The Incarnation, the Cross, and Doubt
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. 9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. 11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
This is a thick passage of Scripture. As I considered how to preach it, I thought that there were two different directions to go. The first would be to focus on some of the complex and dense phrases in the passage: “elemental spirits,” “circumcision without hands,” and “circumcision of Christ.” The focus would be on the relationship between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, the significance of circumcision as a cutting off of the flesh that pointed forward to the Messiah, and the fulfillment of the Old Covenant in the death and resurrection of Jesus. But as I thought about what this passage might have to say to us today, I decided to focus on how this passage has personally affected me.
Over the course of my life, I’ve had a number of severe seasons of doubt, depression, and anxiety. In general, I’m a pretty stable, steadfast, even-keeled person. These seasons of doubt and panic have driven home to me that the stability that I regard as normal is at root supernatural. “By the grace of God I am what I am.” Any stability in my life is owing to the all-conquering grace of God gripping me and keeping me. Let me give you a little window into the first season of doubt.
My freshman year of college was a tremendous time of spiritual growth. My faith took off like a rocket. Through John Piper’s influence, the Bible broke open to me, and God became my deepest delight in a way that I’d never experienced before. I would spend hours with my Bible and a journal, mining it for precious, life-changing truth. My prayer life was robust and full. I was eager (sometimes too eager) to engage with people about spiritual things. This time of intense devotion coincided with my first embrace of the sovereignty of God, and, as many of you know, the cage stage of Calvinism is not always pretty. But in my case, it was coupled with a deep, rich enjoyment of God and a desire for other people to see him as I’d seen him.
But the growth and life of that first year was not to last. During my sophomore year, I stumbled headlong into an intense bout of spiritual depression and anxiety. One of the triggers for this season of darkness was a class I was taking on the Old Testament. In this class, I was for the first time exposed to higher criticism of the Bible. This is a way of approaching the Scriptures that tries to take it apart and determine the true story of how the Bible came together. It denies the Bible’s claims about itself and essentially undermines the Bible as the authoritative word of God, treating it as just another ancient and error-filled text. Now, since that season, I’ve come to recognize many of the flaws in what I was being taught. But at the time, I was massively unprepared to deal with these arguments. The arguments as presented in the textbook and by the professor were plausible. They felt compelling to me, and I was not equipped to see the unproven assumptions and false leaps within them. And as a result, my confidence in the Bible and in the God revealed in the Bible was profoundly shaken.
The questions came and kept on coming. Is the Bible true, trustworthy, and authoritative, or is it just another human and fallible expression of man’s religiosity? What if Christianity isn’t true? What if Jesus isn’t the way to God? What if Buddhism or Islam or atheism is actually true? If the Scriptures are up for grabs, how can I have any assurance about reality?
That last question is what left me reeling. Because I knew the stakes involved. According to the Bible, eternal life and eternal horror sat in the balance. The reality, even the possibility, of hell landed on me like a ton of bricks. If the Bible was true, then millions of people would be punished by God eternally for their rebellion. But was it true? At the time, I remember a particular passage from the Psalms that resonated deeply. In Psalm 11, David says, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” If the Scriptures do not give us true and faithful revelation of God, then what am I standing on? What am I building my life on? The importance of the questions, my inability to find satisfactory answers, and the weightiness of the stakes sent me into a tailspin: extreme anxiety, panic attacks, desperate tears and cries for help followed by total numbness and apathy. It felt like I was falling, but never hitting bottom. I had difficulty going out in public. I stopped going to football games, because being in crowds of people, some of whom would be cast into the outer darkness by God for the sin, was unbearable.
At the time, I remember listening to a message by John Piper in which he captured the feeling of my depression perfectly. He described what he called “self-extinction.”
I don't mean suicide. I mean something more complex. I mean the deranging inability to know any longer who you are. What begins as a searching introspection for the sake of holiness, and humility gradually becomes, for various reasons, a carnival of mirrors in your soul: you look in one and you're short and fat; you look in another and you're tall and skinny; you look in another and you're upside down. And the horrible feeling begins to break over you that you don't know who you are any more. The center is not holding. And if the center doesn't hold—if there is no fixed and solid "I" able to relate to the fixed and solid "Thou," namely, God, then who will preach next Sunday?
My question wasn’t how to preach on Sunday (though I was leading Bible studies and engaging in ministry in the midst of this depression). My question was: how do I live? How do I get up in the morning? How do I not just lie in bed and stare at the ceiling? My center was not holding.
Now obviously I made it through that season, and the subsequent depressions that have hit me in the years since. And I’ll say more about how I endured in a moment. But one of the fundamental truths that God used to hold me in that horrific time was this passage. So I want to look at this passage through the lens of doubt, and you need to know that this way of approaching the Bible is a bit backwards. I’m not going to be doing standard exposition, moving through the passage verse by verse and unfolding its meaning in its original context; I’m not going to treat the circumcision/baptism section at all. Instead, I’m going to do what might be called an extended application of the passage that seeks to remain faithful to Paul’s intention, but highlights particular aspects of the passage relevant to this question.
So Colossians 2, through the lens of doubt. The first thing you need to understand is that there are at least two kinds of doubts: 1) doubts about the truth of Christianity, and 2) doubts about ourselves. My struggles have almost always been with the first kind. Is the Bible true? What does the Bible mean? The second kind accepts the Bible and Christianity as true, but wonders whether the good news applies to us. This is the question of assurance of salvation: “I believe that people are saved through Jesus, but I’m unsure whether I’m one of them.” Mercifully, I’ve not struggled with that question. However, this passage, I think, can address both of them. Begin with the first.
2:8 has a command: “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.” An observation and then a question. First, the philosophy here is deceitful philosophy that is opposed to Christ. The question is, what does Paul mean by “elemental spirits of the world” (the stoicheia)? Classically, the stoicheia refers to the fundamental elements that make up the world: earth, wind, fire, and water. In the Bible, they’re connected to angels (cf. 2:18-20; Gal. 4) and to rules (Col. 2:18-20), especially those that govern children when they are young. In Galatians 4, Paul says that, in the same way that children are under guardians when they are young, so too we were under the stoicheia before Christ came. But I think that we might be able to summarize it this way: the stoicheia are the way that human beings, on their own, try to make sense of reality. Apart from Christ, but instead relying on our own traditions or other beings, we try to make sense of the world. And this, Paul says, is something that we must beware of.
Now in this context, the particulars have to do with worship of angels, asceticism, false standards of holiness, all of which we’ll see in the next passage. But I think that the principle here can be applied to any human tradition that exalts itself in opposition to or outside of Christ. How does verse 9-10 ground verse 8? Now, if we’re focusing on the particulars in Colossians, we’ll see the relevance. Don’t worship angels; worship the fullness of deity. Don’t reject the goodness of creation and the body (“Do not handle, taste, touch”); remember that the fullness dwelt bodily. We can see how that logic works. I want you to see how the broader principle at work here was so helpful to me in my distress.
I was struggling to answer the arguments in history and philosophy. Is the Bible true? Can I trust it? Is God real? Is He good? How can I make sense of it all? And that’s what helped me in this passage. Here I am, trying to make it all make sense, according to human tradition, according to the fundamental, elemental way that we can interpret reality. I want it all to fit inside my head. And then Paul says, “Don’t be taken in by that; the fullness of deity dwells bodily. God became man. And you can’t fit that inside your head. That blows all of your categories.” The incarnation of Jesus, the union of God and man in one person is mind-blowing and logic-shattering. Whatever categories we have to make sense of the world, Jesus blows them up.
Now don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that Christianity is irrational. I’m not saying that logic or reason are irrelevant. We have minds, and we must use them. We must seek to be rational. I’m saying that Christ reorients what it means to be rational. God taking on a human nature, the Infinite clothing himself in the finite, the fullness of deity dwelling bodily—if this is true, then all other truth must orient around it, and no truth will make sense apart from it.
To put it another way, Jesus, the God-man, humbles our human reasoning and tradition. When human philosophy and tradition seek to capture you, the Incarnation humbles you. I use the word “humble” deliberately. Our tendency is to want God to make sense on our terms: finite, broken, and selfish as we are. And if something doesn’t make sense to us, then something is wrong with the something. The problem is over there, not in here. If it made sense, it would fit in my head. And that’s pride, and it needs to be humbled. And if our mind is not humbled, we will, in the end, go mad. Chesterton once contrasted the poet and the madman. The poet wants to get his head into the heavens; the madman wants to get the heavens into his head, and it’s his head that splits.
Christ is supreme over all things. He is the head over all rule and authority, including human reasoning. Christ is the standard, which means that you can’t step outside of Jesus in order to make sense of Jesus. You can’t evaluate Christ by a standard that is more supreme than Christ.
And this is what I failed to see in the midst of my doubt. I was trying to step outside of the Christian faith and make sense of reality. But reality doesn’t make sense outside of the Christian faith. “In him all things hold together.” Apart from him, nothing holds together. In fact, in Christ, even the things that don’t make sense make sense (Does that make sense?). There are three persons in the one God. God became man, two natures, one person. These claims cannot be fit into any human system, unless they are the standard over the system and the unifying reality in the system. Or, to use the language of Paul, “you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.” This is Christ over us, and Christ in us. Here we have the supremacy of Christ over all authorities, whether angels, or human traditions, or the life of the mind. And here we have an experiential fullness: he fills us and animates us and guides our thinking and feeling and living. That truth—that in a world where God became man, I should be humble and expect to have my mind blown—helped to stabilize me in the midst of doubt.
The Second Doubt
But that’s not the only doubt addressed by this passage. I’d love to talk more about the circumcision, baptism, and resurrection section. But to maintain the focus, I want to show how Paul also has a word here for those who believe that Christianity is true, but wonder whether it’s true for them. I mean people who doubt their salvation. This kind of doubt usually arrives in someone who isn’t sure if their faith is real or who thinks that they sin too much. And the last three verses address this problem head on.
And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
The entire forgiveness of all your sins addresses doubts about your salvation. How has God forgiven us? He has cancelled the record of debt that stood against us. A person who thinks that they’ve outsinned God, that their sin is too great, is still clinging to that record of debt. It’s still hanging over you with its legal demands. But that record, that list of everything that you’ve ever done wrong—every failure, every sin, every lust, every wicked thought, word, or action—all of it, has been nailed to the cross. Your standing with God does not lie in your record. Nor does it lie in the strength of your faith, as though if you have a really strong faith, it makes up for all of the evil deeds. Your standing with God is based solely on the cross of Jesus where he cancelled your debt and forgave your sins. And you access that forgiveness with simple, childlike faith, even if it’s only the size of a mustard seed.
But, you say, “My faith is surrounded by doubt and darkness on every side.” Doesn’t matter. You may not be able to see through it, but God can. Even the darkness is as light to him. He sees through the fog of your doubt and sin and binds you too himself through what feels like the weak and quivering remnants of your faith in Jesus. To you, your faith feels like it has the strength of a spider’s web, but God says, “In me, even the spider web is unbreakable.”
But, you say, “The devil is oppressing me. Dark powers are attacking me.” The only real power that the rulers and authorities had over you is the record of debt. Their only real power was the power of accusation, the power to point at the list, the record of debt. “Look at what you’ve done. Look at who you are. God, if you’re truly holy and just, you must condemn this sinner.” That’s the only true power they had. And if God has cancelled the debt, if the list is nailed to the cross, then the rulers and authorities are disarmed, and they are put to open shame. Their accusations now only serve to magnify the glory and triumph of grace.
When that accusing voice in your head points at your sin, and shoots a dart of condemnation at you, you take up your weak, shivering shield of faith and you say, “But I trust him. Jesus is my only hope.” And that fiery, condemning dart is extinguished and it becomes a trophy of grace for all the world to see.
So let me summarize. The incarnation—God becoming man in the person of Jesus—addresses our doubts by humbling our minds and shattering our categories so that we aren’t taken captive by false philosophy and human tradition. And the cross of Jesus disarms our accuser by taking his weapon of accusation and condemnation and turning it into a trophy of forgiveness and grace.
A Few Words About the Fight With Doubt
Let me close with a handful of exhortations and encouragements in the dark times. The first one is actually for everyone, especially if you’re not yet in the pit.
Root yourself in the truth, goodness, and beauty of the gospel while you are in the light. Lay a deep foundation in the gospel. Don’t be shallow. One of the things that kept me in my dark night was the fact that God had done so much deep heart work in that previous year. The sovereignty of God, the gospel of his free grace, his goodness and steadfast love—I had internalized these in that previous year. They sunk down deep. So when the darkness fell, I remember thinking, “If the God of the Bible is the sovereign, good God who can save sinners, then he’ll keep me.” He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion. Don’t wait until you’re in the darkness to try and lay the foundation. Lay it now.
Grow in secondary proofs of the gospel. [1. The Coherence of Christianity: the way that the gospel makes sense of the world; 2) The Inadequacy of Alternatives: “To whom shall we go, Lord? You have the words of eternal life?” (John 6:65); 3) Grandeur and Complexity of the World; 4) Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in particular things: Narnia, sunsets, love, Andrew Peterson’s music, Shakespeare, the solidity of rocks, the beauty of clouds, the smell of a spring rain. All of these things bring home to me the reality that Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are real.Know what these particular things are for you, so that you can use them in your fight of faith]
Recognize that doubt has innumerable causes, not all of them sinful. There are bodily dimensions: hormones, sleep, diet, chemicals in the brain, and so forth. There are demonic dimensions: attacks and influences (often connected to the body). There are emotional dimensions: personality, tendencies, character traits. And there are moral dimensions: hidden sins, flagrant sins, unholy desires.
- Doubt and faith can exist side by side. “I do believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).
- Doubt your doubts. Doubts can sound so confident and unshakeable. They sound like an authority, like we’re under them. They speak with the voice of Deity. And that ought to make us suspicious. If everything is in doubt, why does Doubt itself get to be indubitable?
- Doubt from faith. Beware the false Rationalism and the myth of “neutrality” that demands that you step outside your faith in order to think clearly. There is no neutrality. To pretend that there is a neutral space from which to evaluate God is to act as though he doesn't exist. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10). We don’t start from a neutral place and reason our way to the fear of the Lord. We start with the fear of the Lord and move further into knowledge, faith seeking understanding.
- Surround yourself with gospel-breathing, praying people who love you. This church is ready to walk with strugglers and doubters. We’re walking with them right now. If you haven’t yet been honest, talk to one of the pastors. Talk to your Life Group or Community Group.
- Don’t use doubt as an excuse for sin. When you feel as though God is absent, it’s easy to begin rationalizing sin. That will only make it worse.
- Beware fatalism. Nothing is inevitable. Don’t doubt the power of God. If he’s real, he can break in.
The fullness of Deity dwells bodily, and then dies on the cross to cancel our death, and then is raised from the dead to deliver us from the uncircumcision of our flesh. And then God gives an ongoing picture of all of that: the fullness of Deity represented and communicated to us edibly and drinkably. When you come to the Table, you’re saying, “Jesus is mine. I embrace him as the head of every rule and authority; no one above him. And I am filled in him by faith. All your debt cancelled. All the darts quenched. All your enemies disarmed. Come, and welcome to Jesus Christ.