The Subtle Allure of Self-Made Religion

16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.

20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. Colossians 2:16-23 ESV

Far too often, well-meaning but misguided individuals attempt to turn faith in Christ into a lengthy list of dos and don’ts intended to regulate behavior. They take James’ simple premise that faith without works is a dead faith (James 2:17) and twist it into a legalistic and guilt-inducing set of rules and regulations designed to determine righteousness. Unable or unwilling to accept that a believer’s right standing with God is based on grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, these purveyors of self-righteousness attempt to earn favor with God through rituals, rites, and fervent religious rule-keeping.

Entire denominations have been formed based on a doctrine that teaches that righteousness must be achieved the old-fashioned way: Through hard work and merit. Essentially, their teaching is based on the old maxim: There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Some seem to have founded their works-based concept of salvation on the oft-quoted but non-biblical statement: God helps those who help themselves.

Humanity’s pervasive pride problem lies at the core of this brand of false teaching, and it has been around since the fall. Ever since Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the forbidden tree, mankind has been attempting to assuage its guilt and amend its broken relationship with God through human effort. Over the centuries, countless religions have sprung up, each promoting its own unique set of rules and rituals for keeping its particular deity pleased and in a generous mood. While diverse in their doctrines and dogma, each of these religions shares one thing in common: A works-based form of righteousness. The adherents to these religions live under the repressive pressure of a performance-based system that demands constant and unwavering compliance to a set of rigid and unrelenting standards.

Paul and his fellow apostles had to constantly deal with the problem of legalism infiltrating the churches to whom they ministered. It was only natural for those who had converted to Christianity from pagan religions to carry the baggage of their former faith system into their relationship with Christ. They were used to practicing a religion that was based on rule-keeping and rife with prohibitions of all kinds. So, they were naturally attracted to any form of teaching that provided them with a list of rules to follow and activities to avoid. This made them particularly susceptible to the teachings of a group that later became known as the Judaizers.

The word, Judaizer, first appeared in Paul’s letter to the believers in Galatia. Paul describes an encounter he had with his fellow apostle, Peter. It seems that Peter had been freely associating with Gentile believers in Antioch until a group of Jewish believers from Jerusalem showed up. Paul states that “when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party” (Galatians 2:12 ESV). The presence of these Jewish Christians from Jerusalem caused Peter to avoid the Gentile converts because they were uncircumcised and, therefore, ceremonially unclean. The Jewish Christians were demanding that all converts to Christianity must submit to all the requirements of the Mosaic Law, including circumcision. Essentially, they were teaching that the Gentiles were not truly saved because they were living in violation of the law. But Paul, a Jew, and a former Pharisee would have none of it.

“…when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” – Galatians 2:14 ESV

The Greek word is ioudaikōs, and it means “after the manner of the Jews.” Paul was appalled that Peter was demanding that Gentile Christians be required to “Judaize” or live according to Jewish commands and customs. The doctrine of the Judaizers was a mixture of grace (through Christ) and works (through the keeping of the Law). The Jews who had shown up in Antioch were teaching, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1 ESV). And this forced Paul and Barnabas to travel all the way back to Jerusalem to appear before the apostles and the elders. The matter for discussion was the teaching of the Judaizers, and Paul pulled no punches in confronting this dangerous heresy.

“Brothers, you all know that God chose me from among you some time ago to preach to the Gentiles so that they could hear the Good News and believe. God knows people’s hearts, and he confirmed that he accepts Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he cleansed their hearts through faith. So why are you now challenging God by burdening the Gentile believers with a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors were able to bear? We believe that we are all saved the same way, by the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus.” – Acts 15:7-11 NLT

According to verse 16 of Colossians 2, this was the very same teaching that had infiltrated the church in Colossae. Paul lists a variety of different topics that have a decidedly Jewish feel to them: Teachings concerning the consumption of food and drink, rules concerning feasts and new moon celebrations, and the keeping of the sabbath. Someone had obviously been teaching the Gentile members of the local congregation that there was more to their newfound faith in Christ than just belief. They were going to have to alter their behavior to accommodate a whole host of religious rules and rituals.

But Paul strongly refuted the idea of adding anything to their faith Christ alone.

“…these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality.” – Colossians 2:17 NLT

As a Jew, Paul knew that these things had been designed by God to serve a vital but temporary purpose. Paul assured the believers in Galatia that the law had been given by God but that it had fulfilled its primary purpose. Now that Jesus had come, adherence to the law was no longer required to attain a right standing with God.

Before the way of faith in Christ was available to us, we were placed under guard by the law. We were kept in protective custody, so to speak, until the way of faith was revealed.

Let me put it another way. The law was our guardian until Christ came; it protected us until we could be made right with God through faith. And now that the way of faith has come, we no longer need the law as our guardian. – Galatians 3:23-25 NLT

And Paul wanted the believers in Colossae to understand that they were not subject to anyone’s teaching regarding additional requirements or rules concerning salvation.

Don’t let anyone condemn you by insisting on pious self-denial or the worship of angels, saying they have had visions about these things. – Colossians 2:18 NLT

Their right standing with God was not based on what they did or didn’t do. It was based on the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. Upon placing their faith in Christ, they had been imputed His righteousness. What was true for Paul was true for them.

I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. – Philippians 3:9 NLT

Paul was a staunch defender of the faith, who was willing to hold all those who taught a different gospel or a different Jesus accountable for their actions. And he declared that those who were attempting to mislead the believers in Colossae of being “puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind” (Colossians 2:18 ESV). 

Not only that, Paul insists that their errant teaching separated them from Christ and His church. Their false doctrines concerning salvation actually made them an enemy of the gospel. They were doing more harm than good, and diminishing the unity of the body that Christ’s death had made possible.

Paul reminded his brothers and sisters in Christ, “You have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the spiritual powers of this world. So why do you keep on following the rules of the world?” (Colossians 2:20 NLT). They were becoming distracted by rules that declared, “Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t touch!” (Colossians 2:21 NLT). But these kinds of prohibitions were man-made and destined to fail. Laws can regulate human behavior but are incapable of changing the heart.

These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires. – Colossians 2:23 NLT

Paul revealed the true purpose of the law to the believers in Galatia.

Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised. – Galatians 3:19 NLT

And Paul went on to point out that the law was never meant to provide salvation. It declared the kind of righteousness God required and revealed mankind’s incapacity to live up to God’s holy standards. And Paul makes it painfully clear that rule-keeping had never been the means by which man could be saved.

If the law could give us new life, we could be made right with God by obeying it. But the Scriptures declare that we are all prisoners of sin, so we receive God’s promise of freedom only by believing in Jesus Christ. – Galatians 3:21-22 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.


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