By Gregg Bing
In our last issue we examined the superiority of the person of Jesus Christ, looking at Paul’s warning to the Colossians about false teachers who denied the deity of Christ. These false teachers also denied the sufficiency of Christ’s finished work of redemption, insisting that righteousness must be attained by keeping the Law, a teaching commonly referred to as legalism.
Legalism is not related specifically to the Mosaic Law; legalism is simply man trying to deal with his sins and obtain the favor of God through the works of his own hands, something that began, not with the Mosaic Law, but in the Garden of Eden. After Adam and Eve disobeyed God, “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings” (Gen. 3:7). They became conscious of their sin and were filled with shame and guilt, so Adam and Eve, working with their own hands, sewed fig leaves together to cover their nakedness and shame. However, when they “heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day,” their guilt remained, so they “hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden” (Gen. 3:8). God Himself provided a proper covering for their nakedness and sin, using tunics of skin to clothe them (Gen. 3:21), demonstrating that sins can only be dealt with through the shedding of blood (Heb. 9:22).
Later, Adam and Eve’s children, Cain and Abel, brought offerings to the Lord for their sins. Abel, a shepherd, brought of the firstborn of his flock; Cain, a farmer, brought of the fruit of the ground. God respected Abel’s offering because he offered it by faith, hearing God’s command to offer a blood sacrifice and obeying. Cain heard the same command, but he chose, instead, to offer the work of his own hands which he took from the ground (both of which were cursed because of sin), an offering which could never please God (Rom. 8:8).
God, who is holy and righteous, required that mankind’s sins must be paid for through the blood of an innocent, sinless sacrifice, a sacrifice that God would supply through His own Son. God chose to bring His Son, Jesus Christ, into the world through the nation of Israel. In order to preserve His purpose through Israel, God placed them under the Mosaic Law. The Law was to serve as a tutor, a strict schoolmaster to discipline and correct Israel, to keep them holy until Christ was born (Gal. 3:24-25).
The Law was not given to save Israel from their sins. It is evident that “no one is justified by the law in the sight of God,” for “the just shall live by faith,” and “the law is not of faith” but of works (Gal. 3:11-12). The Law was given “that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God,” for “by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:19-20). This is why God made provision in the Law to atone for (cover) the people’s sins through the tabernacle, the priesthood, and the various sacrifices.
The Law declared the holy and righteous standard of God, a standard which all fall short of (Rom. 3:23). The problem is not with the Law; the Law is “holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12). The Law could not make anyone righteous because of the weakness of the flesh (Rom. 8:2), “for as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them” (Gal. 3:10). No one could keep all the Law perfectly, thus, all were concluded to be “under sin” (Gal. 3:21-22).
Even the Law’s provision for sin was insufficient. The animal sacrifices, which were offered continually year after year, could never “make those who approach perfect” (Heb. 10:1). It was simply “not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (Heb. 10:4). All these sacrifices could do was atone for, or cover, the people’s sins each year.
The Jews of that first century never understood the real purpose of the Law. They assumed the Law was a means of making them righteous in God’s eyes. Paul described their futile efforts in Romans 10:1-4.
“Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they, being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” (Rom. 10:1-4)
These verses give us a good definition of legalism: “Seeking to establish their own righteousness,” or, literally, “Seeking to establish a righteousness of themselves.” The Pharisees believed they were “blameless” concerning “the righteousness which is in the law” (Phil. 3:6), and this is what they taught the people. The majority of these Jews were depending on their own religious works to save them, just like Cain.
When the Lord Jesus Christ came into the world, the majority of the Jews were offended at Him and His teaching. He exposed their sin (John 15:22), and in response, they rejected and crucified the One who came to be their Savior; the One who came “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). Thus, Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, shed His own precious blood as a sacrifice and payment for the sins of the whole world. Through the “offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all,” the sins of all men could not just be covered, but taken away completely (Heb. 10:5-14). The Lord Jesus Christ, thus, became “the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4).
Nevertheless, many today are just like the Jews of Paul’s day, seeking to become righteous and pleasing in God’s sight through their own good works. This is exactly what Satan wants men to think; it is “the lie” that blinds men to the truth of the gospel (2 Cor. 4:4) and keeps them from trusting in Christ as Savior.
Paul warns of this false teaching of legalism in Colossians, chapter 2. He begins by warning of those whom Satan uses to deceive men using “persuasive words” (Col. 2:4). There are many eloquent speakers who present themselves as servants of God, but who are actually ministers of Satan (2 Cor. 11:13-15). Though they have a “form of godliness,” they “deny the power thereof” (2 Tim. 3:5). Paul admonishes believers not to be carried away with “philosophy and empty deceit,” with the “tradition of men,” and with the “rudiments (basic principles) of the world;” things which are not “according to (in accordance with) Christ” (Col. 2:8). The ideas, traditions, and teachings of men must always be tested against the truth of Christ, truth which is found in God’s Word. This wonderful truth is summarized in these two central verses:
“For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power.” (Col. 2:9-10)
Because He is very God who was “made flesh and dwelt among us,” Christ’s finished work on Calvary is sufficient to make us “complete in Him.” When we trust in Christ as Savior, believing He died for our sins and rose again (1 Cor. 15:3-4), we have complete salvation, complete forgiveness of our sins. The word “complete” literally means “filled full” so that nothing needs to be added.
In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he responded to the false teachers who contended there were things that must be added to Christ before a person could be saved.
“In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses.” (Col. 2:11-13)
The Judaizers insisted that men must be physically circumcised to be saved; Paul declares that in Christ we are circumcised with “the circumcision made without hands.” This spiritual circumcision is more than just cutting off the flesh; it results in “putting of the body of the sins of the flesh,” freeing us from slavery to the flesh, our old sin nature.
There are many today who believe that while circumcision was necessary for salvation back in Paul’s time, that today this has been replaced by the rite of water baptism. Paul refutes this idea in verse 12, as he describes how we are “buried with Him (Christ) in baptism” and “raised with Him through faith in the working of God.” Just as the circumcision of verse 11 was spiritual, so the baptism of verse 12 is spiritual as well. It is not accomplished by men’s hands, but by “the working of God,” specifically the baptism of the Holy Spirit that places us in Christ when we believe in Him as Savior (1 Cor. 12:13).
Having been identified “with Christ” in His death, burial and resurrection, we are “made alive together with Him,” and forgiven of all our sins and trespasses, something the law could not do (Rom. 8:2a).
This is why, when Christ came and paid the penalty for our sins, He freed us “from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2b). He “wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Col. 2:14). The requirements of the Law were “wiped out” or obliterated completely; they were “taken out of the way,” permanently; they were “nailed to the cross,” in finality. Christ was triumphant, not only over the Law, but over all principalities and powers, including those of Satan (Heb. 2:14).
The conclusion of all this, as Paul says, is: “Let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or Sabbaths” (Col. 2:16). All of these things are parts of the Mosaic Law, and while they served a purpose when Israel was under the Law, they are not imposed by God upon men today. The Law, with all its commandments, judgments, and ordinances, was only “a shadow of things to come;” the “substance,” the “body”, the “reality” of what the Law only pictured, is provided in Christ. The writer to the Hebrews put it this way:
“For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect.” (Heb. 10:1)
Perfection and completeness of what the Law merely pictured is found in Christ and His once for all offering for our sins (Heb. 10:14). Now that Christ has come and completed the work of redemption, there is no longer a need for the Law. Now that we have the substance, why would we continue to cling to the shadow? But that is exactly what we still hear being preached and taught today—that men must “do” something; that they must adhere to some type of legal or religious system in order to please God and be saved. Beware of such false teaching, teaching which is not found in God’s Word, but in the philosophies and traditions of men.
Let us, instead, rest and rejoice in the fact that salvation is by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9); that Christ and His finished work of redemption is sufficient to “save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him” (Heb. 7:25).