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Christ’s Church Must Be Tenaciously Christ-Centered (Col. 2:20-23)

Dead with Christ to Serve with Liberty (vv. 20-22)

From the Power of Sin (vv. 11-12)

Accept no substitutes or additions to the fullness of Jesus Christ. This is our sure path: to know nothing but Jesus Christ, and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). Too many look for fillers that in some way supplement him, under the guise of piety, but inevitably supplant his sufficiency. But nothing and no one else has killed the dominion of sin in us but Jesus Christ. We have died with him. His death on the cross is by faith our death to sin, for he died as our Head. He was appointed to stand good for the penalty of our sins, the Just for the unjust. Throughout our lives, he alone mortifies our sins, breaks their power over us, renews us in his image, and makes us fruitful in good works. Since only Jesus Christ can satisfy the penalty for our sins and form holiness in us, this tells us plainly that we must be utterly, tenaciously Christ-centered. He began the work, and he will complete it – not us, not man’s rules and rituals, not even man’s initiative and effort. Jesus Christ is the only Redeemer and Deliverer from sin’s bitter tyranny that leads to everlasting death. He does not share his office with us at any level.

From the Old Covenant Ceremonies (Gal. 4:3-4)

Why, then, would any believer living after his first coming submit himself to the yoke of Jewish ceremonies? They are called “basic worldly principles” because the Lord then placed his people under the tutelage of dietary laws and a system of holy days, feasts, and sacrifices (Gal. 4:3-4). These were not spiritual but very earthly. They were needed in that age of the world, since the Lord Jesus Christ had not yet come. But, after Christ, Peter saw them for what they were: “a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither we nor our fathers were able to bear” (Acts 15:10). They pointed the believing to the coming Savior, but they could not give the reality. They were “weak and beggarly elements” (Gal. 4:9). They were far beneath the spirituality, clarity, and fullness we now have in Jesus Christ. And being dead with him to the power of sin, we must not resubmit ourselves to this yoke. Ritual cleanness by dietary distinctions, observance of days, and repeated sacrifices has now given way to complete salvation in Jesus Christ our Lord (Heb. 7:19).

From Man’s Commandments and Doctrines (Isa. 29:13)

Therefore, to insist that any believer observe this “touch not, taste not, handle not” system of piety is to impose upon our liberty in Jesus Christ. These are human commandments, not from the Lord. He alone is Lord of the conscience, and we are guided by his word, not by man’s rules. But there were some in the early church, as there were in following centuries, who equated piety with ceremonialism and ritual cleanness. They resurrected the old Jewish system, both ceremonial and political, and then imposed it upon the church. Our Lord said, however, that it is not what enters us from the outside that defiles us but our heart lusts. And asceticism can never touch this root of uncleanness or rid us of impurity. Jesus Christ alone is the surgeon of human hearts. Christian living, therefore, is not a matter of outward observances that leave the heart in its wickedness and its idols untouched. This is the hypocrisy for which our Lord strongly condemned the Pharisees in Matthew 15, 23, and Mark 7 – drawing near to him with their mouth, with a heart far from him. Even the prophets understood this – “You are near in their mouth, and far from their reins” (Jer. 12:2). Man’s spiritual disciplines imposed upon us are giving the Lord a bunch of words, the appearance of piety, pretended loyalty, but they are actually rebellion against Jesus Christ. He alone is our Purifier. If we know him and are walking with him, he is purifying us. We do not need man’s rules, priestly regimens, slogans, and programs. These lead us away from our completion in Jesus Christ. He has not commanded them. Men have made them up, called them “spiritual,” and then imposed them upon our consciences.

The Impotence of Man-Made Worship and Living (v. 23)

It Is a Human Form of Humility, Worship, and Wisdom (Mark 7:15)

But this was not in Colosse a Christian liberty issue – drink wine if your conscience allows, otherwise abstain. The way that these issues became standards of judgment (v. 16) and spoiled the true believers of their reward in Christ (v. 18) called for strong denunciation. They were detracting from the person and work of Christ. First, by thinking of holiness in terms of external observances – diet, denying the body, and adherence to man’s rules for cleanness – it was a form of humility and wisdom – but a false form. It was “humanly contrived religion.” This has been so common in the history of the church that we might not feel the evil of it. Some worship saints, observe special days for humiliation or celebration, and have a variety of dietary rules for approaching “holy seasons.” Others in Evangelicalism have other forms of humanly devised worship and living – tongues-speaking (Pentecostal), revivalism, worship by emotional encounters with God, or written forms of prayers and sermons with no heart at all. Across the spectrum, if we think of holiness and righteousness in terms of external rules of diet, ritual, days, and man-devised programs, these have a form of humility, but they are really nothing but the grossest pride. They may seem to be a wise thing to do, as with the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. How holy they appeared! How consecrated to God! How truly humble that they would serve God in everything!

The Holy Spirit sweeps all that away – it is a false humility, idolatrous replacement of God’s word with man’s, and a false wisdom that leads us away from the simplicity of faith that is in Jesus Christ. True humility is to submit to Jesus Christ in his Word, to desire to know nothing beyond Him, and to submit oneself to his pastors and elders. True humility continues coming to him for our wisdom and worshipping God in spirit and truth according to his word. True humility does not call attention to itself or desire the praise of men. True worship and wisdom do not equate holiness with outward observances but with inward purity that delights in God’s word, loves him, mourns over sin, and seeks inward conformity to the Lord.

It Misplaces the Source of Man’s Uncleanness (Mark 7:18; 1 Cor. 6:13)

The little phrase, “Which all concern things which perish with the using,” is another way of affirming what our Lord taught us when he was on earth. As he watched the Pharisees scrupulously perform all their ceremonial washings, he rejected their holiness paradigm of manmade rituals. They left the heart untouched. Why is this? It is not what we eat or drink, things which perish, days we observe or do not observe, that make us fit to be God’s temple and enjoy his fellowship. The performance of these does not make him more favorable to us; the omission of them does not make him less favorable. They are temporal observances, and it never came into his heart to command us to do them.

His sacrifices are “a broken and contrite heart” (Ps. 51:17; Isa. 66:2). Why is this? It is from the heart that our impurities flow, and you cannot get to the heart by refraining from certain foods or alcohol, or observing saints’ days, or from subjecting the body to extreme austerity. The history of the church should make this abundantly clear – these things, as Paul will immediately say, have actually fed the flesh, not subdued it. They feed man’s pride and strengthen the flesh by gratifying it. Why? They do not come to Jesus Christ for cleansing and heart surgery. It is not so much the body that needs to be tamed but the heart that needs to be cleansed. Only Jesus Christ can cleanse us so that we are devoted to him, body and soul. But, by emphasizing “do not touch, taste, or handle,” heart corruption is left untouched, and therefore enslaved to its sins and unfit for communion with the Lord.

It Cannot Satisfy or Tame the Flesh – But Actually Feeds It

However valuable and attractive humanly contrived rituals for life may seem, they have “no value.” This is a categorical negation. They cannot do what they purport to do – satisfy the flesh, and thus tame the flesh. They do not placate our sinful nature or give us a foothold to obtain the victory over our sinful desires. They have no power, for they are not from God’s mind but from man’s vain imaginations. They have no power, for they are not from Christ and his cross. He alone kills sin at its root, cleanses the heart from its contagion, and raises us to new life by his resurrection. It is thus vital that we see that whether or not we observe man’s rituals and rules for holiness is far more than a matter of cultural tradition or Christian liberty. It is a matter of whether or not we give Jesus Christ his rightful place as the only Redeemer of God’s elect. And his redemption is not a trickle of initial grace that then frees us to find additional sources of grace that make sense to us or flatter our vanity. His redeeming work is not unto external practices and forms of holiness that have the appearance of religion but no power unto real heart godliness. Whether or not ritualists will admit it, all their observances of diet, days, and traditions flatter man’s pride, for they move away from the cross, from Christ, from prayer, from honest fellowship with his body, and from seeking him alone as the way we are delivered from sin and walk in newness of life.

The Power of Christ-Centered Worship and Living

By faith, we are in a living union with him (v. 19).

This is the whole thrust of the teaching here, as 3:1-5 will make clear. It is in union with Jesus Christ, setting our affections upon him, and seeking his heavenly kingdom that we have power to put our sinful desires and deeds to death. The goal of his redeeming work is not external conformity to a humanly devised appearance of holiness but real holiness, real consecration to God from the heart. Rituals and bodily asceticism do not establish or deepen union with Christ; they establish and deepen a union with the flesh, with human traditions and commandments, and thus with sin itself. It is a bitter, devilish irony that all the ways men have devised to tame their flesh outside of union with Christ have actually fed the flesh, because they intensify self-righteousness, self-satisfaction, immorality, and pride. It is only, always, and ever in union with Jesus Christ, a living fellowship with him by the Holy Spirit, that we are one with him in his death and resurrection. The Father will have all virtue, all justifying righteousness, and all sanctifying grace to flow from his Son as the single fountain of his grace. And thus, when we believe upon the name of Jesus Christ, we openly repudiate all man’s works and traditions as having any value before God. They have no value. They cannot tame the flesh. They have no power to do anything but to exalt man’s imaginations, and thus they diminish the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

To be in a living union with Jesus Christ – we must understand what this means. First, all believers in the Lord Jesus Christ have been chosen in him before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:3-4). The Father graciously bound our life, identity, and destiny to his Son before the world existed. Second, in time, the Son of God took upon himself our flesh, obeyed to give us righteousness, and suffered on the cross to answer for our crimes (Gal. 4:5-6). Third, in our personal histories, the Holy Spirit of God came and quickened our sin-slain hearts and created the seed of faith in us so that we were able to look to Jesus Christ as the Savior of sinners and the Lord of all. Believing in him, a vital union, unbreakable bond, was established between him and us. The Holy Spirit takes the power of his death to sin and applies it to us, so that we die to sin; he applies the resurrection victory of Jesus Christ to us so that we are able to walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:1-6). This is the reason that holiness by man-made traditions and rituals is so impotent and so evil – it leads us away from Jesus Christ. It obscures our union with him. It denies the power of Christ’s death and resurrection to slay sin and renew sinners in God’s image – by God’s sovereign grace alone through the person and work of Jesus Christ alone.

By faith, we live in the shadow of his cross and before his throne.

This is the reason the cross is not simply our slogan boast but the heart boast of the body of Jesus Christ (Gal. 6:14). All real strength to mortify sin and be righteous in life flows from the cross of Jesus Christ. Any humanly contrived forms of worship and piety, however old and venerated, lead us away from the cross of Jesus Christ as our sole boast and as the place where we learn to die to sin. It is the believing sight of a bleeding Savior that kills sin in us. Man’s works and rituals are cross-replacements and have no power to do this. And the virtue of our Savior’s cross is received by faith alone – that is, not the sight of a cross we hold or rub in our hands sanctifies us, but the intelligent, believing remembrance of the Son of God crucified and a believing appeal made for grace in light of his once-for-all sacrifice. And since he is raised and reigning at the Father’s right hand, his cross must always be joined to his crown and throne, for he rose! He has defeated sin! He reigns to bring the power of his resurrection progressively into our lives. Personal, believing communion with him through his word and by prayer bring the fruits of holiness into our lives (Phil. 1:11). These are the only authorized ways whereby we receive the grace of our Savior – not relics and rituals, holy days or holy places – only faith in Jesus Christ, a living fellowship with him whereby we cry to him day and night, believe and meditate upon his word, pray his word, confess our sins, and actively obey him because we love him.

By faith, we are indwelled by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:9-11).

But there is another serious deficiency of man-made worship and rules for piety – they obscure or practically deny altogether the work of the Holy Spirit. The bond of the union between Christ and us is the Holy Spirit – not humanly devised works or the imposition of old covenant forms in the new covenant age. This is to put new wine into old wine skins. The Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit work in tandem (2 Cor. 3:17), in the closest possible relation of grace and love. The Holy Spirit fits us to be God’s holy temple, and thus to live as his holy people in the world. The Holy Spirit uses his means to make us holy in heart and conduct – not man’s. How dreadful it is to think if we eat something or do not eat it, drink or not drink, observe a holy day or do not, that the grace of the Holy Spirit is bound to these practices, or that he cares for them at all. He does not. He says here that they are of “no value.” He will use the means that he has appointed in his word: believing prayer, consistent walking in his word, and humble fellowship with the body of Christ. These are his means. They are the only means he has appointed. Even in the first flush of faith in the days of the apostles, some quickly wearied with these and wanted something more. The itch continues to this day – something more is needed to overcome the world and to be godly Christians beyond the person and work of Christ and the simple means of grace he has ordained in his Word.

But if we want to walk in the Spirit and thus put to death our sinful deeds and desires, we must relate to him as he has revealed himself: Sanctifier, Comforter, Intercessor, Teacher. Every good we have is the fruit of his work in us. These will be sufficient to occupy all our thoughts and affections as we seek to be made more like Christ. Each day, we must first rejoice in the finished work of Jesus Christ and in his living mediation for us at the Father’s right hand. We must ask the Father for the Holy Spirit, whom he has promised to give to us when we ask (Luke 11:13). When we ask this in faith, we are asking to be sanctified, to be made holy in union with Christ – not with spiritual, feel-good gimmicks or to get what we want. No, Lord, make me like you, even though that will step on my toes and turn me inside out. To walk in the Spirit means that we must pray continually, for it is in prayer especially that he helps us and makes our petitions agreeable to God’s will. Then, turning to the Bible for wisdom and guidance, we place ourselves under the Spirit’s teaching and tutelage (1 John 2:27). By the word also the Holy Spirit applies God’s promises and his wisdom to our hearts so that we are comforted and strengthened to walk in the old paths.

By faith in him, we are able to mortify the flesh (Col. 3:5).

We must hold tenaciously to Jesus Christ, his living Person, his availing mediation, his tender Shepherding, his powerful sanctification. Christ is our life (Col. 3:4). It is not simply that we must live for him (Phil. 1:21). He is our life. We cannot live for him unless we are drawing our life from him (Gal. 2:20). And we do not draw our life from him by man’s rules and observances. He personally by his Spirit subdues our flesh so that we can walk in newness of life. This is the reason we continue coming to him day and night. We come because we need him, but also because we love him and want to be with him. Thus, as you think of your besetting sin, the sin that troubles you, do not look to man’s rules and rituals to free you. Do not think that there is someone out there, a better way of looking at life, some new programs that will deliver you. Look to Jesus Christ. He is the only Redeemer. Believe upon his name. Ask the Father for the quickening, sanctifying Spirit. Believe that the Father hears your prayers and will give you new life in Christ, because he is faithful. Believe that he is and will reward your coming and asking. Trust his love and grace, not because you “feel it” but because you believe in him. He honors those who thus honor him. He will make us holy in such a way that we lift high the cross and rejoice in his gift of the Holy Spirit.


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