Biblical Worship

3. Counterfeit Worship: The Indulgence of the Flesh

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
Counterfeit worship is of no value for the one thing God says every Christian needs most.

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

Part 3 of a 20-part series. Read part 2.

Counterfeit worship is of no value for the one thing God says every Christian needs most.

We return once again to the passage we are focusing upon in relation to genuine and counterfeit worship, Colossians 2:18-23:

18 Let no one cheat you of your reward, taking delight in false humility and worship of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind, 19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom all the body, nourished and knit together by joints and ligaments, grows with the increase that is from God.

20 Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations - 21 "Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle, 22 which all concern things which perish with the using - according to the commandments and doctrines of men?

23 These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.

"Of No Value"

Notice how Paul ends verse 23: "These things...are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh."

What things? Obviously, he is speaking of the things he has mentioned in the preceding verses. These are things that are brought into the church by those who would cheat believers of their reward in Christ (verse 18). "Let no one," Paul says emphatically, "cheat you of your reward."

The word that is translated "cheat" in verse 18 in the New King James, or "beguile" in the old King James, is a very unique word. In the original language, Paul is saying this: Let no one set himself up as a judge over you - judging you based on his own human standards rather than the standard of the truth of God - and based on that counterfeit standard, judging you to be unworthy of God's reward because you are not following that individual's false standard but instead are following God's standard according to His Word.

What are the counterfeit standards that people try to bring in, according to these verses? First of all, they attempt to establish their own authority instead of the headship of Christ alone. Secondly, they attempt to establish their own man-made doctrines that are rooted in that counterfeit authority, the usurpation of the authority of Christ. And thirdly, one of the principal areas in which they seek to invent and impose their own false doctrines is in the vital area of worship. They seek to influence the church to worship according to the commandments and doctrines of men, rather than the commandments and doctrines of Christ.

And what, Paul says, is the end result? Verse 23 - "These things...are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh." That is the goal of the authority of Christ. That is the goal of the pure doctrine of the Word of God. That is the goal of the Biblical worship of God. The goal of all of these things is to combat what Paul here calls "the indulgence of the flesh."

What is "The Flesh"?

What is "the flesh" as Paul speaks of it here and elsewhere? It is our old man, our sin nature, which has been dethroned by the regeneration of the believer by the Holy Spirit, but is not yet destroyed. The flesh - the old nature - is the opposite of the Spirit - our new nature. Within the believer, and thus within the church, there is a constant warfare between the two. As the Apostle Paul writes, "the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish" (Galatians 5:17).

The association of sin with the flesh is so complete that Paul in Colossians calls the sins of "fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness" our "members which are upon the earth" (3:5).

What are believers to do? Colossians 3:5 commands us to "mortify" (KJV) or "put to death" (NKJV) - literally in the Greek, we are to drain the life out of the old nature. How are we to do that? Romans 8:13 tells us that we are to do it "by the Spirit." "Walk [literally, regulate your thinking and behavior] in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh" (Galatians 516).

This is especially true in the matter of the worship of God. We are to "worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness" (Psalm 29:2). Commenting on this verse, Charles Spurgeon rightly observed that there is only room for one glory in the church, and that is the glory of God, not the glory of man walking in the flesh.

Not Conformed, But Transformed

In Romans 12:1-2, the Apostle Paul exhorts believers,

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.

Paul exhorts us to "not be conformed to this world." The word translated "conformed" is the Greek word schema. It describes a condition in which someone's outward appearance does not reflect his true inward state. In other words, Paul is saying that believers are not to take on a worldly outward appearance that does not agree with the inward spiritual nature that is ours by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit.

This must be the imperative in our worship. This world is passing away. Our focus must not be on that which will not last. We must not think, talk, and act like the unsaved world. If we are truly believers, acting like the world is a masquerade, a deception. Our thinking, talking, and actions should reflect our new life in Christ, and the eternal values that characterize it. As Paul writes in Philippians 3, "our citizenship is in heaven."

Instead of being "conformed to this world" we are to be "transformed by the renewing of [our] minds." The word translated "transformed" here is metamorphosis - the opposite of schema. It signifies a condition in which outward appearance, outward behavior, reflects inward reality.

To what are we to be transformed? Paul tells us in Romans 8:29 that God predestined believers "to be conformed to the image of His Son." Colossians 3:10 tells us that we "have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him." That must be true in our worship, and in all things.

What is Your Goal?

Is this your goal? Is it the goal of your church? The late Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once preached a very forthright message to a church that was falling into the deception of counterfeit worship, and he said this:

What are you out for? Believe me, you will get it whatever it is, if you are determined to do so. Are you out for the rewards of this world? They can be obtained with very little effort. They satisfy for a while, but when one begins to think seriously about them they are not even worth that little effort. But still we go on trying to get the best out of both worlds.

Let us realize once and for all that the things of the Spirit can only be appreciated by the spirit. The reward for a spiritual way of life is a spiritual reward.

Why do we expect to get the rewards of this world as well? Why do we so often complain that the ungodly seem to succeed while we fail? We are not out for the same thing. We must learn to judge spiritual results by spiritual standards.

Whatever a man sows that also shall he reap. If we have sown to the Spirit why expect to get a worldly and bodily harvest? The man who sows for worldly results gets them, and everyone can see these and know them and appreciate them.

The Christian, on the other hand, has very little that the world can appreciate. That is why the Way of Life is a difficult way - it is a life of faith. When you enter upon it, you give up everything that the world treasures most, and it is inevitable that at times we shall experience a sense of loss. You start by giving up everything. What makes it still more difficult is that as you go on the demands do not lessen but become even greater and you have no immediate reward except a loving heart and an honest soul.

At a time like the present, it is exceptionally difficult, and that is why I have dwelled on this so much with you.

The struggle is difficult, the battle is fierce, and we are tempted on all sides to back out of it. Hold on, my friends, fight on, cling to the Cross.

The enemy is powerful, but the Son of God is on our side and His Father has prepared a welcome for us, has things in waiting for us such as the eye of man has never seen, the ear of man has never heard, and the heart of man has never felt.

May God give us His blessing and His strength on the way, for Christ's sake.1

True Worship: Submission to Christ in the Spirit

The counterfeit worship that was threatening the Colossian church in Paul's time was characterized by the indulgence of the flesh, and was therefore of no value against it. On the contrary, it was ruinous to the believer and the church.

The same has been true throughout church history, as we shall see.

The same is true of the counterfeit worship that we find in the church today. Man is the focus, not God.

True worship is not of the flesh, but of the Spirit. Counterfeit worship indulges the flesh. It causes those who participate to become more and more like the world and its fleshly desires, and less and less like Christ. "Be not conformed to the world," God commands. Instead, "be transformed by the renewing" - literally, the renovation - "of your mind."

True worship promotes the renovation of the mind. True worship promotes the sanctification of the believer. Because true worship is rooted in the authority of Christ, because true worship is of the Spirit and not of the flesh, it causes the believer to become more and more like Christ, and less and less like the world.

If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:1-3)


  1. As quoted in Ian Murray, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The First Forty Years 1899-1939 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982), pages 119-120.


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