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Commandments and Doctrines of Men

Only God is the Lawgiver; only He determines the proper boundaries of piety. The fact that our actions impress us or others does not make them true piety before a righteous God. There is no end to the ways that can be devised to make a show of piety. None can replace obedience to God’s Law-Word.

  • Mark Rushdoony,
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Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (Touch not; taste not; handle not; Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men ? Which things have indeed a shew of wisdom in will-worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh. (Col. 2:20-23)

Christ died the death we deserved. We stood guilty before God and yet Christ paid our death penalty to restore us to fellowship with our Creator. Paul had just reminded his readers (vs. 12-13) that Christ’s death and resurrection was theirs, as baptism signified. He then reminded his readers, then and now, that they are not to let men judge them in matters of diet or holy days.

Paul now goes further. He asks us a question. “If you believe Christ died to restore you to God, why do you allow yourself to be manipulated by mundane rules devised by men?” The problem is a lack of understanding of the atonement and the doctrine of justification. If we do not understand that Christ’s Blood atoned for our sins and made us righteous (justified) in God’s sight, we will look for ways to be righteous by our own devices. We will wrongly still feel guilt for the sins from which Christ has freed us and will let others use that false guilt to teach us any number of systems of human-devised piety. Whether sincere or Pharisaical, such self-devised piety depreciates faith in Christ’s finished work and obedience to God’s Word.

Paul’s point here has nothing to do with Biblical law. It only uses the fact that Christ set us free from the curse or condemnation of the law (Eph. 2:15, Col. 2:14) as a basis for saying we should not be so easily enslaved by a false piety invented by men. Such things are “rudiments,” or elements. Elsewhere Paul describes them as weak and beggarly elements (Gal. 4:3, 9). They are earthly things which will one day he consumed in judgment. They should not be the basis of our life, much less our piety.

Paul then characterizes the false piety he speaks of. Calvin felt “touch not” would be better translated as “eat not,” thereby describing a progression of restrictions — “don’t eat it, don’t taste it, don’t even touch it!” Paul would thus be warning of the many ways such false Pharisaical piety could create a maze of human tradition. He did specifically warn Timothy that the teachings of celibacy and vegetarianism would characterize those who departed from the Faith in favor of seducing spirits, doctrines of devils, and lies (I Tim. 4:1-3).

Paul offers two arguments against being subjected to false piety. First, such rules deal in outward, earthly things which will perish one day in judgment. “For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink,” Paul told the Romans (14:17). Christ had warned the Pharisees that “Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man” (Mt. 15:11). When the disciples told Jesus the Pharisees were offended at this harsh rebuff, Christ told them to ignore them as blind leaders of the blind heading for a fall. Paul elsewhere characterized preoccupation with such “rudiments” by declaring, “Meat for the belly and the belly for meats: God will destroy both it and them” (1 Cor. 6:13).

A second argument against such false piety is that it originated with men and not God. It could therefore not be binding, since men cannot make their own morality. Such a silly pretense is echoed in the oxymorons “commandments of men” and “doctrines of men.” Recognizing such piety as of human origin ought to give us sufficient reason to be wary of it and those who demand it. Christ specifically condemned those who replaced the commandments of God with the “traditions of the elders” or the “commandments of men” (Mt. 15:2-3, ML 7:5- 7, 9, 13). Paul had once been “more exceedingly zealous” to abide by those very traditions (Gal. 1:14). Now, he warns of them and elsewhere told Titus that they turn men from the truth (1:14). False piety is not piety at all


False piety does look good, however. Paul says it makes a good “show of wisdom.” But this show consists of “will [self-devised, invented] worship,” humility, and neglect of the body.

Self-devised “will worship” primarily pleases the pietist himself. Like the Pharisees, such men are so impressed with their piety that they vainly assume God must he also.

False piety also consists of a show of humility. Yet Paul had just warned us (v. 18) not to let men beguile us, or cheat us out of, our reward by a false humility in matters they know nothing about. Believers who understand the extent both of God’s grace and man’s depravity will not so easily fall for the affected humility of false teachers.

Paul also condemns the show of neglecting the body. Christ suffered and died for our sins; in this we do not have to imitate Him. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit which act as tools in God’s service. Neither their overestimation nor their neglect is of any consequence in service to God. We worship God in spirit and in truth, not with a show of ascetic severity.

Only God is the Lawgiver; only He determines the proper boundaries of piety. The fact that our actions impress us or others does not make them true piety before a righteous God. There is no end to the ways that can be devised to make a show of piety. None can replace obedience to God’s Law-Word.

  • Mark Rushdoony

Mark succeeded his father, R. J. Rushdoony, as President of Chalcedon in 1998. He oversees Chalcedon's publishing arm of Christian Reconstruction literature, under the banner of Chalcedon/Ross House books and Storehouse Press.  Mark has ensured that his father's works remain in print and remains committed to publishing the remaining unpublished works. He manages the Chalcedon ministry and preaches at Chalcedon Chapel in Vallecito, CA.

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