***Editor’s Note: Dr. Cox’s book, “Not One Little Child: A Biblical Critique of Calvinism” is available for purchase HERE.
Calvinism teaches that the human will has been so utterly destroyed by the sin of Adam that it cannot choose to place faith in Christ even if it wanted to do so. It also claims that certain humans are unconditionally elected by God for salvation, while all others are left unelected and have no hope of experiencing God’s grace. It further asserts that the atoning work of Christ on the cross is absolutely limited in its extent only to the elect. It additionally declares that God’s grace is completely irresistible for the elect.
Conversely, Col. 1:25-29 boldly announces that God revealed the riches of the glory of the mystery of the gospel of Jesus Christ because He wants every person presented to Himself complete in Christ, as expressly stated in v. 28. God’s desire is for every person to be saved and to grow into full maturity in Jesus Christ.
This verse, therefore, and its theme of “every person,” is the focus of this article, as I contend that The Book of Colossians argues here not only against Gnostic-like false teachings prevalent in Colossae in terms of the verse’s interpretation, but also against the teachings of Calvinism and Reformed theology in terms of the verse’s application. Colossians is against Calvinism, particularly as seen in Col. 1:25-29.
25Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, 26that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations; but has now been manifested to His saints, 27to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28And we proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man complete in Christ. 29And for this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.
God Unveiled the Riches of the Glory of the Mystery
Most of the world only knew God as the God of the Jews. The Jews had, somewhat purposely, kept a lid on the extent to which God wished to bless the world through Abraham, doing a grossly inadequate job of missionary outreach, as The Book of Jonah adequately attests; yet, God wanted himself known as the God of the Gentiles too, which is how things had begun with Adam and continued with Abraham, both antedating Israel/Jews as a people group. Thus, Paul explains that God willed to make known the riches of the glory of the mystery to His saints. So what are the riches of the glory of the mystery? We can identify at least four rich truths of the mystery revealed: (1) Christ in you, thus indicating a union with Christ resulting in righteousness and salvation; (2) admission of the Gentiles into union with Christ the same as Jews, even though vestiges of this had already been revealed in the covenant with Abraham (cf. Gen. 12:1-3); (3) Christ is not just for the Jews, but for all people everywhere; (4) Christ in us is our only hope of glory.
God Wants Every Person Presented Complete in Christ
Paul’s practice was to proclaim, admonish, and teach. He proclaimed Christ to every person, then he admonished, or warned, every person, which involved notifying both believers and unbelievers, Jews and Gentiles, of the consequential risks related to choices, character, and conduct, and such admonitions were done without distinction of race or nationality, clearly implying that every human soul is priceless to Christ. Then, Paul says he taught every person with all wisdom. This means instruction is necessary both before and after salvation, that discipleship is the obligatory tail-side of the coin whose head-side is evangelism.
Now to the gist of the passage and my focus in this article. Paul wanted desperately to present every person complete in Christ. This means that people are, by nature, not in Christ, and certainly not complete in Him, which raises a question: If all are saved by the atonement, as Universalism teaches, then why does Paul suggest that anybody is outside of Christ? Universalism, therefore, is wrong!
Further, if only an exclusive few are predestined, that is elected, for completion in Christ, and salvation by grace through faith is the necessary first-step toward completion, then why does this verse teach that Paul’s God-given purpose was to present every person complete in Christ, and every person is repeated three times so as not to miss its emphatic, inclusive scope?
Judaism had no place in salvation for every person. Neither the Gnostic-like false teachings plaguing Colossae, nor later Gnosticism, had any place in salvation for every person. Similarly, Calvinism has no place in salvation for every person. It is, therefore, inexplicable how the emphatic clarity of the inclusion of every person within the scope of presentation in Christ-like completeness to God can be so easily abandoned.
Presentation to God the Father in Christ-like completeness, and therefore salvation, is not the exclusive privilege of either the enlightened few or the elect few. There is no such thing as a spiritual or intellectual aristocracy with Christ. Relationship with Christ is not simply for some spiritually elite caste. God wants every person saved and every saved person to grow to full spiritual maturity. Colossians is against Universalism. Colossians is against Judaism. Colossians is against Gnostic-like teachings. Colossians is against Calvinism.
Paul preached for a verdict, and so should we. The final purpose, or goal, is the presentation to God the Father of every person as a fully mature, complete believer who is being and doing what God wills. “Every” means that God desires that not even one person be lost, undoubtedly stressing the universal scope of the gospel message, the unlimited extent of the atonement, and the genuine possibility of redemption for every person, conditional, of course, upon faith in Christ and repentance. It would be profoundly disingenuous to proclaim the universality of the gospel if some, because of so-called non-election, could not actually respond to it in faith. To preach the gospel and then invite hearers to make a decision to place faith in Christ is only sincere when we actually believe that it is possible for every hearer to place faith in Christ and be saved. To do otherwise lacks integrity and is sorely at odds with Colossians.
The entire Church of the Lord Jesus is hereby, again, charged with evangelizing the world (cf. Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8) with the full confidence that every person is important to Christ and every person can receive Christ. William Barclay states this succinctly when he writes, “The fact is that the only thing in this world which is for everyone is Christ.”
Paul labored for the purpose of presenting every person complete in Christ and he says he labored according to God’s power, not his own, acknowledging that God’s power was working in him (v. 29). Perhaps by losing sight of the riches of the glory of the mystery revealed, especially the scope of the riches and Paul’s God-given purpose in proclaiming, admonishing, and teaching, we have also forfeited the power of God in proclaiming, admonishing, and teaching Jesus to the world. It’s time to rethink the implications of Colossians against Calvinism and get back to the plain meaning of v. 28 — that all Christians do their part, especially preachers, to present every person complete in Christ, knowing that this is both possible and is our God-given purpose.
E. Earle Ellis, The Epistle to the Colossians, in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, ed. Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett F. Harrison (Nashville, TN: The Southwestern Company, 1962): 1339.
I am indebted to David L. Allen, former Dean of the School of Theology and new Dean of the recently launched School of Preaching and Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, for this observation made at the Connect 316 dinner held 14 June 2016 during the week of the Southern Baptist Convention in St. Louis, Missouri. Allen was speaking on the extent of the atonement based on his forthcoming book entitled, The Extent of the Atonement: History and Critique, by B & H Academic Publishing.
William Barclay, The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, in The Daily Bible Study Series, vol. 11 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003): 147.