Legalism has been described as a list of things one should and shouldn’t do, and, by adhering to that list God will bless us. It reduces spirituality to morality. Is there anything wrong in aspiring to Biblical standards? No, as long as we understand that adhering to standards does not cause us to grow spiritually nor does it cause God to bless us. Every spiritual blessing already belonged to us at the moment we believed. All we have to do is live in light of that reality. How is that accomplished?

For a believer, dominion of the sin nature died with Christ. To have new life the old life must die. Because our sin nature died with Christ (though our new natures continue to war with it during this life), we have the new life Christ’s resurrection makes possible. Our new life in Christ is empowered only by another gift, the Holy Spirit – something an unbeliever cannot have, no matter how moral.
Series:Colossians (2011)
Duration:53 mins 19 secs

What is Legalism? Colossians 2:20-3:7, Romans 6:1-22


One of the themes that has often been distorted, misunderstood, in some cases abused, in the teachings of the Scripture on the Christian life has to do with this concept of being crucified with Christ. Other passages in Scripture, passages such as what Jesus says, that if we want to follow Him we must deny ourselves, take up our cross daily and follow Him. Other passages that Paul uses talk about putting to death the deeds of the flesh, putting to deeds the deeds of the sin nature, reckoning ourselves dead to sin. So often when we read and hear these things, either due to an over familiarity of the passages we don't really stop and think about what they mean, or too often they have been presented within the context of a legalistic approach to the Christian life that leaves us recognizing that it is just another superficial understanding of the Christian life, a wrong understanding of the Christian life, or it is just another kind of gimmick that really doesn't seem to work in o9ur life and we are still fighting the same battles that we always fought.

It is important to understand these passages because they all connect. Another problem that we have that comes across in this kind of study is that too often under a rather narrow, restricted view of pastoral ministry, or the pulpit ministry more precisely, of what it means to teach or preach expositionally is that pastors tend to focus on just what a particular set of verses says without recognizing that that is like one piece of a jigsaw puzzle or one piece of a mosaic and we really need to understand all of the other pieces and how they all relate together in order to get the picture. The Scriptures aren't written like a systematic theology where Paul is writing to one group or another and says this is all you need to know about the Christian life in these next eight verses or nine principles or ten principles. We have in the Scriptures, as it were, pictures or snapshots. In Romans 6, Colossians 3, Galatians 5, 1 John, Ephesians 3, 4, 5 different snapshots that all have to be put together to really understand everything that we have been given in Christ and how we are to think. Because one thing that comes across again and again and again in these passages in the fact that the writers of Scripture all come back to saying words like "know this, understand this," or "reckon yourselves dead to sin," as Paul says in Romans 6:11, which really means to think in these terms consistently. So how do we put this together? This is what we are trying to do as we look at the real heart of Colossians which is the verses between 2:5 to the beginning of chapter four.

One thing we should address before we really get into the topic itself is the question of what is legalism. What exactly do we mean when we use this term "legalism"? Sometimes people think that any time somebody comes along and says, "You are a Christian and you shouldn't do that," that they are being legalistic. Well the apostle Paul said a lot of things in the imperative mood that said you should do this and you shouldn't do that. It is not legalism, it has to do with setting the standards in the lifestyle of a believer. There are some difficult passages in 1 John that say that if you are born again you don't sin. How do we handle a verse like that: that if you are born from above you don't sin? All of these mandates should be understood in light of an analogy: that you have a father, the head of the household who has set down a behaviour code for his family, and this is how people in this family conduct their lives. And if you break those standards then you might hear the father say this isn't how our family lives, you don't do that if you are a member of this family. He is not saying that you are not a member of the family; he is saying that you are not acting of living like a member of the family; you are not following the code of conduct that should be the standard for a member of the family. That is how Paul and Peter and John and others in the New Testament really address the Christian life; they have laid down a code of conduct that we should aspire to. We are going to fail. That is why we have 1 John 1:9, not so we can get out of jail free, as it were, ahead of time and say, Okay, even if I sin it's no big deal. It is a big deal because there is always divine discipline and consequences whether we want to admit that or not. But it is a way of recovery because God knows that we still have this nasty thing called a sin nature and we are still going to sin. 

Until the day we die we are all going to struggle with sin because there is, as Paul explains in Galatians 5:17-19, this war that we have going on inside of us because although we have been given a new nature we still have that old nature, the sin nature. The sin nature wars against the spirit and the spirit wars against the sin nature, and that is the way it is going to be until the day we die.

Legalism isn't saying that there are standards or absolutes for the Christian life, it is a wrong approach to those standards. By defining it legalism is at root the idea that a person's behaviour influences, motivates or causes God's gracious actions in justification (salvation) or spiritual growth. It is the idea that what you do is somehow the basis for God's blessing—either giving you salvation or in the spiritual life various blessings that go along with the spiritual life in terms of spiritual growth, that it is my behaviour or your behaviour that is the real cause of God's blessing. That is what legalism is.

Example: There is the person who is saying I need to pray every day. That is in a system of thought that says if I don't pray every day God is not going to bless me, this is what is going to cause spiritual growth. I need to read my Bible every day, and if I don't read my Bible every day God is not going to bless me and He is not going to do anything in my life. That person is wrong because he is approaching it from a legalistic concept. He thinks that those things he does, no matter what they are, is what really motivates God. On the other hand, there is the believer who understands that it is all based upon God the Holy Spirit working the Word of God in his life. He still needs to make these decisions but he does it by means of the Spirit, and it is all based on grace and God has already blessed him with every blessing in the heavenlies; therefore he can't do something to get more blessing, he already has them all. He just has to realise them in his own experience.

The grace-oriented believer is not going to get bent out of shape when he fails because he understands that that is not the basis for blessing. The basis for blessing is the work of Christ, the righteousness of Christ he possess, not his own righteousness. We call that being grace oriented. It is not legalism. And this person realises that he needs to pray every day because that is our lifeline to God and the Scripture says we are to pray without ceasing. But he doesn't do it for the same reason the legalistic person does it. This person realises he needs to read his Bible every day, not because by reading his Bible every day is going to get God to bless him—it is not some spiritual good luck charm or rabbit's foot—but that by reading his Bible in fellowship under the ministry of God the Holy Spirit he is going to be reminded of all the wonderful things that God has done for him, provided for him, and he is going to be encouraged and strengthened as God the Holy Spirit uses the Word in his life to remind him of what he should do. They are both saying we need to do the same thing but one is doing it for a legalistic for a legalistic reason, the other is doing it our of grace orientation. 

So legalism is not the same as identifying oughts and ought-nots in the Christian life; it is not the same as saying Christians shouldn't do X, Y or Z or that they should do A, B, and C. That is not legalism. What legalism is, is making non-Scriptural mandates necessary—like saying, I don't smoke, I don't chew, and I don't go with girls that do—and I'm more spiritual! The Bible doesn't say anything about those things. What often happens in churches is there is this wrong approach to the oughts and the ought-nots of the Christian life. They often make non-Scriptural mandates absolutes.

Legalism in  the spiritual life may emphasise the same absolutes—lie pray, read your Bible, go to Bible class all the time—but it does it in the power of the flesh. The spiritual life as we understand it does many of the same things by the power of the Spirit. What legalism does is reduce the spiritual life to nothing more than a morality system, a sort of pull-yourself-up-by-your-own bootstraps approach to the Christian life.

But when we get into the heart and soul of what we are teaching this morning we should understand that this is not legalism. This is how we are to think as we are in fellowship, walking by the Spirit, being filled by means of the Spirit, walking in the truth, and abiding in Christ. When we sin we get out of fellowship and we are not doing any of those things anymore but we can fool everybody, including ourselves, by a pseudo spirituality that is simple morality generated by the flesh. This was the problem with the Galatians. Galatians 3:3 NASB "Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh [sin nature]?" They had bought into the same legalistic idea from the Judaisers who came through there who said it was okay that they had trusted Christ as their saviour, but now that they were saved they needed to be circumcised and to follow the Mosaic Law, and if they didn't then God was just not going to bless them. There was no understanding of the role of God the Holy Spirit.

The problem that Paul was dealing with in Colossians was that what they had decided to do was look at various systems of legalism that came out of a mysticism background, Greek philosophy background, mystical Jusdaism background, and they had incorporated that as the standard for the Christian life. In essence what Paul was saying is they had cut themselves off from Christ, the head of the body. They were trying to live as if they were alive and drawing their sustenance from the head but had been spiritually decapitated because, in the language of Galatians, they were trying to reach maturity by the flesh. By cutting themselves off from Christ they were not under the authority of Christ, they were not receiving nourishment from Christ, they were not going to receive their spiritual growth from Christ, they were not going to receive strength from Christ, and this was going to put in jeopardy all future rewards, privileges and blessings in the kingdom.

What Paul is saying is that there is a solution. When you recover you have to understand and put into practice in your thinking certain things. You have to understand your position in Christ. That is fundamental in Paul's thinking. Paul is saying if you don't understand what you have in Christ then you are just never going to get very far in the Christian life. It is not complicated but you have to understand that we have already been given these things in Christ, these possessions are ours; we don't have to reform our life so that God will give them to us. They are ours and we just have to learn how to implement them in terms of our thinking. We have to lean to live in light of their reality and develop a mindset based on that reality and then, as he puts it, we need to put to death the sin in our life. And that is the question: what does this mean, to put to death the sin in our life?

Now we want to emphasise what is meant by putting to death and having already put to death the sin nature—this putting to death terminology, that we have been crucified with Christ. In Colossians 2:11, 12 Paul reminds them that we have been buried with Him in baptism. Since God isn't in the business of burying live people we recognise that burial follows death and so what is implied by being buried with Him in baptism is a preceding death which is our identification with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection which is part of what is referred to in Scripture as the baptism by means of the Holy Spirit. In Colossians 2:20 Paul says, NASB "If you have died [and you did] with Christ …" Then in Colossians 3:3 he says, "For you have died …" There is no "if" clause here, he is stating the reality of that—"… and your life is hidden with Christ in God." Then he says in Colossians 3:5 NASB "Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry." If I died, why do I have to put to death the members? That is that tension we see in Scripture that some people don't see. It is the difference between our positional reality, i.e. of the fact that we have died to the sin nature. But the reality is that it is still there, it is just that the tyranny of the sin nature has been broken and so experientially we have to put to death the deeds of the flesh in an ongoing manner as part of our spiritual life. This is related to the idea of putting off the sin nature and it is going to be explained further in Colossians 3:8ff.

Identification truth is understanding what we have in Christ. Because in the Acts of baptism by means of the Holy Spirit we are identified with Christ in hi death, burial and resurrection so that we are one in Christ, we have put Him on, we are intimately and integrally united with Christ. We can't be separated at all. This our position in Christ and what Paul is referring to in Colossians 2:20 NASB "If you have died with Christ [and you did]…" Then in Colossians 3:3 NASB "For [because] you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God."

Why did we die with Christ? Because we were crucified with Him. We are identified with His crucifixion, so intimately that we are said to have died to everything that went before we believed on Him. Paul comes to a conclusion: Romans 6:8 NASB "Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him." So death has an implication of new life. That is what Paul is going to develop, especially when he gets to Romans chapter eight. Notice the similarity in the language with Colossians 2:20 where he says, "If you died with Christ." Same phrase. So if we connect these two passages, because they are both talking about the implications of having already died with Christ when we are identified with Him through the baptism by means of the Holy Spirit, Paul says in Colossians 2:20 NASB "If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees [regulations]?" Paul had regulations, but they are not the same regulations. They regulations Paul had are done within the framework of walking by the Spirit. In Romans chapter six Paul says, [11] "Even so consider [think]" –logizomai [logizomai] which means to reason from a conclusion. "…yourselves to be dead to sin." What Paul is basically saying here is to logically (on the basis of what he has just taught) reason to the conclusion in your mind that you are dead to sin and that a separation has occurred in relation to your obedience to the tyranny of the sin nature. And not only to yourselves to be dead to sin, that is the negative side. But consider yourselves to be "alive to God in Christ Jesus." Notice it is part of being in Christ. Live on the basis that you are now alive; you were dead before.

So what are we to do? Romans 6:12 NASB "Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts." That is the physical body. The physical body, as Paul develops on into Romans chapter eight, just doesn't connect with spiritual truth. Because the sin nature is in the body it has to be controlled by your mind implementing the realities of your spiritual position in Christ. So Paul says don't let sin reign in your mortal bodies. That's not legalism. If we want to grow and experience the full life that God has for us in the Christian life then this is what we have to do. We can't just continue to sin and then confess it and say we will be in fellowship, and we are not going to worry about making those hard decisions to not do what really appeals to me and what my sin nature drives me to do. We can't let the sin nature reign, we have to let Christ and the Word of God reign in our life and thinking. We have to obey the Holy Spirit and the Word of God rather than the sin nature. Those are the options.

Romans 6:13 NASB "and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin {as} instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members {as} instruments of righteousness to God." That is a hard thing to do.

The key word that we find throughout Romans 6 has been this idea of death and crucifixion. Paul says it a little differently in Galatians 5:24 NASB "Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires." This is a place where some people have just sort of mis-stepped a little bit. If we look at Galatians 5, starting at verse 16, we have a command to walk by means of the Spirit. It is in the present tense. And if we look at every verb all the way from verse 16 to the end of the chapter—which is all about the spiritual life and what it means top walk by the Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit—every verb is in the present tense, because it is always talking about our present walk with Christ until we get to verse 24 which is a past tense verb. Some try to argue that this isn't a present tense use of the aorist. We have to disagree with that because it stands out in this whole flow of verbs. The emphasis here is on the crucifixion of the flesh that occurred at the baptism by the Holy Spirit. So if we are Christ's then that has already occurred and this is related to what Paul had said earlier, "I have been crucified with Christ." But in Galatians 2:20 it is a passive voice; in 5:24 it is an active voice. Some have tried to make a distinction there and have said that in Romans 6 and Galatians 2 it is passive, that our flesh is crucified—God performs the action; we have received the benefit of it—but Galatians 5:24 is an active voice verse so it ought to be understood differently because we are the ones performing the action.

But there are many other places where Paul uses the same thing. We are the cause of this action because it is the instant that we put our faith and trust in Christ that is what dominoes that chain of events that occurs that begins with the baptism by the Holy Spirit. My volition is engaged when I believed Jesus Christ died on the cross for my sins. It is that choice that dominoes because God is going to instantly baptise me by means of the Holy Spirit. So in that sense I cause that crucifixion with Christ but it is really God who does both those things. 

Paul goes on to say in Galatians 5:25 that this is done by walking in the Spirit. If we live in the Spirit—that's that new life that we have because the old man has been crucified with Christ—let us now walk by means of the Spirit. This is the temporal reality. We are to walk by means of the Spirit, Galatians 5:16. This is the word peripateo [peripatew] which focuses on a lifestyle. But when we get down to Galatians 5:25 it is a different word, a word that means walking step by step, following a path. It is often used of troops marching in ranks. So it is emphasising the walking not so much as a lifestyle but as a step by step, following the guidance of the Holy Spirit through God's Word.

Back in Romans 6:13 Paul had said, "Don't present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead and your members [physical body] as instruments to God." When we skip to the end of the story in Romans eight to pick up the final part of what Paul says on the spiritual life, he says, Romans 8:11 NASB "But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you [and He does], He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you." That is not talking about resurrection life or future life in terms of resurrection or rapture, it is talking about experiencing the full life, the abundant life, that we are to have in Christ here and now in our mortal bodies. How do we do that? Through the Spirit. Not by going out and making ourselves more ethical and moral but by learning to walk by means of the Spirit, and in the power of the Holy Spirit then we make these other decisions to implement the mandates of Scripture in our life.

Romans 8:12 NASB "So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—[13] for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die [carnal death]; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live." This is not talking about being saved and going to heaven when we die, it is talking about having that real, rich, full spiritual life right here and now. Paul uses here the Greek verb thanatao [qanataw] to put to death the deeds of the body, but in our passage in Colossians 3:5 he says, NASB "Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry." There he uses the word nekrao [nekraw]. In the ancient medical world they used the word nekrao to refer to flesh or body parts that no longer functioned. Today we use the term "necrotic." Flesh that has died has become necrotic, it is no longer useable. This is the idea that Paul has here: putting to death the deeds of the body; put to death the members that are on the earth. Putting to death the deeds of the body: that physical expression of the sin nature. In other words, we are putting to death or killing off something, to assassinate something, to send out a search and destroy mission from our soul by means of the Holy Spirit to destroy the practices of sin in the body. That just stands for our physical existence, our physical life. In other words, we are to begin rendering the effects of the sin in our life and in our obedience to the sin nature as a necrotic tissue; it no longer functions.

But we don't just go out and do it on our own. That is where legalism comes in. Legalism says we have to do this by don't do this and do this, and we'll be okay. Anybody can do that, and it is miserable. Only the Christian who understands what Paul says can do it in fellowship by the Holy Spirit. Then and only then can it be done, because the Holy Spirit ultimately is the one who makes that happen. We are empowered by Him. That doesn't mean He takes over our volition. We have to say, I am not going to do that; instead, I'm going to walk by the Spirit, I am going to do what the Word of God says to do. I still have to engage our volition and that involves self-discipline.

Some people say that is legalism. But wait a minute. Paul was the one who said that he wanted to run the race (his life) as to win, like a contest. And in order to do that he said he beat his body into submission. That means that he is engaged in a struggle against his sin nature. And as much as he wants to say yes to his sin nature he is going to exercise that discipline and say no, and is going to walk by the Spirit, and the Spirit is going to deal with that and over time that is going to be dealt with.

Matthew 16:24 NASB "Then Jesus said to His disciples, 'If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.'" When Jesus said "If anyone wishes to come after me," He is not talking about going to heaven, He is talking about being a true student of Jesus and implement the Christian life. He says first of all you have to deny yourself. What He means by that is saying no to the sin nature. Then He says, "and take up his cross and follow me." What does that mean?

A lot of the things that Jesus said are not understood by a Greek or Gentile mindset because we don't understand the Hebrew idioms that underlie them, or we don't understand enough about the original context and how these words became idioms in the original historical context. In the Roman empire if you did not submit yourself to Rome and were a criminal by violating the laws of Rome, and you violated those laws in the most extreme manner, then you were punished by crucifixion. In order to assert the fact that you were now being forced to submit to the authority of Rome, and to warn others who may be tempted to rebel against the authority of Rome, the criminal was required to carry his cross to the place of execution. It was the sign that he had now been forced to submit to the authority of Rome, and you had better not rebel or this is what is going to happen to you. So taking up your cross became an idiom for submitting to authority. All Jesus us saying here is that if you want to follow Him, just as Jesus submitted to the authority of the Father you have to submit to the authority of Christ. We have to do what the Bible says to do, basically. That is what taking up the cross means. You have to follow God's plan for your life, which means to do what the Word of God says to do and not do what it says not to do—just like Jesus followed the plan of God which meant going to the cross and dying for our sins. And it is there that that power of sin is ultimately broken.

So it is not legalism to deal with sin in our life. We never compromise the standard. We hold up the standard high but we also recognise that we are always going to fail and God knows we are always going to fail, and God is not giving us an unrealistic goal, He is giving us an impossible goal because we can't do it. But the Holy Spirit can and only when we walk by the Spirit are we then empowered to make the choice to obey the Lord. That is what it means to take up the cross daily.

This gives us the full-robed foundation for what the Scripture teaches on moving forward in the spiritual life.