In understanding this section of Colossians, it’s helpful to flip back a few pages, just for a minute, to the letter to the Galatians. As I’ve mentioned before, the opening to that letter is an unusual one for Paul. After the greeting, where we would normally find the thanksgiving and prayer, instead he jumps right into the body of the letter with these words: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” They began by following Christ, believing in his gospel, but now they’re being led astray by a false gospel; they’re turning off the true path. Then in chapter 3, he comes at this from a different angle: “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” In abandoning the true gospel, they’re turning their backs on the power of God and seeking to live by a very different power. In chapter 4, he puts his concern in terms of freedom and slavery: “Formerly,” he says, “when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?” That word translated “elementary principles,” by the way, is the same word we have here in this passage. Finally, in Galatians 5, Paul sums up his concern for them in this way: “You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?”
“You were running well—who got in your way? Why did you leave the path?” That’s Paul’s question to the Galatians, it’s the concern he has for them, and though he’s less urgent in this letter because the situation is less urgent, it’s the concern he has for the Colossian church as well. They started off in Christ, led in the gospel by some whom Paul had discipled, but now other teachers have been working on them, and they’re starting to drift; they’re starting to turn away from their freedom in Jesus and back to slavery to the powers and authorities that rule the world. They’re starting to think about trading in the religion of grace, the good news of Jesus Christ, for a religion of human teachings and human rules, and so Paul stands up to tell them, “Stop.”
The problem is, living by grace is a hard balance to keep, because it costs us nothing yet asks everything of us; it flips our transaction-based thinking on its head. We’re used to obeying orders and earning our way. They train us to do that in school—someone tells you to do something, you do it, and then you get graded. You get a job, they tell you to do something, you do it, and then someone else gives you money and tells you you’ve earned it. It’s a transaction—we do, and we get back. Most religions operate the same way—you do, and you get back. But then God comes along and says, “No, no, no—I do, and you give back—not because you have to in order to get, because I’ve already given you everything, but out of love and gratitude, because it pleases me and you want to please me.” Living by grace means living to please God, not in order to earn his favor, but in grateful response to his unearned favor.
The trick in that is, we’re used to working to a line, measuring ourselves against a standard, that says “Good enough.” You work x number of hours, you do y number of things, you sell z amount of product, and you’ve done good enough, and you get to keep your job; add ten or fifteen or twenty percent to that, and you get a raise. Perform to a certain measurable level, get the results you want, and then you can stop and say, “That’s good enough,” and go do something else with the rest of your life. The trick about living by grace is that it means we can’t do that with God, because it means we’re motivated not by the need to reach a certain standard, but by gratitude—gratitude for an infinite gift; and if the gift is infinite, then where does gratitude stop? Where do we get to the point that we can say, “That’s enough—that’s adequate thanks for what Jesus did for me”?
The fact of the matter is, we don’t. However much we do, the movement of gratitude for the gift of Jesus Christ continues to draw us on to do things and work at things and make efforts for which we will earn nothing in return, and which will serve not to show everyone how wonderful we are, but rather how wonderful God is; and that’s not how we’re accustomed to living, and it doesn’t fit with our ideas about what we deserve. As such, it isn’t something we can do just by working harder, because that will tend to turn our gratitude into resentment; it’s been well observed—by the science-fantasy writer Anne McCaffrey, of all people—that gratitude is an ill-fitting tunic that can chafe and smell if worn too long.
The only antidote to that is to keep changing that tunic on a regular basis—to keep renewing our gratitude, to keep reawakening our sense of the heights of God’s glory and goodness and holiness, and the depths of our own sin, and the incredible, world-shattering thing Jesus did to lift us out of those depths and up to his heights, and the horrifying price he paid to do so; that’s why the life of grace begins with worship, why we need to worship together to stay spiritually healthy, because this is part of what our worship is supposed to be about. Worship keeps it ever fresh in our mind just how much we need God’s grace, and how much reason we have to be grateful. Without it, we lose the balance of grace and fall off to one side or the other, into legalism or lawlessness.
The world, of course, pulls us toward lawlessness; it may be happy enough to deal with “spirituality,” but only with all sense of obligation removed—it wants nothing to do with “religion.” Some churches go that way, too, drawn by the culture; the rest of the church, though, tends to call them “liberal” and react against them, which has the unfortunate tendency to pitch us into legalism. To be sure, the legalism of our own day and age tends to look rather different on the surface than the legalism of days gone by, but it’s the same underneath; as the Nashville pastor and writer Jared Wilson puts it, “the smiling face that self-help ‘Christianity’ puts on evangelicalism claims to be setting followers free from rules and judgmental religion. But really, by making discipleship about helpful hints and positive power for successful living, it’s really just making a works religion in our new image. In an odd twist, the Oprah-ization of the faith is really just optimistic legalism. Because what is Pharisaical legalism, really, but self-help with bad p.r.?” And as Jared continues, there are a lot of people who love this, because “they want to be told religion is not about rules and regulations while at the same time being told each week which four steps (with helpful alliteration) they need to do in order to achieve maximum what-have-you. They want to be reassured that works don’t merit salvation while at the same time convinced salvation is about trying really hard to do things that unlock the power or secret of God’s such-and-such.”
What’s the appeal? Well, partly, it makes things simpler; if you have a list of things to do, then all you have to do is those things, and you’re home free. You can measure yourself against the list, and you know if you’re good enough; you can look at where you stand and where the line is, where the fence is, and know which side of it you’re on. And you know just how far you can push it without going over. Living by grace, you can’t do that; infinite gratitude calls for more than just a limited response. And partly, if it’s just a matter of doing this list of things, and you do do them all, then you can take the credit for that; you can point to them and to yourself and say, “Look at me, I did that. Am I not wonderful?” There’s plenty of room in legalism for ego-stroking; that might be why it’s such an appealing thing to preach, too, because you get to hold yourself up as the model for everyone else to follow. If you’re the sort of person who has it all together—or are good at looking like you have it all together—that can be a great way to attract followers, and attention, and praise, and build a big successful ministry. Like Groucho Marx said of sincerity, if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.
And so, throughout its history, the church has been tempted into one form or another of legalism. The Colossians weren’t even the first—that would have been the Galatians, who got hit with it in its purest form: go back to being Jews—and of course they were far from the last, because this spiritual weed just keeps popping up. Whether it’s the belief that you have to follow this set of rules in order to appease the spiritual powers that can block your ascent to God, as Paul denounced to the Colossians, or the belief that you have to follow that set of rules because grace only gives you the ability to earn God’s favor, leaving you to earn it, as the Reformers denounced in the medieval Catholic church, or the belief that you have to follow yet another set of rules (only they call them “principles” these days) in order to experience the fully fulfilled life God wants for you—leaving modern-day Pauls to stand and say, “No, in Christ you have been given all fullness”—it’s all the same thing at the core: salvation by doing stuff, rather than by Christ alone. That’s the enemy’s game. He’s always trying to convince us that salvation is not in Christ alone, that he’s not enough, that what he did is not enough, that we need to add something of our own, because he knows that to add anything to Christ is to lose Christ.
And that, Paul says, is trading in truth for falsehood, reality for shadow, and freedom for slavery. Such rules are all about things that only matter in this world, that have no real eternal value; it’s only in following Christ that we can find things of true and lasting value, because it’s only in him that we find the reality, the substance, of which this world is an imperfect copy. It’s only in Jesus, as we talked about two weeks ago, that we can find true fullness of life; it’s only in him that we can find forgiveness for sin and freedom from the burden of our guilt and our regrets. Indeed, it’s only in him that we can find freedom from the powers and authorities of this world; to turn back and follow them, as the Colossians were beginning to do, is to put ourselves under the thumb of their human representatives.
It’s to put ourselves under the thumb, let’s say, of the preachers who say, “If you just follow the rules I lay out, you’ll have that perfect marriage and those perfect kids—and if you don’t, then it’s your fault for doing it wrong.” It’s to submit, perhaps, to the power of sexual desire in our lives—which means, effectively, to some one person who’ll use that power to control us. It’s to put ourselves in thrall, maybe, to the markets, and the economic news, and the gurus. It’s to buy the line, most likely, of one or the other of our political parties, who will be only too happy to tell us that salvation comes from winning this election or voting for this candidate. In short, it’s to live in slavery to what the world tells us we must do, rather than to live in freedom in Christ and what he will do.
And despite what the world will tell you, there’s no need for that slavery. Christ has stripped those powers and displayed their impotence before the whole world—we do not need to submit to them. We do not need to acknowledge them. We do not need to give them power in our lives. In him, we have the power to live free, trusting that he will take care of us, trusting that he will meet our needs—for we give these authorities power over us when we believe that we have to submit to them to have our needs met and to find the kind of life we want to live; but we don’t have to submit to them, we don’t have to give them that power, because Jesus is faithful and he will supply all our needs, and we already have that fullness of life we desire in him. We’re free just to live in Christ—to live our daily lives in the awareness of his presence, open to his voice, seeking his will, trusting him for his guidance and his provision. We’ve been invited simply to enjoy Christ, to rest deep in his presence and his character, so that that will be the foundation of our lives and of everything else we do. The more we walk in him—spending time talking with him each day, practicing the habit of giving him each moment we live and each step we take, learning to keep our eyes and ears always open to see his face and hear his voice in the world around us—the more he works in us to build us up into a strong tower that will stand the storms of life, from which his light will shine into the world.