Message 19, Optional Session: The Sufficiency of Christ:
The Reformers knew that salvation is found in Christ alone. This session considers how this major theme of the Reformation is no less important today, and it looks at what Christ’s sufficiency will mean in the future as we face our culture.
Once again, I’m very thankful for the privilege to be here in this historic conference. And I do thank God for the opportunity. The theme of my talk today is ‘The Sufficiency of Christ’ and I would like to ask you please to open your Bibles to the book on the letter that Paul wrote to the Colossians. Chapter 2, and please just keep it open. We will read the passage as the exposition proceeds. Let’s pray.
Lord please help us as we open your Bible and try to understand it’s meaning. Please open our eyes so that we can see the wonders of your law. Help us, Lord, to understand with the eyes of the mind, and please help us to obey what we learn today. In Jesus’ name, amen.
OK. Now, I ask you please to keep your Bible open as we proceed. We’re going to try to follow very close to what Paul has written here. He addresses in this letter to the Colossians false teaching that scholars have often termed the Colossian — the heresy of Colossae. Of Colossae. And this designation is due to the unique character of that false teaching, and to the fact that it seems to have been located only in that region.
It appears from the letter that this heresy was a combination of elements of Judaism with ascetic and mystical practices all bound up by a primitive and incipient Gnosticism. It’s defenders had managed to infiltrate the Christian churches of Colossae and perhaps the churches of other cities in the same area.
This cult promised fullness and perfection through a certain knowledge or gnosis that had not been revealed before them, not even to the apostles of Jesus Christ. This knowledge was followed by Jewish ascetical and mystical practices and was based on contact with the angels. The Christians of Colossae had begun to give in to these ideas.
Paul then writes this letter in order to prevent them from fully adopting these ideas. His central point in the letter is this: in Jesus Christ, Christians already have all that the cult promised, like wholeness, perfection and full satisfaction in God. In other words, Paul responds to the false teachers by saying that Christ is sufficient, Christ is all they needed.
His response is powerfully presented right in the beginning of the letter where he says this about Christ. Chapter 1:15-20, “He’s the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation. For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities. All things were created through Him and for Him.
And he is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church. He’s the beginning. The firstborn from the dead, that in everything He might be preeminent. For in Him all the fullness of the God was pleased to dwell.” End of quote.
As a result of being united to Christ, believers have perfection and fullness. For Paul, the ultimate knowledge of God is actually in Christ. In chapter 2, verses 2 and 3, he says that Christ is the mystery of God in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Something vastly superior to the gnosis offered by the false teachers. By mystery, he does not mean a novel or anything like that.
He means that the hints that God gave to His people throughout the centuries all pointed to Christ. Things that God’s people do not fully understand in the Old Testament, the hidden truth of God about the Messiah are now crystal clear in the resurrected Christ.
In chapter 2, verses 6 to 7, Paul sets the foundation for everything he will say next to refute them, to refute the false teachers. In short, Paul says in this passage that the believers should live by faith in Christ just as he was justified by faith in Christ in the beginning. He should live by grace by faith based on apostolic preaching, growing in Christ, rooted, built, strengthened and secure in Him. Paul then examines the claims of the false teachers in the light of this principle of living by faith in Christ. Their new religion was based on four concepts that are dealt with by Paul in the letter.
The first one is Gnosticism, this is chapter 2, verses 8-10. Second one is legalism, chapter 2:11-17. Then the third one is mysticism, chapter 2:18-19. And finally, asceticism, chapter 2:20-23. These elements of the Colossian heresy have never actually left the Christian church for good. They were present at the time of the Reformation and they are here now. Let’s look at the way Paul responds to each of them with the sufficiency of Christ.
First, the Gnostic element, chapter 2:8-10. In these verses, Paul addresses what seems to be the Gnostic element of that teaching. I quote, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world and not according to Christ for in Him the whole fullness of the deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in Him who is the head of all rule and authority.” Paul says here, three things about the heresy.
First, it uses empty and false philosophical arguments with the purpose to deceive the Christians. Most probably, their arguments were from the idealistic worldview of Neoplatonism.
Second, it was not according to God’s revelation, but human tradition.
And third, it was according to the teaching of Gnosticism about the elemental spirits of the world. This expression, “elemental spirits of the world” appears in Greek Gnostic writings and means the basic things of the world, but it was used in religious writings later, in Gnostic writings to refer to spiritual beings dominating the heavenly bodies and the destiny of mankind.
It was very likely that this false teaching taught a kind of pagan religion that believed in a world dominated by spiritual beings — beings which imprison man on earth. And in order to overcome this imprisonment, people needed to act in a certain way to comply with certain rules to mortify the body and only then to ascend to God through a secret knowledge that only they, the Gnostic possessed.
Paul warns his readers against those who would take them captive with these concepts. The apostle then goes on to say three things about Christ in this connection. First, in Him the whole fullness of the deity dwells bodily, verse 9. Such a statement was outrageous to those heretics, since they believed in the inferiority of the body. Paul declares that the fullness that they offered, in fact, was manifested bodily in Christ. He is fully God and fully man. Second, Paul says believers have been filled in Him.
That is, in Him, in Christ, believers have been brought to fullness and made complete. And third, Christ is the head of all rule and authority, that is, all power in this world is under Him including all angelic beings. Why would anyone want a religion based on angelic beings if you are united to Christ who is the head of the angels? The Lord Himself who created all things and reigns supreme over everything and everyone including the angels.
These three verses, Paul exposes and refutes the fallacy of the false teaching, about the elemental sprits of the world, and the fullness that would come through them. In Jesus, the fullness of the Godhead lives in bodily form. In Him we have been perfected. The central teaching of the Scriptures and of the Reformation is as relevant today as it was then.
Now, the second element, the legalistic element, chapter 2:11-17. I’ll read these verses. Please follow me. “In Him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised with Him through faith in the powerful working of God who raised him from the dead.
And you who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our trespasses by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame by triumphing over them in him. Therefore, let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or new moon or Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”
In these seven verses, it is possible to find the second set of ideas that Paul battles in the letter, and which was yet another ingredient of that infamous heresy that threatened the church of that city, that is legalism. We can regard this legalism a theory of salvation that adds something to the complete work of Christ. Christian legalists, if we can put those two words together, Christian legalists usually do not deny that salvation is by Jesus.
The problem with them is that they want to add something else to the work of Christ. So it was with the false teachers at Colossae. Some points of this passage reveal that they were preaching the works of the Jewish law as necessary compliment for salvation. Paul speaks of certain circumcision, then he mentions the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands, which is a reference to Mosaic Law. Then talks about eating and drinking, a reference to the Jewish religious diet, and they speak of days of feast, new moon and Sabbath. Dates that were part of the sacred calendar of the Israelites.
The heretics were teaching works of the law, especially circumcision, religious diet, and Jewish calendar, as part of their new religion. However, Paul says that none of this was needed or necessary for those who already believed in Jesus Christ. First he says in verse 11, that the Colossians have already been circumcised with true circumcision, which is the circumcision of the heart.
The removal of guilt and the power of sin. Human hands could not have done that. Second, he writes that believers have already died and raised with Christ in baptism through faith. Baptism was the symbol of this inner circumcision, which is connected to our death and resurrection with Jesus Christ. The Christians at Colossae, therefore, did not need to listen to the false teachers who claimed that physical circumcision was necessary since believers have already experienced what circumcision represents.
Third, after addressing the question of circumcision, the apostle turns to the law of Moses that he refers to as the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands, chapter 2:13-15. The legal demands of God stand against man not because the law is bad, but because man is a sinner. He comes short of fulfilling all the demands of God’s law.
In this law — in this way, I’m sorry, the law becomes a record of our debt before God. For when the law says thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not commit adultery or thou shalt not covet, the law is declaring our debt since we do break all these commands. In short, the law points out our sins, accounts for our debt and puts us in the condition of debtors and guilty under the wrath of God.
So instead of a way for our salvation, as the false teachers said, the law really works against us. We are dead in our trespasses and the uncircumcision of our flesh, says Paul, chapter 2, verse 13. However, in Christ, God made us alive, forgave us all our trespasses and canceled the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. God did this by nailing the record of debt to the cross, verses 13-14.
With these words, nailing it to the cross, Paul creates a mental image as if at the time when the nails came through the hands of Christ, they were also nailing the law, holding to the cross, so that now the record of debt can no longer leave the cross to condemn those for whom Christ died. It is nailed to the cross forever, and with it our debt, our guilt, our shame, our condemnation.
Fourth, the cross represents Christ’s victory over demonic powers. Paul says in verse 15, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame by triumphing over them in him.” You know, the language that the apostle uses here is taken from the military context. When a soldier defeated his enemy on the battlefield, he disarmed him by taking off his protection and all his weapons, then all war prisoners would be tied and taken to the city of the winners.
A big crowd would be there for the triumphant procession and the humiliation of the defeated. It is this image that Paul uses here to speak of Christ’s triumph on the cross over the rulers and authorities, that is the demonic beings or the elemental spirits of the world.
It is as if crucifixion followed by resurrection was the triumphal entrance of the victorious Christ in the heavenly places with the demonic rulers and authorities exposed to cosmic shame before angles and men.
Fifth, the works of the law are just a shadow of Christ, says Paul. As a consequence of Christ overcoming the demands of the law and these spiritual powers, Paul tells his readers, quote “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.” This is 2:16. In other words, let no one condemn you because you don’t keep the works of the law for salvation. And then he adds in verse 17, these are a shadow of the things to come but the substance belongs Christ.
The word ‘substance,’ literally in the Greek is body. And it suggests a fantastic image to explain why Christians should not be judged by anyone for not keeping the works of the law for salvation. The works of the law were a shadow cast by Christ’s body.
Suppose that someone is approaching you from behind. You are not seeing that person. If there is a light behind that person, the first thing you will see will be the person’s shadow coming from behind and projecting itself right in front of you. You won’t be able to tell much about the person just by looking at the shadow, but once that person passes ahead of you, stops and looks at you, then you can see him or her clearly.
You can tell precisely how that person looks like, then you don’t need the shadow anymore. The works of the law were the shadow projected by Christ’s body, as you walk from the Old Testament to the cross. Now, that He came, we have no need of the shadow. We have the substance, the body that projected the shadow, we can see clearly. So, once again, Christ is the answer. His person and His work is the response to salvation by deeds.
The response to legalism. This point was much used by the Reformers as they preach on justification by faith alone, in Christ alone. This kind of preaching remains necessary today. Many different forms of legalism have entered the protestant circles after Reformation, and they seem to have come to stay.
Now, the third element, the mystical one, chapter 2:18-19. I’ll read. “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, 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.”
This is 2:18-19. From what Paul says here, it is clear that the false teachers at Colossae were encouraging the worship of angels. These angels, according to the preachers, were the elemental spirits of the world that would serve as mediators between God and man, according to some late agnostic writings. Those false teachers claimed to have received a vision from God.
Paul completely rejects this kind of claim by saying to his readers, let no one disqualify you using that kind of argument. Disqualifying was what a judge did in a competition. He determined that an athlete could no longer compete for the prize because he was disqualified, unable to compete. So these false teachers taught that Christians were lost because they were not receiving the new vision, the Gnosis. It was as if they were saying “Since you don’t have the knowledge that comes thought these visions, you are disqualified for salvation.”
Paul says to the Colossians that no one should disqualify them, “insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions.” These visions were the basis of the authority of the heretics. They said they had seen something new from God, something that God said directly to them. This kind of claim continues to this day. Many people introduce new ideas in the church, based not on the authority of the Word of God, but rather on what they claim to have seen in dreams, visions or in the hypothetical appearance of the Lord.
This is almost always the argument used by false prophets through history. Paul, however, rejects this mysticism. Mysticism remains in the modern Christian church, though in another form or other forms. The spirituality movement inspired in the mystical experiences and visions of the monks and nuns of the Middle Age — nuns of the Middle Age, is an example of that. We could also site the strong emphasis on visions and revelations that exist in some Pentecostal circles, which serve as the basis for the appearance of concepts and practices that are evidently unbiblical.
And Roman Catholicism continues to accept and spread visions and operations of Mary and the saints. The answer to all these claims is the sufficiency of Christ, His person and His work as already revealed by God in His final Word, the Scriptures.
Now, let me go for the third element of that false teaching, which is the ascetic element. I read chapter 2 from verse 20-23. “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 — “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used) according to human precepts and teachings?
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. This is verses 20-23. It appears that the heretics claim that in order for the believer to progress spiritually, to overcome matter and ascend to God, he could not handle certain things, taste certain foods and drinks, or even touch other things. Those regulations were not from God, Paul says, they were human precepts and teachings.
Paul responds to asceticism first by asking the Colossians why they were subjecting themselves to such ascetic rules once they have already died with Christ to the elemental spirits of the world, this is verse 20. Those ascetic regulations were part of the world of the human philosophies and religions. Christians are already dead with Christ to this world and to its false religiosity promoted by the demonic spirits.
Again, Christ is the answer to the claims of the ascetics. Second, Paul says that all those things prohibited by the false teachers all perish as they are used, verse 22. Paul is referring to the fact that once food is ingested, it is destroyed. Since things are destroyed by use, why should there be a need to abstain from them? What is the practical and spiritual power of this?
And third, Paul says, in verse 23, these regulations 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. Paul admits that ascetical practices do make us look good, spiritual, wise, pious and above the others, but in the end, it is just appearance. Nothing more than self-made religion, self-imposed piety, false humility and self-worship.
And what is worse, these ascetic regulations are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh, end of verse 23, says the apostle. This expression, indulgence of the flesh, sums up all human passions, especially those related to sexual area. According to Paul, regulations created by men don’t have the power to keep them in check.
He’s saying that no matter how many rules we create to mortify our sinful nature, the result will always be the same. For only one thing is effective against the flesh, the cross. The believer’s union with Christ and His death and resurrection is the only way to overcome the indulgence of the flesh. Christ is sufficient for believer in his struggle against sin. By daily fellowship with the risen Lord, through the Scriptures in prayer, we can subdue the flesh and live holy lives.
Now, let me finish by turning to the importance of the sufficiency of Christ in the current culture and religious scenario. I’ll be very brief. Our world is not much different from the world of the apostle Paul. The challenge of the Colossian heresy is not much different from the challenges we face in our world today. Legalism continues to be a threat to the gospel of grace.
Much of the growth of the evangelicals in the Global South is of churches that introduce legalism as part of the message. These churches represent in some places the great majority of Protestants. In many places they are growing impressively. Their preachers adopt health and wealth theology and impose norms and rules and conditions for one to receive God’s favor, whether it be spiritual blessings or material blessings.
The correction for this serious error is the same that Paul taught the Colossians. Christ is sufficient. In Him we have been perfected. In Him, God is fully satisfied and pleased with us.
Eastern religions have also found their way into Western culture. Much of it teaches that the way to self-control, spiritual fulfillment and victory over desires is through denial of certain foods, and other legitimate needs of the body. The body-building culture that venerates the human body and strives for physical perfection is another form of men-centered religion.
Western culture walks more and more in this direction. For all this cultural and religious manifestations of asceticism, the Christian response is the power that flows from our union with Christ to conquer our inner man to master the most basic desires of the flesh. Nothing else has power against sensuality. Only by the power of Christ resurrection can we overcome the flesh, subdue the corruption of our hearts and live in a way that pleases God.
Our struggle against mysticism also continues. The interest and quest for the supernatural grows in the West in the same proportion as secularization, modern science, the Darwinian evolutionism and cultural Marxism have not been able to uproot the yearning for the transcendent from the human heart. They have not been able to erase the image of God in man. Without the knowledge of Christ, many seek answers in Eastern religions, ancient paganism and forms of Christianity that have little or no difference from Gnostic religions.
At the same time, many Christians under the influence of concepts that began with the Pentecostal movement, practice a form of Christianity that is based on visions of angels, audible conversations with Jesus and being caught up to heaven, sometimes even to hell. Many follow leaders who claim to possess direct and exclusive access to the presence of God. These people think that in this way, they will come closer to God and reach higher levels of spirituality. However, this approach to the Christian life has opened the door to all sorts of theological and practical errors as well as opening the door to evil spirits. The Christian response to mysticism is to insist on the complete and perfect work of Christ.
What He accomplished on the cross and in the resurrection is enough to overcome the separation between God in us. United with Christ, we are as close to God now as we will ever be. Through Him we have full access to the presence of God and enjoy privileges of the world to come. This was the message of the Reformation.
I used — I wanted to bring it to you by way of just trying to interpret this passage to show how biblical and how true this message was at the time of the Reformation and how relevant and practical it is for us today. There is always the need to remember Christ is enough. May Him be glorified in us now and forever. Amen.