Colossians 1:21-23 is another passage (along with 1 John 1:9) that I heard quoted as supporting the idea that as we do or don’t do something, it causes God to do or not do something in response. The “if-then” construction is what throws people off. To be sure, it’s hard to translate properly into English.
However, the “if I am doing something – then God will be doing something in response” (my cause and God’s effect) workflow is not the workflow of grace, and it’s not supported by the grammar of the passage, as I will demonstrate below. Grace is God providing something through the finished work of Christ on the cross, 1900+ years before I was even born; faith is me appropriating whatever was provided by grace, as applicable to a given situation in my life. So it’s not “If I am doing X -> then God will do Y”. It’s rather “God has done Y and made it available -> therefore as I am trusting in it as being applicable to my life, I am thereby realizing Y’s benefits in my life.” Notice how concerning my side of the equation, the focus is on believing / trusting. Concerning my words and actions as related to Y – the correct stance should be “My words / actions X demonstrate that I believe Y”. In other words, “God has done Y -> I trust in and stand on Y (as shown in my words and actions X) -> Y will materialize in my life” That’s the correct workflow.
So the effect portion of the “cause-and-effect” pattern is not about God objectively doing something, but about me subjectively appropriating what’s already been done. The cause doesn’t affect God, it affects me. God did all he needed to do 2000 years ago. The grammar here is similar (not the same, but similar in all main points but one) and follows the same basic logic as 1 John 1:9, which is also largely misunderstood and misapplied.
Here’s the passage in NKJV:
21 And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled 22 in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight— 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister.
Here’s the passage, rendered hyper-literally from Greek with grammatic parsing:
21 And you when being (Present Participle Active Accusative) having been estranged (Perfect Participle Passive/Middle Accusative) and hostile to the thru-mind in the acts the wicked
22 yet now he reconciles (Aorist Active) in the body of the flesh of him through the death to beside-stand / to present (Aorist Infinitive Active) you holy and un-flawed and un-indictable down-in-view of him
23 if/since surely you are persisting (Present Active Indicative) to the belief having been founded (Perfect Participle Passive) and settled and no being-after-stirred (Present Participle Passive) from the expectation of the well-message of which you hear (Aorist) the one being proclaimed (Aorist Participle Passive) in every the creation the under the heaven of which became (Aorist Middle) I Paul thru-servitor
v. 21 – shows our prior state of being – “having been estranged”. Notice how this is a perfect participle, serving as an adjective. The perfective aspect of the participle highlights that estrangement was a completed action, with then-presently felt consequences – hostility in our thorough way of thinking, as expressed in our acts, the wicked ones. (Wickedness of the acts is accentuated by the placement of the adjective.)
v. 22 – here’s where the aorist tense comes to shine light on the passage. The reconciliation is a fact, and God’s act of presenting us holy and un-flawed and un-indictable is also a fact, as evidenced by the use or Aorist. The question is not when they happen – the use of the aorist tense states that they just are. The verbal idea is highlighted, not the time of their completion. Both are just timelessly “are”, at any given time. Aorist was chosen specifically to remove a temporal aspect. (a-orist – no-horizon, meaning, no timeline serving as a temporal horizon to chronologically gauge things against). The job was done 2000 years ago, and is now an immovable fact. The word “now” is used in the verse to provide contrast with the old state as described in v.21, which serves as a logical “then”. “Then” (v.21) estrangement was a completed fact with then-present consequences. “Now” v. 22 you are under a different spiritual order. It doesn’t mean that such spiritual order came about “now” objectively; it means that one’s subjective experience of that order is “now”, and that through one’s faith in the timeless fact it became applicable to one’s life .
If some future time was in view, conditional on fulfilling v. 23, then the tense chosen would have been future, not aorist. For instance, Galatians 5:22 does exactly that. It concludes the long lists of the works of the flesh with these words: “the ones the such [things] practicing God’s kingdom not shall be tenanting / not shall be enjoying the allotment of (Future Indicative Active). The pattern is this: “If you do X -> you will not enjoy the realization of Y”.
Let’s go back to Colossians 1:23.
v. 23 – the “if” here is the 1st class conditional, with ei + verb in indicative mood. It assumes the “if” part to be true. Otherwise it would have been followed by a verb in either subjunctive or optative mood (3rd and 4th conditional classes, respectively). Which is completely logical – after all, believers are expected to believe as a matter of lifestyle! That’s why the interlinear I was consulting slipped in the word “surely”, with a word “since” instead of “if” as an optional substitution. (By the way, 1 John 1:9 used a 3rd class conditional with subjunctive mood in a logically parallel portion with the word “confess”, due to the way the argument is constructed there. Subjunctive is a mood of probability, not certainty. Other than that difference, the logic is the same).
One’s act of persisting is described in present active indicative, which gives a sense of constancy and ongoing-ness of such belief. Now, believers’ actions are described in two aspects. First, a believer has been founded (passive voice), and is now on a foundation (the foundation being Jesus Christ himself, as known from elsewhere in Pauline writings). The perfective aspect of the participle brings that semantic out. The adjective “settled” appears to be related to the preceding verb participle “having been founded”, since the latter serves as an adjective. So, we may say “having been founded” (objectively) and “having been settled” (subjectively, in one’s belief system). The next participle describes us again “not being after-stirred from the expectation of well-message/good news”, which is in present active. It has an imperfective aspect, and describes an ongoing, constant action (or more precisely, non-action) – that of not being moved from expectation. The “not being after-stirred” has to do specifically with expectation of good things, and is therefore pertinent to the state of mind and of heart, both by implication.
The specific things from which one shouldn’t be after-stirred are enumerated in v. 22. They are part of the well-message of Christ. Curiously, an average Christian today doesn’t realize that God presents then un-indictable based on their trust in the well-message (which doesn’t fluctuate), and not on their actions (which do fluctuate, even for the best of us).
Again, keep in mind that the passage doesn’t state that in response to one’s actions in v. 23 God would or would not do the things enumerated in v. 22. If that were the case, the tense used in v. 22 would be future. But the tense is aorist, which completely eliminates that possibility. So that should settle the issue right here.
Interestingly, if you consider a logical possibility that v. 22 would not be objectively true at some point contingent on what you do in v. 23. you are opening yourself up to being after-stirred from confident expectation. After all, how can you expect that v. 22 is always true 24/7/365, if you believe that it can stop being true in response to something you do?
I heard this passage being interpreted as describing one’s loss of eternal life if one “falls away”. The explanation given is mostly based on the “if (my present actions) then (God’s subsequent future actions)”. There’s no language whatsoever in this passage describing either loss or maintenance of eternal life. The subject isn’t even dealt with in the passage. Also, as I’ve shown above, the grammar of the passage doesn’t support this type of if-else (present cause and future effect) logic. So, that settles this question.
Also, the passage isn’t concerned with one’s actions (there are other passages that are, this is not one of them), but with one’s quality of expectation. Additionally, the verse isn’t really concerned with describing one’s “falling away” from faith in Christ in general (although the text could certainly include that possibility). The issue dealt with in the passage is being unmovable in one’s confident expectation of the good news of the well-message of Christ materializing in one’s life.
The text is not dealing with any expectation of any ill-news message either. The latter is actually antithetical to the passage. Rather, it’s dealing with one’s expectations of good things. Specifically, the expectation should be of God presenting the one believing in him un-flawed, and un-indictable. Such presentation is so thorough that even under God’s all-penetrating glance, one stands completely un-flawed, and un-indictable.
Once you realize that you are not trusting in your own performance, but on Christ, such being immovable becomes much easier, and can eventually become fully automatic. It’s sort of like self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s objectively true 24/7/365, you trust it as being true 24/7/365, and it gets fulfilled in your life (subjective aspect of the objective truth).