Gospel Imposters: Self-Made Religion

Dr. Jon Morrissette - 10/21/2018

This Fall we’ve been working through the Book of Colossians. Chapter One is all substance. It’s like raw meat. Straight medicine. If you are looking for a compelling and comprehensive portrait of Christ Jesus, look no further than Colossians 1. Take a moment, close your eyes if you’d like, just take a listen… and marvel at who Jesus Christ “is” and the total sufficiency of what he’s “done” for us:

Colossians 1:15-22, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For everything was created by him, in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities— all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and by him all things hold together. He is also the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile everything to himself, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. Once you were alienated and hostile in your minds expressed in your evil actions. But now he has reconciled you by his physical body through his death, to present you holy, faultless, and blameless before him”

Folks, that the whole foundation of Christian faith. Now consider what Paul says in Colossians 1:23. He hangs one gigantic conditional clause over the whole gospel. We can be reconciled “if.” “If indeed you remain grounded and steadfast in the faith and are not shifted away from the hope of the gospel you that you have heard—the [same] gospel that has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven…”

Just whose responsibility is it for you to remain grounded/steadfast? The truth is that people can only exert so much effort on your behalf. At the end of Colossians 1 Paul explicitly says he’s become a “servant” or a “slave” of the gospel. He doesn’t mean this in a negative sense—he loves the Lord. When you love God, you are happy to be his servant! But Paul says in Colossians 2:1-3, “I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you… I want your hearts to be encouraged and joined together in love, so that [you] may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery—Christ. All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in him.”

Notice how Paul firmly hands the baton off here. Christ was afflicted on your behalf. I was afflicted, and suffered on your behalf. But now it’s YOU who must remain grounded and steadfast in the faith. You have to stand on this gospel. It’s up to you not to be led astray right? Colossians 2:6-7, “So then, just as you have received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, being rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, and overflowing with gratitude.”

Through the rest of Chapter 2, Paul alludes to four ways we can lose our gospel footing and slip. We could call these the four temptations facing Modern Churches.

First, we can let “WORDS” overshadow “THE WORD.” In Colossians 2:8 Paul warns, “Be careful that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit based on human tradition, based on the elements of the world, rather than Christ.” What is philosophy? It’s words. Nothing but words. Words can be quite captivating—especially if you set them to song, or film, or video. Especially if you can stream them into the minds of generations of people (young and old). But the problem with words is they can be quite deceptive. They are based on human traditions and ideas. They are based on worldly thinking. More often than not, our words obscure Christ.

So, here’s what’s crazy to me. Let’s say I preach the book of Romans, or Hebrews, or Colossians. It’s pure meat. It’s deep stuff. It’s spiritual. It’s all Jesus. Who he is. What’s he’s done. I mean, what greater thing can I do but hold out the Living Word Christ Jesus our Lord? But these aren’t the sermons people want. They want self-help, self-love sermons. Don’t tell me about eternal things, just tell me how to live my best life now. Help me get out of debt. Fix my marriage, cast the demon out of my child. If a person doesn’t get their foundation right, no amount of self-help is ever going to matter. If our feet aren’t firmly planted on The Word, which is Christ, whatever else we build will crumble and collapse.

Can I say something in love here? In 2 Timothy 4:3 Paul says, “For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will multiply teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear what they want to hear.” Would you ask the Holy Spirit to reveal whether this describes you? If a teacher’s many “words” aren’t point to “THE WORD, Christ Jesus,” danger is not far behind.

Second, we can let “WORKS” overshadow “THE WORK.” In Colossians 2:9-10 Paul says, “For the entire fullness of God’s nature dwells bodily in Christ, and you have been filled by him, who is the head over every ruler and authority.” By virtue of his work on the cross, Christ Jesus has done everything that could possibly be done to allow you to stand before God “holy, faultless, and blameless” … fully justified, fully reconciled, fully redeemed, fully forgiven, fully loved, fully righteous, fully everything! In Colossians 2:12 says, “you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.” Look closely! Where is our faith? Where is our confidence? It’s in the working of God!

But there will always be this temptation to think that we can explain away our sin before God, or somehow clean up our own lives, or somehow become perfect in time. That all good dogs and good people go to heaven if only they do “more good” than bad. If on the last day, you are staking everything on the weight of your works to the tip the scales of judgment in your favor, you won’t just be sorely disappointed, you will be eternally damned. Only Christ’s righteousness is weighty enough to tip God’s favor.

Look at Colossians 2:16, “Don’t let anyone judge you in regard to food and drink or in the matter of a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of what was to come; the substance is Christ.” No matter how much religion you practice or rules you follow, it’s will not ever save you. For that you need real substance. Christ.

Third, we can let “WOWS” overshadow “THE WOW.” In Colossians 2:18 Paul talks about people who “delight in ascetic practices and the worship of angels.” People who are “claiming access to a visionary realm.” Here is the reality today. We’d rather sit in a room listening to someone talk about seeing an angel than talking about knowing Jesus Christ. “WOW! You saw an Angel? Really! You see lights? You hear voices? You have special access to the heavenly realm? You have special knowledge? Oh wow I’m so jealous… I just know Jesus… I just have this Bible… I just have the indwelling Holy Spirit and my quiet prayers…”

Let me be very clear. You don’t need to preach Christ to build a big church today. To build a crowd, you certainly don’t need Colossians 2:19: “. . . hold on to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and tendons, grows with growth from God.” You just have to be sensational! You just need to be a compelling story teller, or dish up compelling testimonies, or manufacture compelling worship experiences for people—break out the beat, break out the laser lights and fog machines, push the volume, bring out the dogs and ponies…

The philosophy of the Modern Church is that “wows” entice people to “THE WOW.” If we can generate excitement, stir emotions, do all these things, spend millions and millions… Christ will shine through all the noise. But what if the modern church is wrong? What if all “the littles wows” do is overshadow “big Wow Christ?”

What do you hear from people who go to church these days? “Wow, did you hear that guy preach? Wow, did you hear that singer’s voice? Wow, did you see that church’s video wall? Wow, did you feel that bass? Wow, did you see that children’s playground? Wow, did you taste that coffee? Wow they had such a cool vibe.”

In Corinth, people we’re wowed by Apollos but Paul says, “Oh, was Apollos crucified for you?” In Jerusalem, people were wowed by the Temple Buildings, and the Gold Gifts that adorned the buildings and glistened in the sun but Jesus said, “Oh, not one stone will be left atop another.”

How do you personally get to a place of worship with Christ is WOW enough? God help the modern church! Pray for the modern church. Pray for the generations of people who are becoming WOW junkies but have yet to be captivated by Christ Jesus our Lord, the Image of God… our Creator… our Savior… firstborn over all creation… firstborn from among the dead… the only one through whom all things get reconciled to God… the Head of the Church.

Fourth, we can let “wounds” overshadow “THE WOUND.” Okay, stay with me, this will make total sense I promise. What do we know about Christ Jesus’ final moments? He became a curse on your behalf. He suffered. He was afflicted on your behalf. He was wounded. He was crucified. John 19:1, “Pilate took Jesus and had him beaten [scourged].” John 19:2-3, “The soldiers made a big ring of thorns like a crown and put it on Jesus' head. They put a red gown on him. They said, `Greetings, King of the Jews!' They beat him with their hands.” The OT Law (Deuteronomy 25:3) says a criminal should not receive more than forty lashes. In order to avoid breaking this command, the Jews would only give a criminal 39 lashes. Such godly guys. Double thumbs up!

Here is what the Bible always taught about Jesus, and not just in New Testament. Isaiah 53:5: “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” The “stripes” are a reference to the lashes Jesus received! There is absolutely no way you’re going to suffer any more for your own sins than what Christ has already suffered for your sins. Christ took your punishment. Christ took your sins. Christ suffered and was bruised for you. He took God’s chastisement. He took our stripes.

Yet what often happens? We imagine that instead of Christ paying for our sins, we must still pay for our sins. That instead of Christ taking our punishment, we must take our own punishment, or worse, punish ourselves. We imagine that instead of Christ being whipped for our sins is a sufficient sacrifice… we must someone whip ourselves into shape. If by faith you died to sin, and were buried in Christ in baptism, your sins have been washed away.

Colossians 2:20-23 Paul says, “If you died with Christ to the elements of this world, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations: ‘Don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch’? All these regulations refer to what is destined to perish by being used up; they are human commands and doctrines. Although these have a reputation for wisdom by promoting self-made religion, false humility, and severe treatment of the body, they are not of any value in curbing self-indulgence.”

No human program. No Church program. No amount of religion. No amount of spiritual rigor—no matter how severely you treat your own body. No amount of self-will and human effort—is going to heal your sin nature. No life-coach, no matter how loud they scream, or what rules they invent, is going to curb self-indulgence. We can only be healed by Christ’s wounds. Jesus does NOT invite us, “Come, follow me, so I can beat you up for your sins.” His invitation is this: “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30). SO WHAT WILL IT BE?

Scripture Verses

Colossians 1:15-22; 2 Timothy 4:3; Isaiah 53:5; Matthew 11:28-30

Study Questions

  1. Read Colossians 2:20-23. Why is submission to rules like "Don't handle, don't taste, don't touch" an inferior path to take? How might following such regulations deceive the believer? Why aren't such rules effective in truly restraining self-indulgence?
  2. In Colossians 2:23, Paul mentions that the practices in this passage have the appearance of wisdom. Read 1 Corinthians 1:18-31. How would you define true wisdom? Why do people try to add to or replace God's wisdom?
  3. What is the difference between asceticism, self-denial for the sake of self-denial, and biblical self-denial? (See Galatians 3:1-3; Philippians 3:1-8; Romans 6:8-13; Galatians 5:13-18.)
  4. Read Colossians 3:1-4 and Galatians 5:1-6. What is the answer to legalism and self-made religion?
  5. Is someone acting as judge in some area of your life that is not vital to Christianity? If so, in what area? Are you acting as judge over someone else in an area not vital to Christianity? If so, what should you do?
  6. How does the faithful worship of Jesus protect us and root us in Him? What are you doing to build meaningful worship into your daily life?