And you, who were once alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight–if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard . . . (Col 1:21-23)
If I had a nickel for every time I’d been asked about this verse I’d sure have some pocket change!
Does this verse teach that eternal life can be lost by failing to continue in the faith?
Does it teach that those who fail to continue in the faith were never saved in the first place?
The answer to both questions is no.
It is important, of course, to determine the spiritual condition of those being addressed. Fortunately the text is very explicit. Paul says that the Colossians he was addressing were once alienated from God, but were now reconciled to Him by the death of Christ. People who are no longer alienated from God are clearly believers.
The fact that those being addressed were believers is confirmed by Paul’s exhortation to “continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel.” This is in addition to Paul’s earlier reference to the faith which the readers had in Jesus Christ (1:4). Unbelievers by definition do not believe. They have no faith to continue in, no hope to hang on to.
The key question is this: What did Paul mean when he said that God reconciled them in order “to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight”? It is a great mistake to view this purpose statement as dealing with the possession of eternal life.
Reconciliation has two goals. One goal of reconciliation is eternal life. That goal is guaranteed and is fulfilled immediately at the very moment of faith (John 3:16; 6:47). The second goal, being presented holy, blameless, and beyond reproach before God, is neither guaranteed nor fulfilled immediately at the point of faith.
The second goal concerns a future presentation. The question is, what is in view here? Is there to be some judgment of believers? Is there some time when believers will be presented before God?
Yes. The Judgment Seat of Christ is such a time. Believers will be judged and then presented by the Lord Jesus before God the Father. Some will be found to have been good and faithful servants (Luke 19:16-19). These are those who will be presented as having lived lives which were holy, blameless, and above reproach. Others will be found to have been worthless servants (Luke 19:20-26) and they will not be presented as having lived exemplary lives.
Many miss this simple solution because they jump to the conclusion that the terms holy, blameless, and beyond reproach must be taken in an absolute sense. However, the original Greek words used here are used elsewhere in the Scriptures to refer to the actual experience of those whose lives are exemplary, but certainly not perfect.
For example, elders are required to be beyond reproach in their experience (Titus 1:6).
Likewise, the 144,000 Jewish evangelists of the Tribulation are said to be blameless before the throne of God, since in their mouth was found no deceit (Rev 14:5). This clearly refers to their experience in this life, not to their position in Christ.
Even the term holy is used in Scripture to refer to experience. Peter, citing a key OT verse from Leviticus, tells his believing readers, “Be holy, for I am holy.” Similarly Paul refers to unmarried women believers who “care about the things of the Lord, that [they] may be holy both in body and in spirit” (1 Cor 7:34).
Trusting in Christ alone is the sole condition for eternal salvation. However, continuing in the faith is required in order to be presented at the Judgment Seat of Christ as holy, blameless, and beyond reproach. Continuing in the faith takes obedience over a lifetime. As Paul said elsewhere, “Let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart” (Gal 6:9).
There was particular need for this stress on continuing in the faith at Colossae. The Colossian church was besieged with heretical teachings. These teachings were a mixture of Greek philosophy, mysticism, and Jewish legalism. For example, Paul had to warn the church not to worship angels (2:18) or to adopt ascetic lifestyles in the hope that neglecting the body could somehow aid in keeping the flesh at bay (2:20-23).
Colossians 1:21-23 does not teach that eternal salvation can be lost through failure to abide in the faith. Nor does it teach that one who fails to abide proves he wasn’t saved in the first place. What it does teach is that abiding in the faith is required for one to have a good report at the Judgment Seat of Christ. Unstated here, but found in many other passages, is the truth that those who are found to have been good and faithful servants will obtain eternal treasures and rewards as a result of this good report. My prayer for each of you is that you might live lives which are holy, blameless, and above reproach so that someday the Lord Jesus will say to you, “Well done, My good and faithful servant.”