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Lesson 6: The Responsibility of the Reconciled (Colossians 1:21-23)

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December 6, 2015

One of life’s unpleasant experiences is to be at odds with someone. It may be a falling out with someone in your family. Perhaps it’s a neighbor or someone at work. But whoever it is, it’s never pleasant. Conflicts always cause stress and anxiety.

On the other hand, one of life’s most pleasant experiences is to make peace with a former enemy. When the barrier that caused the hostility is removed, there’s a sense of joy and release. It’s wonderful when a former enemy becomes a friend.

Although many people don’t realize it, they’re at odds with the worst enemy imaginable: the living God! Our sin means that outside of Christ, we are enemies of God (Rom. 5:10). If we’re not reconciled to Him, we will face eternal judgment when we die. Alienation from God should cause far more anxiety than any human conflict! God’s enemies desperately need to be reconciled to Him.

That’s what Paul describes in our text. We were formerly God’s enemies, alienated from Him, engaged in hostile deeds against Him. But God, because of His great love, sacrificed His own Son on our behalf to change us from enemies to friends, from alienation to reconciliation. Being reconciled, we now have the responsibility to continue in the faith and to serve Him.

The Colossian church was in danger of being wrongly influenced by some false teachers. Paul’s corrective was to extol the person and work of Jesus Christ. As we saw in Colossians 1:15-20, Paul lifted up Jesus as the sovereign Creator of the universe, the head of His body the church, worthy of preeminence in everything. In verse 20 he says that Christ’s blood on the cross is the means by which God will reconcile all creation to Himself. This doesn’t mean that everyone will be saved, but rather that God will remove the curse on creation that was imposed because of man’s fall into sin.

Now Paul applies this reconciliation to the Colossians, reminding them of their former alienation from God (Col. 1:21) and of the great price which Christ paid to reconcile us to God (Col. 1:22). He adds that they are responsible to continue in the faith, not moved away by the false teachers (Col. 1:23). And he mentions himself as a servant of the gospel. He’s saying:

We who enjoy the blessings of reconciliation are responsible to continue in the faith of the true gospel.

If you think that you’re immune from the danger of being deceived by any of the false teachings of our day, you may not adequately appreciate either the craftiness of the enemy or your own weakness. As Paul says (1 Cor. 10:12), “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall.” I’ve seen pastors and missionaries get swept away with different errors, such as the “new perspective on Paul,” which undermines justification by faith alone; open theism, which denies God’s sovereignty and omniscience; the Insider Movement, which compromises the gospel in the course of trying to relate it to those in other religions; and, other errors. Many evangelicals have an unbiblical view of trials, as seen in the “health and wealth” heresy, resulting in their inability to persevere when suffering hits. Paul’s instruction here is given to help us stay faithful when confronted with such false teaching.

1. The blessings of reconciliation: We who were alienated from God are now reconciled through Christ’s death (Col. 1:21-22).

First, Paul reminds us of where we were when God intervened in our lives:

A. We all were alienated from God because of our sin.

Colossians 1:21: “… you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds.” You may be thinking, “Now wait a minute! Paul is talking to these pagan Colossians. They may have been like that. But I’ve never been hostile toward God. I was raised in a Christian home. I accepted Christ as a child. I never was alienated from Him.” Or, perhaps you came to Christ when you were older, but you still would say that you were never hostile toward God. You’ve never been an atheist. You’d say that words like “alienated,” “hostile,” and “evil deeds” don’t describe your past!

But in faithfulness to the Scriptures, I must say that if you feel that those words are too harsh, you haven’t yet come to know your own heart in the sight of God. I was only three years old when I “asked Jesus to come into my heart.” I attended church and Sunday school virtually every Sunday of my childhood. But the longer I’m a Christian, the more I’m appalled by the depths of my own sinfulness. Part of that sinfulness is the pride which inclines me to say, “I’ve got my faults, but I’m not a bad sinner!”

Our alienation from God was due to two things. On God’s part, He is completely holy and has a settled wrath against all sin. On my part, I have within me an inborn selfishness and pride which causes me to ignore the God who created me and to pursue my own ways. Thus there is alienation because God in His holiness cannot have fellowship with me in my sin. He cannot compromise His holiness and I cannot eradicate my sin.

Also, note that sin begins in the mind and works its way outward. We were “hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds.” The NIV translation is inaccurate because it makes it sound as if our evil deeds are the cause of our hostile minds. But the reverse is true. We are hostile toward God in our thinking which results in disobedient actions. Jesus taught that all sin begins within, in our hearts (Mark 7:20-23).

Thus dealing with my sin is not just a matter of cleaning up my behavior, but of changing my heart. In Romans 8:7-8, Paul writes that “the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” In our natural state we are incapable of pleasing God. We may be able to clean up the outside, but we are not able to clean up our hearts. You can put a tuxedo on a pig, but its pig nature makes it still want to wallow in the mud. And the most difficult heart problem to eradicate is the pride that says, “I’m a basically good person. God will accept me because of my good deeds.”

But the good news is that every New Testament passage dealing with this great doctrine of reconciliation emphasizes that God took the initiative in reconciling sinful people to Himself. It’s not dependent on our efforts to get right with God, but on His action centered on the sacrifice of His Son.

B. God reconciled us through Christ’s death.

Note that God takes the initiative (Col. 1:22): “Yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death.” In Romans 5:10-11, Paul puts it: “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.”

At this point, someone may be thinking, “What’s the big deal about sin separating us from God? Even humans are able to forgive others who wrong them. Why can’t God just let bygones be bygones? Why did Christ need to die for our sins? Besides, my sins aren’t that bad. I’ve never killed anybody. I’m faithful to my wife. I work to support my family. I’m not a bad person. And I don’t have anything against God. Why does God require the radical solution that Christ had to die for my sins?”

If you can relate to those thoughts, then you don’t sufficiently understand who God is or how great your sin is in His sight. Perhaps you’ve been wrongly influenced by our tolerant culture. We live in a time when tolerance of everyone, including their gross sins, is seen as a great virtue. We pull God down by making Him a benign, tolerant grandfather; and we lift ourselves up by thinking, “Compared to those awful terrorists, I’m a pretty good person!” Even as Christians, we’re somewhat embarrassed by the idea of God’s wrath against sin. Over 100 years ago, R. W. Dale (The Atonement [Congregational Union], pp. 338-339) observed, “It is partly because sin does not provoke our own wrath, that we do not believe that sin provokes the wrath of God.”

But if God were tolerant of sin He would not be God. If He denied His absolute holiness by winking at sin, He would be compromising His justice, which rightly demands that the penalty for sin be paid. For example, if a man murdered your mother and the judge came off the bench and gave him a hug and said, “I love you, man! Try not to do that again,” you’d rightly be outraged because justice was not served. While God is love, His love never compromises His holiness and justice.

So the question is, “How can God be both holy and loving?” How can He uphold perfect justice and yet extend reconciling mercy to sinners? The answer is, through the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ on the cross. God sent His eternal Son into the world to take on human flesh and to live a sinless life so that He could pay the just penalty that we deserved for our sins.

Paul here is probably combatting the Colossian error, which taught that Jesus was not truly human. He uses the somewhat redundant phrase, “the body of His flesh through death” to show that Jesus’ death was a real, physical death. Hebrews 9:22 states that “without shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness” of sins. Being God in human flesh, Jesus’ death satisfied God’s just wrath by paying the penalty for all who have faith in Jesus. As Paul states in another great passage on reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:21), “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” God took our sin and put it on Christ who was without sin. Then He took Christ’s perfect righteousness and put it on us. Thus He is both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). So the basis of reconciliation is judicial: Jesus paid the just penalty of God’s wrath against our sin.

But reconciliation also is a relational word. It points to healing in personal relationships. As Paul states in the context of a great passage on reconciliation (Rom. 5:8), “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Through reconciliation, we now enjoy God’s love.

Perhaps one of the most beautiful pictures of reconciliation in the Bible is Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). The young man rudely demands his portion of the inheritance before his father has even died. He goes off to a far country and squanders it all on loose living. But when he comes to his senses and returns home in the hopes that he can just serve as one of his father’s hired hands, his father sees him coming (he was looking for him!), feels compassion for him, runs to him, embraces him, kisses him, and welcomes him home with a party.

That’s the heavenly Father’s great love for every sinner who repents! Have you experienced it? In that same story, Jesus also illustrates the alienation from the father that self-righteousness causes. The older brother, who saw himself as loyal and obedient to his father, was angry because of his father’s mercy toward his rebellious brother. The truth is, the self-righteous son needed to be reconciled to his father just as much as his prodigal brother did, but his self-righteousness blinded him to his true need.

Back in the 18th century, Lady Huntingdon was a godly British noblewoman. She invited a number of her upper class friends to come hear the great evangelist, George Whitefield. She got this reply from the proud Duchess of Buckingham (Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield [Cornerstone Books], 1:132):

It is monstrous to be told, that you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth. This is highly offensive and insulting; and I cannot but wonder that your Ladyship should relish any sentiments so much at variance with high rank and good breeding.

To be reconciled to God, you’ve first got to see that you’re alienated from Him, hostile in mind, and engaged in evil deeds. Even if outwardly you’re a relatively good person, your heart is just “as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth”! And you’ve got to see that God provides everything necessary for your being reconciled to Him through the death of Jesus for your sins. But why does God reconcile us to Himself through Christ’s death?

C. God’s goal in reconciliation is to present us before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach.

Colossians 1:22b: “… in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach.” God’s aim is that on judgment day you will stand before Him perfectly righteous. As Jude 24 states, He is able “to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy.” It’s a rare thing to know someone whom you would describe as blameless and beyond reproach. But you’re only seeing part of their outward behavior. But to stand in the presence of the holy God who knows every hidden thought and motive we’ve ever had, and yet to be declared holy, blameless, and beyond reproach, sounds impossible! How can this be true?

It’s true because Paul and Jude are looking at the final result of our sanctification. There are three aspects of sanctification: First is positional sanctification. When we are reconciled to God through Christ’s death, He sets us apart to Himself. We are clothed with Christ’s perfect righteousness and seated with Him in heavenly places. Second is progressive sanctification. As we walk with Christ daily, putting to death the deeds of the flesh and growing in obedience, we become increasingly holy, blameless, and above reproach. This is never perfect in this life, but there will be progress. Finally, when we die or Christ returns (whichever happens first), our sin nature will be completely eradicated. This is perfect sanctification, because we will be like Jesus (1 John 3:2). That’s God’s ultimate aim in reconciling us to Himself through Christ.

So, does the fact that we will be perfectly sanctified mean that we can kick back and not worry about our sin? No! Paul shows …

2. The responsibility of the reconciled: To continue in the faith of the true gospel (Col. 1:23).

Colossians 1:23: “If indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, was made a minister.” Paul mentions three aspects of our responsibility as reconciled people:

A. Continuing in the faith means being grounded and steadily growing in the hope of the gospel.

When Paul says, “If indeed you continue in the faith,” it could mean, “your personal faith,” but in light of the Colossian heresy, I think he means “the faith.” By saying “if you continue,” he is not expressing doubt, but he is giving a warning. Paul was confident that these new believers would not be carried away by these false teachers and that they would go on with Christ. As he wrote (Phil. 1:6), “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” And yet at the same time, the test of genuine faith is that it perseveres by holding to the gospel. And so there is an implicit warning in “if” that says, “It’s your responsibility to remain in the faith.”

Often the Bible puts God’s sovereignty and our responsibility in the same verse or context. God’s sovereignty gives us comfort that since He saved us, He will keep us. But that’s never an invitation to kick back and cruise. We can trust that God will finally bring us to glory, but He does that through our obedient perseverance in the faith. Both are true and we’re out of balance if we let go of either one.

Here, our responsibility is to be “firmly established and steadfast, not moved away from the hope of the gospel.” As you know, if you’re going to build anything of lasting substance, the foundation is critical. You can throw up a chicken coop without much of a foundation, but to build a house or an office building, you’ve got to lay a solid foundation. The foundation for the Christian faith is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Are you clear on the gospel? If I asked you to turn to your neighbor and explain it in 60 seconds, could you do it? Can you support it with specific Scriptures?

Beyond that, you’ve got to lay the foundation of a basic understanding of the Bible and its core teachings. The enemy always has attacked the basic truths about the trinity, the person and work of Christ, the inerrancy of Scripture, salvation by grace through faith alone, the hope of Christ’s second coming, the need for holiness, and other key truths. Legalism is a constant threat (Col. 2:20-23). If you’re not grounded and steadily growing in biblical truth, you’ll get blown around by every wind of false doctrine that comes along (Eph. 4:11-16). If you’ve never done it, get an ESV Study Bible and set up a plan to read through it in the New Year.

B. Continuing in the faith means holding to the true gospel, especially in the face of false teaching.

Probably the most prevalent topic in the New Testament is warnings against false teaching. And almost all false teaching attacks the essentials of the gospel. That’s why you need to be grounded in basic Bible doctrine. The Bible is clear that genuine faith in Christ perseveres and does not fall away (Matt. 13:19-23). Jesus warned (Matt. 24:11-12) that in the end times, many false prophets would arise and lead many astray and that most people’s love would grow cold. Then He added (Matt. 24:13), “But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.” Perseverance in the gospel is the test of genuine faith (see, also, 1 John 2:19).

C. Continuing in the faith means proclaiming the apostolic gospel to all people.

Paul adds concerning the gospel (Col. 1:23b), “which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, was made a minister.” Paul is probably exaggerating to make his point, which is, “The one true gospel is spreading everywhere and it’s the same gospel that Epaphras preached to you and that I preach everywhere I go.” The one true gospel has universal appeal. Although we need to be sensitive and wise in how we communicate the gospel to different cultures, we don’t have to modify it or tone it down. The message of the cross will always be foolishness to some and offensive to others, but to those who believe, it is the power of God for salvation (Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 1:18).

“Minister” is not a stained glass word referring to a special class of ordained clergy. It simply means “servant.” If you have believed in the gospel, you’re a servant of the gospel. Obedience is not optional for servants (1 Cor. 9:16-23). If you know Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord, you are His ambassador to this lost world (2 Cor. 5:20). See the world around you as your mission field and pray for wisdom to take advantage of every opportunity (Col. 4:5).


There are different ways to apply this message, depending on your situation. If you’ve never been reconciled to God by trusting in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, that is your urgent need! Don’t delay, because as Thomas Fuller said, “You cannot repent too soon, because you do not know how soon it may be too late” (cited by C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David [Baker], 4:328).

If you’re not grounded in the faith, your assignment is to lay out a plan and get started. Read through the Bible this year. Work through the church doctrinal statement, looking up all the verses. Get John Piper’s Baptist Catechism, read it through, and study it. If you can’t explain the gospel, get some training, pray for opportunities, and do it! We who enjoy the blessings of reconciliation are responsible to continue in the faith of the true gospel.

Application Questions

  1. Some popular Christian authors argue that we are not to view ourselves as sinners saved by grace, but only as saints who sin occasionally. Is this biblical? Why/why not?
  2. Practically, how do we grow in holiness, blamelessness, and being above reproach?
  3. Where is the biblical balance between “once saved, always saved,” and “he who endures to the end shall be saved”?
  4. In light of Col. 1:23, how would you counsel a person who formerly made a profession of faith, but now is not going on with the Lord?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2015, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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