A girl recently began attending the church of a friend of mine. She was stunned that her new church allowed people to give freewill offerings. She asked my friend, “What are the ‘laws of giving’ in this church?” For in her previous church, members of the congregation had to give a specified percentage every week, a special offering at the end of the year and to the missions fund. It may be good to set a standard for how much to give, but ultimately God wants cheerful givers who decide in their own hearts what to give (2 Corinthians 9:7). This is freedom, not law.
In Colossians 2:11-19, Paul has just reminded the Colossians of the freedom they have in Christ. He instructed them not to let other people judge or disqualify them by imposing their own rules; even rules of value cannot be imposed on others as requirements for fellowship. Moreover, often these rules may not lead to godliness.
For Paul, living by such rules is another feature of the old life, the “elemental spiritual forces of this world” (v. 20), which we are already dead to. Paul urges us not to submit to rules based on things that do not last. What we eat or drink, the clothes we wear, the days we celebrate—these are all passing away. Moreover, these rules are all merely human requirements. These rules appear wise and spiritual, but they fail to restrain the flesh. You can keep a law of tithing but still be greedy and stingy. You can avoid certain foods and still be a glutton.
The other great danger in living a life based on rules is that it can make us legalistic and judgemental. “I must have an hour-long daily quiet time” can easily become “You must have an hour-long daily quiet time.”
How then should we live? We try to live a disciplined life and pursue that which promotes godliness. But we must continue to come back to the gospel, reminding ourselves that we have died and risen again with Christ—the true power and motivation for godly living. Go back and read Paul’s prayer again (Colossians 1:9-14).
In the next two chapters, Paul will give some rules for the Colossians to follow (e.g. Colossians 3:5,18-22; 4:2). What is the difference between these rules and what Paul is warning us against here?
What is it about the gospel Paul describes in Colossians that promotes godliness in the lives of those who embrace it?