seeking to stamp out anything fun in our lives, we now rejoice in the Lord. We understand that he has “given us all things freely to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17). God has given us this life to teach us, to prepare us and to delight us.
The church, says Robery Farrar Capon, “has spent so much time building into us the fear of making mistakes that she has made us like ill-taught piano students: we play our songs, but we never really hear them because our main concern is not to make music but to avoid some flub that will get us in trouble. (What’s So Amazing p. 189)
The believer who is spiritually free is learning to appreciate music. They are learning to see the blessings God has given. They are learning to laugh, smile and enjoy. Why give this up to make yourself miserable?
Do you see why these things are dangerous? If you asked the typical non church goer to describe Christianity what would they say? Wouldn’t they talk about a faith that involved a lot of don’ts. In fact, some would say, once you become a believer you can no longer do anything fun again.
Why is that? Don’t they see the joy and freedom that comes from forgiveness? Don’t they see the tremendous satisfactions that comes from His grace? Don’t they see that peace that passes all understanding? Is it because we have allowed these other things to get in the way? Have we allowed these threats to our spiritual freedom creep into our lives?
Let me ask you, “What is your Christianity like?”
- Is it focused on yourself or on Christ?
- Is it focused on sin and failure or grace and forgiveness?
- Is it anchored in personal experiences or in the Word of God?
- Has it set you free or tied you up?
- Does it make you cry, or dance?
On this Fourth of July weekend it’s my prayer that God would protect us from those who would steal our spiritual freedom and help us to find the freedom that will allow us to enjoy the adventure of discipleship.