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A Righteousness by Faith #18: Where does keeping the rules lead?

Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. Colossians 2:20-23

Believers often hold to the mistaken belief that keeping the rules will make them whole. Rule keeping is epidemic in churches. Not wanting to offend God and recognizing that they don’t know what is exactly right or exactly wrong, people often adopt rules that they hope will help them resist sin. I grew up with a well-defined set of rules for living that people of my tribe can still recite at the drop of a hat. Where did these rules come from? Mostly from our negative reaction to the culture we were born into. But the rules only made us anxious or fostered rebellion in us more than helped us to become whole.

This is the fundamental problem with living under the law. Many people I know want to be whole. They want their life in Jesus to matter. They do not want to be a detriment to their church family. So unwittingly, they are drawn into trying to fight fire with fire. Except they are the ones getting burned.

Where does rule keeping lead us? In a nutshell, it leads us to seek to control our flesh by depending on our flesh. Let me unpack that confusing statement. It does make sense.

The Colossian believers, who largely came out of a Gentile background, were being herded towards rule keeping by teachers who were savvy about the Law. They knew how to package the Law to make it sound like the lifeline believers had been looking for. How to live free from all the stuff Jesus had rescued them from. All of these destructive practices came from the broken part of people that is drawn to sin—doing your own thing apart from God (the part we call ‘the flesh’). So those teachers crafted a set of rules that would control the flesh. From Paul’s description, these rules sound like they were meant to take all the pleasure out of the world, while at the same time resembling Jesus’ commands. Deny. Sacrifice. Die to self.

And Paul does agree that in a perverse way they do look like wisdom. But, he adds, they have absolutely no power to stop your flesh from winning (loose paraphrase).

Why is that so? —Because these rules demand to be kept. They demand that you keep your eyes on them. Follow them completely. Allow them to narrate your life. You have to keep them. And if you do, your flesh will finally be under control. Except

Here is Paul’s except…Except these rules cannot. “They lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” Why? Because rule keeping depends on you keeping the rules. And the only power you have is your flesh—the part of you that’s broken. So how long do you think your flesh will allow you to triumph over your flesh?

How good is your flesh at rule keeping? Not just the ones that others—mom & dad, your boss, teacher, the military, the state—came up with for you. How about your own rules? How well do you do at, say, New Years’ resolutions? Turning over a new leaf? Defeating your old bad habits or fending off a new one? Being whole?

Perhaps you are tired of living in a world where keeping rules is substituted for zoe life but did not think there was another option. Perhaps rule keeping is a way of life for you and all the churches you have attended or led. Have you had enough?

Wouldn’t you love to live with people who are becoming whole because of what God is doing in them instead of being held hostage by iffy rules that make no inroads toward real change? To spend time with people who are learning to forgive as Jesus forgave them? To experience transparency in relationships, even if that means engaging in helping people with their inside mess while they are on their way to being changed? To see your church family producing people who are not afraid of God. To be with people who want to see their neighbors, co-workers—their city—transformed as they have been transformed?

This is the life righteousness by faith provides. Paul is not merely seeking to win an argument. He is guiding us to true wholeness. Wholeness that brings order to our messy lives by the Spirit.

-Steve Smith