Paul moves from his hymn celebrating the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ into an explanation and celebration of justification. He has already said the Colossians were delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son (13). Now he shows how that happened by explaining that God reconciled them to Himself through the death of the Son, and did it even though they were hostile toward Him and lost in their wickedness. The gospel is all of God. Every believer stands in God’s presence only because God enabled it, and He enabled it not because anyone deserved it but because of His love and glory.
Understood in that light, justification becomes the single most incredible gift ever given or received. It is a concept that is not necessarily hard to explain, but incredible to comprehend. It is something that every believer should meditate on continually to inform his daily life and actions. Circumstances and people look different through the lens of justification. It is because of this that we should never tire of studying all the scripture says about how we came to stand before God holy and blameless and beyond reproach.
Paul ended his discussion of the supremacy of Christ by saying that God has reconciled all things – all of creation – to Himself through the blood of the cross. He now gets more specific and describes how God reconciles believers to Himself.
Paul first describes the state of all men before reconciliation with God. He says the Colossians were alienated from God. The natural state of man is to be totally apart and in no way connected to or accepted by God. He is outside of the family and has no place in God’s presence. He shares nothing in common with God – he is like another species from a different culture and world. He is as different from God as a being can be. He lives in the domain of darkness with no access at all to the kingdom of light. He lives where sin rules and he has no comprehension that another domain exists.
[If this is true, it means the opposite is also true for the believer who lives in the light. If we are alienated from God when we are in our natural state – which is also the natural state of the majority of the world – doesn’t that mean we are alienated from the rest of the world now that we are in our redeemed state? How can we seek to live in the world without standing out or being seen as weird or dangerous when the state of that world is in complete alienation to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son into which we have been transferred? Remember how Peter describes believers – Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who reside as aliens… (I Pet 1:1).]
They were also hostile in mind. Before salvation we were not ambivalent when it came to God – we were openly hostile toward Him. Our every thought was opposed to Him. Our whole way of reasoning and understanding, every aspect of our intellect was in warfare against Him. Because of this, we had no capability of understanding Him or His ways or His commands. Our ability to comprehend and think and see was completely hijacked by sin. On our own we had no means of escaping a perspective on the world that told us we were normal and alright, and just like every other member of the domain of darkness. We lived in a place without light and so had no idea we were blind.
The logical outcome for someone who is alienated from God and hostile in mind toward Him is to engage in evil deeds. Actions show what is in the mind. Evil deeds come from a darkened mind. The one without the gospel has no ability to comprehend God and so stands NO chance of pleasing God in any way. He has no desire to obey and no thought that obedience is something to BE desired. He is enslaved by the master of the domain of darkness – evil deeds are all he knows.
This is the state of man without the gospel. Alienated from God. Hostile in every thought and perspective toward God. Lost in the wickedness of his deeds – even deeds done with what he believes to be good intent (…for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth – Gen 8:21). Absolutely no capacity to save himself or endear himself to his Creator or earn his way into the Creator’s presence. Lost without knowing he is lost. Blind with no understanding of what blindness means. Contentedly making his way on the wide road to destruction without any sense of the destination ahead. …being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality, for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness (Eph 4:18-19).
Verse 22 starts with a very encouraging word – yet. We were completely undeserving and hostile and wicked – YET God acted. And what He did was to reconcile us through the Son’s death on the cross. Notice that Paul says Jesus reconciled us through His fleshly body – He died physically as a man (this added description also delineates it from the reference to Christ as the figurative body of the church in vs 18). He did not somehow cheat physical death through Spiritual means. He was completely man and completely God and He died a physical death. And that death allowed God to reconcile us just as He reconciled all of creation (all things – 20). The penalty for sin has been paid on the cross and the way is clear for man to be restored to God.
When Paul says God reconciled us to Himself, he means God declared peace with us. We are no longer hostile toward Him. We are no longer alienated from Him. We are now accepted into His presence. Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 5:1).
He explains this in the second part of the verse. God reconciled us to present us before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach. The word for ‘present’ is a legal term. It means He presents us in the holy court as justified and deserving to be in His presence. The death penalty for our sins has been paid and we now stand before the perfect and ultimate Judge completely innocent of all charges against us. We have no record. The Judge looks in the Book of Life and our name is there without any asterisk or notation. According to the official records, we have every right to come boldly before the throne. We are no longer blind criminals hostile to the court. We are children of the Judge, accepted and loved by the Father.
The change in status from verse 21 to 22 shows what it means to be delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of the beloved Son. Justification is an exchange. Christ died to satisfy the penalty against us. He took on our sin and suffered our capital punishment. As a result, we get to take on His righteousness and enjoy His reward. We deserve the domain of darkness but get to share in the inheritance of the saints in light (12). We do nothing and Jesus comes to us while we are alienated and hostile and satisfies our eternal debt and covers us in His righteousness.
Understanding and appreciating justification as it is explained here should awaken in us a desire to live a thankful life of obedience. There is no greater gift that can be given or received. There is nothing that compares to the exchange that Christ has effected on our behalf. Our response – if/when we comprehend what He has done – is to love God with all our heart and strength and obey His precepts. If we find our walk to be stale or if we find obedience especially hard or if time with the Lord is a burden – it is likely because we have not meditated on and appreciated our justification. We were alienated and hostile and now we stand before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach. How blind must we be to treat this casually or live as if anything else in this world is more wonderful?
It is important to remember when reading both verses 20 and 22 that the ultimate effect of reconciliation has not been realized. Sin has been defeated but not eliminated. Sin no longer has authority over the believer, but it has awesome power in this world and that power affects the believer both directly and indirectly. In the same way, the believer himself is not what he will someday be. He is reconciled but not yet fully glorified and fully free from the power of sin. He is not enslaved to sin or under sin’s dominion, but he continues to battle sin and suffer from the dominion of sin in this world. God has reconciled all things to Himself through the cross, but He has not completed the triumph over sin by fully eliminating it as He will at the end time.
Paul ends this section with an interesting and somewhat uncomfortable statement. He seems to qualify justification. He says the Colossians stand before God holy and blameless and beyond reproach IF they continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that (they) have heard. What does he mean by this? Does this argue against the very thing the letter is about – that the gospel is sufficient and needs nothing added to it? Is there an action that seals salvation and without which the believer is not truly saved?
It is important to remember the context of the letter. He writes to warn them not to fall away and follow after the false theology they have recently heard. From that standpoint, here he says that they are fully justified before God as long as they believe the gospel, but if they forsake the gospel and believe what the false teachers say, then they put their justification at risk. He effectively tells them that if they accept another gospel they are not truly saved and cannot claim to stand in Christ’s righteousness.
Understand, however, that he writes with confidence that this will not happen. In the Greek, the words Paul uses imply that he has every expectation that they will in fact continue in the faith and not move away from the hope of the gospel (that he referred to in vs 5). He has already said that they have the strength of God to enable them to remain steadfast and patient (11). It makes sense, then, that while he warns them he does in fact expect them to heed the warning.
From our standpoint the verse stands as a warning too. It is not an additional requirement of the gospel. We are reconciled because of the cross – as Paul clearly says in verse 22 – and nothing additional is required to complete that. However, if we do not hold fast to the gospel and persevere to the end, we cannot claim that we were ever justified by it and do not have any assurance that we stand holy and blameless before the Father because of it (It is a trustworthy statement: for if we died with Him, we shall also live with Him; if we endure, we shall also reign with Him; if we deny Him, He will also deny us – II Tim 2:11-12; But the one who endures to the end, he shall be saved – Matt 24:13). In the same way, if we do not walk in a manner worthy of the Lord to please Him in all respects (10), we cannot claim to be His. If we do not bear fruit in every good work and increase in our knowledge of God (10), we cannot claim to be reconciled by the cross. A Christian with no Christ-like characteristics effectively does not exist (If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth – I Jn 1:6). A good tree cannot bear bad fruit (Matt 7:18).
Paul’s reference to hope means that this section begins and ends with a focus on the hope of the gospel. He began in verse 5 by saying the Colossian’s faith and love are based on the hope laid up for them in heaven. Here he says the standing of the people before God is based on their remaining steadfast in the hope of the gospel. The gospel saved us but it remains a living part of us. It points backward to Christ’s work on the cross and forward to our ultimate salvation after all things have been fully reconciled. We live on what is promised to us ultimately – what is already laid up for us in heaven. This living hope is an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away and is waiting in heaven for you (I Pet 1:3-4).
Verse 23 clarifies that verse 20 does not refer to universal salvation. When Paul says that God reconciles all things to Himself he means that all of creation will someday be set free from sin and sin itself will be destroyed. He does not mean that all people will be saved. The proof of this is verse 23. It makes no sense for Paul to add a warning that only those who hold fast to the gospel will stand justified before God if in fact everyone will stand justified before God. The cross enables anyone to be reconciled, but only those who stand on the gospel will be. It is acceptance of and belief in the gospel that enables justification. Apart from the gospel no one stands before God in the righteousness of Christ.
Another contextual aspect of verse 23 is notable. The fact that Paul urges them to hold fast to the hope contained in the gospel – what he referred to in verse 5 as being the basis of their faith and love – may mean that the false theology they have heard promises them some kind of glory now. It could be that the false teachers are telling the Colossians that they do not need to wait for eternal glory as they can have it now through this new teaching. Paul refutes this by telling them to continue to think eternally and hold on to the ultimate salvation promised to them in the gospel.
Summary and Thoughts
A good way to capture these verses is to look at two other passages that explain the same concepts. In this way we can further understand and celebrate all they tell us:
I Pet 2:9-11
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts, which wage war against the soul.
We are God’s own possession, but only because He called us out of darkness and into His marvelous light. Because of that calling, we receive mercy instead of wrath and can be called by His name. We used to be alienated from God but now are aliens and strangers in this world. As such, we must not act as the natives do, but must abstain from the lusts that wage war against our soul.
Rom 5:1-2, 8-11
Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.
Because God has reconciled all things to Himself through the Son, we are at peace with God and stand in grace rather than wrath. God reconciled us through the Son while we were sinners, not because we did anything to deserve reconciliation. Christ died to reconcile us and He lives to show that His death was sufficient and death itself no longer has power over us. Because of the reconciliation we have through the Son, we exult in God and – as Col 1:12 says – joyously give thanks to the Father who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.
Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!
II Cor 9:15