It Adds Up

Colossians as a Guide for Discipling People Toward Holiness

by Jennifer Gale

Paul’s passionate commitment to the Colossian church provides a pattern that makes prayer, proclamation, and presence a priority for discipling people toward holiness. 

“We proclaim him,
admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom,
so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ.
To this end I labor,
struggling with all his energy which so powerfully works in me”
(Colossians 1:28,29).

I am a numbers person. As a sophomore college student, I needed one more class to maintain my on-campus status. I chose Calculus II. (I was saved a few months later in a Sunday morning service, but I don’t think the two were related.)

My love for numbers continues. This year our church staff redoubled its effort to get a handle on attendance trends. I volunteered for the job. One of the highlights on Monday morning is plugging the numbers into my Excel spreadsheet.

Math and Ministry?

Ministry and math usually have little to do with one another outside of service attendance and budget reports. When we work with people, the variables are numerous. Ministry provides little comfort for those who find rest in the predictability of equations or of guaranteed results. The results we are after defy quantification. How do you assign a number to a radically transformed life? To a healed addiction or reconciled marriage? To faithful service or patient endurance? And how do you take account of what is unseen?

Much of God’s transforming work takes place in the deep recesses of the heart. Out of the 168 hours in a week, the average church attendee spends most of those hours somewhere other than church. It is hard to determine spiritual growth. Even so, our God-given commission compels us to seek eternal, spiritual results for His glory. Jesus commands, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 18:19).

How do we encourage this process during the 166 hours outside of the main worship service or meeting? What would God have us do to facilitate this growth?

Before we can answer this question, we need to see how Scripture defines success in spiritual growth. Paul’s letter to the Colossians provides a compelling picture of progress in holiness and practical examples of effective discipleship toward that end.

It Has To Add Up

The Colossian church had issues. Yet Paul directs this letter “to the holy and faithful brothers in Christ at Colosse” (1:2).

Paul’s choice of words is significant. From the beginning of his letter, Paul set out a truth he clearly hopes will form the basis of the Colossian church’s self-understanding. In Christ, the Colossians are, in fact, holy.

Simply put, we describe holiness as a state of dedication or of being “set apart” for the work and worship of God. Holiness is also a process of separation from sin, evil, and that which is against God, and separation to all that is and of Him.

The fact this work of grace had taken place is evident in the Colossians’ faithful response to the gospel and the fruit it bears (1:3–7). But holiness is just the beginning. An ethic, a morality, a way of living that centers all actions and decisionmaking in the person and work of Christ flows from a right relationship with God (1:21–23).

The message of holiness is a clear message in this letter to believers, and in many of Paul’s other letters. In essence, he says, “You are holy, so you should live like you are holy. Who you are and what you do need to correspond. Holiness should equal a holy life. They need to add up.”

But what if they don’t?

We understand the tension between what is and what should be. We live in this tension with the people we work with every day. We get a front-row seat to the real conflict in our own hearts and lives. God is faithful to complete the work He began in us and in those we serve, but we know that completion is something we will only fully realize at the end of the age.

Key Elements in the Equation

So how do we disciple people toward holiness every day of the week? In the Book of Colossians, we make two observations about Paul’s relationship to the church that will help us.

First is Paul’s commitment to the Colossians’ spiritual growth. Paul is 100 percent committed to helping the Colossians fully realize and live out their hope in Christ. Remember, Paul is writing to people he has not yet met. And his commitment is not just to the Colossians, for Paul says he ministers “so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ” (1:28).

God told those who were already His people, “be holy, because I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44,45). The writer of Hebrews declares, “without holiness no one will see the Lord” (12:14), and Peter writes, “you ought to live holy and godly lives” (2 Peter 3:11).

The holiness of others is a worthy goal of discipleship. And yet, as a staff member whose portfolio includes discipleship, I often have more commitment to smooth-running services or productive-planning meetings than I do to the spiritual growth of those around me. Will we let the example of Paul motivate us to make holiness of others a committed priority?

Second, Paul seems to know what holiness should look like, and he was committed to seeing it in others. “Perfection” or maturity in Christ includes not only the big picture characteristics of fruitful good works, knowledge of God, great endurance, and joyful thankfulness (1:10–12), but the details of daily living (chapters 3,4).

We need to help our people understand that growth in holiness is a personal and community goal in discipleship. As we do this, not only will we and those we serve more quickly identify areas of need, but also places of achievement and growth. But there is more to the equation.

Revisiting our earlier question, “How do we disciple people toward holiness every day of the week?” Let’s look at three expressions of that commitment in Paul’s ministry to the Colossians.


“For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you” (1:9). “I want you to know how much I am struggling for you” (2:1).

The first expression of Paul’s commitment to the Colossians’ spiritual growth is seen in his persistent, personal, and proactive prayer. Paul is convinced that intercession is essential to the disciple-making process.

We know we are called to pray for others. Jesus lives to intercede for those who come to God through Him (Hebrews 7:25). Paul understood that Jesus’ followers should do the same.

Paul’s intercession shows three characteristics that describe effective prayer in the disciple-making process.

Prayer that is persistent. Paul says he has not stopped praying. He not only prays continually for the Colossians, but for those in other churches (Ephesians 1:15–23 and 1 Thessalonians 1:2,3, for example).

How much of our current prayer time do we spend in prayer for the holiness of others?

Prayer that is personal. Colossians 1:3–8 reveals Paul’s intimate knowledge of the church’s situation with prayer that reflects their true spiritual need.

We rarely know of this kind of need outside of relationship. How well do we know the people we serve?

Prayer that is proactive. Paul’s letter to the Colossians may have been reactive, but his prayers were not. In praying for their growth in holiness and faith, Paul looks ahead, taking the initiative to ask God for their essential needs.

Much of our prayer for people is reactive. We pray for health crises, relational struggles, and so on. What would happen if we began to pray proactively? Would those we serve respond differently to the crisis of tomorrow because we prayed for their spiritual growth today? These are tough questions that should challenge us in the area of disciple-making prayer.

Some say Paul’s use of the word struggle in 2:1 must refer to his Spirit-empowered battle in prayer against evil spiritual forces on behalf of the Colossians (see Ephesians 6:12). Since Paul wrote to the Colossians from prison, likely his struggle is in the spiritual realm of prayer.

Prayer acknowledges that spiritual growth is a spiritual work. It is partnering with the will of God, inviting Him to do the work that only He can do. Holiness is ultimately the work of God (Exodus 31:13; Romans 15:16).

Prayer + Proclamation

“We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ” (1:28).

To prayer we must add another practical expression of Paul’s commitment to the Colossians: proclaiming Christ.

Though he did not know them personally, he had the Colossian believers in mind (2:1–6). And he preached with a goal of producing results (1:28).

We want our proclamation to make a difference in the character and quality of the lives of those who hear. But that will only happen if we start with the end in mind. This is intentional proclamation.

How do we want our people to look? How do we want ourselves to look, spiritually speaking?

One resource is the classic The Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges (NavPress), or the updated 2003 version, The Chase: Pursuing Holiness in Your Everyday Life,” which can be used as a sermon starter.

Paul understood that the Colossians could overcome whatever challenge to their faith they faced if they “continued in [their] faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel” (1:23). He prayed that they might grow in the “knowledge of [God’s] will,” have “spiritual wisdom” and “understanding (1:9,10; 2:2).

One church I visited as a college student challenged members to memorize the pastor’s text that week and test themselves the next week by repeating the passage to an elder. I only attended services over Christmas break, but I still know Psalm 1 by heart.

Another church I know uses the Sunday morning text as a launching pad for in-depth Bible study in Sunday morning classes and midweek groups.

All of this matters because the Word of God is living and active (Hebrews 4:12), God-breathed, and useful for training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).

If our proclamation leads people to continually engage the Word of God, we can be assured of coming closer to a formula for discipling people toward holiness.

But there’s one more element to consider.

Prayer + Proclamation + Presence

“For though I am absent from you in body I am present with you in Spirit” (2:5).

The final expression of Paul’s commitment to the Colossians’ spiritual growth is seen in his presence.

When we talk about ways in which we disciple people toward holiness, we need to include relationship that involves meaningful presence. Jesus’ close-up-and-personal method of discipleship is ideal. God builds His church through relationship. When thinking about holiness, how better to disciple someone in this area than to take the journey together?

Maybe this is the best place to start — inviting someone on the journey toward holiness with us. Walk through The Pursuit of Holiness together.

We see Paul’s commitment to the Colossians’ spiritual growth in his presence. Paul was so invested in the Colossians’ faith walk that all would agree he was right to claim, “I am present with you in Spirit.”

You might say Paul was present from a distance. He may not have known the Colossian believers’ names, but he knew people who knew their names. He might not have been there to hear their prayer requests, but he was so connected to their lives through mutual friends that he knew their needs.

The idea of presence from a distance has relevance for us today because community borders are expanding. Without concerted effort, some of us are unlikely to be physically present among those we serve throughout the week. Mobility, available housing, commuting, even social networking contribute to the expansion of community borders.

Presence from a distance also has implications for recognizing and training those whose ministry is physically present. Sunday School teachers, small group leaders, even family members are present when we are not. Through them and their discipleship ministry of prayer, proclamation, and presence, we can, by extension, disciple people toward holiness.

Holiness is lived out and realized in community (3:1 through 4:1). And as much as leading the people of God involves administration, the imagery of the shepherd who knows his sheep is still relevant. Jesus, the Great Shepherd of the sheep, would not have promised, “And surely I am with you always, even to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

Prayer + Proclamation + Presence =?

When we study Paul’s passionate commitment to the Colossian church, we see a pattern for discipleship that makes prayer, proclamation, and presence a priority for discipling people toward holiness.

Our challenge is to allow God’s commitment to His people and His desire for the holiness of His people to become our priority; then, to allow that priority to shape our prayer, proclamation, and presence throughout the week.

The good news is that we do this not in our own strength, but with all of His energizing energy that works so powerfully in us (1:29).

Even if we can’t plug numbers into Excel.