Legalism: The Gospel of Good Works (Sermon)
Do you remember the tsunami that devastated Japan in 2011? The tsunami killed nearly 16,000 people, destroyed more than 150,000 buildings, and caused a major nuclear accident.[i]
What you may not have heard about was a tiny village of eleven families that survived the tsunami with no damage or loss of life. The reason they survived was because of a stone tablet displayed on a hillside near their village. The stone tablet has a warning engraved on it, “Do not build your homes below this point!” The village listened and escaped any damage.
That stone tablet is one of hundreds of tsunami stones, some have been around for over 600 years, that dot the Japanese coastland. They serve as warnings about the danger of earthquakes and tsunamis. Many of these stones were ignored as modern Japanese built closer to the coast, trusting new technology to spare them from disaster.
A historian from one of the prominent Japanese universities said, “The tsunami stones are warnings across generations, telling descendants to avoid the same suffering of their ancestors. Some places heeded these lessons of the past, but many didn’t.” Another author described what often happens, “As time passes, people inevitably forget, until another tsunami comes that kills 10,000 more people.”[ii]
It’s easy to ignore and overlook ancient warnings. Time progresses, society advances, and we forget the lessons of the past. We fail to remember until disaster strikes. Eight verses in Colossians stand as ancient warnings. These verses, like tsunami stones, warn us of dangers that can destroy lives and wipe out whole communities of Christians. They warn us about three false gospels that have constantly surfaced in the life of the church and caused untold destruction—they are the dangers of legalism, mysticism, and asceticism.
Because they’re ancient, we have a tendency to ignore the warnings. We forget until a wave comes that destroys us and those we care about. As we study these three dangers over the next three weeks, let’s be like the tiny coastal village who listened to the warning and escaped damage.
The first warning is found in verses 16–17. It’s a warning about legalism—the gospel of good works:
(Colossians 2:16–17 ESV) 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. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.
This is how we’re going to tackle the false gospel of legalism this morning. First, I’m going to define legalism. Then we’ll explore the situation in Colossae to see what form legalism took, and finally, we’ll end with some self-evaluation to see where legalism has taken root in our hearts.
The word legalism is thrown around a lot in evangelical Christian circles, but what does it mean? What is legalism? John MacArthur defined legalism simply as “the religion of human achievement.”[iii] The core of legalism is a denial of grace. What happens to me is not based entirely on God’s unmerited favor, but it is in some way dependent on my good works. There’s a cause and effect relationship between my works and the way God views me.
Maybe the simplest way to define legalism is this: legalism is when I base God’s approval of me on my good works. If I do this and this and this, then I keep God happy. If I don’t do this, God’s unhappy, and I’m in trouble.
The temptation to turn God’s approval into a checklist is evident in both Christians and non-Christians. All religions other than Christianity are based upon legalism. Their premise is that if you do certain things, then God has to respond in certain ways.
If you’re a good person, God has to accept you.
If you pray five times a day facing a certain direction, Allah is pleased.
If you don’t eat meat and you treat others kindly, you’ll produce good karma.
If you attend mass and confession and are confirmed, then God’s anger will be diminished.
Christians fall into this same trap. Though we’re saved entirely by God’s grace, we start to operate as if his favor is dependent on our good works. We think, “If I read my Bible 5 out of 7 days, God won’t get angry with me.” But if something bad happens, we scan our short-term memory to figure out how we messed up, so we can quickly confess it, and God will take the bad things away.
It’s this tendency in Christians toward legalism which caused the apostle Paul to rebuke the Galatian church.
(Galatians 3:2–3 ESV) Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?
“How did your Christian life begin?” Paul asks. “Was it based on the good works you did or on the grace of God? Why are you operating now like God’s favor depends on your good works? If good works didn’t save you, why do you think good works will perfect you and protect you?”
Situation in Colossae
We see this tendency toward legalism here in the church in Colossae. How was legalism was surfacing in the Colossian church?
(Colossians 2:16 ESV) 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.
Apparently someone was condemning Christians for their works. They were condemning them for what they chose to do and what they chose not to do. We don’t know if the critics were inside the church or outside of the church. We aren’t told if they were Christians or non-Christians. What we do know is that some person (or people) were condemning Christians for their participation in certain activities and their lack of participation in other activities.
Something similar happened in two other New Testament churches. In Paul’s letters to the Romans and the Corinthians he addressed infighting among the members. Christians were condemning other Christians for what they were and were not doing. He uses the very same word—judgment—a number of times in Romans.
(Romans 14:3–4 ESV) Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?
What was happening in Rome and Corinth and here in Colossae went beyond simple criticism (which still would have been wrong). They weren’t just critical of other Christians, they were pronouncing God’s judgment on them. They were climbing the divine bench, putting on the black robe, sitting in God’s judgment seat, and saying, “Christian, God is angry with you right now. He’s very unhappy. You better fix it!” Sounds like a church you’d want to be part of, right?
Verse 16 lists five activities that were the basis of their condemnation. This list is not exhaustive but illustrative of the mindset of the legalist. We can break the five into two general categories. Christians were being condemned for what they consumed and what they celebrated.
The critics didn’t like the dietary habits of some of the Christians in Colossians. We’re not told the exact issue—all we know is that it has to do with what they ate and drank.
We find three major controversies over food and drink in the New Testament.
First, there were controversies about whether or not food was clean or unclean.
Second, there were controversies about whether Christians could eat food offered to idols.
Third, when Jesus ministered in Israel, He was constantly criticized for who he ate with. The religious leaders were scandalized by the fact that Jesus had dinner with prostitutes, thieves, and sinners.
We don’t know which one of these issues was bothering the legalists in Colossae. It really doesn’t matter. The point was that they were boiling God’s favor down to a checklist. “You ate the wrong thing. You ate with the wrong person. You’re in trouble. God condemns you. To keep God happy, you better watch what you eat and who you eat it with.”
Jesus had already cleared up the issue that a person’s standing before God is not based upon certain religious activities. The Pharisees (they were the legalists of His day) condemned Jesus’ disciples for not properly washing their hands before eating, but Jesus told them what defiles a person is what comes out of the heart, not what goes in the mouth. Jesus declared all foods clean (Mk. 7:19). The legalists in Colossae were repeating the error of the Pharisees. They condemned Christians for failing to check each box on their man-made, man-centered religious checklist.
Not only did the legalists focus on what they consumed, they also focused on what they celebrated. In their opinion, Christians needed to celebrate the special religious holidays, festivals, and feasts found in the Old Testament. These OT special days fell into three categories—annual feasts, monthly celebrations, and the weekly Sabbath. The legalists observed them all and passed judgment on those who failed to observe them.
In both cases, the legalists took away freedom and joy and added burden. They sought to enslave the Christians to human tradition and man-made religion. They equated self-discipline with spirituality. They assumed you could measure a person’s standing with God by how many boxes were checked on their spiritual resume.
Now, you might be thinking that what they did really isn’t a big deal. “What difference does it make? So they want to keep a few traditions or practice a strict diet. So they’re a little critical. Does it really matter?” Yes, and here’s why. Embracing legalism, no matter how small it seems, requires a person to deny the Gospel. There’s only room in a person’s hands for the Gospel or legalism. If you slide even a little legalism into your hands, you displace the Gospel.
Losing the Gospel is Paul’s concern. Notice the very first word in verse 16—“Therefore.” That word points us back—it sends us in reverse. The previous verses were about the glorious work of Christ on our behalf. We were filled in Christ (v.10). We were rescued from death (v.12–13). We were freed from guilt (v.14), and we were liberated from evil powers (v.15).
Listen to what Paul told the Galatians in the middle of their battle with legalism:
(Galatians 5:1 ESV) For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
Legalism is the yoke of slavery. Legalism binds those whom Christ has freed. Christ’s death delivered us from guilt, but legalism tells us we’re still guilty before God and we better do something to fix it. We’re filled in Christ, but legalism tells us we’re missing something, and if we don’t add it, God will reject us.
That’s why Christianity is not a religion of rules. Friend, if you think Christianity is about a list of rules to keep, you’re mistaken.
Christianity teaches us that we’ve already broken God’s rules.
We’re already guilty before Him.
Our guilt is so deep that we cannot fix it by good works.
That’s why Jesus came. He kept the rules. He perfectly obeyed. He chose to die so that we could be spared from judgment. Christianity is about the free gift of God through Jesus Christ. Don’t think you can come to God by living more righteously. The only way you can come to God is by admitting your inability to live righteously. Christianity is for those who can’t keep the rules, who realize it and call out to God for mercy. If that’s you, call out to God right now and He’ll save you. Don’t wait and try to clean yourself up before coming to Him.
(Colossians 2:17 ESV) These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.
Legalism overlooks Christ. It undermines the sufficiency of Christ’s work on the cross. Legalism keeps people in the dark, refusing to let them enjoy the warmth and light of the sun.
If you’ve ever made a shadow puppet, you know there’s a big difference between a shadow and the real thing. Old Testament festivals and dietary laws had a purpose, but they weren’t the real thing. Like a shadow, they pointed to the existence of something else…something real. They pointed ahead to Jesus Christ and His work on the cross. By insisting that Christians keep the Law, the legalists were focusing on the shadow while overlooking the One who casts the shadow.
Now that we’ve explored the situation in Colossae and seen how legalism was surfacing, let’s take some time for self-evaluation. We’ve read the ancient warning but will we listen? We’re going to walk through a number of questions designed to help us spot legalism in us. As we go through each one, consider your own heart. Has legalism taken root in your life?
Do I evaluate other Christians with a critical, judgmental spirit?
Legalists have a critical spirit. They pass judgment on other Christians. Since they operate on the faulty principle that God’s view of them is based on their actions, their view of others is also based upon outward actions.
A legalist believes they can do enough good works to keep God on their side, so whether they realize it or not, they’re boasting in their good works. The natural outflow of this type of self-righteousness is to compare their works and decisions to those of other Christians. The end result is criticism. And this type of criticism erodes the foundation of grace that upholds a church. This type of criticism leads to crack which eventually cause a church to collapse.
It’s arrogant legalism which causes a Christian to point out sawdust in another Christian’s eye when they’ve got a 2x4 sticking out of their own eye (Matt. 7:1–5). If my heart is being constantly flooded with grace, I will extend grace to others. But if I nurture self-righteousness, then I will view others with a critical spirit.
Do I find myself retreating to “manageable” Christian living?
Because legalism denies grace, it has to find a way to accomplish the Christian life by human strength. So it turns life into a checklist that is manageable (be careful what you eat and drink). It boils spiritual maturity down a series of good works that can be accomplished through effort and willpower.
That’s seen in churches where the members want their pastor to legislate every aspect of their life. The pastor tells them how long the men’s hair should be, how long the women’s skirts should be, what movie ratings are acceptable, what music should be outlawed, and what colleges their children should attend. Now the Christian life is more manageable. You don’t have to trust God or rely on His Spirit. All you have to do is keep your list.
It’s a far cry from what the apostle Paul does when discussing gray issues with the Roman church. He doesn’t tell them whether or not it’s okay to eat the meat offered to idols. Instead he says “each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5). You do the work! You study the issue! You meet with other members for counsel! You pray about it! You trust God! You ask him for help!
The result is genuine maturity. You develop a depth of wisdom. Self-righteous legalism is always shallow. It can only deal with surface problems and offer cosmetic solutions. Only grace can reach the deep parts of the heart. Only grace can conquer your pride, your self-reliance, and your rebellion.
Do I help people find rest in Christ or add more burdens?
The legalists in Colossians were adding burdens to the Christian life. Jesus called people to come to Him so they might find rest (Matt. 11:28–29). Are you pointing people to Jesus who will deliver them from their burden of guilt and shame or are you adding to their burden a list of works they must accomplish?
When Jesus ministered on earth, He constantly chose to heal people on the Sabbath day. One of the reasons He did so was to expose the legalism of the Pharisees. They had turned the Sabbath into a burden, restricting what could be done, including helping people. They got angry when Jesus broke their Sabbath rules to meet the needs of those who were hurting and helpless.
Jesus told them the Sabbath was meant to be a blessing for the people, not a burden (Mk. 2:27). God had created it so they could rest, not toil under a crushing set of regulations.Grace says, “Listen to God to find rest in Christ.” Legalism says, “Listen to God to keep Him happy.” When you encourage people to obey God, how do you do it? Do you remind them of the rest they can find in Christ or do you burden them with guilt?
What is my motive for obedience?
Good works should mark the Christian life. In that way, the legalist is right. Turn back to Colossians 1. Because of our position in Christ, we should (v.10) be “bearing fruit in every good work.” So we don’t respond to a legalist by minimizing good works.
Instead we look to the heart—the motive behind our good works. Legalism sees good works as a way to manipulate God.
If I do good works, then God will keep bad things from happening to me.
If I do good works, then God will accept me.
If I do good works, then God will forgive me for the bad things I do.
We think our actions force God into a corner where He has no choice but to bless us. Bad works, like eating or drinking the wrong thing, free God to punish us.
The Gospel encourages us to obey God because it brings true joy. The Gospel points to our new nature and teaches us that good works fit who we’ve been made in Christ. Our motive for good works is that the glory of Jesus would be displayed more clearly through us.
Do I look to the Bible or tradition as my authority?
Can’t you almost hear the legalist’s criticism of the Colossian Christians? “What? You’re not going to celebrate Passover. It’s been celebrated ever since Moses was here, and you’re going to skip it?” Or maybe, “We’ve never gone to the pagan temple to buy meat. It’s off-limits.”
Jesus told the Pharisees—you have left the commands of God and hold to the traditions of men (Mk. 7:8). You’ve rejected the Word of God in order to establish your tradition (v.9).
If God’s approval is a checklist, then you will create more and more boxes that need to be checked. Because if five checkboxes make God happy, then imagine will fifty checkboxes do. So people condemn all kinds of things in the name of tradition. Each tradition is assigned a spiritual value, and maturity is the sum total of boxes checked.
Brothers and sisters, this can happen to us as a church. Ten years from now, we might say, “If a church is serious about discipleship, they’ll have weekly small groups.” Or “If a church wants to be faithful, they’ve got to use the ESV.” What have we just done? Turned commitment to Christ into a checklist. Tradition isn’t wrong, but making tradition our authority is. And a church built on tradition cannot stand firm when storms come.
Is my focus outward conformity or inward transformation?
Each of the criticisms in verse 16 is an outward action. In other words, the legalists were boiling the Christian life down to the issue of outward conformity. But God is after the heart. When He chose David to be king over Israel, he bypassed all of the other sons of Jesse—those who looked better on the outside—and chose the one who had a heart after His. God is concerned with inward transformation. Has the heart of stone been changed into a heart of flesh? Are the passions and desires holy? Is sin being killed and holiness embraced?
Legalism demands outward conformity. In fact, legalism really loves uniformity. A legalist thinks everyone should look like them, think like them, and behave like them.
What about you? Parents, it’s easy to fall into legalism with your children. It’s easy to focus on outward conformity instead of inward transformation. It’s easy to focus on behavior and ignore the heart. But we’re not after 21st century Pharisees, are we? We can get so busy plucking bad fruit that we never nourish and cultivate the root of the tree.
Is my focus on what I have done for Christ or what Christ has done for me?
Colossians is a remarkably Christ-centered letter. Paul’s concern was that we would understand who Christ is, what He has done, and how He transforms everything. While it does tell us how to live as Christians, the focus of the letter is not what we do for Jesus, but what Jesus has done for us.
Here are a few truths from chapter 1: Jesus qualified us for an inheritance (v.12). He rescued us from a tyrant (v.13). He transferred us to a kingdom (v.13). He redeemed us through His sacrifice (v.14). Chapter 2: He filled us (v.10). He delivered us from death, from guilt, and from evil powers (v.13–15). The focus throughout is on Christ’s work for us. Only then do we find any mention of how we respond.
What is your focus? When you lay your head on the pillow at night and review your day, is your day measured by what you accomplished for Christ? Do you find security in the good works you performed? Or is your confidence in what Christ has done for you?
When you meet with someone for discipleship are you always talking about what they need to do? Or do you remind them of what Jesus already did? Do you point them to the rugged cross and empty tomb?
When you discipline your children do you obsess over their failures or do you bathe them with the grace found only in Jesus?
I fear that many Christians have slowly turned their focus from their Redeemer to a list of rules, a list of requirements, a list of regulations. Brothers and sisters, don’t spend your life in the shadows of self-righteous rule-keeping. Live in the light and freedom of the Son.
A year before the tsunami that devastated Japan, a tsunami struck the Indonesian islands. It leveled villages, and left hundreds dead or missing. But the damage didn’t have to happen. Six years earlier, special buoys were placed miles offshore to alert the islanders to a coming tsunami. But these buoys, which were meant to warn of danger, didn’t work. Their sensors failed and the result was destruction.[iv]
The islanders thought they were safe. They thought it wouldn’t happen to them, and they paid the price. Brothers and sisters, this passage is our warning, both individually and as a church.
We must not shrug it off.
We must not ignore it.
We must not think we are immune.
We are constantly bombarded by the waves of legalism. We must listen to the warning. We must remain vigilant. We must guard against the false gospel of good works.
This sermon was originally preached at Redeemer Community Church on August 11, 2019.
[i] From 2012 National Police Agency of Japan report, accessed at http://www.npa.go.jp/archive/keibi/biki/higaijokyo_e.pdf on 5/17/2013.
[ii] Martin Fackler, “Tsunami Warnings, Written In Stone,” The New York Times, April 20, 2011.
[iii] John MacArthur, Colossians & Philemon, TMNTC (Chicago: Moody, 1992), 116.
[iv] Smithsonian Magazine, "Did Broken Buoys Fail to Warn Victims of the Mentawai Tsunami?" (October 28, 2010)