Legalism

Paul writes to the Church in Colossae with some staggering, powerful words that are worth lingering over in prayer

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 cancelling 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.
 – Colossians 2:12-15

It is worth spending some time noting Paul’s flow of logic in these verses. Paul has six steps that powerfully explain the work of Jesus on the cross. We will outline them below in an interpretative paraphrase, as we hope to see Paul’s flow of argument in the text.[i]

  1. Through a believer’s faith in Christ, the powerful working of God raised that person from the dead.
  2. This was and is important because every single person, in their natural state, is completely dead. We needed to be raised from death to life.
  3. But there is great Gospel news for you who believe. God made you alive “together with him.” Wonderful, glorious, magnificent, transforming truth. But the question remains, how did God do this?
  4. He did it by forgiving all our sins. Our sin is utterly, completely, totally forgiven. But how you might ask?
  5. The wonderful Good News is that our sin is forgiven because God cancelled the record of debt that stood condemning us, along with the legal implications of that. We had all accrued a long list of criminal activity against God’s law, and there was a penal consequence to those actions. But God cancelled the debt and the penalty. But how?
  6. He set it aside, the penalty is no longer ours to pay. The debt is no longer ours. God moved it. He set it aside. But to where? – the answer is, he nailed it to the cross. Just when those nails were driven through the hands and feet of Jesus, so to was the penalty and punishment of our sins. We are totally forgiven because Jesus died for us, in our place, and took upon himself the penalty for our sins.

We find in these verses a vivid reminder of how Jesus’ death brought about our forgiveness and reconciliation. This connection is heightened when we see in Colossians 2:13 a similar structure to the powerful reminder of the reconciliation brought about through the death of Jesus[ii] that we find in Colossians 1, which says:

“He has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him”
– Colossians 1:22

In addition, we find in the Gospel of Jesus powerful layers of reconciliation beyond our understanding. Consider the reflection by David Pao on the verses from Colossians 2.

“For individual believers who respond positively to Christ, such reconciliation provides complete and final forgiveness of sins. In cosmic terms, Christ’s death and resurrection bring about universal reconciliation”.[iii]

But then, we can note Paul has a pastoral and practical outworking. As he goes on to say in the next verse in Colossians 2:16 “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”. Paul is keen to note that, because of the substitutionary death of Jesus, its cosmic significance, its bringing about of our reconciliation and forgiveness, Paul discusses this and says “because of this” let’s think about the practical outworking of what this means for us. Critically, because of the work of Jesus, Paul then reminds the Colossian Christians to ensure that they remain free from legalism and reject every attempt to move away from the impact of the substitutionary death of Jesus in their lives.[iv]

Certainly, it seems strange to us that anyone would have qualms about food, drink and festivals. But when the New Testament was written, this had a number of practical aspects. One of them was to do with being excluded from the Church, and just like we spoke about in the last chapter, Church unity would suffer because of these issues, with some being excluded from the Church because of food, drink and festivals.[v] But the bigger thing we need to focus on here is the fact that all of these things are no longer necessary because of the Gospel. Food, drinks, festivals, and worrying about them all, it is all fulfilled and eclipsed in the death of Jesus. Keeping the rules and laws is no longer what is going to define the people of God. In a word, legalism and the constant striving after a right relationship with God is no longer a concern for those who put their faith in Jesus. Consider the words of Tom Wright as he sums up Paul’s point here.

“Can you sense the sigh of relief the Colossians may have experienced on being reassured that they were already complete in Christ and didn’t need anything else, just more of what they already had? Have you ever come under pressure to ‘add’ to your Christian experience? Do you know the same sigh of relief yourself?” [vi]

Imagine being someone like the apostle Paul, who spent all of his life trying to earn a right relationship with God. He tells us in Philippians 3 of his religious heritage, his upbringing, his training, education, law keeping, his passion for the law, his knowledge of the Bible. A whole life spent putting together a resume that God would look at and be pleased. But then, when he realized the truth of the Gospel and what Jesus had done, he was able to look at all of that and call it rubbish! A whole life of legalism eclipsed by the surpassing power of Jesus. The practical outworking of this in Paul’s life was fundamental, total, life changing.

            But the same is true of us. Because of what Jesus has done on the cross, bearing our sin, removing our debts, becoming a curse for us, being pierced for our transgressions, turning away God’s anger at sin, because of the cross it changes everything. Grace changes everything. But, Christian, think about what this means for your prayer life, Bible reading, worship, evangelism, Church attendance, discipleship, right living and so many other things. The reasons why we do any of these things are fundamentally changed. They are all wonderful things, but we do them in response to the Gospel, not as a replacement to the Gospel. We don’t go to Church, pray, and tell people about Jesus to try and earn our own way into heaven. What the Gospel reminds us is that none of us are saved because of our religious works. In fact, many people may be lost because of their religious works. It’s only when we, like the apostle Paul, lay down our striving and receive the gift of grace God holds out freely to those who put their faith in the substitutionary death of Jesus for them. Like the hymn writer says:

Cast your deadly doing down—
Down at Jesus’ feet;
Stand in Him, in Him alone,
Gloriously complete.[vii]

Of course, you will find very few people advocating for legalism in your life. But, for many of us, this basic sense of serving God out of duty rather than delight can subtly creep into our hearts and minds. Let’s think about prayer, which I think many of us can approach within a legalistic framework. Prayer is, at its essence, conversation and relationship with the Father. Now, I want you to imagine this. The person on earth I am probably closest to is my wife. I love talking with my wife. But imagine I came home from work and sat down opposite Rachel and said “Hello wife. I know you want to talk to me. I know I really should talk with you! I’ve had a very busy day, and I’m really tired. You don’t seem to be working in my life as I kind of expect you would. Where are you? I need you to help with my work, help my mum, and my brother. I’m tired and I’m off to bed. Good night.” Now, if I spoke to my wife like that, it probably wouldn’t be long until I was sleeping on the couch. My conversation with Rachel is all about duty and its all about me. It’s not about delighting in her or talking with her.

            The same is true about God. Many are the times I have approached God in the same way! “Hello God, I know I really should pray. I know its what I should do. I’m really tired, can you help me with my problems at work and save some people. I’m tired and I’m off to bed, Good night.” Our prayers are probably not that shallow, but often I find myself not far off that. Maybe you do to? The problem is, when we pray like that, it shows us that our relationship with God is all duty and no delight. It is legalistic praying. We pray because we feel guilty, or we feel like we should, or we want something. But the focus of our prayer should be our delight and desire for God. But if you want to move away from legalistic praying to a deeper level of intimacy and relationship, it’s not about willpower! It really is not about willpower at all. Its about the Gospel. When you see yourself adopted and accepted on the basis of the death of Jesus, on the cross, in your place, then you will begin to understand prayer. I remember when we moved into a new house we had to pay for someone to come and put in a phone line. There was a few days wait, and then a mornings work, then after that I was able to phone anyone, anywhere in the world. There was a little bit of effort and I was connected! The Gospel teaches us something very different. God didn’t go through a minor inconvenience to connect us to the Father. Jesus didn’t come from the next village to help us out. It didn’t cost Jesus a mornings work to bring us into relationship with the Father. It cost his life. When you see God as the initiator, God as the one who paid the ultimate price and God as the one who came from heaven to earth to bring you into relationship, that will transform the way you think about prayer. God has done everything, and we need to earn nothing. There is no duty required, only a compulsion to delight more and more in the glories of God.

Application Questions

  1. Can you see any trends towards legalism in your own life?
  2. How does the Gospel impact your prayer life, Bible Study, fellowship, discipleship, evangelism, and every other area of your walk with Jesus?
  3. What barriers are we guilt of putting up that stop people coming to Jesus?
  4. Why should Christians pray, study the Bible, attend a local Church, and witness to Jesus?

A Prayer

Loving Father help me to overcome the deadly stain of legalism in my life. God, would you help me to understand more fully the depths of the grace of Jesus, and how you have lavished that grace upon me. Help me to lay aside my striving and good works based religion and help me to embrace by faith the new life that Jesus brings. Thank you that you have made me alive with Jesus, by forgiving my sins. Thank you that you removed my sins and the legal consequences of them by nailing them to the cross. Hallelujah. Amen.


[i] The basic outline here, with some alterations along the way, follow the basic reading of this text given by John Piper, https://www.desiringgod.org/labs/the-heart-of-the-christian-faith (May 2016).

[ii] D. J. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), pp. 205–206.

[iii] D. W. Pao, Colossians and Philemon, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), p. 330.

[iv] A. G. Patzia, Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), p. 61.

[v] N. T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 12, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1986), p. 123.

[vi] Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), p. 172.

[vii] From the hymn “It Is Finished!” by James Proctor

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