Friday 26 December 2008

Chosen for holiness, Continuing in faithfulness: Colossians 1:2

To the holy and faithful brothers in Christ at Colosse: Grace and peace to you from God our Father.
(Colossians 1:2, New International Version)

I had a conversation earlier this month on the use of the term, "saints". Should we address believers as saints? After all, the bible does repeatedly refer to believers as such, eg Colossians 1:2. It isn't evident from the NIV translation we have above, but look at the same verse taken from the King James Version:

To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ which are at Colosse: Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
(Colossians 1:2, KJV)

3 observations from this verse in Paul's letter to the Colossians: a clarification, a continuation and a localisation.

1. A Clarification
Firstly, a clarification - on the descriptive word holy, or saints as found in the KJV. Both refer to God's setting apart the believers for himself. We are meant to recall in the Old Testament how God is holy and all people and things associated with him have to be holy as well. Another word commonly used to describe this process is sanctified. Someone, or something is sanctified, or holy-fied (I'm Chinese, so I guess I can get away with the bad English), when it is set aside for special use for God.

The advantage of the term saints, is that the term can stand alone. The saints, the sactified ones. The KJV has it right - when you read the verse you see that Paul is addressing the Colossian Christians as saints - that's who they are. They are sanctified. It is their identity in association to Christ, in relation to God. All Christians, in Christ, are saints.

The NIV slightly waters this down by turning it into an adjective - a description. Holiness is no longer a position towards God, it becomes here an attitude similar to God's. The holy... brothers. Where as, we are meant to read that Paul is addressing the Colossians as "the holy".

Having said that, the term "saints" is misleading and open to misunderstanding. We think of it as a title, a special recognition conferred on exceptional people who have proven their worth through acts of great kindness, love or sacrifice. "That guy is a real saint - he really helped us out when we were in trouble."

Furthermore, non-Christians often think of sainthood as something close to the Buddhist attainment of Nirvana - it is a state of supreme exaltation, after which lowly followers build statues of this saint and pray towards like a god.

What is going here is this: Paul addresses the Colossians as "the holy", evoking the imagery from the Old Testament where God calls his people, Israel, as holy. Holy, meaning set apart for him - different from the surrounding nations, the neighbouring influences, the other identities.

In doing so, Paul is saying this is not something Christians can do for themselves. It is what God has done for them. God has chosen them, santified them for himself and to reflect his character of holiness. They are the holy.

2. A Continuation
But that is not all he says. Paul calls them faithful.

Contrasted with the first condition, here Paul is calling the Colossians Christians to continued trust in God. Believers in the Lord Jesus are already positionally right with God - they are holy. But they are called to continually walk in trust and reliance in Christ - to be faithful.

Faithfulness is a state that can never be achieved once and for all. It is an active obedience and steadfastness that has to be reflected every day in the lives of the Colossians.

In the New Testament, the words "faith" and "belief" are used interchangeably - that's because they are the same word in Greek. If we translated this verse using the second word "believe", we would have an awkward description here of the Colossians Christians as the "believing ones". But this is useful, as it begs the question, "Believe ... in what?"

And this is precisely the question we should ask each time we encounter the word "faith". Faith is useful and effective only as much as the object it is in. Words like "depend", "rely" or even "trust" might be better alternatives to "faith" - they would lend themselves nicely here - Christians are called to the "dependable", "reliable" and "trustworthy".

But back to the more important question of the object of faith. What are Christians depending on, relying on, and trusting in. What does their continued faith hinge on?

3. A Localisation
The answer? In Christ.

Paul ties the two descriptions of the Colossians, and indeed of all Christians, with this phrase. Believers are holy in Christ - they are cleansed once for all by his bloody sacrifice on the cross. Believers continue to trust only in Christ - they are justified by Jesus alone.

We get a glimpse of Paul's purpose in writing this letter. The Colossian church was dangerously close to losing sight of the basis of their salvation and sanctification. He goes on to remind them that God has already effected their salvation - God the Father has qualified them (1:12), God has rescued them from the dominion of darkness (1:13). They have already been made holy.

The implication of this, says Paul, is to continue trusting in the one who makes them holy (1:22) - in Christ who presented himself as a sacrifice in his death. More pointedly, Paul calls the Colossians to trust in the message of Christ, the gospel (1:23).

22But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel.
Colossians 1:22-23a

So, back to the question I opened with: Should we be called saints? Paul's answer points us beyond our current state of holiness/sainthood to the One who justifies us, or even our perpetual lives of obedience and faithfulness - the bible, indeed the gospel calls us to be in Christ.

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