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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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1  
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

4 Answers 4

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

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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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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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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