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Lesson 14: How Not to be Godly (Colossians 2:20-23)

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February 21, 2016

Ever since Adam and Eve sinned, the problem of controlling sinful desires has plagued the human race. Whether you call it the flesh, the old nature, or indwelling sin, we all wrestle with strong internal temptations to do wrong. So a very practical question is, “How can we keep the flesh in check?”

One answer, which is not limited to Christians, has been to treat the body harshly in an attempt to gain mastery over it. When we were in Nepal, we saw two Hindu “holy men” at the temple who looked really weird, presumably in an attempt to control the flesh. (They also made money from foreigners like us who had to pay to take their picture!) Another Hindu, the Indian leader, Gandhi, stopped having sexual relations with his wife. Then, to prove his control over fleshly urges, he slept in the same bed with naked, beautiful young women, but never touched them. The Christian mystic, Origen, took literally the words of Jesus about becoming eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom and castrated himself. Christian monks have slept on boards, worn hair shirts, exposed themselves to extremes of heat and cold, lived on top of pillars, gone without bathing, fasted, and remained celibate in their attempts to deal with the flesh.

Even these Christian attempts to be holy probably strike us as really weird. We live in a culture where the motto is, “If it feels good, do it!” I haven’t seen any best-sellers lately on “self-denial,” unless it’s a diet to help you look good so that you can snag the hunk or beauty queen that you’re after!

But even in our libertarian society, the idea of monasticism still appeals to some. Back in 1988, Christianity Today [8/12/1988, pp. 20-21] published an editorial calling for a return to monasticism in the church. Granted, they weren’t calling for hair shirts, sleeping on hard beds, or living on top of pillars. But they did call for vows of celibacy and poverty. The editorial cited John Stott, the late respected Anglican pastor, who said that if he were beginning his Christian discipleship over, he would establish an evangelical monastic order where men would take a vow of celibacy, poverty, and peaceable living.

While I admire much about John Stott’s ministry, I think that the idea of a new Christian monastic order is perfectly horrible! The fact that the modern church has become infected with worldliness should not lead us to solve the problem by a rules-based, withdraw from the world, approach to holiness. While the church desperately needs self-discipline for the purpose of godliness, we must avoid asceticism, which invariably lies behind monasticism.

In Colossians 2:20-23, Paul shows that asceticism is how not to become godly. The false teachers in Colossae had a system of rules which they imposed on their followers. They said, “If you keep these rules, you will have victory over fleshly desires.” They took some of the Old Testament regulations concerning ceremonial cleanliness and diet and added to them, much as the Pharisees had done. Paul admits (Col. 2:23) that these rules had “the appearance of wisdom,” but, he adds, they “are of no value against fleshly indulgence.” Rather, Paul argues that …

Godliness is not achieved through asceticism but through our identification with Christ.

When Paul writes (Col. 2:20), “If you have died with Christ,” the Greek construction implies certainty, not doubt. But, as Douglas Moo (The Letters to the Colossians and Philemon [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 233) states, by using “if,” Paul “is inviting us to consider whether, indeed, we have died with Christ and thus ponder its implications.” The same is true in Colossians 3:1, where Paul considers the corresponding truth, “Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ ….” Both terms focus on the truth that as believers, we are identified with Christ in His death and resurrection. So Paul is asking the rhetorical question, “If you truly died with Christ and were raised up with Him, why are you going back, not just to the Old Testament law, but even worse, to manmade rules added to that law?”

1. Godliness is not achieved through asceticism.

What is asceticism? Webster ( defines it as “relating to or having a strict and simple way of living that avoids physical pleasure.” The Oxford American Dictionary ( defines it: “Characterized by severe self-discipline and abstention from all forms of indulgence, typically for religious reasons.”

But if asceticism is self-denial, then isn’t it taught in the Bible? Paul said that he disciplined his body and made it his slave (1 Cor. 9:27). He instructed Timothy to endure hardship as a good soldier of Christ Jesus (2 Tim. 2:3) and to discipline himself for the purpose of godliness (1 Tim. 4:7). Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:23). Jesus said that self-denial is an essential requirement for following Him (Matt. 16:24). So what’s the difference between the asceticism that Paul attacks in our text and biblical self-denial or self-discipline? Here are a number of contrasts to consider:

  • Asceticism sees the body as evil, to be totally suppressed; self-discipline sees the body as good, but needing control.

These false teachers probably taught that matter is evil, but spirit is good. Thus we must treat our bodies harshly. But the Bible teaches that as Christians, our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Thus we need to take care of our bodies and to glorify God with them (1 Cor. 6:19-20). To do this, we need to exercise control over what we eat and drink, over harmful substances such as tobacco and drugs, over sexual impulses, etc. But there is a basic difference in outlook toward the body between asceticism and biblical self-discipline.

  • Asceticism is submitting my body to my will; self-discipline is submitting my whole life to God’s will.

The ascetic operates on will power. His goal is to bring his body under the control of his mind or spirit, as in Gandhi’s ludicrous experiment. But Christian self-denial has a higher aim, namely, to glorify Jesus Christ by bringing my whole being into submission to Him. It is to renounce my control of my life and to give that control willingly to Christ.

  • Asceticism labels all material things as evil; self-discipline properly uses and enjoys the things of the world.

Ascetics cannot enjoy material possessions. While as Christians, we must be generous and ready to share, and not fix our hope on material things, Paul taught that God “richly supplies us with all things to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17). Countering those who forbade marriage and advocated abstaining from certain foods, Paul said (1 Tim. 4:4), “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude.” Christians can rightly enjoy all of life under the lordship of Christ, including a good meal, the beauty of God’s creation, and the sexual relationship within marriage. Ascetics teach that such pleasurable enjoyment is wrong.

  • Asceticism views joy and pleasure as wrong; self-disci­pline allows for the fullness of joy and pleasure in God.

Ascetics are as H. L. Mencken erroneously, but humorously, described a Puritan: “Someone with the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” But, as I said, Christians can legitimately enjoy God and all of His gracious gifts and blessings (Ps. 16:10). He wants our joy to be full (John 15:11; Ps. 5:11).

  • Asceticism is restrictive; self-discipline leads to greater freedom.

Asceticism emphasizes all the things you cannot do: “Don’t handle this; don’t taste that; don’t touch that!” It leads to a restrictive, repressive kind of life. But self-discipline is the key to liberty. The disciplined athlete is free to do things that I cannot do. The skillful musician has disciplined himself over hours of practice so that he is free to play a Beethoven symphony that I could never play. And the disciplined Christian has freedom in the Lord to obey Him and not to sin, which is always for our good.

  • Asceticism is aimed at obeying manmade commands; self-discipline is aimed at obeying God’s commands.

Paul says that these false teachers were promoting the commandments and teachings of men. He probably had in mind Jesus’ words when He denounced the Pharisees (Mark 7:7, citing Isa. 29:13), “But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.” Jesus went on to tell them (Mark 7:9), “You nicely set aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition.” Ascetics add things to the Bible in an attempt to be spiritual. In the Ten Commandments, God said to keep the Sabbath holy; the Pharisees came up with over 600 detailed commands to specify what they thought that meant. As you know, Jesus frequently attacked the Pharisees for their ridiculous Sabbath rules. Biblical self-discipline distinguishes between what God commands and what men add to God’s commands.

  • Asceticism stems from the flesh and often leads to sin; self-discipline stems from the Holy Spirit and is a means to true godliness.

The Colossian heretics were “inflated without cause by [their] fleshly mind” (Col. 2:18). While it is difficult to translate Colossians 2:23 (Moo, pp. 238-239), it probably means (as most modern translations agree) that while the rules of the false teachers may seem to promote godliness, in actuality, they are “of no value against fleshly indulgence.” Many people erroneously think that legalism is on one end of the scale and licentiousness on the other end, with grace being the balance point in the middle. But actually, legalism and licentiousness are two sides of the same coin, because both operate in the flesh. Thus Jesus accused the legalistic Pharisees of being full of self-indulgence, all uncleanness, and lawlessness (Matt. 23:25, 27, 28). Their manmade rules and outward restrictions could not deal with the flesh. Only the Holy Spirit living in us can make us holy by producing His fruit of self-control (Gal. 5:23).

  • Asceticism is often motivated by gaining acceptance from God; self-discipline is motivated by assurance of being accepted by God.

The ascetic is often trying to make himself acceptable to God through harsh treatment of the body. By this he thinks he can atone for his sins or show enough contrition to merit God’s favor. But Christian self-discipline operates from the platform of knowing that God has accepted us in Jesus Christ on the basis of His grace. The motive behind self-discipline is not to gain His favor, but to be pleasing to the Lord because He loved me and died for me.

With that as a backdrop, let’s look more carefully at Paul’s argument in our text: When he says that we have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, I think the best explanation is his argument in Romans 7. There he argues that in Christ, we have died to the law, which could never produce godliness, so that we might be married to Christ. He says that the law of God is holy, righteous, and good. But the problem is, I am of the flesh, sold into bondage to sin. So when my sinful nature comes into contact with God’s holy law, the result is not godliness, but an arousal of my sinful desires, leading to more sin. However, Paul says, in Christ, who fulfilled the righteous demands of the law, we died to the law so that we are released from its jurisdiction, not to live unto sin, but rather to Christ, our new bridegroom (see also, Gal. 2:19).

In Colossians 2:20, when Paul says that we have died with Christ to (literally, “from,” since death means separation) “the elementary principles of the world,” he is referring to a rules-based approach to God (he uses the term this way in Gal. 4:3, 9). (Most modern scholars and some translations interpret “elementary principles” as “elemental spirits,” but I think it refers to an approach to God through keeping certain rules.) The cross ended that rules-keeping approach to God. We no longer have to “observe days and months and seasons and years” (Gal. 4:10) in order to come before God. Christ fulfilled all of that. He is “the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4).

Then, arguing from the greater to the lesser, Paul shows that since Christians have died to God’s law, which couldn’t produce righteousness, they should have nothing to do with manmade, ascetic rules, which are of no value against the flesh. He makes three points about these ascetic rules:

A. Ascetic rules deal with externals, not with the heart.

Colossians 2:21: “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” Paul is probably citing the false teachers’ own words to mock them. The Greek words for the first and third terms mean virtually the same thing (Moo, p. 235). If there is any nuance of difference, he may be indicating that if you follow their rules, pretty soon you can’t even touch their forbidden foods, let alone eat them. But his main point is that these sorts of rules cannot deal with the problem that we all wrestle against, namely, sinful desires in our hearts. You can keep all the rules, but your heart is still far from God. After Jesus confronted the Pharisees for their external religion, while their hearts were far from Him (Mark 7:6-7), He went on to point out that all sin begins in our hearts. He said (Mark 7:20-23):

“That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.”

So if we want a solution to our sin problem, it has to change our hearts. Being identified with Christ in His death and resurrection, through the new birth, enables us to become “obedient from the heart” to God’s righteous commandments (Rom. 6:17).

B. Ascetic rules are the ideas of men, not the principles of God’s Word.

Paul emphasizes this twice: First he calls these rules the commandments and teachings of men; then he calls it, “self-made religion.” It’s a type of worship which people make up for themselves, apart from what God has revealed. It’s a religion that takes some of God’s commands, but sets aside others. And it adds to what God has said by taking it farther than God intended.

For example, I’ve known Christians who take God’s Word regarding divorce and remarriage more strictly than the Bible stipulates. I was at a conference where the speaker taught that if you have ever been divorced for any reason, even if it was before you were a Christian, you could not remarry. So a young man who was divorced and then met Christ had to live in celibacy for the rest of his life. But God’s Word doesn’t say that!

And, he said, if you were divorced and remarried, even if it happened before you were saved, you could never be a pastor. Faithful pastors were going to the stage and saying that they were going to go home and resign from their ministries, because years before they met the Lord, they had gone through a divorce. I was appalled! To no avail, I argued with the speaker that he was laying on these men a standard that was stricter than God’s Word. Asceticism takes God’s Word and adds to it in an attempt to keep people from sinning. But it doesn’t work.

C. Ascetic rules appear to lead to godliness, but only feed pride and self-indulgence.

Paul grants (Col. 2:23) that these rules have “the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but,” he adds, “are of no value against fleshly indulgence.” This sort of rules-keeping approach to the Christian life only serves to feed the flesh, because it does not deal with our pride. Pretty soon, those who keep the rules begin to look down on those who don’t keep the rules. If we fall into this trap, pretty soon we’ll start thinking like the Pharisee in Jesus’ story who prayed (Luke 18:11-12), “God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.”

That story shows that we can take even good things and become proud of ourselves for doing them: It’s right not to be a swindler or unjust or an adulterer. It’s right to fast (for the right reasons) and to be faithful in stewardship. It’s right to study God’s Word, to spend time in prayer, and to be faithful in gathering with God’s people to worship. But when you begin boasting, even to yourself, about your performance, you’re acting in the flesh, not in the Spirit. And the flesh never produces true godliness.

“Well,” you ask, “if asceticism isn’t the way to godliness, what is?” Our text for next week gives a more complete answer. But Paul hints at it in the opening phrase of verse 20:

2. Godliness is achieved through our identification with Christ.

The key phrase in Colossians 2:20 is, “If you have died with Christ ….” In Colossians 3:1-4, Paul talks about the corresponding truth of being raised up with Christ so that our life is now hidden with Christ in God. But for now, let’s briefly consider what it means to be identified with Christ in His death.

If you know Christ as Savior, you were there in Him when He died on the cross. The law of God had put a curse on the human race, because we all have violated it repeatedly. We stand condemned under its penalty of death. But Jesus, born under the law, perfectly fulfilled it. His death met the just requirement of the law. Because we are in Him, we also died to the law. It no longer has power or jurisdiction over us who are in Christ.

You may not feel or experience this truth. But it’s a legal fact in God’s sight. When you act upon it as true, it frees you from the cycle of sin and death under the law and enables you, through God’s Spirit, to live a life of holiness (see Rom. 8:1-4). Remember, in the Bible death always means separation, not cessation. The Greek preposition used in verse 20 means that we died from the law: we are separated from the law’s jurisdiction so that it no longer condemns us.

To illustrate, consider a man from a foreign country where the law imposed a 6 p.m. curfew. The man moves to our country and becomes a U.S. citizen. He has thus been legally separated from his country and its laws and become identified with our country. One evening he is out walking far from his home. Suddenly he realizes that it’s almost 6 p.m. He stops a man on the street and says, “Please, help me! I’m not allowed to be on the streets after 6 p.m.” The American would say to him, “Sir, I don’t know who told you such a thing. But let me assure you that in the United States, there is no such law.” That man’s freedom was a fact; but he wasn’t enjoying his freedom because he wasn’t acting on the basis of the truth that he was dead to (separated from) the laws of his old country and alive to the freedom of his new country.

That’s what Paul means when he says (Rom. 7:6), “But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.” Or, again (Gal. 2:19-20): “For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself up for me.” Godliness comes through our identification with Christ in His death, not through the rules-keeping of asceticism.


I doubt if there’s much danger of any of you running off to join a monastery or a convent. If you’re thinking about it, talk to me first! It won’t kill the flesh! But, because of your sincere desire to live for Christ, some of you may be trying to live by all sorts of manmade rules. But the rules approach doesn’t work. The way toward a godly life and victory over sin is to trust in Christ as your Savior and then to understand who you are in Christ and to live in light of your identification with Him.

Application Questions

  1. Have you encountered Christians who practice asceticism? Were they trying to recruit you? Did you try it? Did it work?
  2. How would you counsel a Christian young man who is fighting a losing battle with lust? Is it wrong to make rules about his use of the internet or his cell phone? Why/why not?
  3. Since self-discipline is a godly virtue, but asceticism is not, how can we know when we cross that line?
  4. A Christian tells you, “In Christ, I may be dead to sin, but I don’t feel dead to sin!” How would you counsel him?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2016, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life

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