Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Self-Help Gospel

There is a self-help gospel preached in the world today, which is not the true gospel at all. It is a gospel of self-improvement. Just look in the bookstores and you will find them stocked with best selling books about how to do this or that to improve yourself. I’m not saying that every “how-to” book is bad. I’m just saying that much of what is written in the name of the Lord is not what the Lord would say to us. Let’s look at what the Lord says in His Word.

Hollow and Deceptive Philosophy
The apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians and said: "See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ." (Col 2:8). That's a clear warning for us today, as well. We need to make sure we don't let anyone captivate us through hollow and deceptive philosophy. It doesn't matter who they are who teach it. This kind of philosophy does not depend on Christ, but on human tradition and the basic principles of this world.

He went on to challenge those among them who had already begun to fall for these teachings. He wrote: “If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!’ (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)--in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.” (Col 2:20-23)

Let's remember that Paul was writing to the Colossian church, not to non-believers. They had already died with Christ, and Paul is asking them a question. He asks: “If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!’” Essentially he is saying that they already died to the world, so why do they act as though they need to live according to basic, worldly regulations about what you can and cannot handle, taste, and touch?

We could ask the same question of the church today. Why do these self-help preachers fool the church? Why do we keep falling for their lies? These are simply the commandments of men and the teachings of men, as Paul puts it. He gives the reason why some people listen to them. He says that these things definitely have the appearance of wisdom. That’s why it’s so enticing. But he exposes it for what it really is: self-made religion, self-abasement, and severe treatment of the body. Let's explore those three things.

Self-made religion
The word in the original Greek language, which this passage was written in, connotes voluntary piety that is arbitrary and unwarranted. It also may connote sanctimony or will worship.

This brings up thoughts of many different practices we see today. For example, we see people exercising voluntary piety that is unwarranted and arbitrary. Outwardly they try to seem pious and sanctimonious. They are part of the “do not handle,” “do not taste,” “do not touch” crowd. Where the Word has given us freedom, they have chosen to forbid themselves and others.

Paul also refers to will worship. The best thing I can use to illustrate what I see as will worship is the phrase, “Believe in yourself!” Or the philosophy that “I can do whatever I set my mind to do.” People who live according to this philosophy essentially worship their own will. They exult in the power of their own will to accomplish good things for themselves. These teachings range all the way from positive thinking and positive confession to various humanistic philosophies that teach man to try and be a good person without God.

All of these are self-made religion. They are man’s attempt to worship according to a way that he in himself determines is right. But these fail to please God. They fail to save anyone or make anyone holy, because they focus on outward performance and outward appearance, rather than on a change of the heart within. They focus on what man can do, rather than on the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and what He can do.

This word for self-abasement connotes false humility. This is another aspect of the worldly regulations Paul is talking about, which entice us away from the Lord. These regulations may appear to make you humble, but they really don’t do so. You can deny yourself from eating or touching anything you like, and it may appear that you are extremely humble. But we’ll find out how humble you are when someone throws up on you. Some things can be put on like a mask and you can pretend, but under the right circumstances, your pride will shine through.

Only the gospel has the power to save. Paul said he was not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God unto salvation (Rom 1:16). And when Jesus prayed for his disciples, He prayed, "Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth." (Joh 17:17). He didn't pray that we would be sanctified through the commandments and teachings of men, or through man-made regulations and traditions. Only the Word of God has the power to make you holy.

Severe treatment of the body
The word Paul used to describe severe treatment of the body literally connotes a kind of asceticism, austerity, and neglecting of oneself. The Christian monks of old were famous for sleeping on beds of nails or broken glass, taking vows of silence and depriving themselves the company of other people in order to achieve deeper spiritual lives. It appeals to some people, because it looks spiritual, and it seems so disciplined, orderly, and hard on the flesh. But Paul says that these regulations are of no value against fleshly indulgence. That’s the reality. It’s not that they have some or little value, but they have no value when it comes to dealing with the sinful impulses inside of man.

Again, only the gospel has the power to deal with the flesh, by putting it to death with Christ, and giving us new life in Him.

Food, Drink, and Holiday Police
Some people still teach that certain days are more special or holier than other days.

Paul wrote to the Colossians about such people, saying, “Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day-- things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.” (Col 2:16-17)

If you aren’t in church or celebrating the festival or holiday on that day – whether its Christmas, Easter, Ash Wednesday, or All Saints Day, you’re looked at by these people as if you are less spiritual. This is what happened to the Galatians. Paul wrote to them saying, “You observe days and months and seasons and years.” (Gal 4:10) Because of this, Paul was concerned that he had labored over the Galatians in vain. There is no Scripture that says you must celebrate the birth of Jesus or His resurrection on a certain day each year. If you love Him, you will worship Him every day.

And we should certainly not let anyone judge us and make us feel less spiritual with regard to the Sabbath Day or any holiday. I have no problem if someone wants to worship the Lord and hold their church meetings on Saturday, rather than Sunday. But when they claim it is more correct, more biblical, or more spiritual to do so, that’s all part of these worldly regulations.

Neither should we let anyone judge us regarding what we eat or drink. For example, there are some who teach that certain diets are scriptural or more spiritual, like being a vegetarian. I'm not saying the Lord condones gluttony or drunkenness. And I agree that some foods and drinks are more healthy than others. But when you are partaking of food or drink in moderation with thankfulness, and someone looks down on you because of it, that’s not the heart of God. It’s all just a shadow of things to come. But reality is found in Christ. Our focus should be on Him, not on the calendar, the cup or the dish.

All these things are part of the written code that has been cancelled. As Paul wrote: “When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” (Col 2:13-14)

Paul speaks to disciples of Christ. He says, when you were in a place where you could do absolutely nothing for yourself, because you were completely dead in sin, it was then that Christ made you alive together with Him. It was then He forgave all your transgressions. It was then that He canceled out the written code that was against you with all its decrees and regulations. The Holy Spirit described it like this through the prophet Ezekiel when He said, “When I passed by you and saw you squirming in your blood, I said to you while you were in your blood, 'Live!' Yes, I said to you while you were in your blood, 'Live!'” (Eze 16:6) It’s a picture of you lying there in their own blood, squirming and about to die. The Lord saw you there as He passed by and said, “Live!” By His mighty power, He made you alive with Christ. His Word has power! His cross has power! It was through no effort of your own.

The true gospel
This is the true gospel – repent of your sins and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved (Acts 2:38; 16:30). Paul says to the Romans, “that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved; for with the heart man believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. For the Scripture says, "WHOEVER BELIEVES IN HIM WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED." (Rom 10:9-11). This means you need to believe in your heart that God raised Jesus Christ from the dead and confess Him as Lord of your life with your mouth. If you do so, you will be saved.

Putting it All Together

I think the Scripture is very clear about all this. Don’t let anyone judge your spirituality based on what you eat or drink or whether you observe certain festivals or Sabaaths. We’re not supposed to observe days and months and years on the calendar. And it’s not what you put into your body, but what comes out of your mouth that defiles it.

Don’t pay attention to those who preach the self-help gospel. They tell you not to taste, touch, or handle certain things. They are the ones who promote self-made religion, unwarranted piety, self-abasement and harsh treatment of the body. None of these things has any power to restrain the sinful nature with its self-indulgence. They deal with the outward performance, not the inward matters of the heart and character.

Instead, focus on Jesus Christ. Reality is found in Him. He alone can save you in your most depraved and helpless state. And it's only through the power of His Word and His Spirit that you can become more like Jesus.

For more on this topic, be sure and see the other posts in this blog, especially Righteousness, Peace, and Joy. There are also some other authors on this topic, including one by Mark Lauterbach, and another article by the American Presbyterian Church, with which I am not associated in any official capacity.

Attribution notice: Most Scripture quotations taken from the NASB.

Author's note: This "Seeking the Lord" blog has become very popular in France. The reason for this is uncertain, but I am humbled and delighted that it has generated such a great interest there. To God be all the glory! If you enjoyed this post, you may also like the other posts in this blog available through the links in the side bar. You may also access my blog directory at "Writing for the Master."

Do You Want to Know Him?
If you want to know Jesus personally, you can. It all begins when you repent and believe in Jesus.  Do you know what God's Word, the Bible says?

“Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” (Mar 1:14b-15).  He preached that we must repent and believe.

Please see my explanation of this in my post called "Do You Want to Know Jesus?"

Len Lacroix is the founder of Doulos Missions International.  He was based in Eastern Europe for four years, making disciples, as well as helping leaders to be more effective at making disciples who multiply, developing leaders who multiply, with the ultimate goal of planting churches that multiply. His ministry is now based in the United States with the same goal of helping fulfill the Great Commission.

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