He could never do enough. The young man was convinced that he could finally be accepted and loved if he strictly disciplined himself and followed all the rules. To use his own words, “I wearied myself greatly for almost fifteen years with the daily sacrifice, tortured myself with fastings, vigils, prayers, and other very rigorous works. I earnestly thought to acquire righteousness by my works.” Martin Luther, the famous German theologian, believed the lie that severe self-discipline, even to the point of self-harm, would make a person spiritually acceptable before God.
He wasn’t the first or the last to believe the lie either.
A deep concern of the apostle Paul for his friends in the community of Colossae is that they would believe the lie as well. Certain false teachers had told them that true spirituality was found in either strict legalism—including obeying specific Jewish eating and drinking customs—or in deep mystical experiences. They claimed those who refrained from eating certain foods or those who claimed to have visions of angels in the spiritual realm were truly spiritual. If that wasn’t you, then you weren’t part of the spiritual community.
But true spirituality has never been centered around what you avoid eating or drinking, or what out-of-body experiences you’ve had. Paul points out to his friends that they were united to Christ. They don’t have to have mystical experiences or sit under legalistic expectations to be accepted by God. These things were nothing more than “self-made religion” and “false humility” (Colossians 2:23). These regulations were merely “human commands and doctrines” (v.22).
Sadly, this lie persists today. Wherever we find the spiritual maturity of believers is measured by our own efforts, whether dietary laws and customs or experiential events and activities, you’ll find those believers have bought into a lie. Our salvation is measured on the basis of what Christ has done for us. This is the truth that Martin Luther embraced, as he abandoned the lie of self-righteousness. We are accepted because of Jesus’s work, not our own. Our spiritual maturity is found in the Holy Spirit, who empowers us to defeat our sinful passions and produces fruit in us (Romans 14:17–18).
Sometimes, we don’t even realize that we’ve bought into the lie. Before we know it, we’ve measured our spiritual growth, and even the maturity of other Christians, by unbiblical standards. Reject those lies! Christ died to free us so that we will live our lives in response to Him, not under the weight of false teaching. Let’s lean into the freeing joy of a Christian life that is lived in response to embracing the truth: we are accepted because of God’s love for us in Christ Jesus.