The Error of Ascetic Piety (2:16-23)

Sociologist James Davison Hunter, in his recent book on evangelicalism, characterized historic evangelicalism as "world-denying." In order to draw more sharply the social borders that distinguish the orthodox from all others, evangelical believers tend to draft creeds of right belief and codes of right conduct that oblige them to abstain from certain foods (such as alcohol) and practices (such as dancing or extravagant dress) that mainstream believers consider spiritually harmless. Ascetic and austere expressions of one's devotion to Christ are thought by evangelicals to be useful in bearing witness to Christianity as an alternative to the values and convictions of the surrounding secular order. And to a certain extent this is a correct perception. Paul has already stressed in his opening thanksgiving prayer (1:3-12) that the gospel produces the fruit of transformed character, a changed people who know what is true and live according to it. Faith should expect moral results.

The problem Paul addresses in this passage, however, is the legalistic submission to such regulations, such that observing them can even replace a congregation's devotion to Christ. What results is often called "self-righteousness": one's devotion is measured by how drab and dreary one's Christianity is! The arrogant sloganeering that asserts that the simpler the lifestyle, the greater the holiness, does not wash with Paul. For him, the mark of true religion is not a rigorous compliance to rules of self-denial, but faith in Christ and a life in his Spirit (see Rom 14:13-18). What finally defines the borders of true Christianity is "being in Christ," where God's grace transforms a people into an alternative faith community. Any definition of Christianity that substitutes regulations of self-denial for self-transformation by the grace of God is spiritually impoverished and finally useless.

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