True, born-again Christians can become so deluded by false teachers that they can compromise their belief in the Gospel of Christ—for a while.
The Apostle Paul wrote a letter of encouragement and challenge to the churches of Galatia when they were struggling with such compromise. In the fifth chapter of his epistle he encourages these Christians to “Stand fast…in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5:1).
Some seemingly-converted Jewish preachers (who are sometimes referred to as Judaisers) had been going around visiting the Christian churches after Paul had moved on in his missionary journeys. They taught that it was vital for the gentile (i.e. non-Jewish) converts to become circumcised.
The apostle warned: “Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law” (Galatians 5:2-3).
The Judaisers were preaching the necessity for circumcision only at first; but Paul knew that this was merely a tactic and that their agenda was to bring the Galatian Christians under the entire Law of Moses (see Romans 2:25; 1 Corinthians 7:19). This was what Paul meant by the “yoke of bondage” (see Acts 15:1, 5; Galatians 2:4; 4:21-26).
The Judaisers’ doctrine clearly denied the sole sufficiency of the atoning sacrifice of Christ. Paul warned the Galatians against this “another gospel, which is not another”, and he solemnly pronounced preachers of “any other gospel” than the true one to be liable to the Divine curse (Galatians 1:6-9).
But did Paul allow that Christians, if they get decieved by a false gospel, can thereby lose their salvation—can they fall from grace?
Fallen from grace
Paul argued that, for those who seek to save themselves by their own attempted works of Law-keeping, “Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace” (Galatians 5:4). This is because it was only if a person kept the Law of Moses perfectly and completely would God then could count them as justified in his sight (Leviticus 18:5; Romans 10:5). But there is no fallen sinner who can save himself or herself by this way, or by any other (see Romans 3:20).
Was Paul saying that true Christians in Galatia had lost their salvation, in their effort to contribute something toward their own salvation by obedience to a ceremonial (or other) law? No. But what was he saying?
The apostle argued forcefully, that those Galatian Christians who are “justified by the law” (or so they had been decieved into thinking by the Judaisers) are “fallen from grace”—because Christ is “is become of no effect” to them if indeed they are justified by the law. But they should have known all along (as Paul had previously taught them in his missionary work (Acts 16:6; 18:23)), that their justification is all by grace through faith and not at all of works.
Understand Paul’s argument:
If the Judaisers are correct in their assertion that the grace of Christ has not saved you, Galatian Christians, and that what you need is circumsision (and Moses) in order to be saved; and
If you Galatian Christians are justified by the law (not only through getting circumsised, but you are a debtor to the whole law—so you must keep it all, to be justified by the law);
Then the salvation that you Galatian Christians previously thought you had (by Paul’s missionary preaching, before the Judaisers came along) never really happened—“Christ shall profit you nothing” (v.2) “Christ is become of no effect unto you…ye are fallen from grace” (v.4).
In short: if the Judaisers are correct, then you Galarian Christians are fallen from grace. Concede with the Judaisiers even in this small matter of circumcision, and there is no salvation, and no Christianity!
But, of course, the Judaisers were not correct. Neither themselves nor anyone else could ever be justified by the law. And in Paul’s argument, his statement of the Judaiser’s proposition, (“you [Galatians] who are justified by the law”) was not a concession on his part—he knew they were not actually justified by the law. Therefore, we cannot interpret Paul as saying that they actually were fallen from grace.
So, we are to understand that Paul argued against the Judaisers’ false gospel without implying that Christians can lose their salvation by being decieved by it, even though they may struggle with it for a time.
These Galatian Christians were temporarily “removed from him who called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel” (1:6-7; 5:6-8). These Christians were, at Paul’s time of writing, deceived—even “bewitched” so that they did not “obey the truth” (3:1).
However, the apostle well remembered their personal history, from which he knew that they were true Christians notwithstanding their present delusion. And delusion it was, hence the term “bewitched”—the Greek word being translated here has the idea of being misled by fascination or persuasive charm, which the Judaisers excelled at1.
Concerning the Galatian Christians, Paul knew that:
They “did run well” at first (5:7);
They had been made free—liberated by Christ (5:1);
They belonged to the free “Jerusalem which is above,” the mother of all true Christians (4:26) (i.e. they belonged to the Gospel kingdom of Christ and its freedom from Law-works);
Christ had redeemed them from the curse of the law (3:13);
They had received the Holy Spirit, having “begun in the Spirit” (3:2-3, 14);
They were children of the promise who were born after the Spirit (4:28-31);
Because they were now adopted children of God, God had sent forth the Spirit of his Son into their hearts, crying, “Abba, Father” (4:6).
And most significantly, notice that Paul still included these Galatian gentiles as his own brothers and sisters in Christ—in that “our” when he opened his epistle with that affirmation that Christ “gave himself for our sins” (1:4).
Paul would not have affirmed that all these things were true of these Galatians if they had lost their salvation, or if they were in danger of losing it. No, they had not fallen from their state of grace while being deceived by the Judaisers.
Knowing therefore that he was dealing with true Christians, Paul grabs hold of them with his words and remonstrates with great strength of feeling out of an overflowing heart: “O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth…?” Paul considered them “foolish” for having been charmed and influenced by the Judaisers, because evidently, they had not thought the whole matter through and understood the utter contradiction between the true Gospel and this false gospel.
True Christians are distinguished as those who are brought out of error by exposure to the truth. They have the Holy Spirit as their teacher, and God brings them to a better understanding by sending them faithful witnesses in the form of preachers, friends, pastors, books, tracts, and so on.
Pre-eminently through all these means God uses the Holy Scriptures ministered by the Holy Spirit—which is how he recovered these bewitched Galatians.
- Paul did not suspect the Judaisers of witchcraft.↩