A few weeks ago, we had a two-night book review and some study sessions on the doctrine of perseverance, or eternal security. Closely related is the doctrine of assurance. It was great to see so many of us come to terms with the fact of salvation. I grew up in a good church, but there was one elderly woman in particular, who I remember very well, who struggled with perseverance and assurance of salvation her entire life. She would talk to the pastor all the time, always trying to understand why she struggled like she did. For her, perseverance and assurance weren’t hypotheticals; they were at the center of the fight.
Now I do believe that in general, a Christian can and should know that he or she is a Christian. And the reason that Scripture speaks about making our calling and election sure is because people do struggle with it. Otherwise, what need would there be for such commands? There are all kinds of intense, dense theological treatments of perseverance and assurance. Those are always helpful, because we need to get the mind and the heart aligned. But what about day-to-day struggles with belief? What about when we’re struggling in the moment?
Many of our day-to-day struggles with belief come from outside forces. We doubt because we’re given some contradictory information about things like creation, evidence for Jesus, any number of things. But I would offer that more often than not, we doubt because we’re reminded of our many sins and failures. The enemy lobs accusations against us. “God could not possibly save me if he really knew everything I’ve done. If he really saw inside my heart and knew what I was capable of or even just what I wanted to do, I’d be lost forever.” Sometimes, we just see how great other Christians are doing, how humble they are, how smart they are, how service-oriented they are, and we feel like we fall far too short.
But Paul argues in the strongest possible terms against that kind of thinking. We may have fears and doubts, but Paul wants us to have the strongest minds possible. We need to keep the fact of the gospel in the front our minds at all times. Whenever any other teaching or worldview attacks us, we must fight back with a clear articulation of the finished work of Christ.
In Colossians 2:1-5, which you heard last week, Paul does not want anyone want to get persuaded away from the gospel or have a false teacher bring divisiveness into the church. He knows that leads to doubts and fears. He is encouraging the people to keep a strong backbone against arguments against Christ. He desires that every Christian reaches “all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ” (2:2). Persevere in that truth. Be rooted, built up, and established in faith. The truth should result in unending thanksgiving.
So how do we get there? Paul doesn’t say that to reach full assurance that we need to climb some mountain, go on some pilgrimage, give everything we have to the poor, become a hermit, have visions, or keep certain holidays. Paul teaches many things in this passage, but I want to focus on the truth that to reach full assurance, we remember our baptism.
Our baptism represents in the simplest terms the whole Christian message—death to self and life in Christ. Baptism is not a box you check from which you move on, but it is to be a lifelong reminder of what Christ has done on your behalf. Key to that is remembering what Christ has done, not what you did. Baptism does not do anything to earn your salvation or keep your salvation. It is an act of public obedience which identifies you with the risen Lord.
And when there are so many deceiving ideas and wicked spirits that are actively trying to lead you astray, you never move beyond needing to remember your baptism. It’s a critical component of your assurance. We don’t want to move into either extreme error, saying that baptism doesn’t matter all that much or that baptism is necessary for salvation. But when Paul is arguing for the church to stay on track with the gospel, he does so by directing our minds back to baptism.
At any stage of the Christian life, it is possible to be snatched away by deceptive ideas. Paul calls these things “elemental spirits”. “Elemental spirits” or “elemental principles” is the same word in Galatians 4:3,9, to which Paul says we were once enslaved. What Paul is referring to here and in Galatians is the religious practices of the Jewish people and the religious instincts of all people. Elsewhere, Paul speaks of the Mosaic law as a guardian, keeping God’s people within bounds until the time of their freedom, the time when Christ would come and make peace between God and redeemed humanity. The coming of Christ is likened to a coming-of-age ceremony. The principles in themselves are good and not condemned, but they were temporary by God’s design. Continuing to adhere to them as necessary is condemned.
But even beyond that, Paul is probably referring to what Jesus and others called “the traditions” (Isaiah 29:13, Mark 7:5ff). These were rules and regulations created by the Jewish religious leaders, whether priests, scribes, or teachers, that were in addition to the actual law of God. Sometimes they were well-intentioned, acting like guardrails to protect you from even getting close to breaking God’s law.
In addition to those laws, there was another set of traditions that they believed originated with Moses that had never been written down. This was the oral tradition, supposedly passed down from one generation to another. Eventually, once the Jews were scattered in the generation after Christ, these traditions were finally written down. This eventually become known as the Talmud.
So you can see that we are already a couple of degrees removed from true Judaism. We see it in the church, don’t we? We know the essentials of the gospel, and we don’t dispute them. But we become convinced that we need to protect the gospel, not by proclaiming it, but by adding to it. Before you know it, there are all sorts of traditions and untouchable customs that, if we’re not careful, become as important to us as the gospel.
Paul hasn’t called out a single teacher or a single group of people in the book. He’s aware that this threat can come from just about anywhere. These are the perennial threats to the church. Empty philosophies threaten your assurance by condemning you for not returning to the way things were before Christ.
Do not become prey for bitter, vengeful wolves who want to see you lose the ground you’ve gained in your spiritual maturity. It was not an immoral or secular teaching that threatened them; that would have been easy enough to dismiss. It was a blend of Christian truth, Jewish rituals, and the religious instinct present in every Gentile; or, as you’ve heard before, syncretism. It was not (and does not) just coming from one place. Since the Colossians were primarily Gentile and not Jewish, it was especially easy to convince them that Jewish rites and rituals were central to the Christian faith since that was the forerunner of Christianity. That’s why Paul does not specifically refer to Judaism but to elemental, or religious, spirits in general. But when certain theologies or philosophies have a Christian flavor to them, or when they use Christian language, discernment becomes difficult but all the more important.
When you’re introduced to any teacher, ministry, or movement, you judge them based on what they say about Christ. Do they teach or believe that Jesus was God in the flesh, that he died and rose again for our justification, that he sits at the right hand of God, and that he’ll come again to judge the living and the dead? If not, you run.
Paul tells us, “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” (vv.9-10). If Christ is God, by definition, all other elemental or spiritual powers are not. Back in chapter 1, Paul wrote that “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” (v.16). Christ is God, and all other earthly and spiritual powers were created by him and receive their authority from him.
Our enlightened, reasonable minds have a hard time making peace with the spiritual realm. As Christians, we also don’t want to believe in Casper or see a demon hiding behind every bush. But Scripture does not hide from the fact that there are unseen spirits and a whole supernatural realm which exists beyond our comprehension. We shouldn’t fill in the gaps with Hollywood, but neither should we act like it doesn’t exist. People may pretend that they don’t think angels and demons and spiritual beings have any role to play in our world like our unenlightened ancestors, but people are as equally weighed down by fate. Maybe it’s not the spirits in the sky determining my destiny, but it’s fixed nevertheless. But here is the point from Paul—Christ is God and these spirits are not. Fate does not have a place in Christian theology.
In Acts 2, when Peter is preaching to the crowd, he tells them that Jesus was handed over to evil men “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). That’s not fate; that’s sovereignty. God has ordained the order and purpose of this world, and he will see it through. Therefore, do not worship the spiritual beings or seek spiritual power from them. Whatever pre-Christian history the Gentile Christians in Colossae had with the spiritual realm should be reinterpreted to see Christ as the head of all of it. Christ retains his preeminence over all creation, seen and unseen. As the preeminent Christ, there is no fate, only providence.
It is always a beautiful day when we see a new believer get baptized. We have seen people under 10 and over 80 place their faith in Christ and receive baptism. Paul urges the Colossian Christians, and us today, that we are to be kept from giving in to deceptive theologies and philosophies by looking back at our baptism.
For Jews, circumcision was required as the sign you were in the covenant b/t God and Israel (Mosaic law). Newborn Jewish males were brought in on the 8th day of life. Converts were circumcised immediately. It was a condition of the old covenant, not the new. Christians have received the circumcision that matters, that of the heart, which is the inward purity earned for us by Christ.
Old Testament law also required circumcision of the heart (Deuteronomy 10:16, 30:6). B/c Christ has done the spiritual work of heart circumcision, those who are in Christ are the true inheritors of all God’s promises.
That initiated you as an Israelite into the nation. W/o it, you were cast out. You were brought in to the body. In baptism, you are also initiated into a new body, as already being a believer, of which Christ is the head, as already mentioned in 2:10. The church is now a people made up of both Jews and Gentiles, a body on earth whose head is Christ in heaven.
Baptism is a sign of what kind of life the Christian must live. We die to our selves and live in hope of the resurrection, of which Christ is the first-fruits, or the promise. That’s what Paul means by saying that we have been buried with Christ in baptism and raised with him in faith. If we baptize those who cannot articulate that, then we essentially baptize the children of believers. If the church is made up of only regenerate men and women, which is the distinctive Baptist doctrine or what makes us Baptist, then it is not a trifling matter to be discerning before administering baptism and who we welcome into fellowship. That’s not to say make a person run through a gauntlet of diagnostic tests or go to Bible college before we baptize them, but can they articulate not just their faith but the faith once delivered for all to the saints? Have they confessed that Jesus is Lord? Do they understand, at whatever stage of life they are in, what baptism is? It is a cruel mistreatment of anyone to encourage them to be baptized before they have a confession of faith and give them a false sense of security.
And as man dies once, baptism happens once. Christ ordained the Lord’s supper to be the ongoing memorial activity of the church, not baptism. Communion is also the time for introspection and judging yourself. What does it represent if you get baptized every time you feel the need to rededicate yourself? Christ has not offered himself repeatedly but once, as the author of Hebrews tells us that Christ did not “…offer himself repeatedly, … for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (9:25-26). Christ died once for sins, and he was raised once for our salvation. That is how perfect and complete his sacrifice was. So then, we are baptized at the beginning of our Christian life, and we remember our baptism and the sacrifice of Christ that made it possible, in communion. What do you do when you struggle to persevere in faith? What do you do when deceptive philosophies take root in your mind? You remember your baptism and that it represented you being buried with Christ, in whose powerful name you were also raised. Baptisms are normally public acts before the church so that when you see others being baptized, you are drawn to remember your own.
When God sees those who are in Christ, he applies the things that are true about Christ to be true about us. Those who have sinned will die for their sins, but those whose sins have been dealt with will be given new life. If Christ was given new life, so will you. If Christ was raised from the grave, so will you. If Christ died with committing no sins of his own, you will be justified as if you committed no sins of your own. “All” applies to sins, not us. All of our sins have been forgiven.
It’s not at all fair that Christ’s righteousness is applied to us as if it was our own. Some of us are so cranky and uncooperative and harbor an enormous amount of bitterness. Some of us would rather we live by our own righteousness so at least life is fair and we don’t owe anybody anything. But when we read Paul’s words as he describes what God did for us through the cross, if we have any life in the Spirit whatsoever, we will be crushed.
You owed an enormous, unpayable debt before your creator. If we had a good understanding about the depth of our depravity, of what Jesus died for, we wouldn’t need to talk about much else. But instead of being crushed under the weight of our sin, God instead crushes us under his mercy. He didn’t just give us a loan or take a little off the top; he didn’t wink and say it’s not a big deal; he didn’t just give us a fresh start. Christ absorbed the full debt into himself, the full weight of God’s wrath and justice, so that the debt would be cancelled. Every time the Jews disobeyed the law and every time the Gentiles violated their God-given conscience, the mountainous record of debt simply got larger. But the entirety of it was nailed to the cross and declared to be cancelled.
In Paul’s day, a victorious general would march back into the city through the gates with all his soldiers, the war trophies, and the prisoners of war. He would lead them through the city streets so that everyone would be able to see and appreciate the cost of battle. The enemy’s weapons have been be taken, and the enemy has been overcome and brought to shame. When God nailed the record of debt to the cross, he cut the feet out from under all charges coming at you from the enemy. God has won the victory over sin and death through the spotless sacrifice of Christ.
Because of Christ’s finished work, therefore, “let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.” What Paul is describing here are many of the things that made Judaism distinctive: kosher laws and their festival calendar, which the Sabbath was the most common and most important. There were no kosher laws when it came to drinks, so for Paul to mention them here is to show that there were those who were adding laws to God’s law. This is sometimes called “asceticism”, or an extreme form of self-discipline. If it is a personal decision, then Scripture has no law against. But we must remember that Christ did declare all foods clean more than once. To enforce these rules on others, or to even use them to show how righteous you are, is to cast doubt on the salvation of others.
While we don’t have many struggles with the dietary or kosher laws today in the church, there is disagreement about the Sabbath, or the day of rest. Did the apostles move the Sabbath to Sunday, or do we still keep a Sabbath at all? Should it still be Friday evening into Saturday morning? While that’s something to flesh out in detail, it does stand out that Paul here says to not let anyone judge you because of how or when someone else keeps the Sabbath. If Christ has brought us into our Sabbath rest, as the book of Hebrews tells us, then we must make sure we’re not importing undue emphasis on a certain day of the week.
Elsewhere, Paul tells Christians to check their liberty. Do not abuse it at the expense of your brothers and sisters. But at times, in this passage for instance, Paul has to remind Christians that your liberty is a good thing. You are free to devote yourself to keeping certain practices when it comes to the spiritual life. But they are to be settled between you and the Lord, not anyone else. To obligate other Christians to practices that were by their nature transitional from one age to the next, no matter how spiritual they might sound, is to return to slavery. The food laws, the festivals, and the Sabbath was to be a shadow of things to come. These things, the food and festival laws, were shadows of Christ, not the real thing. Once the real thing had come, once Christ came in the flesh, those things which foreshadowed him were no longer necessary.
Paul tells us not to let anyone pass judgment on us in those things, and now he tells us not to let anyone disqualify us from other things: asceticism, worship of angels, and ecstatic visions. These things were grouped together, in short, because they were seen by some as evidence of existing on a higher plane. You had special knowledge if you disciplined your body in a particular way, if you worshiped with the angels, and if you had experienced special, ecstatic visions. But these things do not make you a higher class of Christian; in fact, when Paul mentions that he experienced his own ecstatic vision in 2 Corinthians 12, God sent Paul a messenger from Satan to keep him from being puffed up about it. As awesome as that certainly was, it did not make Paul a better Christian than anyone else.
Some people talk about themselves as if their humility is what makes them so great. “I’m humble, that’s why I’m better than you.” Christian humility, though, is almost unconscious. In no way can you take pride in your humility. Don’t let anyone disqualify you, don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not a true believer, because you have not experienced what they have. You turn your mind back to your baptism and be reminded that Christ died for you.
How do we keep humble and yet have the assurance of faith? How do we persevere in such a way that we don’t take pride our works but in the work of Christ? Paul says in v.19 that those who insist on a higher class of Christianity are detached from the head, who is Christ. What we don’t want to do is make perseverance and assurance out to be something only a higher class of Christian has, which is exactly what Paul is working against. You don’t have assurance and persevere by holding to a stricter set of rules, by claiming greater humility, or by having visions.
How do we persevere? By holding fast to the head! Abiding in Christ! He will never leave us or forsake us. He holds on to us even as he tells to hold on to him. In holding fast to the head, we are nourished and knit together. We persevere even as we are preserved. Christ has done the inner work, and we respond in faith. In our baptism we were buried with him, and we were raised with him through faith. And we can look back at our baptism and see the goodness of God in preserving us all the way from that day to this day. If he has not failed us since, he will not fail us yet.