Asceticism: The Gospel of Self-Denial (Sermon)
For a couple of years in my childhood, my family lived near Amish country. People loved to visit the area and purchase furniture, eat meals, buy apple butter, and drive behind horse-drawn buggies. They found something compelling about the simple, rustic life of the Amish people.
The Amish are known for their extreme separation from the modern world. The women wear homespun dresses, white aprons, and bonnets. The men grow long beards, wear hats and overalls, and work the land. They reject many modern conveniences, like cars and electricity.
The Amish have a tradition called rumspringa, which literally means, “running around.” When an Amish youth turns 16, they are given the freedom and encouragement to go out and investigate all of the forbidden pleasures of the modern world. Here’s how one author described rumspringa: "It’s a season of doing anything and everything you want with zero rules. During this time—which can last from a few months to several years—all the restrictions of the Amish church are lifted. Teens are free to shop at malls, have sex, wear makeup, play video games, do drugs, use cell phones, dress however they want, and buy and drive cars. But what they seem to enjoy most during rumspringa is gathering at someone’s barn, blasting music, and then drinking themselves into the ground."[i]
I was shocked when I first heard about this tradition. But I was even more shocked when I learned that 80–90% of Amish teens return to the Amish church and life after rumspringa.[ii] The simple life—cut off from the world, denying oneself of many of the comforts and conveniences of our culture—drew them back. They returned to the safe, cozy confines of the Amish world.
There can be something appealing, even comforting, about radical self-denial. That’s why the apostle Paul warns the Christian church about the danger of asceticism at the end of Colossians chapter 2. This is the third and final ancient warning issued by Paul to this church.
The first warning was about legalism—the gospel of good works.
The second warning was about mysticism—the gospel of deeper experience.
This morning we’ll listen the final warning—a warning about the danger of asceticism.
Before we read this warning (in verses 20–23), let me remind you that these aren’t three separate and distinct issues. It’s not as if three different groups were all targeting the Colossian church, trying to kill it. False teaching was creeping into the church seeking to take Christians captive that included all three errors: legalism, mysticism, and asceticism. We’ve studied how to identify the first two errors, let’s read this text to understand how to identify and avoid the final error—asceticism.
(Colossians 2:20–23 ESV) 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.
What Is Asceticism?
If we’re to identify and avoid asceticism, we need to first understand what it is. So what is asceticism? Asceticism is the gospel of self-denial. Notice the apostle Paul calls it “submitting to regulations” (v.20), characterizes it as a list of prohibitions (v.21), and connects it with harsh treatment of the body (v.23). Asceticism preaches a message that true spiritual benefit is found in self-denial. The spiritually mature are those who deny themselves the most. If a person is unwilling to engage in rigorous self-denial, then they aren’t serious about pleasing God.
He gives three examples (look at verse 21). “Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t even touch!” He repeats the commands in a burst of staccato—rapid like gunfire. Paul is portraying the false teachers as spiritual drill sergeants. He’s mocking them. “These big bullies are scared of you picking it up. Scared of you putting it in your mouth. In fact, they’re scared when you touch anything at all.” The prohibitions progress in both strictness and silliness. Do you remember our observation from last week that false teaching always accelerates? The ascetic starts by forbidding you to hold something and doesn’t stop until you’re not even allowed to touch it.
Did you ever visit a museum on a field trip when you were in school? You walked around looking at these dusty old exhibits. The artifacts were behind glass. The glass was behind a velvet rope. The velvet rope was behind a sign that said, “Do Not Touch.” Museum workers were tracking your class like a hungry owl watches an injured mouse. Every 10 seconds your teacher would turn around and remind everyone, “Remember, no touching.” Asceticism says the same thing: “Don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t even touch!”
We don’t know exactly how asceticism was manifesting itself in Colossae. It has appeared in various forms throughout church history, like excessive fasting, celibacy, cloistering, sleep-deprivation, even self-mutilation. One author explained: "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 (c.390-459), who spent the last thirty-six years of his life atop a fifty-foot pillar. Simeon…thought the path to spirituality lay in exposing his body to the elements and withdrawing from the world."[iii]
In a different letter, the apostle Paul warns Timothy about asceticism (1 Tim. 4:3). He said some would depart from the faith, forbidding marriage and requiring “abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.” The ascetic takes God’s good gifts and says they’re off-limits. They obsess about material and physical things—what you wear, what you eat, what you enjoy—and they develop restrictions. At their root, the ascetic is anti-joy. If it makes you happy, it must be wrong!
Doesn’t that remind you of some of the conversations Jesus had nearly 2,000 years ago? He was condemned for inviting sinners to dine with Him (Luke 15:1-2). He was scolded because His disciples didn’t fast (Luke 5:33-34) But Jesus didn’t adhere to the man-made restrictions invented by the religious elite.
Human beings are always tempted to turn favor with God into a checklist. The checklist for the ascetic is filled with human prescriptions that all start with the word “Don’t!” They think they’re spiritual, yet they focus all of their energy on man-made requirements and worldly restrictions. They have a fascination with what doesn’t last.
So, asceticism is the gospel of self-denial. You may be thinking about that statement and asking, “Wait, are you saying self-denial is wrong? Doesn’t Jesus tell us to deny ourselves? In fact, when He calls us to follow Him doesn’t He require us to deny ourselves?” Jesus did talk about self-denial. In fact, he said:
(Matthew 16:24 ESV) “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
Self-denial is included in the call to follow Jesus. But in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, self-denial is not an end in itself. The only reason Jesus calls us to deny ourselves is so that we can follow Him! As Christians, we deny ourselves, not for the sake of self-denial, but because we desire something greater.
Think of it like this: If you’re going to go out to a fancy dinner in the evening—let’s say a real nice steak—do you snack on crackers and chips all afternoon? No. You avoid them because you want to be hungry when the steak comes. You deny the lesser food so that you can enjoy the greater food.
Jesus calls us to deny ourselves so that we can follow Him.
We don’t deny ourselves to gain His favor.
We don’t deny ourselves so that we earn points.
We don’t deny ourselves because it garners merit.
We only deny that which keeps us from following Jesus. We deny spiritual snacks so that our true spiritual hunger will be satisfied in Christ.
Asceticism says self-denial is the goal. Christianity says Jesus is the goal. For the Christian, abstinence is not an end in itself. We abstain only when we’re holding out for something greater. We abstain from getting drunk because we want to be controlled by the Holy Spirit. We abstain from pornography because we want to love that which is truly beautiful. Christian abstinence is denying lesser pleasures for the sake of lasting pleasures.
C. S. Lewis captured it perfectly when he wrote: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” Christian self-denial is saying no to the mud pies in order to vacation at the sea. Asceticism is saying no to the mud pies and the vacation at the sea!
Asceticism always emphasizes the negative. Its favorite word is “No!” and favorite command is “Don’t!” We used to play this family game called Taboo—maybe you remember it. You were given a card with a word on the top and 5 words listed below it. Your goal was to get your teammates to guess the word on the top of the card. But you weren’t allowed to say any of the 5 taboo words. For instance, if the word was chocolate, the 5 taboo words would be things like cocoa, Hershey’s, milk, sweet, and candy. The best part of the game was the buzzer. It was about the size of my palm, with a big button and an annoying sound. If the clue-giver said one of the 5 taboo words, you got to push the button, usually right in their face, for way too long, trying to aggravate them.
Ascetics love to make things taboo and buzz you when you fail. They revel in the negative, marking things as off-limits, and condemning those who cross the line. Sam Storms captured this in his definition of asceticism: "Asceticism is the belief that if you add up enough physical negatives you will get a spiritual positive."[iv]
Brothers and sisters, are you focused on the negative? Do you view the Christian life strictly in terms of self-denial? Are you constantly saying, “No” and “Don’t”? Beware the danger of asceticism. Don’t embrace a gospel that makes self-denial the goal.
What’s Wrong with Asceticism?
If someone wants to practice extreme self-denial, what difference does it make? Is asceticism a big deal? Yes. I want to give you three reasons asceticism is dangerous.
Asceticism fosters an attitude of self-righteousness
(Colossians 2:23 ESV) These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body,
If someone is denying themselves comfort and pleasure and doing it in the name of God, it’s hard to question their commitment. In fact, we’re likely to applaud them. “Wow, they’re serious about following God. They’re serious about obedience. They’re not apathetic.”
Asceticism is tempting because it makes us appear wise. Now you need to ask: do I want to appear wise or do I want to be wise? Asceticism doesn’t make a person wise. Wisdom doesn’t flow from self-denial. Wisdom governs self-denial. Wisdom teaches us when to deny ourselves for the sake of something greater and when to enjoy the good gifts of God with thanksgiving. Asceticism only appears wise.
If we’re honest, appearing wise may be enough for us. We want people to think we’ve got it figured out. We want people to marvel at our commitment…to be impressed by our total dedication to God. Do you see how that promotes self-righteousness? We deny ourselves. People think we’re wise. We believe them. We glory in our “humility.”
Look back at verse 8. We’re warned not to be taken captive by philosophy. Philosophy comes from two words, phileo which means love and sophia which means wisdom. Don’t be taken captive by those who claim to love wisdom. Someone may come to you, giving the appearance of wisdom—sounding wise, looking wise, claiming to be wise—offering you a system of man-made wisdom. They bait you with flattery. They appeal to your ego. They convince you that you will be wise, and people will be impressed.
Have you noticed that all three dangers—legalism, mysticism, and asceticism—foster an attitude of self-righteousness?
Legalism boasts in keeping the rules.
Mysticism boasts in spiritual experiences.
Asceticism boasts in self-denial.
Each of these false gospels turns our focus from the work of Christ to the work of man.
Brothers and sisters, the current of self-righteousness flows through all false teaching. Every religion focuses on what we do. Only the Gospel of Jesus Christ focuses on what was done for us. Because they promote self-righteousness, each false teaching is evidenced by a critical spirit toward other Christians.
V. 16—Legalism passes judgment…
V. 18—Mysticism disqualifies…
V. 21—Asceticism scolds and condemns…
You can always discover false teaching by employing the test of criticism. The Gospel never fosters a harsh, critical, judgmental spirit toward others. The Gospel brings discernment, concern, warning, even confrontation, but never a hyper-critical attitude. If you discover that attitude in yourself, you can be sure that somewhere in your heart false teaching has taken root. You need to dig it out with the spade of the Gospel. You need to remember who you were apart from Christ—you need to see your rebellion and helplessness—and you need to rehearse the grace of God in rescuing you.
The Gospel will never cause you to look down on someone else. False teaching always…always causes you to look down on others, because false teaching caters to your natural bent toward self-righteousness.
Asceticism has no power to change the heart
(Colossians 2:23 ESV) but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
Why do you sin? Jesus said you sin because you have a heart that doesn’t love God (Mt. 7:15–20). You have a heart full of fleshly or worldly desires. Your sinful actions, attitudes, and words are reflections of your fleshly, sin-producing heart. From the heart flow the matters of life (Prov. 4:23). From the heart flows sin. If the problem is a heart of sin, then what good will more rules do? Rules never create righteous desires. Rules never produce lasting morality. No rule has ever transformed a person’s heart.
Friend, if you’re not a Christian, I wonder what your opinion of Christianity is. Do you think Christianity is about keeping a list of rules? Do you think Christianity is about submitting to a series of “don’ts”? Christianity is not for those who keep all of the rules. Christianity is for those who finally come to realize they can’t keep the rules. Christianity is for those whose eyes have been opened to their inability to abide by God’s commands. Christianity is for sinners and rule breakers. That means Christianity is for you…and for me.
All of us are rule-breakers. We have all sinned against God and have failed to obey Him. Our sin condemns us to death and judgment. Jesus came and kept all of the rules. He—the only righteous one—died for us who are unrighteous, so that His righteousness could become ours. He took our sin and our judgment on Himself and offers us a full pardon. He doesn’t tell us to clean ourselves up or get our act together. He simply invites us to come as we are—sinful and rebellious—and be forgiven. This morning He’s calling you to come to Him. Will you?
Coming to Jesus and following Him is not about keeping rules. Rules can’t change the heart. Asceticism is based on rule keeping, and rule keeping is 100% ineffective in transforming a person’s life. If rule keeping worked then those places with more rules would produce holier people. Does that happen?
The town I grew up in was very Roman Catholic. In the center of town was the cathedral. It was the tallest building in town, with a spire that could be seen from the outskirts of the city. Less than a mile away was an old monastery. Years earlier, the cathedral housed nuns. Between the old monastery and the old convent a series of secret tunnels had been dug. The tunnels served as rendezvous points for the residents of the convent and monastery, and it wasn’t so they could study the Bible together.
Asceticism has no power to change the heart, and the heart is where sin resides. You can mistreat your body, but the blows of the whip never reach the heart. You can wall yourself off from the world, but the world dwells within. The walls of the monastery can’t keep sin out because sin travels in the hearts of its inhabitants.
An embrace of asceticism is what causes churches to build Christian colonies. They think, “If we can start a Christian version of everything—
Christian drama clubs
Christian radio station
—then we never have to deal with sin. We can keep it at a safe distance. It will remain on the other side of the fence.” One author wrote that asceticism often causes a Christian to “shut oneself up in a purity cocoon.”[v]
Brothers and sisters, we are not called to withdraw from the world, but to engage the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Building a convent, a monastery, or a compound promotes a gospel of self-denial and denies the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The worse the world gets, the more we’ll be tempted to do this. We’ll be tempted to replace the church and our mission to the world with endless Christian activities and events. If that happens, this church will be dead, and in its place will be a club, where we all gather to socialize and feel safe.
Our hope for defeating sin is not a wall or list of rules, but radical inward transformation. This is our message. Our message is not join the club, but come to Jesus and have your life radically transformed by His power and grace. Look back at verse 11:
(Colossians 2:11–12 ESV) 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.
Brothers and sisters, in Jesus Christ we died to sin—our sinful flesh was cut off and nailed to the tree. We were raised to walk in new life. We don’t need a list of rules to control our sin. We don’t need a Christian compound to protect us. Our sin was defeated at the cross. We have been given the power in Christ to walk in righteousness and obedience. This is what we remind each other of every week.
Asceticism denies our identity as Christians
(Colossians 2:20 ESV) 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—
When Jesus died, sin’s power was broken. The evil forces of this world were defeated, and we were freed from their control. We are to live as those who’ve been set free. Jesus freed us to live in freedom not slavery.
If we submit to the slavery of asceticism, what does that say about Jesus Christ?
We call Him our Savior, but we have to keep adding rules to keep our sin in check. What did He save us from?
We call Him our Deliverer, but we trust restrictions to protect us from our flesh. What did He deliver us from?
We call Him our Joy, but we’re scared of pleasure and treat it with suspicion. What kind of Joy is that?
We call Him our Lord, but we submit to man-made rules. Who is really Lord over us?
Because we take sin seriously at Redeemer, we may be especially tempted by asceticism. We realize how deadly sin is, and in fear, we could start to embrace rules in order to remain safe. Our motive might be good, but we will have made a serious mistake. Not only are rules ineffective, but we’ve just told the world that Jesus isn’t strong enough to deliver us…that His Spirit inside of us doesn’t have the power to preserve us. On one hand we sing about victory in Jesus, but on the other hand we slander His work on the cross by adding our own effort to what He accomplished. In essence, we’ve said, “It is not finished. We have got to do more.”
Brothers and sisters, we must trust Jesus alone to protect us from sin. Trust Him to keep us walking in righteousness. We don’t need to manufacture artificial rules of holiness out of fear that we’ll mess up. We may mess up, and if we do, Jesus will be there with open arms to embrace and forgive us. But if we trust Him, we may discover His power at work in us in ways we never experienced before. But only because we trust Him, not our rules.
If you as a Christian submit to asceticism, you’re suffering an identity crisis.
You’ve forgotten your Father is the King.
You’ve forgotten whose table you eat dinner at.
You’ve forgotten your new last name.
You’ve forgotten that Jesus died to free you.
Remember who you are and refuse to live as a slave.
Almost every sports team I’ve been on has had a person who loved the spotlight. Often there was more than one of those guys. Sometimes that guy might’ve been me. We had a name for the guy who always tried to get noticed…the guy who made himself the center of attention. We called him a “glory hog.” His goal was to hog all of the glory for himself.
False teaching tries to arouse our inner “glory hog.”
Legalism feeds the hog by creating a manageable checklist for us to follow.
Mysticism feeds the hog by exalting our experience over God’s Word.
Asceticism feeds the hog by boiling Christianity down to an issue of willpower.
Do you see how these false gospels kill a church? They turn the focus of attention away from Jesus. We no longer show up to worship Him, but to be complimented on our good life.
The only way to starve the glory hog inside your heart is to feast on the glory of Jesus Christ. That’s why the glory of Christ is everywhere in Colossians.
Jesus existed before all things.
Jesus created all things.
Jesus is preeminent over all things.
Jesus reigns over all things.
Jesus rescued us, delivered us, made us alive, and brought us into His family.
He deserves every ounce of glory in the universe. “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory both now and forever” (Rom. 11:36). You exist for the glory of Jesus. This church exists for the glory of Jesus alone. See the glory of Jesus Christ. Savor the glory of Jesus Christ. Then and only then will we starve the glory hog inside.
This sermon was originally preached at Redeemer Community Church in 2019.
[i] Joshua Harris, Dug Down Deep: Unearthing What I Believe and Why It Matters (Colorado Springs, CO: Multonomah, 2010), p. 2.
[ii] Ibid., p. 3.
[iii] John MacArthur, Colossians/Philemon, TMANTC (Chicago: Moody, 1992), p. 123.
[iv] Sam Storms, The Hope of Glory: 100 Daily Meditations on Colossians (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), p. 202.
[v] David E. Garland, Colossians/Philemon, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), p. 184.