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Perhaps the most insidious form of legalism is asceticism. Not all asceticism is bad. Many in the church could do with a little self-discipline and self-restraint. We live in an overly indulgent society in which at times the only sin seems to be abstinence. Paul referred to godly asceticism when he spoke of buffeting his body and making it his slave, preparatory to running a race so that he might win (1 Cor. 9:24-27).

Sinful asceticism, on the other hand, is the sort that he describes in Colossians 2:20-23, which reads as follows:

"If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations – 'Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch' – (referring to things that all perish as they are used) – according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh."

Here he has in mind those who impose man-made rules concerning the body and one's behavior as a means for enhancing one's relationship with God. For the ascetic, the body is a thing to be punished, denied, even abused. The body is regarded as evil and the only way to defeat it is to starve it of anything that might spark desire. Steps are taken to diminish the intake of food and drink to an irreducible minimum. In brief, asceticism is the belief that if you add up enough physical negatives you will get a spiritual positive. Mere avoidance becomes the pathway to holiness.

The apostle's point here is "that baptism into Christ's death means death to all this 'stuff' – however and whenever it manifests itself. The key defense for Christians against such error is to hold fast to Christ, 'the Head,' and to recognize that we have died with Christ to the elemental spirits reigning over this world with their various rules and ordinances. When we recognize that we are secure in Christ, we will not be bumped off course by the judgments of others who want to disqualify us in some way" (David Garland, 188).

Paul's response to the legalistic approach to the Christian life is unmerciful. He faults it on four grounds.

First, all such things "perish as they are used" (v. 22a). The things included in their list of taboos are perishable objects of the material world, destined to dissipate even as they are being used.

Second, such rules are man-made, not divinely given. They are, Paul says, "according to human precepts and teachings" (v. 22b). As noted in an earlier lesson, this is the essence of legalism: the demand that others conform to your conscience when God has remained silent. Such rules come not by divine revelation but by human ingenuity.

Third, this approach to spiritual living only seems to be wise. Says Paul, "these have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body" (v. 23a). When you look at someone so dedicated and disciplined denying themselves the ordinary amenities of life, it is easy to be deceived by the appearance of spirituality. Such people look committed and pious and holy. But appearances can indeed be deceiving.

Fourth, and finally, is perhaps Paul's most important statement. Notwithstanding the surface spirituality that such religious activities produce, "they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh" (v. 23b). Rules and prohibitions and self-denial that spring from man's own religious creativity are utterly ineffective in curbing the desires of the flesh. The flesh mocks any such attempt to inhibit its expression. Asceticism, in and of itself, won't help you keep in check sinful urgings or energize you in the war with temptation.

What will? Surely Paul will do more than merely denounce what is ineffective. Surely he will offer a more biblical alternative. Well, of course he will. Unfortunately, the division made between chapters two and three in his epistle to the Colossians tends to obscure his point. Paul was not responsible for this division. Like all chapter and verse divisions in the New Testament, it was the work of religious scribes and biblical scholars of subsequent generations.

Paul does indeed have a remedy for fleshly indulgence, a remarkably simple one. It is found in the immediately following verses of chapter three – "If then you have been raised with Christ, SEEK THE THINGS THAT ARE ABOVE, WHERE CHRIST IS, seated at the right hand of God. SET YOUR MIND ON THINGS THAT ARE ABOVE, not on things that are on earth" (Colossians 3:1-2).

The capitalized phrases in these two verses are simply another way of saying what I've already articulated on numerous other occasions: holiness, in this case the ability to say no to "fleshly indulgence" (2:23b), comes not from rigorous asceticism or self-restraint but from a mind captivated and controlled by the beauty and majesty of the risen Christ and all that we are in him in the heavenlies! To be continued . . .

Hopeless without him,