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Exploring Paul's warning against "falling from grace"

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Recently, The Aquila Report, a popular online Reformed news site, featured an article, “What Does Paul Mean by ‘Falling from Grace’?”, by Matthew Everhard, the pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, Florida. In the article, Everhard responds to a question he received regarding Galatians 5:4 where Paul tells the Galatians who are trying to be justified by the law that they are “severed from Christ” and have “fallen away from grace”. The questioner wants to know how to interpret Paul’s expression, given the fact that Paul couldn’t be referring to individuals losing their salvation.

1. A deeper look at Galatians 5:4

To begin with, Everhard confirms that “Paul cannot be speaking of an individual at one time having salvation, and then later losing it and becoming ‘unsaved’.” This is, of course, in harmony with historic Calvinism which teaches “perseverance of the saints”, meaning that all who truly come to faith in Christ persevere until the end, and no one truly saved can ever fall away and be lost. According to Calvinism, when professing Christians fall away from the faith, an actual loss of salvation hasn’t occurred; rather, the fact that true conversion never took place in the first place has finally come to the light.

Everhard went on to say, “When the Bible speaks about individual salvation, it presumes that conversion is something far more profound than an individual simply ‘making a decision’ for Christ, and then later changing his mind later and undoing it all… Conversion… is a complete transformation of a man that cannot be lost, stolen, or taken away (Romans 8:28-30; 37-39).”

Everhard is absolutely right that conversion is far more than a human decision; it is a revival that God accomplishes in the heart of a person. As C.S. Lewis said, describing his own conversion, he felt less that he had made a decision and more like he had been “decided upon”.

Everhard explains the context of Galatians 5:4. Thus far in the letter, Paul is anxious that the Galatian congregation is being inundated with a false gospel—a teaching that said faith in Christ was not sufficient to justify someone; circumcision was asserted as being necessary for salvation. For Paul, this was no peripheral matter. Nowhere is Paul more fierce in attacking false teaching in any of his letters than in the Galatian epistle.

Everhard goes on to say, “The ‘falling away’… would seem to me to be a collective doctrinal failure as a Gospel-preaching church. The Galatians are at risk of becoming a cult, or sect, of true Apostolic Christianity. The grammatical use of the plural ‘you’ in 5:4 makes me think that Paul is warning them as a whole church here, not as individuals whom he fears may get ‘unsaved.’… By becoming heretical, the Galatians are at risk of losing their position as a light and a witness in the world for the saving Gospel: by faith alone, in Christ alone.”

2. Concerns about Everhard’s treatment of the text

Unfortunately, because preserving the Calvinistic doctrine of perseverance of the saints is such a high priority, the text in question doesn’t really get an objective treatment. Everhard seems to be beginning from the premise of what the text couldn’t possibly mean, based on his denominational presuppositions, and then going on to read the text through a Calvinist lens. That said, Everhard’s distinction between the Galatian congregation falling away, corporately, and the individual believers in Galatia falling away is one that the text doesn’t really support.

It is true that real believers can be found even in heretical sects, but this doesn’t mean that belonging to a heretical sect is anything to sneeze at. If the Galatian congregation ceased to be a real Christian church, which is what Paul is obviously warning them against, then it seems to logically follow that the individuals in the congregation would likewise be in very real danger of ceasing to be a part of the universal Body of Christ.

Calvinists interpret Romans 9, which discusses God choosing Jacob and rejecting Esau, as evidence of the Reformed doctrine of predestination. Arminians often argue on the other hand that the passage is not about individuals being elected to salvation at all; rather it is merely about God choosing the nation of Israel over other nations. Calvinists answer back that nations are made up of individuals, and so if God predestined the nation of Israel, he likewise predestined the individuals of the Israelite community. The error Calvinists accuse of Arminians of making in Romans 9 is what Everhard appears to be making in Galatians 5. It may be true that Paul is speaking of the Galatian congregation falling away, but this doesn’t rule out the fact that he is envisioning individuals falling away. Congregations are, after all, made up of individuals.

3. What does Paul mean by “falling away”?

In Galatians 5:4, Paul appears to be warning the congregation’s members against falling away Christ and being lost. If Calvinism is true, how could Paul even be concerned that such a thing could occur? Won’t God always preserve his elect from apostasy? Believing that Paul is really and truly warning the Galatians against falling away and, to put it bluntly, going to hell, doesn’t mean that God ever lets any of his elect perish. Interpreting the warnings seriously isn’t at all incompatible with Calvinism. Even the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563, one of Reformed theology’s most renowned catechisms, in question 94 cautions against idolatry “because of the risk of losing my salvation.”

As Lutherans are prone to point out, the New Testament is replete both with warnings against falling away and promises that God will preserve believers from falling away. Both are true and both are necessary. The warnings are examples of Law—passages that tell us what God demands of us. God demands that Christians not become lax, thinking that God’s grace enables them to sin without consequences. God demands that Christians “work out their salvation with fear and trembling”.

The promises are examples of Gospel—passages that tell us what God does for us. God sent Christ to rescue us from all of our sins. He began the good work of salvation in us and he, not our exertions or our free will, will be faithful to complete it. Christ is not only the author, but also the finisher of our faith. We go to heaven not by the sweat of our brow, but because God preserves us in Christ’s hand, and nothing can snatch us out of Christ’s hand.

The two teachings appear contradictory, but they can be understood as complimenting each other when we remember that so long as we live on earth we are, as the Reformers put it, both saints and sinners. We still have a sin nature, a sin nature that wants to do its own thing and ignore God. That part of us that wants to use God’s grace as a license for sin needs to be warned—as Paul warns the Galatians. The warnings are real, not hypothetical or theoretical. On the other hand, because we do still have a sin nature, we struggle. Sometimes mature Christians, distraught over the sin that remains in them, may despair that they will be saved in the end at all. That fearful part of us needs to be comforted—as all the promises about God preserving us do. The promises are real, not hypothetical.

The problem, of course, with such a handling of the New Testament is that it leaves some theological loose ends. There is a bit of mystery regarding salvation. The book of Jude says, “Keep yourselves in the love of God”—emphasizing our effort, but goes onto give glory to God who is “able to keep us from stumbling”—emphasizing that our endurance is God’s work in us. Because God preserves us, we are able to persevere.

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