The Power of Grace

Sometimes, in reading passages of Scripture like Colossians 2:16 (“Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths.”) or Colossians 2:18 (“Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions….”) it is easy to dismiss them as irrelevant to me since I have never been condemned over my choice of food, and I have never been involved in new moon festivals, and I have never felt pressured toward self-abasement or the worship of angels.  But if I should skip this section of Scripture, thinking it to be irrelevant to me, I would miss the important principle that applies to a broader audience than just this group of self-abasing, new moon celebrating people who lived in Asia Minor many centuries ago.  

This portion of Scripture (Colossians 2:5-23) was written for any believer whose soul has been moved by the love of God and who wants with all of his or her heart to love God back in equal measure.  It is written for every believer who feels bad about the sin in his or her life—who has struggled with a bad habit that he or she wants to get rid of—and who wants to set things right with God.  It is written for those who are trying desperately to please God. 

Sometimes, in such desperation, we will go as far as the Colossians did (observing strict legalistic rules about what we can eat or drink or touch or handle, or by participating is special religious festivals, or by clamoring for visions or other intense religious experiences.  More often we do it through the burden we put upon ourselves to try harder or to do better.  This becomes for us a “Performance Trap,” and we become entrapped or enslaved to the pressure of trying to please God.  In Colossians 2:8, Paul portrays this as being taken “captive.”

The Performance Trap heaps upon us the burden of things we must do to make God happy.  It is as though we have racked up a pile of IOUs that we must pay back to God. 

But Paul offers us words of hope.  In Colossian 2:13-15 he writes, “And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with Him, when He forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands.  He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.  He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.” 

The “record that stood against them” comes from the Greek word cheirographon which can be translated literally as “hand-written.”  William Barclay explains the significance of this word: “Its technical meaning—a meaning which everyone would understand—was a note of hand signed by a debtor acknowledging his indebtedness.  It was almost exactly what we call an IOU.  It was a signed admission of debt and default.  Men’s sins had piled up a vast list of debts to God.” (The Daily Study Bible, p. 170)

That’s the bad news: Through our sins, we have “piled up a vast list of debts to God.”

Here’s the good news: Jesus has “erased” that debt.  The ink of Paul’s day was different than the ink of today.  It had no acid in it that scored itself into the page.  Rather it lay on the surface of the paper.  It was not unusual for a scribe to choose to use a piece of paper a second time.  He would simply take a sponge and wipe away the writing that had been on the paper and write something new. 

That’s what Paul tells us Jesus did with our IOU, our list of debts to God.  He wiped them away in order to write something new upon the slate of our soul.  The words He has written are “Forgiven,” “Beloved,” “Precious Child.”  That’s who we are to God now—not because of our success in the Performance Trap but through the grace of God

In verse 15 Paul says that Christ “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in [the cross].” 

The Performance Trap drives us to do something that we hope might set us right with God, but grace invites us to find our peace and our hope in what Christ has done for us.  Gary Preston offers a helpful analogy: “There’s a story about a traveler making his way with a guide through the jungles of Burma.  They came to a shallow but wide river and waded through it to the other side.  When the traveler came out of the river, numerous leeches had attached to his torso and legs.  His first instinct was to grab them and pull them off.  The guide stopped him, warning that pulling the leeches off would only leave tiny pieces of them under the skin.  Eventually, infection would set in.  The best way to rid the body of the leeches, the guide advised, was to bathe in a warm balsam bath for several minutes.  This would soak the leeches, and soon they would release their hold on the man’s body.”

 The Performance Trap drives us to do something—to put our energy into trying to pull out our sins, our errors, our shortcomings.  But it doesn’t work, and infection sets in.  Immersing ourselves in the grace of God is our only real hope.  No wonder Paul begins this section of his letter with this invitation: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”

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