Both Are Conditional
Colossians 1:21-23 is one long sentence. In the midst of it Paul places a conditional word, if (ei in Greek). First Corinthians 15:1-2 is also one long sentence and in the midst of it Paul places the same conditional word, if (ei).
While people sometimes try to explain the conditional words in both places as stating a reality and not a condition, there is no good reason to translate ei as since in either place. The context in both places makes it clear that the readers might or might not do what Paul commands.
Both Deal with Holding Fast to Paul’s Gospel, Which He Had Formerly Preached to Them
While different Greek words for continuance are used in each passage, the ideas are the same. In Colossians Paul challenges the readers in Colossae to “continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard…” There can be no doubt that Paul is calling for doctrinal perseverance to the gospel in the face of the false teachers who were confronting the church in Colossae. In First Cor 15:2 Paul admonishes the readers in Corinth to “hold fast the word which I preached to you…” Holding fast to the word they heard from Paul (i.e., the gospel) is the same concept as continuing in and not moving away from the hope of the gospel which Paul preached.
In both places Paul stresses his gospel (euangellion, Col 1:23; 1 Cor 15:1). And he stresses that he had preached this good news message to them before. While many assume that he is speaking of the message he preached to them to lead them to faith in Christ, that conclusion is unwarranted. As he wishes them to continue in this message (see the next section on their spiritual condition), this is surely the message he preached to them as believers to lead them to spiritual health now and at the Bema.
Both Address Born-Again People
There should be no question that both epistles are addressed to believers, to born-again people (cf. Col 1:2, 4, 13-14, 21-22a; 2:6; 3:3; 1 Cor 1:2, 6-8; 3:1; 6:11). There is no hint in either passage we are considering that Paul is now focusing on unbelievers. Paul wants born-again people to hold fast to and not be moved away from the gospel which he preached to them.
The good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection (1 Cor 15:3-4) is foundational to healthy Christian living. We cannot successfully live for Christ if we cease to believe in any aspect of the good news, especially Jesus’ substitutionary death, His bodily resurrection, His soon return, and our own bodily resurrection and gaining of glorified bodies.
The question is what it is that Paul promises the believer who holds fast. Many people use these two passages to teach Lordship Salvation since they misunderstand the nature of the implicit warning, to which we now turn.
Both Implicitly Warn of Loss of “Salvation”
In 1 Cor 15:2 Paul actually says that the present “salvation” of the believers in Corinth was dependent on their holding fast to his gospel: “by which you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.” Note that Paul said they already had believed. The reason he puts “unless you had believed in vain” is because their faith in Christ would be worthless if there is no resurrection from the dead. Compare 15:2 with 15:19: “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most pitiable.”
Unlike in Eph 2:8-9 where Paul uses a perfect tense, “you have been saved,” in 1 Cor 15:2 Paul uses a present tense, “you are saved,” or even, you are being saved. Whatever the salvation in 15:2 is, it is not the new birth. The new birth is not conditioned upon holding fast to the gospel. It is conditioned upon believing in Jesus for eternal life (1 Cor 1:21; 3:5; cf. Eph 2:8-9; 1 Tim 1:16).
In light of 1 Cor 5:5 (see also 3:15 and 15:58), this salvation is being spiritually healthy at the Bema, the Judgment Seat of Christ. Believers are only spiritually healthy now if they hold fast to the apostolic gospel. They will only be healthy at the Bema if they were holding fast to the gospel when they died or were raptured.
While Col 1:21-23 does not specifically mention salvation, it uses similar terminology. In Col 1:22 Paul says that Jesus reconciled the believers in Colossae to Himself “to present you holy, and blameless, and beyond reproach in His sight—if indeed you continue in the faith…” While most commentators understand Paul to be saying that our eternal destiny depends on our perseverance in faith, that is not a Pauline doctrine. It is not something the Lord Jesus or any of His apostles taught. As Zane Hodges, Jody Dillow, Charlie Bing, and others have shown, Paul is here speaking of the Bema, and of being presented there as holy, blameless, and beyond reproach in our experience. Not all believers will be so presented. Some will be rebuked by Christ and will not have His approval (cf. Luke 19:20-26; 1 Cor 9:27; 2 Tim 4:6-10).
Well, if we in the Free Grace movement recognize that Col 1:21-23 is an implicit warning about the Bema, shouldn’t we also see the parallel passage in 1 Cor 15:1-2 as being the same warning? The common elements between the two are unmistakable. Whatever Paul is talking about in one, he is also talking about in the other. Taking one as referring to the Bema and the other as to how a person is born again makes no sense.
Holding Fast to the Gospel Is
Vital to Our Spiritual Health,
But Not to Our Eternal Destiny
Our Lord said that whoever believes in Him has everlasting life (John 3:16; 5:24; 6:47). He also said that the one who believes in Him will never thirst (John 6:35), meaning he will never again need to drink the water of life. Nor will the one who partakes by faith of the bread of life ever hunger again (John 6:35). Jesus loses none who come to Him (John 6:39-40). The one who lives and believes in Him will never die spiritually (John 11:26).
Clearly the Lord did not give any condition to keeping eternal life. Once a person believes, he has that life once and for all. The believer couldn’t go to hell even if he wanted to!
However, the Lord never said that once a person comes to faith in Christ that he is eternally approved by Him. Indeed, He said that we are only His friends if we do what He commands us (John 15:14). In the Parable of the Minas (Luke 19:11-27), He revealed that at the Bema He will tell the believer who served Him wholehearted to the end of his life, “Well done, good servant,” and will give him authority over ten cities (Luke 19:16-17). But to the believer who was half-hearted in his service, yet who persevered to the end, He will only say, “You also be over five cities” (Luke 19:19). To such a believer He doesn’t say “Well done,” and He doesn’t call him “good servant.” However, to the believer who does not persevere in his service for Christ to the end, to the one who buries what He gave him, He will say, “Out of your own mouth I will judge you, you wicked servant” (Luke 19:22). This type of believer receives no cities to rule over and no commendation. Indeed, this believer is rebuked by His Lord and called a wicked servant!
Thus Paul’s words in both Col 1:21-23 and 1 Cor 15:1-2 should come as no surprise. They are perfectly consistent with the Lord’s teachings. Only if a believer holds fast to the good news message can he be spiritually healthy at the Bema. Only a persevering saint will be found holy, blameless, and beyond reproach at the Bema.
The Christian life is not primarily a list of commands, though there are commands. It is primarily a love relationship with Jesus Christ (Rom 12:2; 2 Cor 3:18; 1 John 4:19). That love relationship is seriously damaged if we cease to believe in His substitutionary death or His bodily resurrection (which guarantees ours as well). Sadly many today replace sound doctrine with mystical practices like centering prayer, prayer labyrinths, candles, incense, eastern meditative practices, liturgical worship, and so on. Yet Christianity is not a bunch of religious practices, and feelings are not a good barometer of our walk with Christ. The Christian life is a Person. Our lives are transformed by seeing His beauty in the Word (2 Cor 3:18). Nothing, of course, shows the glory of our Lord more than His death and resurrection. If we ever lose sight of that, then we cease to be spiritually healthy.