Previous article in this series: September 1, 2016, p. 468.
Not long ago a young adult asked me a question about something he had heard at college. One of his instructors cited Colossians 1:20 as proof that Christians have a calling to strive to renew everything in this world. That specific passage in Colossians speaks of Christ “reconciling all things” unto God. What does that mean, and what does it imply as to our calling in the midst of this world?
Colleges training “agents of renewal”
Both Calvin College and Dordt College refer to themselves as institutions designed to train students to go out and “renew” things. The King, they say, calls us to be “agents of renewal”1 wherever we go. If we are busily engaged in this renewing activity, then we are said to be establishing the kingdom of God on the earth.
One book that has often been required reading at Dordt College is called Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview. Written by Albert Wolters,2 this book lays out an argument for why Christians are called to renew everything with which they come into contact.
The argument goes basically like this: Colossians 1:20 says that Christ died to reconcile all things. That means that “[t]he scope of redemption is as great as that of the fall.”3 Christ died to make possible this renewal of all things, and we are now called to complete this work and establish His kingdom everywhere.
The obvious implication is that the new humanity (God’s people) is called to promote renewal in every department of creation. If Christ is the reconciler of all things, and if we have been entrusted with “the ministry of reconciliation” on his behalf (2 Cor. 5:18), then we have a redemptive task wherever our vocation places us in his world. No invisible dividing line within creation limits the applicability of such basic biblical concepts as reconciliation, redemption, salvation, sanctification, renewal, the kingdom of God, and so on.4
It will take a number of articles to look at this argument in detail. In this article, let us begin by considering what is meant by the reconciliation and union of all things in heaven and earth.
Who are reconciled
Both Colossians 1 and Ephesians 1 speak of all things in heaven and earth being united together. The Colossians 1 passage speaks of them being reconciled unto God: “And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven” (Col. 1:20).
The Ephesians 1 passage says they are now being gathered together in Christ: “That in the dispensation of the fullness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him” (Eph. 1:10). Since we know that Scripture does not teach universal salvation, what is meant by this reconciliation and uniting of all things?
We should note, first of all, who these people are who are said to be united in Christ.5 It is certainly not speaking of a uniting of the church with the ungodly of this world. Rather, it is speaking of the uniting of all the elect, wherever they may be. The context of Ephesians 1:10 is speaking about how only certain people have been unconditionally chosen to be in Christ. They are the ones who are being referred to as having been reconciled to God by the blood of the cross.
These saints are now being gathered together. They are found among all the nations of the world. The second chapter of Ephesians speaks of how the elect Jews and elect Gentiles gathered out of all the nations are now being built into one temple on one foundation. Drawn to Christ by the preaching of the gospel, the saints among the nations are being joined together as one holy nation that has Christ as her King.
But what is meant by the uniting of these elect saints with the things in heaven?
The union of all in heaven and earth
These two passages are speaking of the glorious and everlastingly union that exists between the elect saints on earth and the elect humans and angels in heaven. There is an unbreakable bond uniting all the elect human beings, whether they are still on earth or have already been taken to heavenly glory. Yet it is not only the elect humans with whom we are united.
We along with the elect angels together serve King Jesus. The “angels desire to look into” the same mysteries of the kingdom of heaven that we enjoy looking into (I Pet. 1:12-13). We are led by the same Spirit, and together eat the same Word of God as our spiritual food. We have the same Father and are said to belong to the same family: “For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named” (Eph. 3:14-15). The angels have the same eternal Father that we have. They also are called “sons of God.” Job was told that by God Himself when He laid the foundations of the earth: “all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:7).
While battling our spiritual foes in this life, we long to be more like the angels. We cry out to God “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” looking forward to the day when all who are on the new earth will attend to and perform their duties “as willingly and faithfully as the angels do in heaven” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 49).
Those in Christ are like the angels, and long to be even more like them. Having been risen with Christ, we “seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1). Those gathered and united in Christ have their heart set upon the same things—the heavenly things.
Indeed, Colossians 1:20 and Ephesians 1:10 are telling us that if we are holding to what Christ taught about His kingdom, our minds will be set not on the things of earth but the things of heaven. Those promoting society “renewal” are tempting us to join with this world and to keep our mind focused on earthly things. Yet the Colossians 1 passage they cite speaks of us being united not with this world but with the angels. Together with them we seek heavenly things, not earthly things. We truly have been “born from above” (John 3:3), and with Abraham confess that the heavenly land is our fatherland. “For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20). This is our confession and our hope, and it manifests itself in what we do.
…to be continued.
1 Sometimes the word “redeem” is used instead of “renew.” I have chosen to use the term “renew” when referring to their position, since both of these colleges have mission statements posted on their websites that use that term.
2 Wolters is an emeritus professor at Redeemer University College in Ontario, Canada.
3 Wolters, Creation Regained (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1985), 72.
4 Wolters, 73.
5 The phrase translated “all things” is also found in I Corinthians 12:19, where it refers to all the persons who are united in Christ. Although it is true that Christ delivers the creation itself, Colossians 1:20 is referring centrally to the persons who have been reconciled to God by Christ’s death on the cross.