The gnosticism of legalism

When legalism rears its head, gnosticism is usually lurking around somewhere. There is a strong dualistic tendency that very often paints ‘spiritual’ things as good and ‘worldly’ things as bad. Of course, the one who deems evil material things as off-limits has to have some special insight to discern such things. In many cases, those who are quick to say ‘do not handle, do not taste, do not touch’ believe that they have advanced to a state of maturity that truly recognises the danger of such things.

This kind of attitude causes us to sniff at God’s good gifts as though they were something other than good. What is natural and part of God’s creation is good, but what is man-made is necessarily bad. It allows us to enjoy grapes but not the wine that comes from them despite God calling both good. It allows us to watch a sunset but not a film. The knowledge of the one who tells us to stay away, despite what God calls good and acceptable, takes precedent over anything the Lord has actually revealed in his Word.

It takes a special kind of insight to insist that what God specifically calls good is somehow bad. And a particular kind of arrogance to assume that such insight is not presumptuous but a mark of maturity. Paul insists:

These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires.

Colossians 2:23

It is interesting in this same section of Colossians 2, Paul sees fit to insist that ‘in [Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily’. Jesus had a real human body. If the fullness of God could dwell in human flesh, there can be nothing intrinsically evil about the flesh. In a wider sense, there is nothing intrinsically evil about material things because God is the one who created them for his creatures. And if God called his creation very good, and he created us to enjoy him forever in that very good creation, who are we to insist what the Lord has called good is something else altogether?

That is not to say there are no biblical mandates in scripture. Of course, there are. Christ calls us, in the gospel, to live and act in certain ways that are befitting of him. But he is quite specific in what he has called us to. We are not left without knowledge of how Christ would have us live in light of the gospel by which we were saved. He doesn’t require special knowledge or insights from us, the Bible contains all we need to know to live lives that are glorifying to him.

Those who insist that the Lord demands what is not in scripture have fallen foul of gnosticism. They may dress it up in scriptural sounding language and may even determine that they, as mature believers, really see what you do not. But as Paul puts it:

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

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…

…do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. 19 They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.

Colossians 2:6-8, 16-19

The answer to gnostic legalism is to centre ourselves on Christ and his Word. We can be confident that if it is not expressed in God’s Word then it is not something by which we can, or should, be bound. We do well whenever somebody says ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’ to examine the Scriptures like the Bereans to see if what they say is true. If the case can’t be made scripturally, and relies on particular knowledge that can’t be found in the Bible, it is legalism driven on by what is essentially gnostic.