The Christian Life: Sanctification

Do We Fill Up Something That is Lacking in the Cross?

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
What does Paul mean when he says, "I...fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ" (Colossians 1:24)?

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

What does Paul mean when he says, I "fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ" (Colossians 1:24)? Must we add to Christ's work on the cross?

A Startling Statement

In Colossians 1:24, the Apostle Paul says, "I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church."

This is, on the face of it, a startling statement. For the first 23 verses of Colossians, Paul has been telling believers that Jesus Christ is everything. Jesus Christ has provided a full, complete, and perfect salvation. We have redemption through His blood. He has made peace through the blood of His cross. Because of His atonement we are now positionally holy, blameless, and above reproach in the sight of God. Because of His resurrection from the dead we shall be presented before the throne of God actually holy, blameless, and above reproach at the Last Day. As Paul puts it later in chapter two, "You are complete in Him."

Why, then, is Paul saying that there is something "lacking" in the afflictions of Christ? What does he mean? If you look at what Paul says in this verse in isolation from the rest of the Word of God, you can go way off the track in your thinking about how you are saved and how you are supposed to live.

How Some Misinterpret It

You will find the wrong view of this passage deeply embedded in the doctrine of the Roman Catholic church. An official doctrinal statement of the Roman church says this:

Christ desires for us to participate in his Passion, and thus suffering within the Body of Christ has a redemptive role. Because baptized Christians are part of the mystical Body of Christ, Jesus Christ the head of the body asks its members to participate not only in his resurrection and grace, but also in the suffering of his Passion. St. Paul firmly evinces this doctrine [in Colossians chapter one, verse twenty-four].

This does not mean that Christ's redemption is lacking, or that his suffering was not enough for the redemption of the world. It only means that we are chosen to offer up our sufferings for the expiation of [that is, making a compensatory payment to God for] the temporal punishment deserved by our sin and the free participation in the life of Christ. Christ merits our redemption and forgives our sins but the punishment and penance for our selfish actions must still be.

Paul's letter to the Colossians notes that by offering our own sufferings for the body of Christ, we can make up for those members of the body of Christ whose sufferings are lacking. Thus the body of Christ, the Catholic Church, offers the collective suffering of its members for the expiation of temporal punishment and follows in the Passion and sufferings of the Head of the body of Christ, Jesus Christ.1

That quotation comes from a Roman Catholic statement that claims to explain the doctrine of justification by faith. But it does nothing of the sort. This is not justification by faith, it is justification by works.

The Roman Catholic church says that Colossians 1:24 refers to the sufferings of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross for sin. The Roman Catholic church teaches that the death of Christ restores you to grace, but that you must add your sufferings to the sufferings of Christ in order to remain in a state of salvation. The Roman Catholic church says that a person has to add his payment for his own sins to the payment of Christ, in order to satisfy the justice of God.

Dear friends, let me tell you, on the authority of God's Word alone, that this teaching is absolutely wrong. It is a false gospel. This teaching makes people think they are working their way toward Heaven, when all the while they are slogging toward Hell. It makes people think that they can add something to what Christ has done - and indeed must add something to what Christ has done - in order to be saved. That is absolutely wrong, wrong, wrong.

What It Actually Means

Let me explain why. The explanation begins by telling you exactly what Paul is saying in Colossians 1:24. The word that Paul uses for the "afflictions" of Christ is the Greek word thlipsis. The word means, literally, "to be pressed together." It is used forty-six times in the New Testament. It is always translated as "tribulation" or "affliction" or being "burdened" or having "trouble." Let me give you a few examples.

Romans 5:1-3 - "Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations [thlipsis], knowing that tribulation produces perseverance."

2 Corinthians 4:17 - "For our light affliction [thlipsis], which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory."

Matthew 24:9 - "Then they will deliver you up to tribulation [thlipsis] and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name's sake."

2 Corinthians 1:3-5 - "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation [same word], that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble [thlipsis], with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ."

The word thlipsis is never used anywhere in the Bible when it speaks of the sufferings of Christ on the cross for sin. It is used to speak of the afflictions that Christ endured before the Cross, not on the Cross. Let me point you to several verses that speak of this:

Hebrews 2:10 - "For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect [that is, qualified] through sufferings."

Hebrews 5:7-10 - "Who, in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear, though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. And having been perfected [that is, proven to be qualified], He became the author of eternal salvation."

Hebrews 7:28 - "For the law appoints as high priests men who have weakness, but the word of the oath [God's oath], which came after the law, appoints the Son who has been perfected forever."

Jesus Christ was demonstrated to be qualified to be the spotless Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, by the fact the He endured afflictions, persecutions, sufferings, the insults of men, their physical abuse, their blasphemies, their threats, all manner of physical and emotion and spiritual tribulation - He endured it all without once thinking a sinful thought, committing a sinful act, or speaking a sinful word.

What This Means for You

Now, what does this mean for you as a Christian? When you suffer for the sake of righteousness, when you endure afflictions, when you endure persecutions, when you suffer the insults of the unsaved, when you are grieved by their blasphemies against Christ, when you endure any kind of physical, emotional, or spiritual tribulation imaginable - does that add one thing to the sufferings of Christ on the cross? Does that help to pay for your redemption? Absolutely not.

It simply means that you are a member of the Body of Christ, and the Body of Christ suffers for the sake of righteousness in this world, just as the Lord Jesus Christ Himself suffered for the sake of righteousness when He was in this world.

Paul is speaking here of the sufferings that Jesus endured during His earthly ministry. And those sufferings were necessarily for a limited period of time, because He then went to the Cross. But Paul is saying that those sufferings continue in the servants of Christ, in the body of Christ, as the Church fulfills the Great Commission to go into all the world and preach the Gospel, and to make disciples from among all nations. All the saints down through the centuries are partakers of these sufferings, when we are faithful to our calling to proclaim the Gospel and seek to win men for Christ.

The sufferings of which Paul is speaking in Colossians 1:24 are not the vicarious sufferings of Christ for sin. The word that is used here never denotes that, anywhere in the Bible. An entirely different word is used in the Greek. When Paul speaks here of that which is lacking of the afflictions of Christ, he is speaking of the continuation of the Lord Jesus Christ's ministerial sufferings in His body, the Church, as the Church lives for Him in a world in which we are now aliens, a world that is under the sway of the wicked one, the Devil. These sufferings have been going on in every generation of Christians that has continued to carry out the Lord's work on earth.

Paul says this: "For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ. And our hope for you is steadfast, because we know that as you are partakers of the sufferings, so also you will partake of the consolation." (2 Corinthians 1:5-7)

In Philippians 3:10, Paul says that his desire is "that I may know Him [Christ] and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings [that is, of Christ's afflictions before the Cross], being conformed to His death."

In living the Christian life, we are aliens in a hostile world. Our citizenship is in Heaven (Philippians 3:20). Just as our forebears in the faith "confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth" (Hebrews 11:13), so Peter's epistle tells us this:

Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles [i.e., the unbelieving world], that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:11-12)

The full heritage of sufferings for the cause of Christ will not be completed until the Church of Jesus Christ is the Church triumphant - until the Church has finished its earthly conflict, until the Church has at last come up "out of great tribulation" to sit at the marriage supper of the Lamb.

The Question for Each of Us

This raises a question that each believer in Christ must face: Are you living your life in such a way that you are participating in that heritage? Are you taking a stand for Christ? Are you a living witness for Christ? Are you living before God in a manner that is fitting for a believer? Are you practicing Christian liberty as the Bible says you are to practice it, which means submission to Christ and not doing whatever you please?

Are you seeking to be fruitful in every good work, no matter what other people may think or say, or even do to you? Are you willing to speak out against the deceptions of false teachers even though you know it may bring criticism and even ostracism? Are you on your guard against those who say you need more than Christ's work in order to be saved?

Are you seeking to develop Christ-like character? Are you letting the Word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom? Do you seek to have a godly Christian home, and right relationships within the home between husband and wife and between parents and children, and making the sacrifices that these things involve?

Do you have a proper Christian attitude as an employee in the workplace? Are you doing the best job you possibly can for your employer and for your customers, no matter what? Do you understand that your ultimate head, the authority in all these relationships, the One you ultimately answer to, is the Lord Jesus Christ. For the same reason, do you deal fairly with your employees or subordinates in the workplace?

Are you laboring in prayer for your fellow believers? Are you seeking to have fellowship with others in the body of Christ, to be identified with the Body of Christ, no matter what others may say or think?

All of these things involve filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ. May each of us be willing to do our part - not in order to add anything to the sufferings of Christ for sin, but to "follow in His train" as members of the Body of Christ, aliens in this world awaiting our heavenly home.

References:

  1. "The Catholic Doctrine of Justification by Grace", as viewed on 2/17/2010 at http://www.saintaquinas.com/Justification_by_Grace.html

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