Beware of Religious Legalism: Col. 2:11-17

Over the first three weeks of our study, we established the importance and impact of Christ being preeminent in our lives. Last week we began looking at Colossians 2, where Paul addresses several ways Satan attempts to distract us from the preeminence of Christ, and he also provides us with the keys to combating these attacks.  This week we will look at the second attack Paul addresses—religious legalism.

To truly understand the impact of this passage of Scripture, it is important to understand a bit of Roman history. In 46 B.C. something happened in Rome that had never happened before—a quadruple triumph.  For four weeks in April of that year, the victories of Julius Caesar were celebrated by Rome.  Caesar and his armies repeatedly marched through the city, singing bawdy songs, throwing gold to the crowds, displaying the armor of their defeated foes, carrying models of the cities that had been conquered, and dragging the king of their defeated enemies in chains behind Caesar’s chariot.  When Caesar finally arrived at the Roman Senate, he stepped out of his chariot onto the neck of his defeated foe.  He then watched with the Senate as this defeated king was publicly executed.  Amazingly, Paul compares the victory Christ won over Satan, sin, death, and hell to this triumph.  Instead of Caesar stepping onto the neck of a king, it is Christ stepping onto the neck of our oppressors.

There are two ways to view Christ’s triumph.  The first is as an illustrative victory.  When we view Christ’s victory this way, we see Christ’s victory over our sin as an example to be followed.  Christ defeated sin and the demonic powers at work in this world, and we can too.  By imitating Christ, we can conquer whatever sin or difficulty we are facing.  Unfortunately, this line of thinking leads to religious legalism.  The Christian life becomes a list of do’s and don’ts.  If you struggle in a particular area or with a particular sin, you’re just not trying hard enough.  Look to the example of Christ and do better next time.  Isolate yourself from worldly temptations and distractions, read your Bible and pray more, and eventually you’ll conquer that sin just like Jesus did.  But religious legalism leads to a life of self-righteousness, bitterness, frustration, and disappointment.  The thing is, we never can work hard enough to achieve victory over our sin.  However, there’s good news—we don’t have to!

The second way to view Christ’s triumph is imputed victory.  We don’t have to conquer our sin because Christ has already done so.  The Roman citizens didn’t have to go back and defeat their foes again for themselves; Caesar’s victory was imputed to all of them.  The same holds true for us and sin:  we don’t have to conquer sin because Christ has already done that.  Our job is not to do better, it is to love better.  The more we love and appreciate Jesus, the more we allow Him to transform our hearts and minds to conform to His image, the less power sin has over us.  When we abide in Christ, we participate in His victory. While religious legalism makes us look good on the outside, it is false and debilitating. Love, however, transforms us from the inside out, producing genuine, lasting change that is true and empowering.


  1. As you look back at your life, how have you viewed Christ’s victory (illustrative or imputed)? What feelings has your view caused you with regard to your sin? 
  2. What are some of the ways religious legalism can creep into our thinking? How do we combat this?
  3. Are there any particular sins with which you struggle? How have you addressed these in the past?  Does this passage give you hope or does it add to your frustration?  Why?