What happens when you get tired of waiting for God to answer your prayer? When you lose confidence in God’s power to manage whatever is burdening you, do you look for something that will work, such as formulas for “success,” religious experiences, and checklists to earn God’s favor? If you turn to those substitute power sources, you are intentionally exposing yourself to the Spiritual Substitutes infection. This is post #8 in our Healthy Living series from Colossians. In this article, we will see how to flee the Spiritual Substitutes infection and stay spiritually healthy in an unhealthy world.
Listen to this post as a similar podcast from our Healthy Living Bible Study of Colossians and Philemon:
In July 1993, we were in Colorado conducting summer camps for our wilderness-based camp ministry. A church youth group rented our camp facility for one week. I was in charge of providing meals. My husband Ron would be gone for the week. As he was about to leave, he said to me, “This group is not your typical church youth group.” Hmmm. What does that mean?I knew that our senior staff members were on 21-day backpacking trips in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. They would not be around to assist. The only ones left on site were basically women & children. I sent up a quick prayer, “Lord, please help us!”
The group that came looked like typical high school kids and adult counsellors but were very different from the usual youth groups that came to our camp. We welcomed and served them. During that week, I realized that we served prisoners, people who had been taken captive. They were taken captive by the philosophy that God is an impersonal energy field, an “IT”—something that binds the universe together. They sought God while staring at a candle for an hour. They were taken captive by the concept that good and bad are relative. Since each person is part of the god-force of the universe, each one determines what is good or bad. They meditated upon the god being created in each of them. The message portrayed was this: salvation comes through uniting one’s personal spiritual energy with the other-god-energy of the universe.
Though this group came from what was called a church, they had rejected Jesus Christ as their head and substituted other things for Him. We prayed for protection and guidance as we listened to this Spiritual Substitutes infection being spread. Sadly, most of them were females—either teenage girls or adult counselors. What makes anyone susceptible to the Spiritual Substitutes infection?
What makes anyone susceptible to the Spiritual Substitutes infection?
First, let us define what a substitute is.
A substitute is something that takes the place or function of another. Usually, the substitute is not as good or effective as the original. The same is true of spiritual substitutes.
Whenever you believe that some person, religious system, or discipline can make you feel more spiritual, you have made a substitute for Christ in your life. As I have already mentioned in other posts, we are called to a person—Jesus Christ—not to a system or to an organization. He is the head of the Church, which is composed of people who belong to Him. And in Him, we have everything we will ever need for life and godliness. The treasure we have in the person and work of Jesus Christ is more powerful, more effective and more valuable than anything we could substitute for Him. That is clearly discovered in our Seek the Treasure study of Ephesians.
The Spiritual Substitutes infection can present itself in many ways. I will focus on the two Christ substitutes that Paul described at the end of Colossians chapter 2. One is called legalism. The other is called mysticism. One stems from insecurity. The other is fed by dissatisfaction. Both are wrapped up in self.
Let’s first look at the Christ substitute called legalism.
The Christ substitute called LEGALISM
Paul identified legalism as a false teaching infiltrating the Colossian church.
Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. (Colossians 1:16-17)
Legalism is a performance-based way of approaching the Christian life.
When you hear the word “legalism,” you likely think “legal” which deals with laws and rules. The Colossians were apparently being pushed into following the Mosaic Law to complete their salvation. Today, it isn’t likely that you as a Christian will be pushed into following the Mosaic Law as the Colossians were doing. Although, some denominations do add parts of it to their own religious practices.
You are more likely to run into the legalism that is a performance-based way of approaching the Christian life. It is taking your faith in Christ and adding other things you must do or not do to gain and maintain acceptance from God and even to keep your salvation. You recognize legalism as “faith plus” good works and “faith plus” following church rules.
I am not talking about what is clearly taught in the New Testament about living a life that pleases God and what sin is. What I am talking about are those extra rules that some person or organization has decided you must follow to be a “good Christian” and for God to love you. Such extra rules could include: how often you must go to church, which church you must attend, what kind of clothing you must wear, and things you must do or say every day to stay in God’s good favor. Whenever God’s acceptance of you has an “if you do this” attached to it (other than faith in Jesus Christ), you know you are in the vicinity of legalism. Legalism is a substitute for Christ. We cover this thoroughly in our Graceful Living Bible Study and Graceful Living Today devotional.
Legalism also includes denying yourself the normal activities and pleasures of life in order to make yourself look good or earn merit with God by what you sacrifice.
Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. (Colossians 2:20-23)
The result is that you stray away from enjoying a love-based relationship with Jesus to practicing a performance-based religion. When you are living this way, your spiritual life is in bondage to insecurity, guilt, and fear of punishment for not doing it right. Jesus died to set you free from that.
Jesus set you free from legalism.
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. (Colossians 2:13-14)
The Mosaic Law and every other system of works-based religion was nailed to the cross! The one and only way you are declared right before a holy God is through your faith in Jesus Christ. The Bible calls this justification. And it is permanent. I shared a little about justification in the last post.
Justification is a legal term that literally means, “to declare righteous, to declare not guilty.” The sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross fully honored and satisfied the righteous demands of a holy God to punish human sin. Because of that, once you put your faith in Jesus Christ, God declares you righteous and perfectly acceptable in His sight.
Paul describes it clearly in 2 Corinthians. I love this verse.
God made the one who did not know sin [that is Jesus] to be sin for us, so that in him we [that is you and me] would become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
Jesus Christ took your sin. God gave you His righteousness instead. That is called the Great Exchange. You receive this righteous status by faith alone. It does not depend upon any works that you do to earn acceptability in God’s sight, even after you are saved. When God looks on you, He sees His Son’s righteousness taking the place of your sin—even your sin after you have been a believer for a long time.
Embrace your righteous status in Christ.
Maybe you started out accepting the gift of salvation by faith in Jesus as a free gift. But then you have been thrown into a performance-based way of living out this Christian life in order to maintain your acceptance before God. Or you might still be wrestling with the notion that you are not good enough to please God so you are tempted by legalism to work harder. Stop it! That is a reliance on self, not Christ. Here’s the truth: no one can ever be good enough on her own merits to please God. That is why Jesus came to do that for you. Accept this gift of righteousness by faith. Thank God for it. When you know who you are in Christ, you can flee the Spiritual Substitute infection of works-based religion. Legalism is a substitute for the treasure you already have in Jesus Christ.
Legalism may be easier to recognize than the second substitute Paul addressed—the Christ substitute of mysticism.
The Christ substitute of MYSTICISM
First, let us talk about what mysticism is not. Jesus does appear to people in visions. We hear about those from missionaries, especially in closed countries where the gospel cannot be openly preached. The sad thing to me is hearing that some of those who have seen Jesus in their dreams still choose not to believe in Him. Jesus choosing to reveal Himself unexpectedly to people is not mysticism.
Jesus uses His Spirit to illuminate your mind and help you understand His Word and to give you direction when you ask.
These are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. (1 Corinthians 2:10-12)
Most of us can remember a time when we knew the Lord spoke to us in a specific way, especially when we asked for wisdom and guidance. There are times when a verse literally leaps off the page at me. God knows it is something I need to know for the upcoming week or month. He prepares by instruction. We learn by experience. That is not mysticism.
What is mysticism?
So what is it? Mysticism is seeking visions, interactions with angels, or supernatural experiences to improve or validate one’s relationship with God. It is fed by dissatisfaction with what has already been given to us through Christ’s finished work on the cross and the complete Word of God that the Holy Spirit uses to teach us how to approach life God’s way.
Paul gave us a description of what was happening with the Colossians.
Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. They have lost connection with the head [Christ], from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow. (Colossians 2:18-19)
Mysticism is seeking a direct “God-and-me” experience apart from biblical truth. This has taken a subtle, slightly deceptive form in our modern Christianity. Christians who are dissatisfied with what God has already communicated to them through the Bible yearn for more personal experiences with Him. Our “all about me” society feeds this. And they spread their dissatisfaction by teaching others to expect God to speak to them apart from His Word.
Mysticism is works-based.
This form of mysticism is works-based, too. It is putting God on demand to put on a good show whenever you want it. If you get some special word from God, then it creates a sense of spiritual elitism. You see yourself as being more spiritual than other Christians because God is giving personal messages to you. I knew someone wrapped up in this modern mysticism movement. She looked down her nose at those of us who were not buying into it.
But mysticism also sets Christians up for disappointment and guilt. If God does not speak special words to you whenever you ask, then what have you done wrong? Once again, that puts you back into a performance-based religion. Don’t let anyone put you down because of an experience they have had that you have not had.
The danger of mysticism
The danger of mysticism is we have an enemy who always wants to distract us away from Christ. He wants us to lose “connection with the head.” What we have in the whole Bible is inspired and authoritative. But the “nudges,” “feelings,” intuitions, and random thoughts a person has while emptying one’s mind to hear a special word from God every day cannot be put on the same level as Scripture. To assume that the voice a person hears in her mind is the voice of God is to leave the door wide open for self-delusion and even demonic deception through false teachers.
But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. … For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness. (2 Corinthians 11:3, 13-14)
Angelic sightings and supernatural experiences can have a source other than God. If someone says she has had a vision, but it does not point to Jesus as the Lord and His completed work on the cross as being supreme in her life, that person is very likely being deceived. Any teaching that is not centered on the sufficiency of Christ alone to make you acceptable to God is not from God. Any teaching that does not point you to the Bible as being sufficient for you to know God’s will and grow spiritually is not from God.
Jesus Christ still speaks through His Word in the Bible.
Here’s the truth: Jesus Christ still speaks, because the Spirit has already spoken. We hold His words in our hands with every printed Bible and every Bible app on our phones and tablets. He has already given us plenty of truth in the Bible that we can know and trust. If you want to hear from God, immerse yourself in the word of God where you can listen to the voice of God every day.
We already have 66 books of revelation—1189 chapters. If we just took 1 chapter per day, wrote down all the truths about God and our relationship with Him, and committed to obey that, it would take us more than 3 years to get through the whole Bible and put into practice what it teaches us. You can be confident that you are hearing the truth you need to hear. Flee the Christ substitute of mysticism.
Legalism and mysticism are self-focused rather than Christ-focused.
Both legalism and mysticism are wrapped up in self—what self wants. Both depend on some kind of experience to validate your faith. Both lead to being puffed up about one’s religious life or experiences. Both are spiritual substitutes for Jesus Christ as being supreme in your life. Flee from the Spiritual Substitutes infection. This one will leave you empty.
As Paul wrote in Colossians,
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. (Colossians 2:8)
The Spiritual Substitutes infection is bad. Know that the treasure you have in Jesus Christ is more powerful, effective, and valuable than anything you could substitute for Him. This truth gives you an immune system that overcomes any spiritual infection. Let Jesus satisfy your heart needs with His truth and His love so you can get well and stay well.
Learn more about staying spiritually healthy in an unhealthy world through our Healthy Living Bible Study of Colossians and Philemon (11 lessons).
- Healthy Living Bible Study on Amazon
- Graceful Living Bible Study on Amazon
- Satisfied Series 3 Podcasts (Colossians series)
- TRUTH Is the Prescription for Healthy Living
- Tame the “Look-Imagine-See” Dragon
- Escape the Cultural Captivity Infection
- Resist the “Tyranny of the Urgent” Infection
- Stop the “Jesus Is Not Lord over All” Infection
- Conquer the “Manipulation by Guilt” Infection
- Flee the Spiritual Substitutes Infection
- Delete the Karma Infection
- Wipe Out the Narcissism Infection
- Counter the “Work Is Secular” Infection
- Overcome the “Holy Huddle” Infection
- Defeat the Victim Infection
- Angels, feathers, and needing comfort for grief
- Saintly Superstitions Are Substitutes for Christ on Bible.org
- Better than Shirley Temple Goodness on Bible.org
- What’s wrong with occasional s’mores and brownies on Bible.org
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