COLOSSIANS #22: THE DANGERS OF RELIGION

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We have died to the basic principles of this world. We don’t have to perform well in order to be accepted by God. Instead, we simply have to trust Jesus, and trust what he has done to us, for us, and with us. Even the apostle Paul was no better than us, and had nothing that we don’t have. All any of us have is Jesus. We can’t add to what Jesus has done, and no one can take Jesus away from us.

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Colossians #22. Colossians 2:20-23

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 2:20-23, ESV)

Remember, Paul is still talking about the big picture of legalism. Legalism is like a ditch on one side of the road of true Christian discipleship. People who fall into the legalism ditch are all about performing correctly. When push comes to shove, deep down, they don’t completely trust the grace of God given in Jesus Christ. They may not admit it, but they often believe that they are better than other people because of how they behave. They don’t admit it, but they think they can earn God’s love and favor by doing the right things, and avoiding the wrong things. Now, the tricky thing is, we should behave differently once we receive the grace of God through Jesus. But our changed behavior should be the result of the work of the Holy Spirit in us. It is the result of trust in Jesus, not trust in our ability to perform well. It should not make us proud, or make us feel superior to others. It should not be a basis from which we look down on others, or try to control them. It should result from surrender to Jesus, rather than a desire to be in control.

This is our third and final week looking at the dangers of legalism. Paul reminds us that through faith, by grace, we have buried with Christ in baptism. We are dead to sin, dead to the world, and dead to the way the world does things. Every other religion in the world is based upon how we perform. But Christianity is unique in that is based upon the performance of Another: Jesus Christ. We trust HIS performance, not our own.

Verse 20 says that we died to “the elemental spirits of the world.” The Greek word used for “elemental spirits” has another possible translation, and I think the context shows us here that it should probably read: “elementary principles of the world.” The principles of this world are that you need to do certain things in order to get certain results. This is not always wrong or bad: it is often the way the world works. If you want money, you need to do something in order to get it: for instance, get a job. If you want people to be kind to you, you should probably be kind to them. If you want to pass a test at school, you ought to make sure that you know the material. Paul is not saying that these elementary principles are always wrong and bad. But this is not the way to get the Life that is offered to us in Jesus Christ. If it was, we would be doomed, because, born as we are with a sinful nature, we cannot do what it takes to make ourselves holy and acceptable in God’s eyes. The life that we have in Jesus does not operate that way. It is a free gift, through faith. And Paul is saying this: “If you think that fasting, and treating your body harshly, and denying yourself ordinary things will somehow make you more pleasing to God, you are still trying to approach God by the principles of the world.”

This is another road-and-ditch situation. The elemental principles of the world are helpful for living the life we must live in the world. But they cannot be applied to the life of faith in Jesus; certainly not without serious reflection and adaptation.

I want to speak to one specific way that people apply “the elementary principles of the world” to Christianity where they should not. Some people think we control our own futures by the words we say. People who believe this will say things like: “God spoke the world into being, and we are made in the image of God, therefore we speak our future into being. So, we have to be very careful what we say.” Such people are terrified that if they say something negative or depressing, their very words will make the negative thing come true. They think that if they speak only good and positive things, their life will be filled with that. They are trying to apply the “elementary principles of the world” to following Jesus. “If we say the right things, good things will happen. If we say the wrong things, bad things will happen.” There is nothing Biblical or Christian about this idea. The current form of it comes from a book called The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale. People have tried to “adapt” it to Christianity, but it doesn’t work with the Bible. It sells us the illusion that we are in control, and if we just say and think the right things, we can have all we want in this life, and avoid anything unpleasant. Instead, the bible teaches us that God is in control, not us.

Paul mentions some other ways people try to apply the elementary principles of the world to Christianity: fasting and other types of severe voluntary deprivation. Fasting, and self-discipline are useful and helpful things for spiritual life – if they are understood properly. Let me use the specific example of fasting. Fasting, by the way, normally means “purposefully going without food.” I have engaged in fasting in the past, and I’ll probably do it again in the future. The reason I fast is to remind myself that I need God even more than I need food. The hunger pangs remind me that he’s there, and that I need him. They also remind me to pray. When it is a “good fast,” the result is that I have a deeper experience of my dependence upon God. But when it is not working for me, I quit fasting, and eat, even if the time I planned for wasn’t up yet. Used in this way, fasting is a useful kind of self-discipline.

However, if you fast because you think it will increase your holiness, you are applying the principles of the world to your relationship with Jesus in a way that is insulting to Jesus. You are believing that somehow humbling yourself through fasting can add to the holiness that you have been freely given in Jesus. The logical progression of this thought is that Jesus did not actually do enough to make you holy, and you are making up for the lack. So, you are not humbling yourself at all, but putting yourself above Jesus!

Fasting is good if you use as a means to remind your flesh that it is going to die someday, and remind your spirit that it is whole and complete in Jesus. Any kind of self-discipline is useful that way. But the minute you think you are earning some kind of holiness or goodness by your works, you are actually sinning in your pride. The minute you think it makes you somehow better than Christians who don’t fast, you are in trouble.

If someone is fasting (or engaging in some kind of self-discipline like that) for the right reason, it will bring them closer to Jesus, but it will not make them proud. Instead, they will feel their dependence upon Jesus even more deeply. They might tell others that there is benefit in doing such things, but they will never insist that others do such things.

If someone is fasting for the wrong reasons, they are likely to be proud of it. They might be passive-aggressive in how they approach it, but they will leave you feeling guilty for not doing what they do. They will often insist upon things that the Bible itself does not insist upon. They fast because it makes them feel holy, or better than others.

I think there are many things we might put in the same category as fasting. For instance, kneeling when you pray. If you kneel because it helps you remember the glory and holiness of God, then good. If you kneel because you want to glorify God through kneeling, then bend those knees! But if you kneel because it makes you feel more pious, or because you think you have to, or because you think everyone ought to, there is a problem. If you kneel because you think it makes you seem holy, your kneeling might even be offensive to God.

Paul wrote elsewhere about people who try to control themselves and others through self-discipline apart from the Holy Spirit:

1 Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, 2 through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, 3 who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:1-5, ESV)

Paul himself fasted on several occasions. He engaged in many types of self-discipline, and he even refrained from getting married. But he never insisted that other people should do those things. He found that those things helped him as he walked with Jesus. But he never thought that they made him more holy, or better than anyone else. Paul said this:

7 I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. 8 Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ 9 and become one with him. 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. (NLT, Philippians 3:7-9)

Paul says in our text today that if you try to control things through harsh self-discipline alone it actually has no value in controlling the impulses of your sinful flesh. Sometimes the Holy Spirit may lead you to fasting, or other kinds of humble behavior. When it is the Spirit doing so, then it is a good thing. But if it is about getting God to do what you want, or about relying upon yourself, or about feeling or looking more holy, Paul says it is both pointless, and even demonic. Certain types of people like to appear holy and righteous to others, and they want to use their religion as a way to look down on others, and even to make others do what they wish. For such people, things like fasting or harsh self-discipline are actually gratifying to their sinful flesh.

So what do we do with all this? Some of us may know people who put pressure on us to appear religious in certain ways. They think we should worship or pray the way they do, or fast, or observe certain festivals, or keep the Sabbath, or any number of things that the Bible neither commands, nor forbids. We do not have to listen to such people. They are free to fast if they want to, but if they use their fasting (or whatever it is they do to seem religious) to make it appear that they are more holy than you, or to put pressure on you, it is likely that they are actually sinning, even though they are doing religious things.

I want to make sure, however, that you read the next few messages after this one. There is another ditch, on the other side of the road, and we will talk about that soon. This is not a blank check to go out and party sinfully, and indulge your sinful flesh. The point us, some people indulge their sinful flesh by abusing religion. Don’t be like them, and don’t listen to them. Don’t let them judge your or disqualify you.

We have died to the basic principles of this world. We don’t have to perform well in order to be accepted by God. Instead, we simply have to trust Jesus, and trust what he has done to us, for us, and with us. Even the apostle Paul was no better than us, and had nothing that we don’t have. All any of us have is Jesus. We can’t add to what Jesus has done, and no one can take Jesus away from us.

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