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Jesus + Anything = Nothing

Are You Unintentionally Adding to the Gospel?

by Jen Oshman

“He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” — Colossians 1:17

Do you know what syncretism is? Do you know if you’re guilty of it? 

Syncretism is when different beliefs or practices from one religion are blended with another. The result is that neither religion maintains its integrity and a new belief system is born. 

If your reaction to my question of guilt was an immediate and strong, “No, I’m not a syncretist! I’m a Christian!” I can relate. That’s my reflex too. In truth, though, syncretism is sneaky.

When the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Colossians, it was to address syncretism in their churches. When he said of Jesus, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17) it was to combat syncretism. A major theme of Paul’s letter, which we need to receive along with the Colossians, is Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone

Remember What Jesus Is Like  

If you want a worshipful reading experience, read Colossians 1. The whole chapter is Paul worshiping Christ and putting the gospel on glorious display. Take time to soak especially in verses 15–20. In the six verses that are Colossians 1:15–20 we see that Jesus is:

  • fully God (v. 15, 19)
  • the firstborn over creation and the firstborn from the dead (v. 15, 18)
  • the creator of everything (v. 16)
  • through whom and for whom everything is created (v. 16)
  • before everything (v. 17)
  • holding everything together (v. 17)
  • the head of the church (v. 18)
  • the beginning of everything (v. 18) 
  • supreme in everything (v. 18) 
  • reconciling all things on earth and heaven to himself (v. 20) 
  • making peace through his blood on the cross (v. 20). 

Friends, this is our God! Just look at that list! 

Jesus is indeed supreme over all. We are saved by and serve an all-powerful and all-good God. It’s no wonder Paul started his letter like this. It’s as if he’s saying to the Colossians, “Remember, brothers and sisters, this is your Lord and Savior. This is what he’s like. Worship him!” Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone

Syncretism Then

Chapter 2 of Colossians gives us some insight into the syncretism at Colossae. Paul warns them not to be taken captive by hollow and deceptive philosophies, human traditions, or spiritual forces (v. 8). Getting more specific, he warns them: 

  • not to let anyone judge them for what they eat or drink, or regarding participation in religious festivals, a New Moon celebration, or the Sabbath (v. 16)
  • not to let anyone who is falsely humble and worships angels to disqualify them (v. 18)
  • not to submit to worldly rules (v. 20-21)
  • not to participate in self-imposed worship, false humility, or harsh treatment of the body (v. 23). 

These specific warnings may feel foreign to our context, but the heart behind the warnings are immediately applicable to you and me. Numerous human traditions and spiritual forces seek to win us over even now. 

Jesus + Anything = Nothing 

Paul’s warning to the Colossians and to us is Jesus plus anything equals nothing. We are saved by Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone

Christ is holding everything together. If we insist on adding something, on doing something, on believing that something or someone must help Jesus hold everything together, then we make the gospel null and void.

While we may easily assent to the truth that we are saved only by Jesus, it is so easy—even automatic—to turn to man-made efforts for growth in our faith. In our current age of extreme self-sufficiency, most of us struggle with this. It’s the cultural air we breathe. It’s the tendency of our flesh to thank Jesus for his salvation, but then turn to ourselves for anything else. 

It’s as if we say to our Maker and Savior, “Thank you for saving me, but I’ve got it from here, Lord.” This is syncretism. And it is sneaky. 

Syncretism Now

There are probably a hundred ways a day I believe I am the one holding everything together, or at least helping Jesus to do so. I subconsciously sideline my God and I look to tangible practices and tools that I can grab ahold of. Here are some ways I see myself and others seeking to assist Jesus as he’s holding everything together: 

  • We put our hope and trust in our bank account. 
  • We obsess over nutrition and exercise to ensure our own health and well-being. 
  • We pursue safety and security at every turn, especially for our kids. 
  • We carefully curate a public image on social media.  
  • We believe a certain political candidate or party will doom or secure our nation. 
  • We add to Scripture, making manmade spiritual rules a test for our own maturity or others’. 
  • We white-knuckle our kids’ growth, image, and status. 

This is syncretism. These practices, in and of themselves, are not inherently bad. It’s okay to save money, pursue safety for your kids, and to build healthy habits. But when we put our hope and trust in them, instead of Jesus—or in addition to Jesus—we unknowingly add to the gospel. 

Can you relate? Do you confess, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17), but also add a little extra something just to be sure? If you were to lose your wealth or health or child or reputation, can you honestly say you would be okay, because Jesus is holding everything—including you and every detail of your life—together? 

Syncretism was sneaky in Colossae and it’s sneaky right here, right now. In our flesh, we humans continuously want to add to God’s Word, to the gospel, to the work of our Maker and Savior. 

Jesus Is Holding Everything, So You Don’t Have To 

Friends, the syncretism of our day is exhausting. Paul said to the Colossians and he says to us, these practices “have an appearance of wisdom… but they lack any value” (Colossians 2:23). Clenching our fists and our teeth to curate the perfect life looks strong and wise and necessary. But you and I are not God. We do not have the wisdom to know what’s best and we do not have the power to conjure it up. 

In grabbing hold of the wisdom of this world, in seeking to add to the work of Christ, we participate in the syncretism of our age. Let’s be honest. Let’s take stock of our habits and our thoughts: do we really believe Jesus is holding everything together? Are we accidentally adding to his efforts? Are we exhausted and stressed and living beyond our means because we think it’s (even partially) on us to hold everything together? 

The good news of Colossians and the good news of Jesus is that “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). It’s Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone and it always has been. You and I cannot add to this blessed equation.

Jen Oshman

Jen Oshman has been in women’s ministry for over two decades on three continents. She’s the author of Enough about Me and Cultural Counterfeits, she hosts a weekly podcast about cultural events and trends called All Things, and she is the mother of four daughters. Jen's family currently resides in Colorado, where they planted Redemption Parker.

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