The Deadliest Form of Legalism

“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 … but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (vv. 20–23).

- Colossians 2:16–23

Having been transformed by the grace of God and given a new desire to obey Him, we who believe in Christ understandably have a desire to keep His commandments (John 14:15). Yet, as we seek to follow our Lord, we must take care not to fall into legalism. Legalism takes several forms. Judaizing legalism, for example, says that our obedience to the law is part of the basis upon which God declares us righteous. However, if we use the law in such a way, we come under God’s curse. After all, only those who keep the law perfectly can be justified by the law, and no sinner can keep the law perfectly (Rom. 2:13; Gal. 3:10–14).

Today we will consider what Dr. R.C. Sproul refers to as “the most common and deadly form of legalism.” This is the legalism that makes human regulations and traditions the measure of true holiness and salvation. Paul deals with this type of legalism in the book of Colossians. The Colossian church faced teachers who developed a heresy that combined elements of Judaism, Christianity, and paganism. These teachers imposed certain ascetic practices and other rules they created on their followers as marks of true salvation. Their goal was to help people deny sin and live lives of righteousness, but as Paul says in today’s passage, these practices “are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col. 2:16–23).

The deceptiveness of this form of legalism makes it deadly. Human beings are tempted to believe that sin is primarily an external problem. Thus, if we can deprive ourselves of certain bodily pleasures, we can fool ourselves into thinking we are advancing in holiness. Just before the Protestant Reformation, church teaching said the holiest people were the monks and nuns because they took vows of celibacy and followed mandatory fasts and rigid rules. Since the Reformation, many groups have taught that true holiness consists in not drinking alcohol; not smoking, dancing, or watching movies or television; and so on. But those are not the marks of holiness according to Scripture. Holy people bear the fruit of the Spirit—“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22–23). It is possible to follow man-made traditions and yet not bear any of those spiritual fruits. By making traditions the mark of holiness, we can fool ourselves into thinking we have evidence of saving faith in our lives when all we have is external conformity to non-divinely inspired regulations.

Coram Deo

John Calvin comments, “The worship of God, true piety, and the holiness of Christians, do not consist in drink, and food, and clothing, which are things that are transient and liable to corruption.” God is not interested in mere externals but in transformation that conforms us heart, mind, body, and soul to Christ. Let us seek not to impose man-made traditions on ourselves or anyone else.

Passages for Further Study

2 Kings 17:19–20
Matthew 15:1–20; 23:1–12
Luke 20:45–47

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.