Tuesday, March 15, 2011
"Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!" Legalism bites the dust.
For many, many years I understood the Christian life to be one defined by a lengthy list of things that I was not supposed to do. For instance, as a student I was not supposed to cheat on my work. Why? Because I'm a Christian and Christians don't do that. As a husband I am not supposed to beat my wife or commit adultery. Why? Because, I'm a Christian and Christians don't do that. In reality these are true statements and they are, indeed, things that I should not do. However, I was missing the greater point and the higher calling of the Gospel. If we look on into chapter 3 of Colossians we see Paul telling us to "set your mind on things above, not on the things that are on earth." He then goes on to give us some examples of what these things are in verses 5-9. Here is what things of the earth look like: immorality, impurity, lust, evil desire, anger, wrath, malice, and so on. These things, the Bible says, we should consider ourselves dead to. So, let me ask this; what do attention do we give to dead things. My wife and I planted a few dogwood trees in our yard a couple of years ago. In surprisingly short order they died. After being completely sure that they were in fact dead I uprooted them and we used them as firewood one beautiful summer evening. Let me assure you, this is the first I've thought of them since.
The problem with seeing the Christian life as a series of rules that must be kept and a list of things not to do is this; we still are giving our attention to those things. The Bible tells us to set our minds on things above and when we are constantly concerned about not cheating, or not sinning in some other way, we are still dwelling on those things. The reason that we are admonished to set our minds on things above is because what we think about and dwell on becomes who we are and how we act. Even with the best of intentions if we are absorbed in what not to do, we are bound to trip on one of those very things we are trying so hard to avoid. This is the fatal error of legalism. If we are so engrossed in what we are not to do and what our neighbor is not to do our focus is not on God, it is on us and how well we can do.
Thankfully, and not surprisingly, the Bible does not leave us hanging on this matter. First of all, Paul gives us some examples of what setting our minds on things above looks like. In verses 12-17 he tells us that we should be focusing on things like humility, compassion, forgiveness and love. The beautiful thing is that the ultimate source and expression of these things is found in Christ alone. Furthermore, Jesus tells us in Matthew 6 that we are to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, then all of these other things will be added to us. The message is clear. If we ever hope to live the Christian life the only possible means is by setting our eyes on Him and not, what Paul calls, "self-made religion." Let me be sure that I am perfectly clear on this matter. To be sure, there are many things that we should not do as followers of Jesus Christ and the Bible speaks plainly about these things. However, the way to avoid them is not to keep our eyes on them but to keep our eyes on Christ, who "is seated at the right hand of God." This flies in the face of our earthly nature and everything that we know from human experience. In our world, if we want to avoid a hole in the ground we have to keep our eyes on it and carefully skirt around it. Not so in God's economy. In God's way to avoid the pitfalls we must take our eyes off of them and lock them on Him. Then He will guide us around them as we are focusing on His will and His ways, indeed, the things above. I see two major reasons for this:
1. This is an exhibition of our faith. The Bible tells us clearly that we walk by faith, not by sight. Hebrews 11 shows us that faith is something that God honors and is honored by.
2. If we fix our eyes on God and trust Him for our guidance and life then there is no other recourse that to give Him the glory for our triumphs and victories. If we depend on ourselves to avoid sins and pitfalls then we have every reason to boast in ourselves. This is not God's will. According to 1 Peter 2:11-12 this also becomes part of our witness to the world. When they see us living a holy life, directed by the Almighty, then it is clear how we are doing it. Not only can't we do it ourselves, but we can't even begin to take credit for it. All the honor and glory goes to God.
The result of all of this is that we live totally abandoned to God alone. We give up on trying hard to live up to His standard, cast ourselves on Him completely and live in the true freedom that Christ came to give us. Yes, holiness is a crucial component in the Christian life, legalism is not. Legalism focuses on the things of this earth and not the things above. It has "the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body," but it is "of no value against fleshly indulgence (Col. 2:23)." So, as "holy and beloved" brethren in Christ, set your minds on things above and see Christ live through you each and every day.