The Context Question: Colossians 1
I have recently read and heard several people object to the claim that God will reconcile all to Himself through Christ, claiming that the following verses are out of context:
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
So, I think it is worthwhile to address this question head on. In order to do so, we will examine the context in more detail, beginning with the preceding verses and then examining the verses that follow (that some claim negate the good news of Colossians 1:20).
Let’s begin with the preceding context:
Colossians 1:15-20 (ESV)
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
First, it is abundantly clear that Paul really means all things when he says it. He goes out of his way to make it clear that he is talking about everything and leaving nothing out. Here’s a helpful table that breaks down what Paul is referring to when he says all things:
What does Paul mean by “all things” in Colossians 1?
He means: every created thing in heaven, every created thing on earth, everything that is visible and everything that is invisible, all thrones, dominions, rulers and authorities, everything created through Him, everything created for Him, everything that Christ is before, and everything that He holds together, the church, and everything in which Christ is preeminent.
In short, absolutely EVERYTHING!
So, when Paul says that God was pleased to “reconcile to himself all things whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross,” it is undeniable that He is speaking of a universal reconciliation.
Now, it may be wondered how it is possible for anyone to assert that Colossians 1:20 is out of context, given such contextual evidence. The answer is found in an understandable misunderstanding of some of the verses that follow. In these verses, Paul has shifted his focus from the grand scheme of things to the Colossian believers specifically, exhorting them to persevere in their faith. We will examine these now and show, beyond any reasonable doubt, that they do not in any way contradict the claim that God is reconciling all to Himself through Christ.
And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.
Those who claim that Christ is not reconciling all to Himself point to the “if” clause above (I made the “if” bold so it was easier to see) and use it to claim that Colossians 1:20 does not mean what it says. Their argument is essentially this: “Christ is not reconciling all to Himself because it says ‘if indeed you continue in the faith.’” Therefore, it is assumed that in order to be reconciled to God you must “continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard.”
While I understand how someone could arrive at such a conclusion, it is apparent that it is deeply flawed, for several reasons:
Most importantly, we must ask what the “if” clause refers to. It is clear from the passage that it refers to being presented as holy, blameless, and above reproach. So, the Colossian believers will not be presented in this way before Christ if they fail to continue, stable and steadfast, in their faith. Notice the adjectives: holy, blameless, above reproach. To be presented in such a way is a very high honor and is not an automatic benefit to claiming belief. Instead this honor is for good and faithful servants. This is why Paul, who makes it crystal clear that salvation is purely by grace and not by works, can also say, "straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (Colossians 3:13-14). Why strain forward and press on so fiercely if salvation is by grace? The answer is that Paul understood the distinction between the universal reconciliation of all to God and the prize of being declared a good and faithful servant who is holy, blameless, and without reproach. He knew that he had already been reconciled but strove to achieve these higher goals.
Consider 1 Corinthians 3:11-15:
For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.The concept of variation in reward is very well established biblically, for God will “render to each according to his works” (Romans 2:6 and elsewhere). This is what Paul is referring to: not salvation by works, but rather appropriate reward by works.
Paul makes it clear that the Colossian believers he is referring to are already reconciled to Christ, regardless of whether they continue in their faith. Notice that he says that they, “who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death.” The reconciliation has already happened at the cross and the Colossians are already reconciled. But they should not therefore assume that God is going to view them as holy, blameless, and above reproach if they neglect growing in faith and love. We should not assume that just because Christ has reconciled all to himself and made peace by his blood on the cross, that we have no role to play in sanctification, in actually becoming holy, blameless, and above reproach through His transformative power.
The verb “reconciled” is in the aorist active indicative form, indicating a completed past event, a fact that has already occurred. You can get more information about the aorist active indicative here: http://www.ntgreek.net/lesson22.htm. To summarize, however, it is used to reference the fact of a completed event. The “if” clause cannot therefore refer to reconciliation because reconciliation has already happened, and it makes no sense to have a conditional clause attached to a factual event that was already completed. Let’s illustrate the point. Here is a sentence that mirrors Colossians 1:21-23 grammatically:
“And I was wed to my wife (in 2004), in order to make me more selfless and loving and kind if I put her first and love her like Christ.”
It is obvious that becoming more selfless, loving, and kind depends on my action of putting her first and loving her like Christ. If I put her first and love her, then I will be made more selfless, loving, and kind as a result. In the same way, if the Colossians remain steadfast in the faith, then they will be presented holy and blameless.
It is also obvious that I am not saying that if I put her first and love her like Christ, then I was wed to her in 2004. Being wed to her in 2004 is a past event that does not change based on my current behavior. If I behave like a jerk and stop loving my wife, this does not somehow alter the space time continuum and erase my wedding day! In the same way that I was wedded in 2004, the Colossians were reconciled (simple past tense) by Christ’s death. This cannot change; it is a statement of completed fact.
Therefore, using the “if” clause of Colossians 1:23 to claim that Colossians 1:20 is “out of context” and that God will NOT “reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross,” is a nonsensical argument. The “if” clause does not even refer back to this reconciliation, which has already occurred because of the cross, but instead to the sanctification that will occur if we remain steadfast in the faith. Ironically, those who aim to undermine universal reconciliation are the ones committing the very sin of decontextualization that they are accusing us of! The fact that we must remain steadfast in the faith in order to become sanctified in no way contradicts the fact that in Christ “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”
This reconciliation is the work of Christ, by grace, and not of ourselves. Thank God for that. His grace and reconciliation is freely given and is not dependent on our being good enough. Perhaps this is why Jesus said:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
Understanding God’s unmerited gift of reconciliation does bring rest and peace. It should also encourage us to remain stable and steadfast, trusting in Christ, the Savior of all people, and enable us to serve our master diligently, not out of terror, but out of authentic love and gratitude to the all-good God who first loved us.
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