Contrary to popular opinion, Jesus was not a religious pluralist. He was not live-and-let-live regarding other religions, even the religion of those closest to Him – the religion of the Pharisees:
- "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. (Matthew 7:15)
- Then He charged them, saying, "Take heed, beware of the leaven [teachings] of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod." (Mark 8:15)
Jesus is very exacting about what He’d have His church believe:
- Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
Believing in Him as the Savior of the world was not an option:
- “Therefore I told you that you will die in your sins. For if you do not believe that I am ⌊He⌋, you will die in your sins.” (John 8:24)
- Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6)
His Apostles were no less theologically exacting (Gal. 1:9). Paul understood that salvation depended on a softened heart made amenable to right belief. Placing trust in the wrong things would place salvation in question:
- Be careful that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit based on human tradition, based on the elemental forces of the world, and not based on Christ. (Colossians 2:8)
What we believe can make prisoners out of us. However, there are many things about which we think wrongly – history, time, space, matter, DNA, and even life. However, this isn’t the problem. Instead, it’s a matter of where we place a trust – what we believe in. Our trust has to be exclusively invested in Jesus (Gal. 3:1-5; 5:2-4). In contrast, we are taken captive by alien philosophies when we place our trust in them:
- Let no one disqualify you [of eternal life], insisting on ascetic practices and the worship of angels, claiming access to a visionary realm and inflated without cause by his unspiritual mind. He [the false teacher] doesn’t hold on to [Jesus] the head. (Colossians 2:18-19)
To place our trust in anything in addition to Jesus is to no longer trust in Jesus – to be “disqualified”:
- If you get yourselves circumcised [to become a Jew and follow the Law], Christ will not benefit you at all. Again I testify to every man who gets himself circumcised that he is obligated to keep the entire law. You who are trying to be justified by the law are alienated from Christ; you have fallen from grace. (Galatians 5:2-4)
I used to think that I’d play-it-safe by earning my worthiness before God by performing good deeds and in trusting in Christ. However, I condemned myself to obsessive introspection, trying to convince myself that my deeds were good enough – something I never could do! Nevertheless, we are to perform good deeds but for the right reasons. To perform them to earn God’s love represents a refusal to believe what He tells us to believe – that salvation is an absolutely free gift, apart from any good deeds (Eph. 2:8-9; Rom. 3:27-28).
What were these dangerous philosophies (teachings) that Paul warned against? One was an ascetic mysticism through which its adherents claimed visions (Col. 2:18). Mysticism is the belief that we can access God through a variety of techniques like meditations, visualizations, imaginations, and repetitions of a single word or phrase. Ascetic mysticism believes that God can be accessed through severe afflictions or depravations. About this, Paul warned:
- Why do you submit to regulations: “Don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch”? All these ⌊regulations⌋ refer to what is destroyed by being used up; they are commands and doctrines of men. Although these have a reputation of wisdom by promoting ascetic practices, humility, and severe treatment of the body, they are not of any value in curbing self-indulgence. (Colossians 2:20-23)
“Severe treatment of the body” (asceticism) – the attempt to achieve a worthiness before God - has been a central part of many religions. It had been so for the reformer Martin Luther, according to blogger, Bill Spears:
- When Martin Luther tacked his Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences in 1517 on the church door at Wittenburg, Germany, initiating what would be called "the protestant reformation", he was turning away from a life of self-mutilation, self-condemnation, and self-castigation. He was instead forwarding a cause favored by grace and freedom. The Reformation was a change in theological thinking that had held a firm and frightening grip on Europe throughout the dark and middle ages. And with that change in thinking came the Renaissance and scientific method. The world has never been the same since.
Later, Luther confessed that his “severe treatment of the body” represented a denial of the severe treatment that our Savior had endured to free us of our sins - grace. Through his self-afflictions, Luther had hoped to win God’s approval but almost died as a result.
However, others are convinced that by paying the severe price of self-mutilation, they have succeeded in making themselves both worthy before God and even before men. This is the core of self-righteousness.
The Flagellants were a sect that sprang up while the Black Death was ravishing Europe. Convinced that the Plague was the result of God’s wrath, the Flagellants whipped their bodies bloody to ward it off. As they wandered through the cities of Europe, they earned praise for their sacrificial behavior. Convinced of their spiritual superiority, they violently installed themselves in the place of the priests, whom they beat and tossed out of their parishes. This is the fruit of self-righteousness.
Others try to achieve spiritual worthiness through other forms of physical punishment or the rejection of anything pleasurable. Some take vows of silence, sexual abstinence, or fasting for long periods. However, Paul insisted “they are not of any value in curbing self-indulgence [sin]” (Colossians 2:23). In fact, they are even worse than useless if we place trust in these depravations to make us worthy before God.
Another evil arises from these practices. When we think that we have achieved a higher spiritual state through such practices, we tend to believe in our own sanctity. We sanctify our thoughts, feelings, and imaginations as did the Flagellants. According to Paul, these mystics claimed “access to a visionary realm and [became] inflated without cause by his unspiritual mind” (Colossians 2:18).
When people become self-righteous, they tend to glory in their thoughts and imaginations. In Celebration of Discipline, mystic Richard Foster insists that:
- As with meditation, the imagination is a powerful tool in the work of prayer. We may be reticent to pray with the imagination, feeling that it is slightly beneath us. (172)
- Imagination often opens the door to faith.” (173)
Does God really care about our imaginations or in faith, confession and righteousness? Scripture never mentions that “Imagination often opens the door to faith.” In contrast to Foster, the Apostle Paul claimed that we are not free to imagine and visualize God according to our own inclinations:
- For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Romans 1:21)
Our imaginations provoke God’s wrath. Why? Because it represents a rejection of true, biblically prescribed worship! Although humankind knows God, we refuse to worship Him “as God!” As a consequence of refusing to abide in God’s light, we become darkened by our own imaginations, as God revealed through the Prophet Jeremiah:
- This is what the Lord Almighty says: "Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They keep saying to those who despise me, 'The Lord says: You will have peace.' And to all who follow the stubbornness of their hearts [“walketh after the imagination of his own heart;” KJV] they say, 'No harm will come to you.'” (Jeremiah 23:16-17; Ezek 13:2; Luke 1:51)
If we are to represent the Lord, we cannot speak from our own thoughts or imaginations, as if they are coming from the Lord. If we are to walk in the light, it has to be according to the light of His Word (Isaiah 8:20; 1 Peter 4:11; 1 Cor. 4:6-7)
As Paul claimed, many of these ascetic practices have the “appearance of wisdom” and spirituality:
- Now the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will depart from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared. They forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods that God created. (1 Timothy 4:1-3)
Interestingly, “the teachings of demons” have the appearance of piety. How self-sacrificial and godly to deny oneself sex and a family! Such a person must be more worthy of God, right? Also, the giving up of all animal products has the appearance of spiritual worthiness.
Meanwhile, there is nothing the matter with rejecting meat products or marriage if that is one’s calling. Likewise, there is nothing the matter with taking vows of poverty or chastity if one wants to make such sacrifices in order to more effectively serve the Lord. However, if we place trust in such vows in order to make ourselves more acceptable before God, we are denying Christ and the adequacy of His Cross.
What we believe can tear us down, but it can also build us up, giving us all spiritual blessings:
- May grace and peace be multiplied to you through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has given us everything required for life and godliness through the knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness. (2 Peter 1:2-3)
When I believed that I needed to earn or be worthy of God’s salvation, I placed myself in torment, never certain that He loved me. Instead, I began to see how unworthy I was of anything coming from Him. Even after I began to teach, I was afflicted with thoughts of unworthiness, as if the Devil was telling me:
- You teach? You are a hypocrite, getting in front of the class as if you are some kind of role-model. I know who you are! You are a loveless, faithless fraud, you disgusting hypocrite!
After allowing me to be torn down, my Savior began to build me up in His holy Gospel. I realized that it wasn’t about me but Him; that it wasn’t about my worthiness but His, entirely. Consequently, when I was accused by Satan, I responded:
- Satan, you are right. I am entirely unworthy, but I have a God loves and forgives me. It is He who has given me a task to perform. As a result, I am so glad to be reminded of my unworthiness. This awareness just causes me to adore my Savior all the more!
What was Paul’s solution to these philosophical threats? Awareness of Jesus and our unmatchable inheritance in Him (Col. 1:15-20; 2:8-15)! When we understand how rich we are in Him, we will not be enticed by a bag of trinkets.