(OPINION) It is estimated that there are perhaps 10,000 different religious systems in the world. And 85 percent of all people in the world identify with one of those systems. The largest, of course, are Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, and Sikhism.

Merriam-Webster defines religion as “a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices.” Essentially, religion is humankind’s attempt to reach God; it’s people saying, “I want to get to God, so I’ll make up a system of approach.” The Bible, however, portrays a God who has reached down to humankind and has already made Himself available.

As Christianity spread across the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago, people brought in philosophies, religions, and ideologies from all over the world.


These were amalgamated into what is called the Colossian heresy, a mixture of different religious systems, including Greek philosophy, Roman polytheism, Jewish legalism, as well as various cults of pagan gods and goddesses.

New believers, then and now, like to make their own religious system by approaching religion as a buffet: you pick and choose the things you want from many choices. For their religion, people may mix their favorite beliefs and ideologies.

“I’d like a large helping of Eastern philosophy and a small order of Christianity, hold the guilt, a side of karma, and throw in some New Age spices.” That’s a sure way to invite in the extreme of legalism.

Legalism is the religion of human achievement. Like every single religious system other than Christianity, it is a works-based salvation that says, “I will earn my way to God.”

It’s all about what I do, what I perform, and what I add to my belief. And it’s dangerous because anybody can do it. You can check all the boxes and conform to a regimen of external standards, and yet not have the reality of salvation on the inside, like the rich young ruler in Luke 18:18-23.

Only Christianity approaches God by His grace. Salvation is a free gift. You don’t work for it or add to it. All you do is receive it.

Legalism is a “Jesus plus” mentality. It’s Jesus plus ceremony, Jesus plus ritual, Jesus plus personal piety, Jesus plus religious activity, Jesus plus mystical spirituality. But Jesus plus anything else equals nothing. Jesus plus nothing equals everything. That’s how God sees it.

The apostle Paul knew from personal experience about legalism because he was once an ardent legalist. In Philippians 3:4-6, he talked about the things he was trusting in to be right with God.

But he ultimately said, “What things were gain to me, these I have counted loss…that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ” (vv. 7-9).

As Paul wrote to the believers in Colosse about dietary restrictions and specific days of worship, he said that these were “a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (Colossians 2:17).

Notice the difference between shadow and substance. A shadow has no reality. It’s the reality that creates the shadow. You wouldn’t hug the shadow of your spouse or pet the shadow of your dog. (READ MORE)