Colossians 2:20-23 — What’s Wrong with Legalism

20 Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations—

21 “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,”

22 which all concern things which perish with the using — according to the commandments and doctrines of men?

23 These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.

Paul condemns asceticism and urges the Colossians to reject it as a way of life. He mentions, in support of his view, (1) the Christian’s death to the rudiments of the world (vs. 20-22a), (2) the human character of ascetic rules (v.22b), and (3) the ineffectiveness of asceticism to check the indulgence of the lower nature (v.23). — Vaughan, page 85.

if (v.20) = “if, as is a fact,” “since” — tense indicates this is referring to the moment of salvation

died (v.20) — separated from the world

rudiments (v.20) = elementary principles

as though living in the world (v.20) — as though you haven’t died to the world

touch (v.21) = cling to

handle (v.21) = superficial or transitory touching — so “don’t even touch them”

perish with the using (v.22) — That is to say, the things with which such commandments as “handle not, nor taste, nor touch” have to do are actually made to be used; and with the use they perish, for food ceases to be food once it is eaten. The underlying thought then is that the restrictive regulations of the Colossian heresy deal with matters that are fleeting and unimportant. Christ, in fact, has made all foods clean (Mark 7:19). — Vaughan, page 86.

these things (v.23) — these sort of things

appearance (v.23) = reputation

self-imposed religion (v.23) — rites of worship voluntarily adopted and not imposed upon one by others

neglect (v.23) = severity, rites that abuse the body

no value against the indulgence of the flesh (v.23) — asceticism does nothing to prevent the desires of the old nature

Paul is saying that legalism appears, on the surface, to be worshipful and impressive, but it has no value in resisting sin.

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