Colossians 1:21-23

We are taking the letter paragraph by paragraph as I said we would. We have come to this short paragraph, separate and distinct from the short paragraph that comes before it. After his identification of Jesus Christ in vv. 15-20, Paul turned to the Colossians themselves and their spiritual history. The “And you” with which v. 21 begins is emphatic in both the English translation and Paul’s original Greek. “Now, think about your own case;” that’s the idea. This “lovely little paragraph” [Lucas, 59] is very typical of the NT. It speaks of the great change brought about in people’s lives by the power of the gospel. The scheme he employs — contrasting what they once were with what they now are in Christ, their pagan past and their Christian present — is found frequently in Paul’s letters, both in reference to congregations and to individuals.  Other NT writers spoke similarly of those to whom they wrote. [O’Brien, 65-66] Of course, that is how Christians still bear witness to the effect Christ has had on their lives: “I was once this, but since I believed in Christ I have become this.”

In the circumstances Paul was facing in the Colossian church he no doubt wanted to remind them of the great change that had come over them in part to disabuse them of the idea that there was something more they needed, something in addition to the gospel that they had learned from Epaphras. Again and again this has happened in Christian history. Someone comes along claiming that many if not most Christians were incomplete because they didn’t understand this or because they hadn’t learned to do that, which teaching invariably diminishes the importance and the completeness of what has so far happened to them or what they have so far learned to think or learned to do. You have versions of this in much Pentecostal teaching about a second stage of Christian faith and life; you have it in much Roman Catholic teaching about the various things believers must do beyond placing their faith in Christ as these Colossian believers did at the beginning and living for him as they were taught to do when first they became followers of Jesus. [Lucas, 60] What Paul is going to say is that these people, by their faith and baptism, have already entered another world, their lives have already been profoundly changed, and they are already on the only road they need follow to reach the heavenly country.

Text Comment


In other words, these Colossian believers are themselves the evidence of the great truths explained in the previous verses. What Paul wrote about Christ and his redemption in the previous verses is no unproven theory; it was proved in their own lives. They are those who have been reconciled to God by the blood of Christ’s cross. Most Christians of this time, unlike many in later times, had personal experience of the great change that God’s grace works in transforming sinners into the holy people of God. Generations of Christian children later would not have that same experience (which, by the way, is why dramatic conversion stories are rare in the Old Testament) but virtually all of these people were converts from an unbelieving and sinful past. They had been alienated from God, hostile toward the true God and proving it by the lives they led. The unbelieving mind is not “good at heart” if Jesus and the Bible are to be believed. [Lucas, 61] But they had embraced this wonderful message that had come to them, as it were, out of the blue, they had never heard anything like this before, but they couldn’t help believing it to be true and now their lives were dramatically different than they had been.

As in Romans 5:9 where we are said to have been justified “by Christ’s death” here we are said to be reconciled by his death. Reconciliation is another way to speak of the atonement, the work of Christ; another of the models used in Holy Scripture to explain the effect of the cross. Reconciliation is the repair of relationship, in this case, the overcoming of the alienation between God and man because of man’s sin. In the divine plan the accomplishment of atonement and its application to individual lives is all one and so believers can be said to be reconciled when Christ died for them, two thousand years ago, or when they believed in Jesus, perhaps a few days or weeks ago in the early years of the second millennium. Both are true statements. What happened in the death of Christ and what happens in the life experience of believers is the same justification or reconciliation. Both Christ’s work and the believer’s faith are essential, the latter comes from the former, there cannot be one without the other; both together make for salvation; and in the purpose and power of God, the one will never be found without the other. So salvation can be described either as the result of the one — Christ’s death on the cross —  or the other — our coming to faith in him in our own life experience — whichever one   the biblical author chooses to highlight in a particular text.

The rather cumbersome phrase “his body of flesh” is almost certainly found here as a corrective to the Colossian false teaching, a teaching that probably minimized if it did not deny the Lord’s true incarnationhis taking to himself a fully human nature, body as well as soul — and his actual physical death. The Greco-Roman worldview, the ruling philosophical paradigm, was utterly uncongenial to the idea of God in the flesh, still less of God suffering and dying. God belonged to the higher world of the spirit, not the lower world of the flesh.


The fact that the gospel was spreading over the entire world was proof of its divine origin and power. Few religions are evangelistic in nature, none nearly so as the Christian faith. The gospel is truth for all men, not for some select group of devotees. No class or group, no race or sex is to be excluded. No message was less likely to be believed in that time and place, and yet it was being believed everywhere it was being proclaimed, both in the countries east of the Holy Land and in those to the west, where Colossae was located.

There is a longstanding debate in the commentaries as to whether the terms “holy,” “blameless,” and “above reproach,” in v. 22 refer to our justification or our sanctification. In all likelihood, Paul’s language should be taken to refer to our justification and to our acquittal in the Last Judgment. The term translated “to present” in v.22 is often found in legal contexts meaning “to bring someone before the court,” in this case the divine court. The idea is that Christ died for you so that he might present you faultless before God when we must all appear before the judgment seat of God (Rom. 14:10). [Lohse, 65] However the verse is read, however “holy,” and “blameless,” and “above reproach” are understood — as referring to our standing before God our judge or as referring to our holy way of life in this world — the reason why believers can be described in such exalted terms is because of the work of Christ on the cross. Paul makes that very clear at the beginning of the verse: “you, who were once alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death.

Everywhere in the Bible there is this finality attached to the accomplishment of Jesus’ death and atonement. We were reconciled; past tense! As the angel told Joseph at the time of the Lord’s conception in the womb of his virgin mother, “He will save his people from their sins.” It isn’t said that he will contribute to their salvation, or that he would do one of the essential things necessary for their salvation, or even that what Christ did on the cross was the most important of several things that had be done to secure their salvation later. Always and everywhere the Lord’s work on the cross is said in Holy Scripture to be the salvation of God’s people. The Lord himself taught this. He said, as the good shepherd “I give them eternal life,” by laying down my life for the sheep. And you find this same point of view throughout the New Testament. We will have it again in Col. 2:13-15: God made us alive “by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us…. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” It is as if once Christ died on the cross we were saved. You have the same point made in Hebrews 10:14:

“By a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”

What Jesus set out to do, he did; the cross liberated a vast multitude of people, justified them, transformed them, reconciled them to God, and sent them to heaven: all past tenses! That is the way the Bible speaks. It never suggests that the cross is only part of our salvation; it is all of it. But surely we must believe in Jesus. We are justified by faith Paul teaches us in Galatians and Romans and certainly we must follow him in obedience. To be sure; the Bible teaches that repeatedly and emphatically. We have it taught here as we shall see. But we cannot ignore the finality that attaches to the cross, the certainty of accomplishment, or the Bible’s emphatic way of speaking of God’s people having been justified or reconciled or redeemed at the cross.

Reformed theology has always rightly and consistently accounted for the relationship between what Christ did for us by dying on the cross and rising from the dead two thousand years ago   and what must happen subsequently in our individual experience subsequently by saying that because the cross secured our salvation, past tense, it secured and guaranteed all that our salvation would require, including the faith we would someday place in Jesus. This was the primary argument for the doctrine of the so-called limited atonement — a terrible name for the doctrine (as if limitation were what we wanted to confess about the cross!) — or what is also called definite atonement or particular redemption, the notion that Christ did not die for everyone to make everyone savable, but he died for his people, his sheep, his church, and by dying saved them. Christ must have died with the intention of saving a definite, a specific group of people because the cross is salvation, the cross is justification, the cross is reconciliation and redemption as the Bible repeatedly says. That is, the Lord’s death on the cross secures everything salvation requires – including the faith God’s elect would later place in Jesus Christ — and so it is impossible that Christ should have died for someone, reconciled someone to God, redeemed someone from sin and death, justified that person, and for that person subsequently not to believe and never to be saved. It is not possible to have been justified or reconciled to God on the cross, but then not to be justified or reconciled. The one accomplishes the other; the one guarantees the other. We don’t believe in order to make the cross effective, we believe because the cross was effective. We are justified by faith because we were already justified by the blood of Christ shed on the cross. As Paul tells the Philippians, it is given to us on behalf of Christ to believe in his name!
The doctrine of definite atonement, or limited atonement — it needs a better name, some of you should spend the rest of your life working on a better name — always understood to be a sentinel posted around the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s purpose was not to limit the number of people to whom God’s grace was to come; it’s purpose was to protect the fundamental, absolutely essential, and completely effective role of the Lord’s cross in our salvation. The doctrine of particular redemption was meant to remind us that we don’t add something to the cross by our faith; we believe because of the cross. Always and everywhere the Lord’s cross is said to be the salvation of his people. So, if we be there at the cross reconciled to God, then because of the cross we eventually experience that reconciliation by faith in him. Because we have been reconciled to God on the cross the Holy Spirit is sent into our hearts to draw us to faith in Jesus. The cross empowers our believing, not the other way round!

Lest you fail to grasp the earthshaking significance of this understanding of the cross, let me remind you that it was this conviction that broke the church in two at the time of the Reformation. What the Reformers found intolerable about the Roman mass, once they began reading the Bible for themselves, was precisely its failure to protect, preserve, and proclaim what came to be called the finished work of Christ. In the mass the Lord was supposedly sacrificed again and again. The mass was the renewal of Christ’s sacrifice, the same sacrifice but made in a different way. This continues to be the teaching of the Roman church, taught in recent deliverances as it was taught in the canons of the Council of Trent in the 16th century. In Paul VI’s encyclical Mysterium Fidei , issued in 1965, we read:

“Instructed by the Lord and the Apostles, the Church has always offered it [the mass] not only for the sins, punishments, satisfactions and needs of the faithful still alive, but also for those who have died in Christ but are not yet fully cleansed.”

Not yet fully cleansed? Well, they didn’t get that idea from Paul! By the cross, not by some later act of worship, by the finished work of Christ, not by some ritual repeatedly performed, we are made holy, blameless, and above reproach before God. I am fully aware of that no sincere Catholic would admit this, of course, but our charge against the teaching and practice of their church is precisely that they have denied by their doctrine of the mass what the apostles and the Lord himself before them were so determined to assert, viz. that the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ is not the beginning of salvation, not an important part of salvation, not an integral part of salvation, but salvation itself. When the cross is diminished in this fashion a way has been opened to mischief of all kinds and that is precisely what Bible Christians find in so much Roman Catholic practice: mischief.

Well it was this sort of mischief that was afoot in Colossae as well and vv. 21 and 22 are a shot across the bow of any teaching that places our confidence somewhere else than in the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary.

Now I wanted to say that with as much emphasis as I could muster so that you could feel and appreciate the wrench and the jar as v. 23 begins. Now comes v. 23 and the jarring “if”! “If you continue!” You will be presented to God holy, blameless, and above reproach if indeed you continue in the faith, if you do not shift from the hope of the gospel. Where is the finality of the cross in that statement? Where is the certainty of the salvation of those whom Christ has justified, reconciled and redeemed on the cross?

Well, several things need to be said in a preliminary way.

First, there is a particle [γε] that remains untranslated at the beginning of v. 23. It attaches itself to the “if” with which the verse begins. [BAG, 152] According to the lexicographers and the grammarians with this particle attached to it, the “if” does not necessarily imply doubt on Paul’s part, as if Paul were unsure whether these believers would continue. Rather it suggests confidence on Paul’s part. For example, we have the same combination of “if” and this particle in Ephesians 4:21. There Paul says “But that is not the way you learned Christ! — if indeed you heard about him and were taught in him…” Obviously Paul knew that the Ephesian believers had heard of Jesus and been taught in him. The “if” clause is rhetorical, a manner of speaking that, as one commentator puts it, “implies confident assumption.” [Lincoln, Ephesians (WBC), 280; cf. C.F.D. Moule, An Idiom-Book of New Testament Greek, 164] Another commentator suggests this paraphrase of the beginning of v. 23: “At any rate if you stand firm in the faith — and I’m sure that you will…” [O’Brien, 69] The particle does not imply doubt on Paul’s part. However it certainly does suggest that a real condition exists: they must continue in the faith and life of the gospel.

Second, the juxtaposition of divine sovereignty in salvation and human responsibility in salvation is a commonplace of biblical teaching; we’ve scratched our heads about it a hundred times. Sometimes the Bible speaks of salvation in a way so as to seem to suggest that we have nothing to do with it at all. Think, for example, of Paul’s assertion in Romans 9 where he describes salvation and reprobation — the saving of some, the damning of others — as God making out of the same lump of clay vessels for honor and vessels for dishonor. At other times the Bible speaks of salvation in a way so as to seem to suggest that it is entirely up to us. Think of such statements as these:

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him and he with me.” [Rev. 3:20]

“…let the one who desires take the water of life without price.” [22:17]

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” [John 3:16]

And we could multiply texts such as those by the hundreds, texts that seem to say that we will be saved only if we do this or that. Christ has done much, to be sure, but now apparently it depends on us. Here Paul says that we will be acquitted in the Last Judgment only if we continue in the faith. The absolute necessity of a persevering faith, as you know, is the theme of the entire book of Hebrews. In that book and over and over again the point couldn’t be put more bluntly:

“Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. … We are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.” [10:35-39]
“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. … For we have come to share in Christ if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.” [3:12-14] And many other texts like that just in the book of Hebrews.

Years ago, under the auspices of Prison Fellowship, I spoke several times in the chapel of our state penitentiary at Walla Walla. In a private conversation afterward one of the inmates raised the subject of the possibility of a Christian losing his or her salvation. We talked for a while about what the Bible says on the subject and I explained what I understood to be the Bible’s teaching: both the finality of Christ’s accomplishment on the cross making salvation a certainty for the people of God, but, at the same time, the necessity of believers continuing in faith and obedience. A few weeks later I received in the mail from this same inmate a book entitled If Ye Continue… The title was taken from this text in Colossians 1:23. It was published by Bethany Press and written by a man named Guy Duty, who was already known to me as an evangelical writer. Perusing the book, it didn’t take long to realize that Duty’s book was a diatribe against what he called “the Calvinistic doctrine of unconditional salvation.”

Mr. Duty considered Col. 1:23’s “if you continue” to be an unanswerable objection to the Calvinistic doctrine of the sovereignty of God’s grace and the certainty of the believer’s security in Christ. As an argument, the book was most unfortunate and needed a better editor. Duty’s book was a reminder that a theologian must always be careful to define his terms and to be sure he is discussing the issue according to that theologians call the status questionis, the real questions at issue. Again and again in the book he referred to the Calvinistic doctrine of “unconditional salvation.” The problem is that no Calvinist I know of has ever taught such a doctrine. No Reformed theologian ever taught that salvation was unconditional. Salvation is fraught with conditions. We must believe in Jesus, we must repent of our sins, we must follow the Lord in obedience, we must persevere or, as Paul puts it here, we must continue in the faith. If we do not do any of these things we will not be saved. That is what Calvinists have always taught, John Calvin himself first among them.

What Calvinists have taught is the doctrine of unconditional election, a very different thing; but the distinction was lost on Mr. Duty. Our church has always taught that a person must believe to be saved, that sanctification follows and must follow justification, that true and living faith will and must persevere throughout the course of a believer’s life. Sovereign grace does not abolish conditions; but it ensures that the necessary conditions will be met. Those chosen for salvation before the foundation of the world, those redeemed by Christ on the cross, those granted new birth by the Holy Spirit will believe, will repent, will obey, and will continue. It is precisely because this is true that it can be said, as it is so often said in the Bible, that we were saved at the cross! The perseverance or continuance of Christians in the life of faith is the flipside of the finished work of Christ, their redemption from sin, their reconciliation to God at the cross.
It was the doctrine of the Reformers, of the Puritans, of the whole Reformed tradition that God uses means, that he saves us through means, that he gives his grace to us through means — means such as faith, repentance, and perseverance — and that, therefore, the Bible can say, as it repeatedly says, that men are damned who despise or ignore the means. We do not say, have never said that if Christ died for you it doesn’t make any difference whether you believe, or once having believed if you continue to believe. You must believe and continue to believe. What we say is that if God has called you and Christ has died for you, you will believe and continue to believe,and most of you sitting there in this sanctuary this evening know good and well that you will continue to believe to the very end of your lives.

Why then the warnings like this one from Paul? There are, as we know, many like warnings throughout the Bible. Well for two reasons in particular. First, there are many people who at one time profess to believe in Christ, who do not continue in that faith. The church needs to know what a deadly mistake they have made. We must not be allowed — as too often we have been allowed in Christian history — to think that it is enough to begin to believe in Jesus even if one does not finish believing in him; to begin to follow Jesus, to follow him for a time, even for some years, but then to lose interest and turn away. Such a person is not simply an inferior Christian. Such a person will not still be saved but live in heaven with fewer rewards. He’ll never get to heaven. Such a person is not a Christian at all. Whatever he or we may have thought of him at one time, no one who fails to continue in the Christian faith remains on the narrow way that leads to life. It will do us no good to say on the Last Day when we come up to the great white throne, “I once believed in you.”

Second, because continuance in the faith is the test of the reality of faith, exhortations to persevere and warnings against failing to continue are the means by which true faith is recognized and preserved. You remember the account of Paul’s shipwreck off Malta in Acts 27. After days of terrible ordeal Paul comforted those aboard the storm-tossed ship that God had told him that because of Paul’s presence on the ship everyone on board would survive. And to the encouragement of all aboard, hundreds of souls, he communicated that message to them and told them they had nothing to fear. God had promised that they would all survive. But when the ship ran aground off the Malta shore, some sailors sought to save themselves by heading toward land in the ship’s boat. Paul told the commander that if the sailors did not remain on board they would perish. In the event all remained on board and all were saved. The pedant says, “No, Paul, you can’t tell them now that they will perish if they leave the ship because you already told them that God had promised that everyone would be saved.” But it was by Paul’s warning to remain aboard that God’s promise was fulfilled. They stayed in the boat and all were saved alive. In the same way it is by these warnings that the people of God are kept faithful, that those who believe continue to hold steadfast and so do not shift from the hope of the gospel.

If it is true that saints will persevere to the end, then it is equally true that the saints must persevere to the end. And one of the means which the apostle uses to insure that his readers within the various congregations of his apostolic mission did not fall into a state of false security was to stir them up with warnings such as this. [O’Brien, 69] True faith, genuine faith, hears Paul’s “if indeed you continue…” in v. 23 and shudders at the thought that he or she might not continue. He vows that he will never forsake the Lord; she swears that she will never shift from the hope of the gospel. By the warning, true faith is strengthened, nerved, and inspired to persevere.

This is the only way to read those warnings — real and weighty as they obviously are — and yet be true to so much else that the Bible teaches about the absolute certainty of salvation for those who are in Christ.

  1. “I lay down my life for the sheep,” Jesus said, “and no one can snatch them from my hand.” “This is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day.”
  2. “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not, together with him, graciously give us all things? Nothing shall separate us from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ our Lord!
  3. “The gifts and callings of God are irrevocable.” “We were born again not of perishable but of imperishable seed.”
  4. “He who began a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.” And to those the Bible adds many other arguments to settle our minds about the certainty of our salvation.

The fact is, those who never believe in Jesus and those who claim to but only for a time do so for the same two reasons: 1) they really don’t see their need for him as a Savior; and 2) they are not impressed by what God did to save sinners and how Christ suffered and died that they might live. But those who do see their need and who are mightily impressed by the incarnation and the cross not only believe in Jesus but continue to believe in him to the end of their lives. They cannot do otherwise.

Some of you will have heard of Peter Cameron Scott, born in Scotland, raised in the United States, and dead by 29 years of age. Scott was one of those many missionary heroes of the 19th century who gave his life to bring the good news to Africa. We are today seeing the fruit of the sacrifices they made. He was one of the founders of what would become the Africa Inland Mission. His first trip to Africa ended quickly with a severe attack of malaria as it did in the case of so many western missionaries. He was determined to return and the next time his brother John joined him. But John was struck down by malarial fever within weeks of his arrival. Peter buried his brother and, sick again himself, went to England to recuperate. [I was speaking at African Bible University in Kampala a year and a half ago and the other speaker at the conference was a local Ugandan Presbyterian Church pastor and he had malaria during the conference, he was always wiping the sweat off his face. This was the seventh time in his adult life that he had an outbreak of malaria. More African children die still today from malaria than from anything else.] Was it possible for Peter Cameron Scott to return to Africa when his first two visits had been cut short by illness? Was it worth it to risk his life? Well, he happened to visit David Livingstone’s tomb in Westminster Abbey. As you may remember, the gravestone reads, from John 10:16:

“Other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring.”

He took new hope from the Lord’s promise and the certainty of its fulfillment and returned to Africa. He lived but for a year but founded four mission stations in what is now Kenya that became the basis of a great work of evangelism and church building done by African Inland Mission.

That’s the spirit! That is what we have before us in these magnificent verses: the finality of Christ’s work of salvation and how that magnificent achievement and the promise of its worldwide conquest inspire the Lord’s people to continue in that holy faith, never shifting from their hope in the gospel.