Colossians 1:21-23 is often used by Arminians to say that believers must continue in the faith in order to keep eternal life. And this same passage is used by Calvinists to say that believers must persevere in the faith in order to prove that they had eternal life in the first place.
In other words, most people in Christendom understand Paul in this passage to be threatening believers (true believers in the case of Arminians, or false professors in the case of Calvinists) with hell. Those who heed the warning and keep on persevering will enter the kingdom. Those who don’t will find themselves in the Lake of Fire. This is a problem if you believe in justification by faith apart from works. Yet there is a very simple and contextually preferable interpretation. I call it the Bema interpretation.
This Presentation Is at the Bema,
Not the Great White Throne
Paul told the Colossian believers that Jesus has reconciled them to Himself through His death, “to present you holy, and blameless, and beyond reproach in His sight.” Often overlooked here is that while the reconciliation is already an accomplished fact, the presentation is yet future.
The presentation spoken of here is the key to unlocking this passage. Paul elsewhere indicates that believers will appear before Jesus and will be judged according to their works. See 1 Cor 3:10-15; 4:5; 5:5; 9:24-27; 2 Cor 5:9-10; 2 Tim 2:12 (see also Matt 10:32-33); 4:6-10. Other NT authors also speak of a judgment of believers according to their works (see Jas 5:9; 1 Pet 4:13; 5:1-4; 2 Pet 3:14-18; 1 John 2:28; 4:17-19; and Jude 24). In none of these passages is the issue entrance into the kingdom. The issue in each case is eternal rewards. While eternal life is free, eternal rewards are earned.
Indeed, Paul mentions the same presentation again in the next paragraph in Col 1:28: “Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect [or mature] in Christ Jesus.”
Unless a person realizes that there are two judgments, the Great White Throne Judgment for unbelievers (Rev 20:11-15), and the Judgment Seat of Christ (Bema) for believers (2 Cor 5:10), he will be confused by passages such as this one that warn of a future judgment of believers.
Dillow agrees that the issue here is the judgment of believers at the Bema. His comment on the spiritual condition of those being addressed is very helpful: “They are regenerate people who must ‘continue in the faith.’ Nonbelievers do not have faith in which to continue.”1
Perseverance Is Not Required for Kingdom Entrance
It is true that Paul conditions this future presentation on continuance in the faith: “…if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard…” However, that doesn’t mean that Paul conditioned kingdom entrance upon perseverance.
There is nothing here that suggests that those who fail to continue in the faith will miss the kingdom. Indeed, compare 1 Thess 5:10, where Paul says that all believers, even those morally indolent at the time of the Rapture, will be raptured and will be in the kingdom. See also 1 Thess 4:13-18 which makes it clear that all deceased believers, without distinction as to faithfulness or perseverance, will be raptured immediately before those of us who are still alive.
We find the same basic idea in 2 Tim 2:12 and 1 Cor 9:27 where Paul indicates that ruling with Christ and having His approval requires endurance. Not all who have eternal life will be found worthy to rule with Christ.
Objections to This View
Aren’t All Believers Holy and Blameless?
Some object that Paul didn’t say a word here about rewards. They suggest that all believers are holy, blameless, and beyond reproach because of the death of Jesus on the cross in our place.
Positionally it is true that all believers are holy and blameless. However, this passage is not looking at one’s position, but his experience. If Paul were looking at our position he would say something like, “yet now He has reconciled you and made you holy, blameless, and beyond reproach in His sight.” Perseverance is not required for believers to be holy in their position! But it is required for them to be holy in their experience.
There are many passages in the Bible that indicate believers are to be holy and blameless and beyond reproach in their experience. Consider holiness, for example. Paul said that one of the requirements of an elder is that he be holy (Titus 1:8). If all believing men were holy in their experience, then this would be a superfluous requirement. Similarly Paul was referencing the experience of the believer when he said that “the unmarried woman cares about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit” (1 Cor 7:34). Peter also said we are to be holy in our experience as God is holy (1 Pet 1:15-16).
The same is true of being blameless and beyond reproach. Paul said that one of the requirements of an elder is that he be found blameless in his experience (1 Tim 3:2, 10; see also Jude 24 and Rev 14:5).2 Another requirement of an elder is that he be beyond reproach in his experience (1 Tim 3:10; Titus 1:6-7).
Hodges makes this helpful observation: “Words like ‘holy,’ ‘blameless,’ and ‘above reproach’ do not require the sense of ‘sinless’ or ‘absolutely perfect.’”3
Wouldn’t This Promote Sin?
I don’t see how it would, unless the only motivation to avoid sin is fear of hell. The Bible teaches that once we come to faith in Christ we should never fear hell again. However, it also teaches that we have many motivations to obey God and turn from sin. They include fear of God’s temporal judgment, desire for God’s blessings in this life, fear of shame and rebuke at the Bema, fear of missing out on ruling with Christ and the related privileges, and gratitude for the gift of eternal life purchased by the shed blood of the Lord Jesus. In fact, Paul is here using the doctrine of rewards to discourage sin!
Jesus is coming again. When He appears, we who are believers will be judged. That judgment will be according to our works, “whether good or bad” (2 Cor 5:10). The purpose of the judgment will be to determine and then announce how we did in this life and therefore what our role will be in the life to come.
Some will hear “Well done, good servant” (Luke 19:17). All of us would like to be in that group, but it is not automatic. Only if we remain steadfast in the faith will we have Christ’s approval (1 Cor 9:27; 2 Tim 2:15; 1 John 2:28).
Are you living daily in light of the Bema and Jesus’ soon return? Keeping that hope before us is a vital aid in our continuing in the faith until He returns.