There’s an “if” in Colossians 1:23. Is the Reconciliation of all Dependent Upon Our Faith?
Question: There’s an “if” in Colossians 1:23. Is the reconciliation of all dependent upon our faith?
Response: This is a great question! Colossians 1:15-19 paints an incredible picture of redemption, where the word “all” is used repeatedly, and can only mean “all.” (Try plugging another word in for “all” and it makes no sense).
Colossians 1:15-19 is a breathtaking and water-tight statement regarding the reconciliation of all things, but then, in verse 23 there is an “if.” The “if” matters, but does it mean that reconciliation is dependent on my faith?
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.
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 [ei] indeed [ge] 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. —Colossians 1:15-23 ESV
It’s important to ask: If they don’t continue in faith what does that mean, #1 or #2?
#1. Does it mean that verses 15-19 are not true? So “all things” were not created through him and for him, and he is not “the head of the body,” not “beginning and firstborn from the dead,” and not preeminent in everything?” And the “fullness of God” is not “pleased to dwell in him and to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross?”
If this is what Paul meant, he would be saying that the creation, incarnation, and atoning work of Christ on the cross are dependent on your ability to have faith… and actually the ability of every person to have faith. For if only one human doesn’t have faith, God has not reconciled all things to himself in Christ and the rest of the stuff in 15-19 probably isn’t true as well.
If Paul does mean the “if” to modify 15-19, then I think he must also believe that God will meet this condition or has met this condition in us.
But I don’t think Paul meant for the “if” to modify 15-19, but perhaps 21-22.
#2. OR does the “if indeed” mean that verses 21-29 might not be true? So “[they] . . . are still doing “evil deeds” and not “now reconciled” in his body.
Perhaps Paul means #2. That is, if they are not continuing in the faith, they are not “now” reconciled in his body; they are body parts not at peace with their neighbors and not experiencing peace with God. They are like the bank robbers in Markus Barth’s parable. They’ve been forgiven, but are not living in the reconciliation that has been won for them. They’re hiding from God in the swamp.
Markus Barth used to tell a story about a group of thieves that robbed a bank. Fleeing the police, they abandoned the gold, for it was too much for them to carry. They hid in the Florida Everglades, imprisoned by alligators, snakes, and fear. Meanwhile, there was a trial. The judge found them guilty, but then commuted the sentence and granted a full pardon. The authorities sent search parties into the swamp looking for the thieves, to tell them they were forgiven, yet every time the thieves heard the dogs barking, they ran deeper into the swamp and hid, paralyzed with fear.
Then Barth would ask His seminary students: “Were they forgiven or not forgiven?” He could’ve likewise asked, “Are they reconciled?”
So, perhaps, the “if indeed” carries a warning regarding 21-22, you are now reconciled “if” you have faith. Faith is reconciliation. If you don’t trust Grace, you’re not “now reconciled” or experiencing reconciliation with Grace. God is Grace.
But the “if indeed,” does not undo the fact that, through Christ, all things are reconciled to God. In other words, the bank robbers cannot hide in the swamp forever without end. The gospel message (you’ve been forgiven) will conquer their hearts eventually. Eternity (the realm in which all IS reconciled) will conquer temporality (the realm in which men hide in the swamp).
But even more than this, we (believers) are “seated with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,” (Ephesians 2:6) according to Paul. And yet, we exist in a “body of death” in space and time (Romans 7:24). “Now” by faith, we can put off the “old man” and put on “the new” (Colossians 3:9-10). To the degree that we don’t have faith, we are still living in bondage, hostile to our neighbors and to our Creator.
I’m saying that it seems that we believers can be both hiding in the swamp and at home in peace. This must, in some way, also be true of “non-believers,” destined to believe, and all non-believers are destined to believe if all will be (or are) reconciled. Believers are aware of the dichotomy within them, (Belief and unbelief, Love and the absence of love, Eternity and time), and unbelievers are not. How both the old man and the new man can somehow exist at once is a mystery at the boundary of space and time; I think Jesus Christ and Him crucified is that boundary.
Whatever the case, “… this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:53-57).
Peter writes that we are born of “imperishable seed through the living and abiding word of God” (1Peter 1:23). Jesus is the promised seed. Implanted in us, He must germinate as Faith, Hope, and Love. But when was He implanted in us? . . . In the beginning, as God breathed His Breath into the dust? . . . At the cross—the tree in the garden on Calvary? . . . At the tree of Life in the garden city of the New Jerusalem (“The Jerusalem above is our mother” Galatians 4:26)?
In Colossians 1:26-27, just a couple verses after the “if then,” Paul speaks of a “mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints (those that believe). To them, God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles (those that don’t believe) are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
Christ in us—all of us—is the great mystery that was hidden and is now revealed. The Word will not return void. He must accomplish the purpose for which He was sent (Isaiah 55:11). He accomplished it upon His tree in the garden on Calvary. “It is finished,” yet in space and time, even believers can be hostile to God and their neighbor. He will “present you holy and blameless” (Colossians 1:22), but don’t think you’re without sin (1 John 1:8) until you’re perfected in faith.
A mustard seed of imperishable faith will turn into a mighty tree and a Kingdom . . . but it’s still just a seed while it’s buried in the dung and dirt of space and time.
I did a little research into the “If indeed.” It seems that lexicons don’t agree as to whether or not it’s one word (eige) or two (ei ge)—that’s because ancient Greek manuscripts didn’t include spaces between words. Whether it’s one word or two it only appears as such in the following five texts:
2 Cor. 5:3 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. ESV
Gal. 3:4 Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? ESV
Eph. 3:2, For this reason, I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles— assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you… ESV
Eph. 4:21 But that is not the way you learned Christ!— assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus… ESV
Col. 1:23 [Above]
Notice that the ESV sometimes translates eige as “assuming.” I think Paul is, at least, assuming that the Colossians will continue in the faith, and perhaps, he is warning them that living as reconciled people means walking in faith—faith in the Gospel, which is the Good News that God has reconciled all things to himself in Christ.
Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon offers a few translations for eige: “If indeed, seeing that… that is to say, on the assumption that.”
Some would argue that eigei (or ei) shouldn’t even be translated with an “if,” that is, a sense of conditionality. Francois du Toit (translator of the Mirror Bible) once stated, “If Paul spoke English he wouldn’t use ‘if’ in the context of a condition. Paul’s ‘if’ is always a conclusion… it’s not a question mark, but an exclamation mark.”
Du Toit renders Colossians 1:23 as follows, “Remain under the influence of what you know to be true about you, firmly consolidated in the foundation of your belief so that nothing can distract you from the expectation of the Gospel; a hope that is consistent with what you have heard. Just as I Paul am in the ministry to proclaim the one and only message that rings true with resonance in all of creation under heaven.”
Perhaps we could argue that in reference to eigei, there is conditionality, but it works in the opposite direction of that which is commonly implied by the English translation: not, “A if B,” but, “because A so then B.” Not “God will reconcile if you are faithful,” but “if God has reconciled, so you will be faithful.” Not “A if B,” but “A so that B.” Not “God has reconciled if you’re faithful,” but “God has reconciled so that you would be faithful.”
The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament contains the following entry for eigei:
“A particle of emphasis or qualification meaning if at least, if indeed, if so be, followed by the indic. and spoken of what is taken for granted (Eph. 3:2; 4:21; Col. 1:23; Sept.: Job 16:4). Followed by kaí, and, if indeed also, which as applying only to what is taken for granted…”
So what is taken for granted: that “God has reconciled” or that we will “continue in the faith?” Is eigei to be translated “if indeed” or “if so be?” Is it “God has reconciled if indeed you continue in the faith” or is it, “God has reconciled. If so, be faithful–continue in the faith?”
I wish I was a language scholar and had a better grasp of the Greek, but we see that in 2 Cor. 5:3 the RSV translates eige (and here it is followed by kai) as “so that” (“we… long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked.”)
If I translate Col. 1:23 in the same way, it reads, 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, so that 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.
If this is the correct translation, Paul is arguing that continuing in the faith is dependent upon God’s work of reconciliation. Which is just the opposite of arguing that God’s work of reconciliation is dependent upon whether or not you continue in the faith.
The idea that Paul is arguing the former is bolstered by the fact that Paul doesn’t use the normal word for reconciliation. He uses a word that means something like “reconciled completely.” Katalloso appears six times in the New Testament and is translated “reconcile” each time in the KJV. Apokatalloso appears only in Colossians 1 (in both v.20 and v.21) and in Eph. 2:16 where Paul argues that Jew and Gentile are reconciled in one body, which is pretty dang reconciled. Apokatalloso means something like completely reconciled.
It would be strange for Paul to write, “You are now completely reconciled (by God)… if.” How could the reconciliation be complete and accomplished by God if dependent on human obedience? However, it would make perfect sense for Paul to write, “You are now completely reconciled (by God) . . . so that you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast…”
Well, it’s this last idea—that eigei should be translated “so that” in Col. 1:23 (not option #1or #2, but #3). . . It’s this last idea that I like the best and makes the most sense to me.
Whatever the case, the reconciliation of all is NOT dependent on your faith. But living as a reconciled person is Faith. Thank God for Faith. Faith is the gift of God’s Grace in Christ Jesus. Through the proclamation of the Gospel—that God reconciles all to himself in Christ Jesus—God imparts Faith. The Gospel is not dependent on our faith. Our Faith is the work of the Gospel, which is the Word of God in Flesh—the Word, which creates all things including us and particularly faith within us, which is humanity in the image of God.
Hope that helps!
PS I think you’ll find a similar pattern around some of the other inclusive passages. Paul will make a blanket statement about the victory of God in Christ, but then remind us that it doesn’t mean that we don’t have to have faith, but that we must and will have faith. Indeed the victory is the creation of Faith within us.
So it’s imperative that we proclaim the gospel to the bank robbers hiding in the swamp—because it sucks to hide in a swamp, just like it sucks to trap yourself in outer darkness where men “weep and gnash their teeth.” It sucks to hide in a swamp and by proclaiming the Gospel we participate in the “ministry of reconciliation.”
“All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”