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In Colossians 1:19-20 (NIV) we read:

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

On the face of it, it would seem that reconciling all things is effective towards "all things". But then Paul continues in 22-23:

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 - if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel.

Here is seems like there are cases where some are not reconciled - i.e. those who do not continue in faith, but who move from the hope of the gospel. Assuming that Paul is not contradicting himself in the span of a couple verse, how can we reconcile these two sets of verses? How did Paul understand the effectiveness of God's "reconciling all things" in Christ?

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Remembering peace. And yes: the pun was intended. – Soldarnal Nov 7 '11 at 21:53
    
I just had to highlight this question, which made me smile: "Assuming that Paul is not contradicting himself in the span of a couple verse, how can we reconcile these two sets of verses?" – Jon Ericson Nov 7 '11 at 22:07
    
Am I missing something or is it simply the "but" in the second verse that is making you think they are contradicting? It could simply be expanding on the reconciling work that Christ came to do and that he is now doing it in "you" the recipient. It also expands on how he is reconciling, telling us it was by Christ's death. Assuming the reconciling of all things in the first verse is completed is to me a poor starting assumption. ἀποκαταλλάξαι is aorist infinitive. To reconcile is not reconciled. It was started in the past but it is continuing to be completed, as evidenced by the next verse. – Joshua Jan 8 '15 at 3:31
    
@JoshuaBigbee No, the "but" has nothing to do with it. The "contradiction" I perceive is between the apparent universal efficacy in verse 19 ("all things") and the apparent limitation of that efficacy in verse 23 ("if you continue in faith..."). In other words: Are all things reconciled to Christ - including those who do not continue in their faith - or not? – Soldarnal Jan 8 '15 at 5:07
    
@Soldarnal we should be refining the meaning of reconciling then, thank you. Because to me, reconciling all things is not equal to universal efficacy, though I can understand that conclusion. – Joshua Jan 8 '15 at 6:30

I see Paul using two separate, but interlocking images in this section. Both turn on the verse left out of the question. Colosians 1:21 (NIV):

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.

Restore Creation

The first is restoring creation, which fits well with Paul's portrayal of Jesus as creator. Colosians 1:15-18 (NIV):

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.

So the resolution alluded to in verse 20 is restoring everything to its Genesis 1 state (i.e., "very good"). Since there was no evil then and since people are sinful, something must be done to transform them to their original state. Of course, the treatment is Christ's work on the cross and if the Colossians continue in their faith they will obtain the hope. If they refuse to be transformed, they will cease to be part of creation and thus cease to be among the "all things" of verse 20. (We don't know from this passage if that means being expelled from creation as Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden or if they simple cease to have any existence at all.)

Settling Debt

The second image is of settling debts, which is an image Paul doesn't really develop until the next chapter. Colossians 2:13-14 (NIV):

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.

"Reconcile" in verse 20 clearly means the same thing as nailing the charge of indebtedness to the cross. A modern equivalent action might be the government taking over your home loan as a very generous bailout. You no longer have any obligation to the lender and you don't have a financial or legal responsibility to the government. (But you would have a moral obligation of gratitude.)

Now verse 22 refers to the same moment—the cross, but verse 23 shifts to the present consequences. (The transition is strange but clear in English.) Paul's argument in chapter 2 (and in Galatians) is that if the debt is paid off, we shouldn't act as if we still owed something. In a sense, if we "hedge our bets" by continuing to pay off our debt, we give up our claim to the forgiveness of debt. The reconciliation certainly happened, but depending on how the Colossians respond, they might undue the reconciliation in a sense.


Supporting evidence

The word translated "reconcile" here is apokatallasso <604> from apo <575> meaning either "of separation" or "of origin" and katallasso <2644> meaning "to change, exchange, as coins for others of equivalent value". Further katallasso is a compound of kata <2596> meaning "down from, through out" or "according to, toward, along" and allasso <236> meaning "to change, to exchange one thing for another, to transform".

In both cases, the verb is in the aorist tense which refers to a particular moment in time. "Continue" in verse 23 is in the present tense. The details of the Greek tenses may be discovered by looking at specific verses on classic.net.bible.org and examining the Strong's numbers under the Greek text.

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For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

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 - if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel.

Though it appears that Paul contradicts himself in the span of a few verses, the first hermeneutic principle is the assumption that he doesn't and then reconciling our understanding to his statements.

"All" in the first passage does not speak of everything, since there are some things that will not be reconciled destined for destruction. So it must scope to all of the things which the Father gave him, and were separated from him for a time.

Joh 10:29 My Father, which gave [them] me, is greater than all; and no [man] is able to pluck [them] out of my Father’s hand.

The second passage has two parts: A statement that his audience has been reconciled, and a clarification of who his intended audience is. Since his sheep will always be his sheep, the second part of the statement must be a clarification of who his sheep are rather than a requirement placed upon the sheep to remain sheep.

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+1: I had to answer myself before I could be sure that I agree. ;-) – Jon Ericson Nov 8 '11 at 21:35

In English, "reconciliation" refers to the restoration of a relationship. For example if I say "Fred was reconciled to his wife, Judy" then what I mean is that Fred and Judy are back on good terms. However ἀποκαταλλάσσω has a very different meaning. If I say "Fred was ἀποκαταλλάσσω to his wife, Judy" then it does not necessarily follow that Judy was ἀποκαταλλάσσω to her husband, Fred. It only means that if Judy is willing to be reconciled then Fred's door is open. I like to use the image of a two-layered wall. IE: there is a two-layered wall running between two alienated parties. If one party removes the wall on their side the other wall still remains. Only when both remove the wall on their respective sides will the relationship be restored.

We see the same thing here:

2Co 5:18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 2Co 5:19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 2Co 5:20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

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+1 God created beings with the capacity to do as they please, just like Himself. There will be many who will not have "being reconciled to God" at the top of their list of things that please, where surely it must be for it to happen. – enegue Apr 4 at 13:44

Colossians 1:15-20 - Exegesis of 'All Things'

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

If we apply a consistent hermeneutic to the passage, Paul makes it very clear what the scope of all things includes:

  • Everything that was created
  • All things in heaven
  • All things on earth
  • All things visible
  • All things invisible
  • All thrones
  • All dominions
  • All rulers
  • All authorities

All of these things were created by him, he is before them all, and holds them all together. And the purpose of the cross was to reconcile this same scope which he very clearly defines, and reinforces again in v20 by repeating "whether on earth or in heaven". Such readings are problematic for readers who are instinctively on-edge around concepts which may lend support to Universalism, but that is not a good enough reason to rush to an alternative conclusion.

We must be careful to always start with a pure exegesis of texts like this, and to not read in our own biases as linchpins of interpretation. We must aim to understand the intended meaning of the passage, before we risk modifying it with our preferred biases and related passages. Previous answers to this question used throwaway comments which allow them to bypass the phraseology of the passage, such as:

  • "The Scripture as a whole deny the concept of Universalism."
  • "'All' in the first passage does not speak of everything, since there are some things that will not be reconciled destined for destruction."
  • "This supposition does not mean universal salvation for all sinners"

Reconciling?

This is perhaps the strongest text in the scriptures which (at face value) backs universalist concepts - and has been thoroughly exegeted and defended by Robin Parry in his book 'The Evangelical Universalist', writing under the alias 'Gregory MacDonald'. He argues for an eventual reconciliation of all things, after the judgements and punishments which the biblical texts describe to us. This is not my understanding, but does make for a good exegesis of the text in front of us, and so is not to be discarded hastily.

A plain reading of most English renditions of the text does definitely infer that all things is a universal scope, and ultimately depends on what meaning we derive from reconcile / ἀποκαταλλάσσω, apo-kata-allasso:

The terms ἀποκαταλλάσσω and καταλλάσσω more generally are strong and consistent phrases used by Paul throughout the New Testament when talking of total reconciliation:

"by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility." - Ephesians 2:15-16

"while we were enemies we were reconciled to God" - Romans 5:10

"(but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife." - 1 Corinthians 7:11

And perhaps most relevantly:

"All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. " - 2 Corinthians 5:18-19

We find a perfect parallel to Colossians 1 here, where Paul declares Christ was 'reconciling the world', and yet Paul's application is 'we implore you... be reconciled to God'. Yes, the intention of the cross in both passages is a global reconciliation, and at face value this is the intended scope of what Christ accomplished.


Conditionality of Reconciliation

Rightly, you've picked up on Colossians 1:22-23, which suggests that at least in some instances, in the near term, that there are further conditions to that reconciliation. Therefore, you're asking the right question, "How did Paul understand the effectiveness of God's "reconciling all things" in Christ?" Well, it's something that for Christians is now a thing of the past, but for the rest of the world is a present, continuous work:

'God through Christ reconciled us and gave us a ministry of reconciliation; in this, he was reconciling the world to himself...' (2 Cor 5:18-29, my paraphrase)

Given the usage of the concept of 'reconciliation' in Corinthians, it would seem that Paul's concept of Christ's 'reconciliation' is both past and present. Christ's past work is in the most important sense perfect and provides for that total reconciliation of all things, but is now an ongoing present work of reconciliation. Indeed, Christ's life, death and resurrection urge this onwards:

“Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division;" - Luke 12:51

"And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” - Matthew 21:44

"For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life." - 2 Corinthians 2:15-16

The world is no longer permitted to continue in indolence, but by the work of God in Christ and the ongoing presence of the Church in the world is divided and forced to choose. Paul taught that the present and future work of the church is to continue this ministry, that as the world is confronted with the reconciling work of the Christ, they cause others to become partakers in that reconciliation, or otherwise to reject it entirely. God is "making his appeal through us" (2 Cor 5:19) for the things to come and become partakers of this peace which the cross has provided for.

In a Universalist view this 'reconciliation' does reach ultimate perfection in the future, and for the rest of us that 'reconciliation' of all things merely involves things being 'put right' as all creation responds to the work of the Cross and is compelled out of passivity to choose life or death. Both views are compatible with the passage at hand.

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The Great Intrusion into creation was sin, which was accompanied by its handmaiden, death (which is both physical and spiritual). It was therefore the work of Christ that had "reconciled" to the Father what sin and death had taken away.

In the epistle to the Ephesians there is a parallel verse that sheds light on the passage in Colossians -

Ephesians 1:9-10 (NASB)
9 He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him 10 with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth.

What is in mind here?

It is the disobedience of men and angels, who have established their rule, authority, and power against God on earth. That is, the sinful rule, authority, and power among men and angels have death (which is both physical and spiritual) as its basis, which Jesus "abolished" through the cross (for example, please see 2 Tim 1:10).

Other key verses in this regard are found in Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians -

1 Cor 15:24-26, 28 (NASB)
24 then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. 25 For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. 26 The last enemy that will be abolished is death. . . 28 When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all.

So the idea here is that there has been all this sin and disobedience among men and angels in creation, and of course this disobedience has thrived within a context of spiritual death -- for example, please compare Eph 2:1-2 with Eph 6:12. Thus we have the Great Intrusion in God's creation, which is now to be annulled through Christ.

This supposition does not mean universal salvation for all sinners, or that God has somehow reconciled the fallen angels to himself; what it means is that Christ has "abolished" all disobedience through his death and resurrection. He removed all sins of all people through his body on the cross. (Please click here for further explication.) However, what is "abolished" at the end of time (as noted in the Corinthian passage above) is death -- that is, those who are spiritually dead (whether men or angels) will perish. Of course, sin is not the issue at the last judgment -- it is instead spiritual death, which is the handmaiden of sin.

While there is no biblical evidence that the death of Christ had anything to do with the sins of fallen angels, his death and resurrection were nevertheless also the basis of the cleansing of "the heavenly things" in Heb 9:23. In other words, the death of Christ not only provided for the atonement of sinners who dwell on the earth, but also included the cleansing of "the heavenly things," which of course were contaminated by sin.

In summary, Christ died to reconcile all things in heaven and on earth contaminated by sin. That is, he "reconciled" all rule, all authority, and all power back to the Father with the sole exception of those spiritually dead (both men and angels), who will burn in eternal fire.

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and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

Colossians 1:20 (ESV)

The context shows that the 'all things' is everything in heaven and on earth, that which is invisible and visible.

16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.

Colossians 1:16 (ESV)

The Greek word katallaso has more than one meaning. It means 'to change', 'to 'exchange', and 'to reconcile.' This Greek word was used in Romans 5:10 and 2 Corinthians 5:19.

However, in Colossians 1:20, the Greek word is apokatallaso. In Greek language, adding a prepostion to a word intensifies it. Hence, Paul is telling us that God is thoroughly reconciles all creation by Christ.

and through him to reconcile to himself all things,whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

Colossians 1:20 (ESV)

Colossians 1:16 reveals some of the invisible creatures which are celestial beings.

The Scripture as a whole deny the concept of Universalism. Jesus himself spoke of the damnation of God's enemies (Matthew 25:41).Therefore, Paul must have been speaking of holy angels in Colossians 1:20.

Prior to reconciliation, Christians were cut off and enemies of God.Is this the condition of the holy angels? Are Michael and Gabriel alienated and enemies of God prior to their reconciliation?

21 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds,

22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him,

Colossians 1:21-22 (ESV)

A scripture might shed light to this inscrutable mystery:

Behold, God puts no trust in his holy ones, and the heavens are not pure in his sight;

Job 15:15 (ESV)

Whatever that is, there is something went wrong, something that affects relationship between God and his angels that is unknown to us.

On the other hand, it wasn't only angels but all creation (Col. 1:15-20; Rom. 8:18-20) that is waiting for the revelation of the sons of God (i.e. the believers) and they were subjected in futility not willingly which suggests that it was not based on their own fault that they were in such condition. Hence, it shows that holy angels need reconciliation the way non-sentient creation needs it and thereby showing that the holy angels need reconciliation not because of any fault they somehow have.

19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.

20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope

Romans 8:19-20 (ESV)

It wasn't only all creation but also the sons of God that wait for the new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells indicating that the enemies of God has been banished from the new realms.

But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

2 Peter 3:13 (ESV)

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There is another solution which throws even my position on it's head:

In SP we discern that God revealed himself through two primary attributes Holiness (including law, judgement, justice, separateness, etc.) and Love (including patience long-suffering, grace, etc.)

The purpose of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was to teach Holiness through separateness as a symbol. But Adam 'thought godhood something to be grasped' and had to be made more separate in order to learn Holiness.

God says that He created calamity/evil: Isa 45:7 I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.

In a sense, God created evil by presenting Adam with the symbol of holiness.

If the cross was a way for God to take responsibility for causing the calamity, and all things were reconciled at the cross, then in fact, we have a new heaven and new earth at the time of the cross. All sins are forgiven.

This tempts us to say that all men are saved then, but this is not the case. In the new creation men are now responsible for their own sin, no longer slaves to law of sin and death introduced through Adam's transgression. They are now responsible for what they do to the 'least of these'.

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