Law or No Law?

Colossians 2:16-3:11

Some of you have seen the TV game show “Deal or No Deal” – it is a game totally of chance where a person picks one of 26 suitcases with money in it. Listen to how the network describes it: “Deal or No Deal" is an exhilarating hit game show where contestants play and deal for a top prize of $1 million in a high-energy contest of nerves, instincts and raw intuition… Without knowing the amount in each briefcase, the contestant picks one -- his to keep, if he chooses - until its unsealing at game's end. The risk element kicks in when the player must then instinctively eliminate the remaining 25 cases … The pressure mounts as in each round, after a pre-determined number of cases are opened, the participant is tempted by a mysterious entity known only as "the Banker" to accept an offer of cash in exchange for what might be contained in the contestant's chosen briefcase - prompting Mandel [the host] to ask the all-important question – “Deal or No Deal?”  

I saw first hand how enticing this can be over Christmas when I stopped to watch “gift or no gift” while Christmas shopping at the mall in South Burlington. The man had a $11 certificate to Ben & Jerry's, a $75 certificate to Kohl's and a $250 certificate to any store in the mall left. Then the “banker” offered him $134. Visions popped into my head as I imagined me there, taking the offer and then not having to spend any more real money for presents. I must not have been the only one, for when the game was done, everyone else seemed to rush to the front to put their name in the barrel to see if they could become the next “gift or no gift” contestant in an hour and a half. Of course, by then you won’t need the money anymore unless it could be applied to your credit card.  

Despite all the verbiage of “instincts and raw intuition,” these two games are based entirely on chance – there are no questions to answer, no clues to put together, nor any puzzles to solve. It is totally luck, pure speculation without any way to get authoritative assistance.

Sometimes it seems that’s how people treat the law of God. “Law or no law.” I’ll take this one – I won’t take that one. We are no longer under the law so this doesn’t matter. Everyone should keep that law because I think it is important. Law is good or law is bad? We still apply the law not to murder, but no longer apply the one against eating pork. Which is it – Law or no law? Here in Colossians, we find a fascinating contrast between the attitude towards law that is seen at the end of chapter 2 and a very different perspective that is the focus of the beginning of chapter 3. By studying this seeming contradiction, I believe we will find some profound truth about rules, law and freedom from God.

PROPOSITION: God’s goal is people with changed hearts - legalism over-estimates the power of rules to change hearts while license forgets the pull of the old nature, culture and demonic.

I.  An interesting contrast

          A. We are not under rules                                                                       Col 2:16-23

Col 2:16-23 is an outgrowth of the statement in v 14 that God has “canceled the written code” through Christ. Seems to be saying “No law”. Verses 16-23 mention the foolishness of those ones about eating or drinking, religious festivals, Sabbath, don’ts, and calls for harsh treatment of the body? Many give a great cheer because they believe the passage says we are not under any rules – we’re free to do what we want. 

1. Jesus is the fulfillment of Old Testament regulations                          Col 2:16-17

There are four points made here about Old Testament (OT) regulations in this regard. First is that Jesus is the fulfillment of them (verse 17). “These [religious regulations in verse 16] are a shadow of things that were to come; the reality is found in Jesus.” All of those things, pointed to some aspect of Jesus – so it is Jesus that is most important, not the specific regulations of those eating, drinking and religious activities.

2. People can keep rules without a change of heart                               Col 2:18-19

Second, people can keep those rules and not have a change of heart. Verse 18 talks about people who delight in false humility, who have this intricate worship of angels and have these detailed discussions of what they learned in scripture but they have no connection with the head of the church which is the living Lord Jesus (verse 19). In other words, a person can be regular at church activities, share great detail of how they see obscure connections in the Bible and still not have a genuine personal relationship with God. People can keep rules or regulations, without actually believing them or being connected to the law giver. 

3. Rules can end up reflecting culture more than God                              Col 2:20-22

Third, rules can end up reflecting culture more than God. That is why verse 20 says “you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world” instead of you died with Christ to the Old Testament law.  The “don''ts”  here -“Don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch” – are not the “don’ts” of the Bible, but the don’ts people made up – often to impress God. For example, a couple decades ago if you didn’t wear your Sunday best to church or your church didn’t have a Sunday evening worship service then you were thought to be unspiritual. Men wearing ties is a cultural thing – they don’t ever do it in Indian churches for instance. These days we are going the opposite way – now you are considered “inauthentic” or “a pretender” if you do get dressed up for church. Both perspectives miss the main point and just reflect the person’s own culture. We are each to go to worship eager to learn and ready to honor God. Some feel they learn best when dressed casually while others feel they honor God most by dressing up.  

4. Regulations ineffective at changing the heart                                         Col 2:23

Fourth, regulations are ineffective at actually changing the heart. READ verse 23. These are very serious people when it comes to their faith – strict worship, strong self-discipline, regular self-sacrifice and even humility – yet it clearly says these religious actions have little effect on restraining sexual sins. Outward actions don’t change the inward desires by themselves.    

B. We are under rules or boundaries

Usually people read this section in chapter 2 quickly and come away with an idea that rules don’t matter, particularly ones from the OT - Jesus has eliminated them. Now the only thing that is important is love and sincerity. Our modern chapter breaks reinforce this even though they were added 1100 years after inerrant scripture was written. End of chapter 2 and we are done. But Colossians chapter 3 is not a new topic – it is a continuation of the same discussion. While chapter 2 speaks negatively of rules, chapter 3 speaks positively of them. Rules, or boundaries, are presented as good and a necessary part of the growing Christian’s life. Again, notice four points again on this.

1. We need boundaries for our thought life                                            Col 3:2-4

First, we need boundaries for our thought life. Verse 2 tells us to … READ verse 2. How do you set your mind on heavenly things? You make boundaries of what is allowable to think about and what isn’t, then work towards your goal. So get-rich-quick, romantic dreams about a co-worker when you’re already married, thoughts of revenge and constant “woe is me” – these kinds of thoughts are classified as earthly and thus wrong to dwell on. While generous giving, sacrificial service, renewed resurrection body, the wonders of heaven, and the greatness of interacting with God personally are right things to day dream about.

2. We need boundaries in our actions                                                    Col 3:5-7

Second, we need boundaries in our actions. Look at all the don’ts in verse 5. READ verse 5. Don’t engage in sexual immorality, don’t be impure, don’t lust, don’t follow through on evil desires, don’t be greedy which is idolatry. This verse is just full of things you shouldn’t do – these are rules of behavior that God wants you and I to keep no matter what. In fact if we don’t keep them, verse 6 says the wrath of God is going to be unleashed.

3. We need boundaries in our attitudes                                                  Col 3:8

Third, we even need boundaries in our attitudes. Verse 8 goes on to talk about “don’ts” in terms of our attitudes. READ verse 8. Don’t get angry; don’t explode in rage; don’t show malice; don’t slander, don’t use filthy languageThere are more “don’ts“ in verses 5 and 8 than in all of the law of the 10 commandments!!!. Again, there are right and wrong attitudes. God wants us to make some boundaries to keep from having wrong attitudes.  

4. Three-fold action we are called to                                                      Col 3:9-10

Fourth, the three fold action God wants us to take to have victory is based on rules or boundaries. READ verses 9-10. To cooperate with God so you can have victory in any specific area you need to:

  • stop doing the wrong action you are now doing (put off old self with its practices)
  • start doing positive or godly actions in that area (put on new self)
  • adopt a different perspective or different way of looking at the situation. (renewing). Each step requires recognition of right and wrong – adherence to rules  

5. The goal is transformation                                                                 Col 3:1, 11

The overall goal is transformation. In verse 1 it ends with setting our heart on heavenly things; in verse 11 it is getting to the place where Jesus is our “all in all”. A person is not successful ultimately because they do or don’t do something but because there is a transformation of character that God directs and we cooperate with. Rules, regulations or boundaries are needed to help us in that transformation.

II. The extremes

If we step back a moment, we see two extremes that Christians have gone towards in the past in this area.

          A. License or Antinomianism – no rules, excuses common

(They believe freedom leads to the God intended goal)

The first is license or antinomianism (which means “no law”). Antinomianism is “the belief that the Gospel frees Christians from required obedience to any law, whether scriptural, civil, or moral.” (an on-line dictionary) People who hold this position believe that freedom is what leads to God’s intended goal of godly living. They rightly recognize that many “rules” Christians keep are more from culture than from God and ineffective for real change of heart, but they also tend to excuse their own sin as fine because God is just going to overlook it. They push for no rules but excuses are very common for them.  

B. Legalism - rules reign, no excuses accepted

(They believe rigid rule keeping leads to the God intended goal)

The second extreme is legalism. They believe that rigid rule keeping leads to God’s intended goal of godly living. They rightly recognize the value of rules, standards and boundaries to keep a person from constantly falling to temptation. It is hard for an alcoholic to get drunk if they never purchase alcohol. But they also tend to downplay sins of their thoughts and attitudes since they replace a living faith with simple adherence to outward rules. They want rigid rule keeping to reign and no excuses to ever be allowed.

In the Bible, the Pharisees embraced legalism and the pagan cultures embraced license. While both have a piece of truth in them, they are wrong and not the way God wants us to approach law, rules or boundaries. We need to combine the truths of Colossians chapter 2 and chapter 3, if we want to understand God’s way. Let me share four principles we get from this coalescence.   

III. Principles that emerge from this

          A. Rules don’t change hearts, nor can they force obedience

First principle is that rules don’t change hearts. That is the key point of Colossians 2 – not that you shouldn’t have rules in your life. It is easy to over-estimate the power of rules. We do this all the time. When there is a problem, government makes another rule. When a person is frustrated with what’s happening around they blurt out some statement that if we just get tough and stop allowing excuses everything would be fine. When there is an interpersonal conflict in an organization, people want to establish a new rule hoping it will stop future conflicts. We have more rules today than at any time in our country’s history, clearly we are not living more godly lives. We overestimate the power of rules. Rules don’t change hearts, nor can they force obedience.

If you are a parent here today, this is why it is so important NEVER TO PARENT FROM FEAR. If fear is your major motivator – afraid your child will be hurt, come under bad influences, or engage in some antisocial behavior – then you will put most of your effort into constructing rules or trying to control situations and the end result will not be what you really want – a mature, believing, godly adult. You can have rules so a teen gets good grades, doesn’t do drugs or alcohol and regularly eats supper with your family but that doesn’t mean they will grow up to be a caring, hard-working, grateful and selfless person. Our goal is not socialized badness or making selfishness respectable. Sure fear will arise – it makes you aware of danger, that is its purpose. But we then want to turn that to a positive purpose and keep the focus most on the positive purpose, not the fear.

          B. Only changed hearts lead to the full obedience God desires

Only changed hearts lead to the full obedience God desires. Positive aspirations and goals, eternal rewards, seeing God, these all encourage a changed heart – which is the work of Jesus. Col 3 is full of positives – set your hearts on things above because you’ve been raised with Christ – you will appear with Christ in glory. Your new self is being renewed by seeing God more clearly. Into verse 12 – you are God’s chosen people , God dearly loves you, He has sanctified you. Rules merely support the positive, inspiring goals God has for us. Let’s take the time to move from fear to the positive and truly make that positive first and foremost. Then we will see our hearts changed and obedience is because we want to, not because we will be punished if we don’t.

          C. We set boundaries and standards (rules) to help keep us from sinning               (but don’t expect them to change our hearts)

So what then is the proper role for rules, standards and boundaries? According to chapter 3, they help to keep us from sinning. We understand what causes us to lust, be greedy or be lazy inside – so we set some boundaries for ourselves to lessen the temptation. If you don’t have time for serving God regularly, being with your family or getting chores done, you look around for what is taking too much time – like TV, games, talking on the phone or reading romance novels. Chances are there is sin in your life that is being fueled by these temptations. So you set a boundary – no more than 1 hour a day. You make a rule for yourself – not because you think it will make you godly, but because you want to support your effort to join God in His work and thus live a truly significant life. 

When your heart does comes to the place where you want to really please God and live a holy life – then you will find that the boundaries and standards you set for yourself will be stronger and more stringent than someone else may suggest for you. And it is not a chafing problem because we don’t want people telling us what to do – it is a whole-hearted effort to cooperate with God so we can be all God has for us to be.

          D. Other Christians may establish different standards

That leads to our final principle: other Christians will establish different standards than yours – that doesn’t make them pagan sinners. What the Bible calls sin is always sin. The argument that lusting after more things is good because we deserve it as God’s child is bizarre. The argument that living together is fine because we are seeing if we are compatible is bogus. But most of our standards, rules and boundaries are not direct sin, but means to keep us from direct sin. This is where the Bible cautions us against judging one another. If they have a different standard and don’t sin, God doesn’t have a problem. Of course if we sin in an area, we can’t complain that others are being legalistic, because we have already proven we needed stronger boundaries to support our effort not to sin – we’ve proven our way was not the right way.  

No modern writer has rebelled against rules and legalism more than Philip Yancy. His hyper fundamentalist upbringing left such a bad taste that he has spent his whole life searching out another approach to a genuine relationship with God. So strongly does he react against the mere perception of legalism, that sometimes he says things which if people followed through literally – would lead to approval of outward sin actions. A lot like the response of a woman I challenged because of her adultery. She said straightforward to me, “I know God has no problem with my affair. God is love and He wants me to be happy. This affair makes me happy. I’ll just say I’m sorry when it is done and God will be fine with that.” She is totally disconnected from the Head of the body.

Back to Philip Yancy – several months ago I listened to an interview he did with HB London which was meant for Pastors. My jaw dropped open because it seemed like he did a complete about face. Seeing all the sin in the church today, he said he now understands the value and reasons for those rules, standards and boundaries. He still was clear he didn’t want to go to legalism, but no longer was he espousing what others were using to defend radical license or antinomianism. He was genuinely trying to put together the concepts of law in Col 2 and Col 3. May God help us to understand these same things because it truly is liberating as well as intensely helpful to overcome sin.