Daily Scripture Commentary: Continuance in Salvation (eternal security) and Paul’s Letter to the Galatians

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Tripping in a Race

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion, whoever that may be, will have to pay the penalty. Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!

In his sustained argument against a law-oriented salvation, Paul addresses the Galatians personally at several points, questioning whether they were persisting in the faith, and warning them of dire consequences. He did so in the opening salvo when he expressed his astonishment that the Galatian church was so quickly deserting the one who had called them (Gal 1:6). He then expresses his frustration with the Galatians more fully with his exclamation, “You foolish Galatians!” They were so foolish precisely because they had indeed received the Spirit through faith but were then trying to go on to completion through works (Gal 3:1-5). Paul’s concern was so great because he feared that the Galatian believers may have experienced so much for naught (“Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain?”) since they were turning away from a salvation through faith. In the next chapter, he intensifies his concern, accusing the Galatian believers of returning to their former way of life. He writes, “ I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you” (4:11).

These concerns for their continuance in faith and continuance in salvation lead to several dramatic statements in Gal 5. First, Paul felt compelled to urge them to stand firm in the faith (v. 1), for they were in fact faltering and deserting the one who had called them. Secondly, he warned them that if they rely on circumcision (a synecdoche for Law), then the Messiah—the same Messiah who loved them and gave himself for their sins (1:4; cf. 2:20) and who had called them into the grace in which they once stood for some short time—then the Lord Jesus Christ would be of no value to them at all (5:2), as if he died for nothing (cf. 2:21)! Thirdly, Paul declares, with great emphasis and rhetorical flourish, that those who had actually turned from faith to law have been alienated from Christ; more fully, those who had once been united with Christ through the indwelling of the Spirit and who had experienced so much of the Spirit’s ministry were now “alienated from Christ and fallen away from grace” (3:4). Fourthly, even those who had not yet gone so far as to accept circumcision Paul chides saying, “You were running a good race,” but were now off track, while urging them to accept no other view but the true gospel.

To be sure, there are passages hither and yon which can be cited as prooftexts dealing with continuance in salvation (i.e., perseverance of the Saints, or eternal security). The book of Galatians, however, does not merely touch on the subject in passing. Rather, at the heart of his argument for justification by faith, Paul persists in warning the believers that their very salvation was at risk should they not stand firm in the grace in which they were called. He does so at key points in his argument, and his warnings should be taken most seriously. In the worst situation, it seems that at least some of the Galatians had indeed fallen away from faith and had alienated themselves from Christ, so that Christ’s atoning death was no longer any value to them at all.

Such warnings cannot be easily dismissed, and the Christian theologian should be diligent in giving full consideration to the entirety of the book of Galatians in formulating his doctrine of continuance in salvation. In particular, hear once again Paul’s words as he winds down his argument: “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (6:7-9).