One Sunday morning, I was about to finish preaching when suddenly a man approached the pulpit yelling at the top of his voice, “I have something to say. I have something to say!” Before the ushers could escort him out, the tape recorder picked up what he shouted to the congregation: “You people are religious phonies—materialistic hypocrites. If you really loved God you’d get rid of your cars and your fancy houses and give all that you have to the poor. You’d serve God in poverty like Jesus did.” That was his view of spirituality, and he wanted everyone to know it.
Fortunately, that kind of behavior is uncommon. But that view of spirituality is not uncommon at all. It’s called asceticism, and it has threatened the church for centuries. In fact, it was one of the heretical gospel additives that Paul warned the Colossian Christians to avoid:
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. (Colossians 2:20–23)
An ascetic is someone who lives a life of rigorous self-denial as a means to earn forgiveness from God. The extremes of asceticism are usually associated with monasticism, which appealed to people who believed that expiation of sin and thus true spirituality required abject poverty or giving up everything to become a nun or a monk.
Our Lord requires us to take up our cross and follow Him, and there are many testimonies to the blessedness of godly self-denial. Biblically it is not an attempt to gain forgiveness or spirituality through self-abasement. Rather it is the willing response of a heart dedicated to serving Christ at any cost. Asceticism is a different matter. It is motivated by pride rather than humility, and it is an attempt to accomplish in the energy of the flesh a right relationship with God, which can be brought about only by a divine transformation through faith in Jesus Christ.
Paul said that we have “died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world” (Colossians 2:20). That means we aren’t in bondage to any religious systems that require some kind of abstinence to make us acceptable to God. Such teachings are not wise or even helpful. On the contrary, they’re deceptive and destructive because they feign wisdom and establish a false standard of spirituality—one that is “of no value against fleshly indulgence” (Colossians 2:23).
“Of no value against fleshly indulgence” is a difficult phrase to interpret. It may mean that false, legalistic standards of spirituality are of no value in combating the desires of the flesh. That’s certainly true. Asceticism can’t restrain the flesh. That’s why so many legalistic Christians fall into gross immorality.
More likely, however, the phrase means that false standards of spirituality serve only to indulge the flesh. Self-styled asceticism elevates the flesh and makes a person proud about his sacrifices, visions, and spiritual achievements. It takes away from Christ and enslaves the ascetic to fleshly pride.
In reality, vows of poverty, cloistered isolation, and rigorous self-denial never catch God’s attention or garner His favor. Asceticism is nothing more than a superficial façade of piety concealing the same darkened heart that all pagans have. True growth in holiness springs forth from a regenerate heart that delights in pleasing God through obedience. That is authentic life in Christ.
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