In 1931 the theologian Gustaf Aulen published ‘Christus Victor’, which persuasively argued that arguably the most overlooked dimension of the saving work of Christ is that he has conquered all the powers that hold human beings captive: sin, Satan and death. It’s not just that, on the cross, Christ paid the penalty on our behalf (which he did) – he also overcame our great spiritual enemies and destroyed their ultimate power. Simply put, the cross is also a symbol of triumph: he is Christ victorious, Christus Victor.
This book represented a powerful contribution to our understanding of the saving work of Christ – and today’s passage is one of the key inspirations for it. What Aulen was teaching was nothing new; rather he was able to show how, right from the beginning, the New Testament always had this understanding included within its remarkable exploration of the cross and resurrection of Christ.
The backdrop to the whole book of Colossians is the wonderful completeness of the gospel of Christ – that it doesn’t need improving or adding to; Christ is the whole ball game, the means and the end, the alpha and the omega. Two days ago, we saw how Christ is the full revelation of God. Yesterday, we reflected on the first detailed example of how this works in practice: that it is Christ who enables us to become part of God’s family. Today, Paul demonstrates the total sufficiency of Christ’s saving work on the cross. He starts on familiar ground: through the cross we are forgiven and made alive (v13). But then we get to the difficult v14 – which tells us how this works.
The fundamental principle here is that we are all lawbreakers – if we remember Jesus’ words that our thought lives are included keeping God’s law, then even those of us who think we do pretty well at following the rules are convicted by what goes on inside us. This is what condemns us. Wrongdoing must be paid for – we all know that, it’s how our entire legal system works, in almost every culture and every age – so we all have what you might call a ‘charge sheet’ against us.
It is this image that Paul uses: imagine a charge sheet against you, with your name on the top, and all the ways you’ve let God down, or just plain disobeyed him, written on it. Now imagine that all of these charge sheets are nailed to the cross with Christ, and thereby cancelled. That is what it cost Jesus to make us all free – but it is also what gives us complete assurance of the reality of our forgiveness and new life. God himself cancelled the charge sheets when they were nailed to the cross with Jesus.
It gets better, the final verse is an image taken from a triumphal procession, the sort that victorious Roman generals received when returning to Rome after a military success. Their captives would be led in a train behind the victorious procession, paraded in humiliation for all to see. Although the English translation doesn’t quite pick this up, the original Greek makes it clear that this is the image Paul had in mind: following Christ’s complete victory on the cross, now he returns triumphant back to God the Father, with sin, Satan and death trundling disconsolately in chains behind him. Christus Victor!
These verses are hard work to mine – but it repays the effort, because what we dig up is pure gold. Thanks to Christ, who has not only forgiven us but defeated our enemies, we are free: free to live as his followers; free to grow as human beings, slowly being transformed and overcoming our besetting sins; and gloriously free to live with hope in an assured future of peace, joy and life forever with this victorious Christ. And if that doesn’t lift your heart today, nothing will!