A low view of Christ results in a low view of his work and denies his sufficiency. A high view of Christ exalts his person and work and rejoices in his sufficiency. The Apostle Paul clearly understood this. Sometime in the late 50s or early 60s, Paul wrote to the Colossian church from prison. He had heard of false teachers at Colossae, and although it is not specified exactly who they were, we can deduce some elements of their teaching from Paul’s response. Evidently, they had a lower view of Christ than Paul taught in his gospel. This is clear from his magnificent proclamation of the supremacy of Christ in all things, in chapter 1.
[Christ] 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” (Col 1:15–20).
There may have been some Greek philosophical elements, perhaps even proto-Gnostic, in the Colossian heresy. This is suggested on the basis of references to “hidden wisdom and knowledge” (2:3; sophia kai gnosis apokpyphoi) asceticism (2:23) fullness (1:19, pleroma) and the “elemental principles of this world (2:8,20). Gnosticsm was concerned with a hierarchy of heavenly mediators or “aeons,” which bridged the gap between the divine perfection of pure spirit and the evil world of created matter. Paul’s presentation of Christ as the divine Creator, sole intermediary and the fullness (pleroma) of the Godhead certainly puts the lie to such an understanding of God for the Colossians. But there were also Judaistic elements at Colossae, given the references to circumcision (2:11; 3:11) and “human tradition” (2:8) Sabbath and other regulations about uncleanness and dietary laws (2:16, 21). Religious syncretism was common in the Graeco-Roman world so some heresy involving both Jewish and Gnostic elements would be conceivable. Perhaps there wasn’t a structured or clearly delineated heresy at all, but Paul is emphasising that the Colossians were vulnerable to worldly attitudes and influences of the day. That the majority of the church had not erred from the Way is evident from his praises of their faith and love (1:4) and his confidence that in Christ they shared redemption (1:12–14).
Whatever the nature of the specific false teachings in first century Colossae, Paul’s response has timeless application. His central message in this letter is that Jesus is supreme and therefore Jesus is sufficient. There is no scope to add anything to Christ’s completed work. In every generation and setting, the natural impulse of Christians, being only human, is to try to add something to Christ. Grace is hard to swallow because it glorifies the giver, not the bankrupt and undeserving recipient.
I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments. For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ. Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority” (Col 2:4–10).
Christ Jesus is Lord, in whom the whole fullness of Deity dwells bodily; in him alone we are complete, filled to the brim. This means nothing else is required. No other rules or authorities (Col 2:10) no rituals such as circumcision (2:11, 13) no special laws or restrictions about food or drink or religious festivals or holy days (2:16) no ascetic practices or other mediators or special visions (2:18) no restrictive practices (2:21–22). In other words, don’t try to add anything to Christ. We are not saved by “Christ plus the Law,” or “Christ plus circumcision” or “Christ plus self-denial” or “Christ plus special spiritual experiences.” As the Casting Crowns song, Who am I? puts it, we are saved, “Not because of who I am but because of what You’ve done; not because of what I’ve done, but because of who You are.”
It is all too easy to condemn Christian denominations and groups through the ages, for adding special rituals such as penance, or ecstatic second blessings like speaking in tongues, or ascetic denunciation of marriage or possessions, whilst we are quietly slipping into errors of the same kind. Whenever a church insists, either in writing, or from the pulpit or even by implication or by cold-shouldering non-conformists, that a certain attitude, language, appearance, practice or life style is expected of its members, they are guilty of adding to Christ. It becomes “Christ plus specified Bible studies/Bible versions,” “Christ plus this manner of dress,” “Christ plus certain respectable occupations,” “Christ plus this style of music,” “Christ plus the writings of the Pioneers of our denomination,” or “Christ plus this manner of worship/order of service.” Such errors come from “not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God” (Col 2:19).
Christ is supreme, all God’s fullness dwells in him. He is the head of the church and we are complete in him. Nothing else needs to be added, certainly not any human traditions or “works” designed to please or impress. To rely on such extras is to rely on “things that all perish as they are used; human precepts and teachings” (Col 2:22). Not only does this deny the sufficiency of Christ’s work, but it sets up a sham appearance of wisdom. It is hypocrisy, it promotes self-made religion and is “of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col 2:22–23).
The reason the Law failed to bring all humankind to God is not because the Law was foolish or inadequate, it was because we are (Rom 7:7–12). The Law functioned to emphasise sin, to draw it out into the harsh scrutiny of daylight. To force an acknowledgement that no one can be justified by works. We can only be justified by grace through faith in the all-sufficiency of the One who bore our sins and made atonement for us (Rom 3:19–28). If the holy and righteous and good Law of God could not justify sinners, how could we possibly expect any man-made traditions, rules or added extras to? Such hypocritical insistence on conformity to “human precepts and teachings” may give “an appearance of wisdom” but has no effect on the heart. The “indulgence of the flesh” is not constrained by rules, but by the Law of God written on our hearts, which only comes about through the new covenant in Christ (Jer 31:31–34).
Paul affirms a better way to the Colossians than “Christ Plus Something.” He addresses the inner response of the heart, for if we have indeed been raised with Christ then we will seek the things which are above, not things on the earth (Col 3:1–2). “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (3:3). We have to put to death the things of the earth in which we once walked, but not merely through outward conformity. Paul puts the emphasis deep with in us, in what comes out of our hearts. Jesus said,
For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone” (Matt 15:19–20).
Paul’s list of defilements is remarkably similar; sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry… anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk… lying (Col 3:5, 8, 9). These things are all to be “put off” like a filthy garment, and replaced with “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col 3:12–14). Certainly these are manifested in outward actions, for God has saved us by his grace to do good works which he has prepared for us (Eph 2:8–10). But it is not these outward acts which save us. Rather they are the response to our gracious redemption. They come from the inside, from a Gospel-changed heart. The empowerment to do this comes not from our own strength, or from externally imposed rules, but because Christ rules in our hearts, his word indwells us richly and we do all things in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Eph 3:15–17).
We are complete in him. We need nothing else and no one else but Christ to be acceptable to God. As soon as we decide that Christ is not sufficient and we have to add legalism, Paul says we are accursed, because that’s not the gospel (Gal 1:8). For the Galatians and, apparently, the Colossians, it was circumcision, which opened the way to indebtedness to the whole Law. For the Corinthians, it was following certain leaders, the “Pioneers” of their faith (1 Cor 1:11–17) and desiring certain “superior” spiritual gifts (1 Cor 14) not realising that it was solely the Spirit’s choice how such gifts were distributed. James rails against those who show favouritism to those who can afford to dress up for church (James 2;1–4), whereas Paul reminds Timothy that we should not dress up for church (1 Tim 2:9–10). Jesus warns against self-promotion and making a show of spirituality, or thinking ourselves better than others (Matt 6:5; Luke 18:9–14;1 Cor 1:26–31).
God forbid we should judge each other by outward appearances, consider ourselves better than our brothers and sisters, or impose man-made rules as a basis for acceptance into fellowship, for then we would hardly understand what fellowship actually is. God forbid we should think we can earn salvation by our works. God forbid that we should place any one or anything at the head of our body other than Christ. And God forbid that we should endeavour to add anything to the all-sufficient work of Christ, in whom alone we are complete.