CLAIM: Paul writes that we were formerly alienated from God (v.21), but now, we have been reconciled to God. However, he then adds the caveat “if indeed you continue in the faith” (v.23). Does this mean that Christians can lose their salvation, if they don’t continue in the faith?
RESPONSE: There are two major ways of understanding this passage:
OPTION #1: This could be referring to sanctification—not justification.
Paul may be using the terms “holy and blameless and beyond reproach” to refer to spiritual maturity (see Phil. 1:10; 2:15; 1 Tim. 3:10; Titus 2:8 for such usage). If this is the case, he is simply saying that God has reconciled (justified) us through Christ in order to present us to himself as spiritually mature people, and that this will happen as long as we continue to focus in faith on the gospel. This interpretation fits best with the later context of Paul’s desire of pursuing discipleship in the Body of Christ (vv.28-29).
OPTION #2: This could be referring to justification.
Paul isn’t singling out true believers from false believers here. The “you” is plural throughout this section. Therefore, he is referring to the entire group in Colossae—not individuals within it.
Moreover, in the Greek, this phrase (“if indeed you continue”) is a first-class conditional clause. This is a grammatical structuring in the Greek language that assumes the conclusion for the sake of argument. For instance, in Luke 4:3, Satan told Jesus: “If You are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” By stating this, Satan is assuming that Jesus is the Son of God. Otherwise, the sentence makes no sense. Greek grammarian Daniel Wallace explains the first-class conditional in this way: “‘If you put your hand in the fire, you’ll get burned.’ We could analyze the condition on a structural or logical level. These ought not to be ignored. But the pragmatic meaning of the statement is, ‘Don’t put your hand in the fire!’ It is, in effect, a polite command, couched in indirect language.”
Wallace denies that we should translate the first-class conditional as “Since…” While “since” is a decent translation of the first-class conditional in some cases, it is too reductionistic (i.e. it simplifies the grammar too much). The majority of the time we see the first-class conditional in the NT, we shouldn’t translate it as “since.” For instance, Jesus says, “If I by Beelzebul cast out demons, by whom do your sons cast them out? For this reason they will be your judges” (Mt. 12:27). Obviously, we shouldn’t translate this as, “Since I by Beelzebul cast out demons.” Otherwise, Jesus would be claiming to be satanic operative on Earth! Thus, the interpreter and translator should use caution by translating the first-class conditional in this way.
Instead, Wallace urges us to render the first-class conditional in this way: “If (and let us assume that this is true for the sake of argument) I by Beelzebul cast out demons…” In other words, the speaker is assuming the first part of the sentence for the sake of argument, when they use this condition. In the case of Colossians 1:23, Paul uses the first-class conditional. We might render this passage in this way: “If (and I’m assuming that this is true) indeed you continue.” Thus Paul wouldn’t be saying that true believers need to persevere to be saved; instead, he would be saying that true believers do persevere. Quoting Radford, commentator Curtis Vaughn writes, “The Greek indicates not an uncertain prospect but a necessary condition and an almost certain assumption.… Paul is at once insistent and confident; they must [continue], and he is sure that they will.”
Either way we take this passage, it is highly speculative that Paul would be threatening their salvation here. Given the larger context, his purpose is to express his confidence in their security in Christ, and his command to present every believer as sanctified in Christ (vv.28-29).