Some bible scripture verses (especially those in the Psalms) can seem legalistic and also sanctimonious.

Psalm 101:2-4

2 I will give heed to the blameless way. When will You come to me? I will walk within my house in the integrity of my heart. 3 I will set no worthless thing before my eyes; I hate the work of those who fall away; It shall not fasten its grip on me. 4 A perverse heart shall depart from me; I will know No evil.

But in the Colossians, Paul seems to warn people against legalistic behavior.

Colossians 2:18-23

18 Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, 19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God. 20 If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 21 “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” 22 (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? 23 These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.

How should Christians view bible passages (like in Psalms) that seem legalistic (and maybe even sanctimonious) with Colossians verses warnings against legalistic behavior?

  • 4
    I can see nothing 'legalistic' or 'sanctimonious' in your quotation of Psalm 101. The psalmist is conversing with his God, not boasting before men. Later, after prayer, he records the prayer for others as an insight into his devotions. The expressions are pious and holy and zealous. This question may hinge on a matter of opinion.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Mar 27, 2021 at 17:09
  • Please edit this to explain why you're characterising the first passage as legalistic.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Mar 29, 2021 at 6:34

4 Answers 4


Yes. Correct. One is legalistic, and Paul is warning against ‘doing’ something for legalistic reasons.

But the reason is simple. In the Old Testament, they were under Law. In the New Testament, they were not. They were removed from that bondage by Jesus.

In the New Testament the motivation for ‘keeping’ the Law (living righteously.) comes from a new heart, being ‘born again’. In the Old Testament the motivation for living righteously came from the Law. (Or rather fear of punishment for violating it.). Hence a legalistic approach so as to avoid the consequences.

And, Paul warns the believers not to fall back and put themselves back under the Law.


Paul seems to warn people against legalistic behavior.

It might seem that way, but in this case Paul is not warning the Colossians against legalistic behaviour.

The "seems to" can be resolved by either:

  • eisegesis: you know that Paul is opposed to legalism, so these verses can be readily seen as yet another example that supports what you already believe.
  • exegesis: you first investigate the environment that the Colossians lived in, study the context of the entire epistle, and only then use logical reasoning (deductive, inductive and abductive) to determine why Paul was inspired to write what he did.

Only when the general theme of the entire message is considered will that context allow Paul's comments to acquire their obvious meaning.

By following God's laws, the small Christian community in Colossus (former Ascetics, Gnostics, etc.) have set themselves apart from the society in which they live. They are being criticized by their neighbours and friends for celebrating God's holidays, for no longer depriving themselves of pleasure, for no longer abstaining from meat, for no longer self-abasing their bodies.

Paul is warning them that while these non-Christians seem to have a superior morality, it is a false morality, and not one that God's people should follow. Life is to be enjoyed, not suffered.

I wrote about Exegesis of Colossians a few years ago. In particular:

There were many forms of paganism at the time, but one fairly common element of Roman and Greek philosophy was Dualism, the belief in each person's having an immortal soul that was quite separate from their mortal bodies. The soul was mankind's spiritual good side, while the body was the physical evil side. Each person's purpose in life was to enhance the goodness of their souls by overcoming the evil of their bodies. Some groups, such as the Ascetics, believed that one's spirit can be improved only by the physical suffering of our bodies: abstention from food, drink, sex, and other physical pleasures, often accompanied by self-inflicted pain. Other groups, such as the Gnostics, believed in a hierarchy of heavenly beings (angels, archangels, principalities, etc.) each existing at different levels of perfection

Groups such as the Colossian church are isolated from the rest of Christianity, both by their geographical location, and by their Gentile upbringing. The practices and lifestyles of the church are quite different from the practices of the pagans among whom they must live and work, and many members are finding it difficult not to revert back to their former ways. Paul wants to remind them of the right path, and to warn them of the influences of the environment in which they find themselves.

The food and drink, festivals, new moons (monthly sabbaths), and (weekly) sabbaths refer to things that the Christian community is expected to practice, and not, as some suppose, to unclean foods and pagan festivals. The Ascetics were opposed to any form of physical pleasure (often including eating meat of any kind), and such holy feasts and celebrations (which, except possibly for the Day of Atonement, are a time of joy and pleasure to Christians) were a direct insult to their beliefs. But these sabbaths and holy festivals are symbols to Christians of God's plan for mankind, and must be commemorated despite the objections of non-Christians.

In keeping God's sabbaths and festivals, a Christian will be subject to criticism from others, and in particular that criticism may often be of a very morally superior tone, possibly making the Christian feel that he himself might be the one in the wrong. 2:18-23 continues this theme of sticking to the true Christian faith and not being influenced by others:

Let no one disqualify you [from salvation], insisting on self-abasement [Asceticism] and worship of angels [Gnosticism], taking his stand on visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head [Christ], from whom the whole body [Church], nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God [holy spirit]. If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe [those worshiped by the Gnostics], why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch (referring to things which all perish as they are used), according to human precepts and doctrines? These have indeed an appearance of of wisdom in promoting rigour of devotion and self-abasement and severity to the body, but they are of no value in checking the indulgence of the flesh.

That is, there are practices that might seem to be good, and those that preach them might seem to be morally superior to you, but these ideas are simply inventions of man, and not given by God to man. A Christian must continue to live according to God's commandments, not according to what seems right to man.

  • “Do not touch”? Are there not things Christians shouldn’t touch? Commented Mar 28, 2021 at 22:23
  • @Constantthin, the "do not …" list is actions forbidden by the majority pagans in Colossus. It is they that are commanding it of the Christians, and Paul is telling them to ignore this "appearance of wisdom" advice, lest it "disqualify" them from salvation. Commented Mar 28, 2021 at 22:58
  • Aha.... Ok..... Commented Mar 28, 2021 at 23:55

Psalms are by nature poetic. Reading it as such, I do not find Psalm 101 legalistic or sanctimonious. The psalmist was aiming for the ideal.

2 I will give heed to the blameless way.

Should we not?

Verse 4 in parallelism:

A perverse heart shall depart from me; 
I will know No evil.

Even Confucius said similar things:

see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

It's poetry and not meant to be taken literally. NIV translated verse 4 this way:

The perverse of heart shall be far from me; 
I will have nothing to do with what is evil.

Paul was not concerned about poetry but practical church doctrines. If you read the psalms poetically, you will have no trouble with Paul's propositional statements in Colossians.

  • What metric would you propose for knowing when to read a Psalm with poetic license and when to take it as an indicative statement of truth? Commented Mar 27, 2021 at 17:39
  • I do not have a system of metrics for this purpose.
    – user35953
    Commented Mar 27, 2021 at 19:14

I propose that a key difference is this: who is making the rules?


If we accept the OT concept of God as the Creator of the heavens and the earth--why can't He be legalistic? What basis would we have for challenging His authority? (didn't work out too well for those who tried, e.g. priests of Baal who opposed Elijah)

The OT speaks of a God who gives rules and commands and has every right to do so. One example (of many):

I am the LORD, I have no peer (Isaiah 45:5)

Jesus explicitly acknowledged He was not trying to destroy the laws given by God. From Matthew 5:

17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.

18 For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

19 Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.


Jesus (and Paul apparently) took great exception, on the other hand, to people who thought they could improve upon the law. From Mark 7:

5 Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands?

6 He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.

7 Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.

8 For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do.

And in one of His most withering critiques of the scribes & Pharisees He pointed out their motivation:

But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, (Matthew 23:5)

Putting the pieces together

Paul's words have admittedly been stretched to justify many competing views, often in the absence of the context in which they were first stated. Gratefully, the Gospel authors provide a wealth of context for many of Jesus' teachings; upon reading His words I am left to conclude that all 3 of these statements are true:

  1. God gives commandments and expects people to obey them (Matthew 7:21)

  2. It is inappropriate for unauthorized people to try to expand upon God's rules and then judge others for not doing the same.

  3. Obedience should not be about making oneself appear to be better than other people. And it looks like some of the legalistic-minded people criticized by Jesus and His apostles were doing just that.


The God of the Bible never abridges His own authority--He is the supreme law-giver. When His words are given through His appointed representatives they are authoritative and binding. When people without this authority try to make similar claims, they're speaking in the name of God without permission to do so. That is one of the most clear-cut ways to break the 3rd commandment:

Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain (Exodus 20:7)

Paul's concern is not to try to wriggle out of doing what God commands, but to tear down attempts to speak in the name of God and create rules & regulations never endorsed by God.

  • 1
    No down-vote from me, but I think you have not answered the crux of the question which is about Law and Gospel. And whether believers are under Law. And whether Old Testament references to 'law' (in places such as this one) refer to the rule of the Spirit, rather than the tables of stone.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Mar 27, 2021 at 17:12
  • 1
    That's an interesting read of the question...I admit I didn't read it that way, but I can see how that interpretation could generate a very different response. "The appearance of wisdom in self-made religion" was a phrase that caught my attention and prompted a number of my thoughts. Commented Mar 27, 2021 at 17:44

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