An understanding of Grace from the book of Colossians
What does it mean to be a Christian? What is “Christian behavior”? What do we mean
when we talk about “the Gospel”? To many, Christianity could be summed up as …
- “Don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t cuss, dress nice; do this, and God might like you
enough to let you into heaven.”
- “Whatever you do, just make sure you get to church every Sunday and God will
- “As long as you believe the right things and vote the right way and aren’t a
(Democrat, Republican, bigot, liberal, white person, black person, gun owner,
homosexual, etc. etc. you fill in the blank), you’re a good person and you’ll go to
- “Go to my church, and you’re ok with God.”
Perhaps it was attitudes like these that prompted Paul to write his letter to the believers in
the town of Colossae. Not only does he present to them what it means to be a Christian, but how
a Christian ought to look. Paul begins the letter with thanks to God, establishing right away who
is responsible for salvation.
We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you,
because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the
saints: faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and
that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you.
(Col. 1:3-6, emphasis mine)
He then begins to talk about his desire for these believers to continue growing in their faith…
… We have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge
of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order
that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing
fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all
power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and
patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the
inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.
(1:9-12, emphasis mine)
If you watch the italicized words carefully, you will notice a pattern emerging here. Paul is not
praying that the Colossians will fill themselves with the knowledge of God’s will, but that God
himself will fill them. He doesn’t pray that they will become strong in all power according to
their diligent efforts, but that they will “be strengthened”, according to “God’s glorious might”.
And finally, it was not the efforts of these believers that qualified them to share in the
“inheritance of the saints” (that is, eternal life), but rather, “the Father.”
Paul moves on and begins talking about Jesus, establishing Christ’s deity and supremacy…
“[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things
Having established this, he then discusses Christ’s role in their redemption.
“For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile
to himself all things … by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. Once you
were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.
But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you
holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation…. This is the Gospel that you
(verses 19-23, emphasis mine)
Aha! So this is what that “gospel” thing is: we were alienated from God because of our
evil behavior, but now we can be reconciled. Why? Because of our good behavior? NO!
Because Jesus, “firstborn over all creation”, made peace “through his blood, shed on the cross.”
Once again Paul establishes that it is not we who have made ourselves holy, but God.
Apparently, this understanding was being threatened in Colossae. Ideas much like those
that I listed above were no doubt creeping into the church and deceiving people. Paul begins
addressing this in chapter two.
“So then, just as you received Christ Jesus” [that is, by faith, not by good behavior],
“continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were
taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. See to it that no one takes you captive
through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the
basic principles of this world rather than Christ.”
People were coming up with ideas about how to be saved and how to grow in faith that had
nothing to do with Christ, but just human ideas of what was decent and right. So Paul’s next
move is to lay out an understanding of how Christians should behave, and why. He first
establishes this point.
“[You have been] buried with [Christ] in baptism and raised with him through your faith
in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. When you were dead in your sins …
God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written
code … he took it away, nailing it to the cross.”
Two points are established here:
- That believers have died to the law, to the “basic principles of the world”.
- That believers have been resurrected with Christ.
Having established these, Paul goes into detail about each one, starting with the first…
“Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the
things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”
Regulations on certain foods or drinks, religious festivals, and “Holy days” were all parts of
Judaism, as they are of many religions. But Paul says they should not be part of Christianity.
For all of these rituals, all of these rules and regulations: they were only shadows and hints of
true life in God, whose reality came in Christ himself. But the Colossians still wanted them…
“Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still
belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’?
These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands
and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-
imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack
any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”
Now why would anyone want rules and regulations that weren’t needed? Because they appear
wise and pious. Look at some of the examples listed at the beginning of this essay; we can
appear to be very spiritual and wise by making a big deal about the things we do or don’t do.
Even today I meet Christians who seem to think their “godliness” is established on the grounds
that they go to church every week, they don’t use swear words, don’t touch alcohol or tobacco,
give money to this or that organization, or even because they eat kosher foods. But Paul tells us
that such rules are basically worthless, because they don’t deal with the heart, where our sinful
So is Paul telling us that it’s ok to sin? Can we do whatever we want now that the written
code is gone? This brings us to his second point: that we have been raised from the dead with
“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where
Christ is seated at the right hand of God … For you died, and your life is now hidden with
Christ in God … Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual
immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the
wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But
now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and
filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your
old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in
knowledge in the image of its Creator.”
Now wait a minute! Are these just more rules to follow? Weren’t we free of rules? But notice
that these aren’t just rules: Paul is describing to us not just new behavior, but a new nature! Our
lives, as believers, are “hidden with Christ”. We have taken off our old self, and put on our new
self. And our new self is being constantly being molded into the image of God. What Paul is
giving us is not a new set of rules, but a description of our new self. And the description goes
“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave
you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”
Again, this new behavior deals directly with the heart. Compassion, kindness, gentleness,
patience, forgiveness, and most of all love, are not simply rules we can follow. They require a
new heart, a new self. How can we get a new self? Remember chapter one? It is from God!
Centuries before Paul, before Christ came to earth in the flesh, God revealed what he was
going to do for us through the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah 31:31-24 reads:
“‘The time is coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the
house of Israel and with the house of Judah…. This is the covenant I will make with the
house of Israel after that time, … I will put my law in their minds and write it on their
hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his
neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” because they will all know me,
from the least to the greatest, … For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember
their sins no more.'”
This is what was revealed in Christ. God’s law is now written on our hearts, because we have
put on a new self through faith in Christ.
Whether you are a believer or not, consider what the book of Colossians says to you. Are
you trying to attain righteousness or godliness by obeying rules? Do you exalt yourself over
others because of the things you do? Is God strengthening you, or are you relying on your own
hard work, cleverness, or talent? Are you living in the old self, or the new?
“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts…”