Is there any more beautiful word in the English language than “grace”? If there is, I don’t know it. How lovely it is to think about being undeservedly blessed.
I love gracious people. They won’t let me get away with murder, but they do extend kindness when I sometimes don’t deserve it. They often overlook what fault-finders feast on. They look for the good in me and motivate me by encouragement.
The biblical word (Greek: charis), found more than 100 times in the New Testament, is usually defined as “unmerited favor.” Grace certainly stands in contrast with merit, which is why Paul could write, “But if it [salvation] is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace” (Rom. 11:6).
No one who reads the New Testament can miss the fact that salvation is due to God’s grace. We are saved “by grace…through faith…not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). Is it any wonder that Paul referred to his message as “the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24) and “the word of His grace” (Acts 20:32)?
God has been extending His grace long before Jesus walked the earth. Since creation, He has, according to Jesus, been causing, “His sun to rise on the evil and the good,” and sending “rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). Jesus’ clear point was that evil and unrighteous people don’t deserve the sun and rain that nourish their crops, yet God still shines and showers His undeserved favor on them.
That same grace has also always been available in the salvation God offers to sinners. David, who lived under the old covenant, wrote about “the blessing on the man to whom God [graciously] credits righteousness apart from works” (Rom. 4:6):
Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account (Rom. 4:7-8; Psalm 32:1-2).
Anyone who has experienced that kind of unmerited favor can sing with millions of others, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!” Of course, if sinners are going to be forgiven, it is going to require grace. To think that sinners can earn their salvation is like thinking that dead people can compete in the Olympics.
Is Grace Always Unconditional?
In order to emphasize the graciousness of God’s grace, it is sometimes referred to in Christian circles as “the unconditional grace of God.” It must be unconditional, many think, or else it would not be unmerited.
That, however, is simply not true. There is such a thing as conditional grace. Case in point: You are pulled over by a police officer for speeding. He says to you, “You were exceeding the speed limit by 20 miles per hour. Instead of giving you a $300 ticket as you deserve, however, I’m going to show you grace and give you just a warning.”
No one would argue that grace wasn’t the entire reason you are not $300 poorer. No one could intelligently claim that you earned it.
The fact is, however, if the police officer’s grace had been “unconditional,” he would not have given you a warning. His warning, however, indicates that his grace is conditional. If you don’t believe that, when he allows you to return to the highway, spin your tires and accelerate as fast as you can to 90 miles per hour! You will soon understand how grace can be conditional!
Grace can overlook someone’s past but might not overlook their future. In fact, all grace is given in the hope that less grace will be necessary in the future. I’d be willing to bet that is your hope on any occasion when you’ve extended grace to others.
Scripture repeatedly speaks of the conditionality of God’s grace. It repeatedly declares that He “gives grace to the humble” (Jas. 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:5). Another way of saying that is, “He gives grace to those who meet His condition of humility.”
Isaiah, among others, prophesied of God’s conditional grace:
Seek the Lord while He may be found;
Call upon Him while He is near.
Let the wicked forsake his way
And the unrighteous man his thoughts;
And let him return to the Lord,
And He will have compassion on him,
And to our God,
For He will abundantly pardon.
In order to experience God’s compassionate pardon, the wicked person must “forsake his way” and “return to the Lord” within a limited time frame—“while He may be found.” That is conditional grace. No one who reads that passage would conclude that divine pardons are unconditional. Neither would they conclude that divine pardons are earned. God only required repentance. At the moment of repentance, a total pardon, completely undeserved, was granted.
A biblical illustration of conditional grace is found in the well-known story of the woman who was caught in the act of adultery. As her accusers shamefully dropped their stones and slinked away, Jesus said to her, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more” (John 8:11).
Indisputably, the adulterous woman was granted unmerited favor. According to the Mosaic Law, she deserved to be stoned. Instead of stoning her, however, Jesus granted her grace, letting her live. But was His grace a license to return to her adultery? Apparently not, as revealed by His command to her, “From now on sin no more.” He granted her grace and called her to repentance.
That biblical story illustrates the fallacy of those who claim that any future expectation of holiness on God’s part nullifies grace. Jesus’ grace overlooked the adulterous woman’s past sins, but it wasn’t a guarantee that He would overlook her future sins. That is the most logical reason why He warned her to “sin no more.” The apostle Paul warned that no unrepentant adulterer will inherit God’s kingdom (see 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Eph. 5:1-3). That being so, the grace that Jesus granted the adulterous woman was a temporary opportunity to repent so that she ultimately would not be condemned.
Think about it: If God was offering “unconditional grace” to the world, everyone would be saved and on the way to heaven, with no possibility of that ever changing. But anyone who has ever preached the biblical gospel—offering salvation to sinners who repent and believe in Jesus—has preached a conditional salvation, and thus a conditional grace. To benefit from the salvation and grace God offers, people have to repent and believe. Those are conditions. So, it is indisputable that God is offering the world a conditional grace. It is so simple a child could understand it. (Yet many so-called ministers don’t!)
A Closer Look at the Conditions
According to the New Testament, the only conditions for salvation are repentance and faith (Mark 1:15; Acts 19:4; 20:21; Heb. 6:1). Of course, those two conditions can actually be reduced to one condition—to believe—as anyone who truly believes in the Lord Jesus Christ will also turn from sin. (It is also true that anyone who repents after hearing the gospel also believes.)
So, are the biblical conditions of repentance and faith temporary or perpetual? That is, does God require those who meet His conditions to continue to meet them in order to continue to enjoy the benefits of His grace? If they return to their former sinful lifestyle (I am not referring to occasionally stumbling into sin), or return to their former unbelief, do they lose the benefits they formerly gained? Or is repenting and believing in Jesus for just a day sufficient to permanently guarantee salvation? If you say “yes” (as many pastors and teachers actually do), then it would stand to reason that an hour, a minute, or even just a second of repentance and faith would be sufficient to permanently guarantee salvation.
Both logic and Scripture agree, however, that God requires more than one second, or one week, of repentance and faith. Jesus promised that the person who believes (John 3:16, 6:47) has eternal life, not the person who believed. And that is precisely why the apostle Paul wrote:
He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach—if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel (Col. 1:22-23, emphasis added).
And that is why the author of Hebrews wrote:
For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end (Heb. 3:14, emphasis added; see also Acts 14:22; 1 Tim. 1:18-20; 1 Tim. 4:7; Rev. 14:12).
To claim that Jesus does not require continuing faith in Him is to claim that He would welcome people into heaven who died without faith in Him.
Similarly, the gospel’s requirement of repentance (the “obedience of faith”; see Rom. 1:5; 16:26) is perpetual, which is why the New Testament repeatedly affirms the necessity of holiness for ultimate salvation.
For example, we are told in Hebrews:
Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification [many Bible versions say “holiness”] without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14, emphasis added).
Jesus similarly warned,
Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21; emphasis added).
Paul, the apostle who declared that we are “saved by grace through faith and not because of works”, warned the Corinthian Christians that “the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9). Then he specifically listed some examples of unrighteous people. He included “fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, the effeminate, homosexuals, thieves, the covetous, drunkards, revilers and swindlers” (1 Cor. 6:9-10). He also warned the Galatian believers that those who practice “immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these…will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:19-21).
The only way that hyper-grace and semi-hyper-grace teachers have found a way to twist the obvious meaning of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and Galatians 5:19:21 is to claim that “not inheriting the kingdom of God” does not refer to ultimate salvation, but to enjoying some earthly blessings. The trouble is, that is not only a forced and awkward interpretation, it also contradicts how Paul used the identical phrase elsewhere:
Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality (1 Cor. 15:50-53; emphasis added).
Clearly, in Paul’s mind, “inheriting the kingdom of God” referred to ultimate salvation.
Not only Paul, but Jesus as well, used the phrase “inherit the kingdom” within an unmistakable reference to ultimate salvation:
But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right, “Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…. Then He will also say to those on His left, “Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels… These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life (Matt. 25:31-34, 41, 46 ,emphasis added).
In light of the scriptures we’ve just considered, it is patently dishonest to claim Paul’s warning that the unrighteous “will not inherit God’s kingdom” is nothing more than a little caution of missing out on some earthly blessings.
And all of this is to say that the salvation requirement of repentance is perpetual.
Of course, repentance does not imply sinless perfection, nor does it preclude the possibility of the need for repeated additional repentance. James wrote, “We all stumble in many ways” (Jas. 3:2). Still:
By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him (1 John 2:3-4).
A Hyper-Grace Teachers’ Common Objection
“But you are adding works to what is required for salvation, and salvation is all by grace!” will be the impassioned objection of hyper-grace and semi-hyper-grace teachers. “Paul wrote, ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast’!”
Indeed, those are Paul’s words. But please note he wrote that we are saved not just “by grace” but also “through faith.” Those two things cannot be contradictory. Both grace and faith are necessary for salvation. Faith is the condition for God’s saving grace to be effectual. And faith in Jesus is always evidenced by obedience to His commandments, which is why new believers—true new believers—repent. Paul declared that the goal of his ministry was to “bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles” (Rom. 1:5). Similarly, James warned that faith without works is dead, useless and cannot save (see Jas. 2:14-26).
Moreover, directly after Paul wrote Ephesians 2:8-9, he then penned verse 10: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph. 2:10, emphasis added).
As born-again new creations who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit (more indication of God’s grace in salvation), we strive to please God by our obedience and good works. We are “created in Christ Jesus for good works.” That was God’s purpose! So if there are no “good works,” it is safe to assume that neither is there saving faith.
But there is more. Paul wrote a few chapters later to the Ephesian believers:
But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience (Eph. 5:3-6).
There is that phrase again about “inheriting the kingdom of God,” a reference to ultimate salvation.
Paul solemnly warned that no immoral, impure, or covetous person will be ultimately saved. And yet just minutes earlier, he wrote, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). Ephesians 2:8-9 and Ephesians 5:3-6 cannot contradict each other. If they seem contradictory to you, you must find a way to reconcile them.
And the only way to do that is by acknowledging that God’s grace is clearly not unconditional, but conditional—just as in my previous example of a policeman who might extend conditional grace by not giving you a speeding ticket you deserve. He expects that you will do better in the future, but if he catches you speeding tomorrow, he will likely not be so gracious. Similarly, when God forgives us and gives us the Holy Spirit, He hopes that we “will not receive His grace in vain” (see 1 Cor. 6:1). He hopes that we will “continue in the faith” (Col. 1:23). He hopes that we will remain ready, and not ultimately be caught without sufficient oil in our lamps (see Matt. 25:1-13). He hopes that we will not, as His servants, “bury our talent” (see Matt. 25:14-29). He hopes we will ultimately prove ourselves to be sheep and not goats (Matt. 25:31-46). All those warnings found in the parables of Matthew 25 were spoken by Jesus to His closest followers.
Another Hyper-Grace Objection
Hyper-grace teachers often point to the fact that Scripture declares that salvation is a gift, which it is, of course (John 4:10; Rom. 3:24; 6:23). If it is a gift, they say, then there cannot be any conditions attached to it. But is that true?
First, every gift is coupled with an initial condition of acceptance. If you receive a gift of $10,000 by means of an inheritance, you must physically accept the check, and not reject it. And then you must deposit it in your bank. Do those “works” nullify the fact that your $10,000 inheritance was a gift?
Second, someone could give you a gift, that is, something you didn’t earn, and attach future conditions for keeping the gift. A parent could give his child the gift of a bicycle for his birthday, but could then say to his child, “Stay in the driveway. If I catch you in the street, I’ll take back your bicycle until you learn to obey me.” Those conditions don’t make that bicycle any less of a gift.
Similarly, God could say, “Here’s the gift of forgiveness, but if you continue in your sin, I’ll take My gift back.” And that, essentially, is what He has said repeatedly in the Bible. Here’s just one of many relevant scriptures:
For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? (Heb. 10:26-29, emphasis added).
Please note that there is abundant proof throughout the book of Hebrews that the author was writing to Jewish-background Christians, and not to Jews who were considering becoming Christians, as most who believe in unconditional eternal security claim. One of those proofs is found in this very passage, which is why I italicized the words “by which he was sanctified.” Only believers are sanctified. And we just read in Hebrews 10 that it is possible for sanctified people to “trample under foot the Son of God, and regard as unclean the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified.” Such a sin “insults the Spirit of grace.” (If God’s grace was “unconditional,” by the way, it could not be “insulted.”)
Clearly, once again, God’s grace does not cover those who return to their former unbelief and disobedient lifestyle. God’s grace does not cover the believer who “goes on sinning willfully after receiving [not just hearing] the knowledge of the truth.” There is no sacrifice provided to atone for that according to what we just read. There is only a “terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries.”
Of course, there is a vast difference between a Christian who is tempted, resists, but falls, then experiences remorse and asks for forgiveness, and a Christian who dives back into his former sinful lifestyle, abandoning his former faith. The former always finds grace; while the latter only finds it if he or she turns back in repentance and faith.
Yet Another Hyper-Grace Objection
“But,” hyper-grace teachers point out, “Paul wrote, ‘But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace'” (Rom. 11:6). So, they claim there can’t be any requirement of “works” if salvation is by grace.
First, note that Paul is talking about the “basis” of salvation. The basis of salvation cannot be by grace if it is earned by works. That is simple to understand. But that doesn’t mean there cannot be some conditions for God’s grace to be effectual (as there are), or some conditions to keep that grace effectual (as there are). Conditional grace is still grace. To put God’s conditional grace into perspective in our salvation, it is like a parent saying to his child, “Although you murdered your two sisters, burned our house to the ground, and have been a violent rebel since your birth, I am going to deposit a million dollars into your bank account, a sum that took me my entire lifetime to earn, and is everything I have. But before I give it to you, you must give me your knife. And I expect better behavior from now on, otherwise I’ll take my money back.” Who would claim that the million-dollar gift was earned, and did not stem from the parent’s grace? And who would claim that the parent’s conditions nullified the fact that the money was a very gracious gift? Neither do the conditions of repentance and faith nullify the fact that salvation is a gracious gift.
Second, what Paul wrote in Romans 11:6 cannot contradict anything else he wrote in Romans, or in any of his other letters for that matter. Take a look at what Paul wrote, for example, in Romans 2:
But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to each person according to his deeds; to those who by perseverance in doing good [sounds like “works”] seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Rom. 2:5-10, emphasis added).
Thank God it is impossible to twist that passage by claiming it has no relationship to salvation. Paul plainly declared that those who “do evil” will suffer wrath, indignation, tribulation and distress. Sounds like hell. Those who “do good,” however, will enjoy “eternal life.” If your interpretation of Romans 11:6 contradicts Romans 2:5-10, your interpretation is wrong. Sinners must repent to be saved, and ongoing obedience, the subsequent expression of faith, is also required. Praise God for His grace that gives us the opportunity to believe, repent and obey!
For other passages in Romans that contradict the hyper-grace interpretation of Romans 11:6, see Rom. 1:5; 6:1-23; 8:1-14; 11:16-22; 25:25-26.
The Twisting of Galatians
Although there are numerous reasons why the Bible is misinterpreted, ignoring context is certainly one of the primary ones. To rightly understand any individual Bible verse, it must be considered within the context of the surrounding verses, the book in which it is found, and the entire Bible. Relevant historical and cultural context should also be considered.
When context is ignored, the Bible can be made to say just about anything, and it has. When the basic message of the gospel is twisted, for example, that is tragic, because a false gospel results in false conversions and false Christians. In the end, people who were certain they were on the road to heaven are cast into hell.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians certainly contains information relevant to the gospel, as he wrote it to correct a false understanding about the gospel that had crept into the Galatian church. Yet perhaps no other New Testament book has itself been more misinterpreted, and the reason is because context is ignored. When modern teachers cherry-pick verses from Galatians, the end result can be a gross misinterpretation—one that actually contradicts Paul’s intended message. In tragic irony, words Paul wrote to correct a perversion of the gospel are used to pervert the gospel.
How was the gospel being perverted in the Galatian church? Our first clue is found in the second full sentence of Paul’s letter:
I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ (Gal. 1:6).
Several facts are brought to light in that sentence.
First, Paul declared that the Galatians were “deserting” God. Obviously, that was no small thing.
How were they deserting Him? By adopting a “different,” “distorted” gospel, introduced by some “disturbers” in their midst.
Hyper-grace preachers often reference what we just read in Galatians 1:6 as they try to persuade people to embrace their perverted view of God’s grace. They boldly claim that anyone who isn’t preaching their gospel is “preaching a different gospel.” (Which is actually true!) Then they move on to Galatians 2:15-16:
We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles; nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we [Jews] have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified (Gal. 2:15-16).
Here hyper-grace preachers point out that justification is not by “works of the Law” but by faith. So, if you think you have to attain or maintain any standard of holiness to be justified, you have been deceived, they say. You are trying to earn your salvation.
Then they move through other passages in Galatians:
I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly (Gal. 2:21).
Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, “The righteous man shall live by faith.” However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, “He who practices them shall live by them” (Gal. 3:11-12).
For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe (Gal. 3:21-22).
It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery…. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace (Gal. 5:1, 4).
For some reason, however, they never get around to Galatians 5:16-21:
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. [There’s that phrase again, “will not inherit the kingdom of God.”]
No one can claim that this entire passage was not written to believers. All believers universally experience that battle between the Spirit and the flesh. If they yield to the flesh, they will commit the “deeds of the flesh,” many of which Paul lists. And he solemnly warns his Christian readers that if they do, they “will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Of course, just about any sin any Christian commits can be forgiven through humble confession.)
Paul’s words in Galatians 5 cannot contradict anything else he wrote to the Galatians. All of it is true and inspired by the Holy Spirit. So, if it seems to you that what Paul wrote in Galatians 5:16-21 contradicts other passages in Galatians, you are misinterpreting Galatians. If you interpret any passage in Galatians to mean, “Holiness has nothing to do with salvation,” you’ve interpreted it wrongly.
So let us endeavor to rightly interpret Paul’s words by first examining what the problem was in Galatia. Was Paul concerned that the Galatian Christians believed that holiness had something to do with salvation, and so they needed correction? Obviously not, since Paul believed that holiness has something to do with salvation (as Galatians 5:16-21 reveals). So what, specifically, was the distortion of the gospel in Galatia that so concerned Paul?
The Same Problem in Antioch
It is helpful to know that the distortion of the gospel in Galatia was not unique to Galatia. We read in the book of Acts that it cropped up in Antioch among the church there that consisted of many Gentiles who had believed in Christ:
Some men came down from Judea [to Antioch] and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue…. When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses” (Acts 15:1-2, 4-5).
Take note that the disturbing teachers (often referred to by Bible teachers as “Judaizers”) who came from Judea to Antioch were telling the Gentile believers that, unless they were circumcised according to the Mosaic Law, they “could not be saved,” which was equivalent to telling them that they really were not saved yet. Beyond that, the “Pharisees who had believed” in Jerusalem added that Gentiles must not only be circumcised to be saved, but that they must begin keeping the entire Law of Moses.
Paul and Barnabas never agreed with them, and neither did the Jerusalem apostles and elders. The Jerusalem council concluded that Gentile believers did not need to be circumcised or keep the Mosaic Law to be saved, and they jointly penned a letter to the believers in Antioch to inform them of their decision.
It is important to note, however, not only what the issue was about, but also what it was not about.
It was not about Jewish believers being circumcised or keeping the Mosaic Law. For as many as the first ten years after Pentecost, the church consisted only of Jews. The large majority, if not all, of those Jewish Christians continued to follow the Mosaic Law. They would all have circumcised their male children when they were eight days old. We learn from Acts 10:9-16 that Peter was still keeping the Mosaic dietary laws seven to ten years after Jesus’ death. We also read near the end of Acts that there were “thousands” of Jewish-background Christians in Jerusalem who were “zealous for the Law” (Acts 21:20), and there is no indication that the Jerusalem leadership was attempting to do anything to change that (see Acts 21:17-26). When they discussed that situation with Paul, they didn’t make any negative comment about the Law-following Jewish Christians. Yet they did mention their solidarity with the decision of the historic Jerusalem council regarding Gentile believers and circumcision.
Again, this is important to see. So, the question might be asked, If it was perfectly OK for Jewish Christians (who were already circumcised) to keep the Mosaic Law (including circumcising their eight-day-old children), why would it be wrong for Gentile Christians to be circumcised and keep the Mosaic Law? And here is the answer: In Galatia and Antioch, uncircumcised Gentiles who believed in Jesus and who were thus born again were being persuaded that they actually were not saved, and that to be saved, they had to be circumcised and start keeping the Mosaic Law. It was equivalent to believing that salvation is not graciously granted to sinners who believe in Jesus Christ, but is earned by being circumcised and keeping the Mosaic Law. It was adopting a “different gospel.” It was transferring faith in Jesus and the grace He offers to faith in one’s own works.
This is buttressed by the fact that Paul, who authored the book of Galatians and who participated in the Acts 15 Jerusalem council, once circumcised an uncircumcised Gentile man, and he even did it after the Jerusalem council:
Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. And a disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek, and he was well spoken of by the brethren who were in Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted this man to go with him; and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those parts, for they all knew that his father was a Greek (Acts 16:1-3).
Although Timothy’s mother was Jewish, his father was a Gentile, and he had never been circumcised. Paul circumcised him, not because he believed that circumcision was necessary for salvation (Timothy was already born again), but so as not to cause any hindrance to the gospel among the Jews to whom Timothy would be preaching along with Paul.
Yet the very same Paul who circumcised Timothy wrote to the Galatians, “If you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you” (Gal 5:2)! Why wasn’t that also true for Timothy? What was the difference between Gentile Timothy being circumcised and the Gentile Galatians being circumcised?
The difference was their motive for being circumcised. The Galatian Christians were submitting to circumcision because they had been persuaded that they actually were not saved, and thus salvation was not granted by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, but was earned through circumcision and keeping the Mosaic Law. In contrast, Timothy submitted to circumcision, not as the means to salvation, but as a means to not hinder Jews from salvation.
Becoming All Things to All Men
Paul’s circumcision of Timothy was in keeping with his practice of “becoming all things to all men” in order to win as many as possible to Christ:
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the [Mosaic] Law [the Jews], as under the [Mosaic] Law though not being myself under the [Mosaic] Law, so that I might win those [the Jews] who are under the [Mosaic] Law; to those who are without law [the Gentiles], as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ [all that Christ commanded], so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some (1 Cor. 9:19-22).
At times, when he was among Jews, Paul kept the Mosaic Law, so as not to erect a barrier to the gospel. We can read a specific example of him doing that in Acts 21:17-26. So why did he try to persuade the Galatian believers to not be circumcised and begin keeping the Mosaic Law?
The answer, again, came down to their motives for keeping the Mosaic Law. If the Gentile Galatian believers had been getting circumcised for the same reason that Paul circumcised Timothy, Paul would have rejoiced. But that was not their reason for getting circumcised and keeping the Mosaic Law. They were doing those things to be saved, so what they were doing was denial of the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ!
Here is my point: The legalist who says that salvation is earned is wrong. That is what was happening in Galatia. That is what Paul was correcting.
The one who says that salvation is granted by a conditional grace from God, given only to those who believe and continue to believe in Jesus, so they therefore continually strive to obey Him, is correct. That is not what Paul was correcting in his letter to the Galatians, because that is what he himself believed.
The hyper-grace teachers who say that salvation is by means of a grace that makes one’s future behavior irrelevant are not preaching the same gospel as Paul. They are preaching a “different gospel,” a perverse gospel, one that Paul would have considered heretical if we can trust his words in Galatians 5.
And if we take Jesus at His Word, He also considers such teaching to be heretical. He made many relevant declarations to that end, and one could practically write a book about it. But here is just one relevant declaration I’ve already mentioned:
Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven (Matt. 7:21).
How much clearer could it be? And the entire Sermon on the Mount in which those words are found, repeatedly, from start to finish, affirms that there is a connection between heaven and holiness.
Tragically, hyper-grace teachers, and even some semi-hyper grace teachers, make the claim that anything Jesus said during His earthly ministry that seems “merit-based” has no application to new covenant Christians under grace, because Jesus ministered to Jews under the Mosaic Law. Such a teaching demonstrates that hyper-grace teachers not only don’t understand new covenant salvation, they also don’t understand old covenant salvation. Under the old covenant, just like the new covenant, salvation was only possible by grace through faith (see Rom. 4:1-12) because no one perfectly kept the Law. Sinners need grace to be saved. So Jesus’ “merit-based” statements to Jews under the Mosaic Law were not words to people whom He thought could earn their salvation until the time when He would die and be resurrected. They were words to sinners to whom He was offering salvation by grace through a faith, but not a temporary or phony faith, but a continuing faith expressed through obedience. It’s so simple, only a theologian could misunderstand it.
Paul’s Final Galatian Confirmation
Contained in Paul’s concluding words to the Galatians is another passage that exposes how wrong hyper-grace teachers are in their interpretation of his words. It’s a passage that should serve as a warning to every hyper-grace teacher:
Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary (Gal. 6:7-9, emphasis added).
As Paul described a minute earlier in chapter 5 (which we just read), every Christian faces a battle between the Spirit and the flesh. He declared that those who live lives yielded to their flesh consequently practice the “deeds of the flesh,” and they consequently “will not inherit God’s kingdom.” Paul says the same thing a different way in this passage. We can either “sow to our flesh” or “sow to the Spirit.” The former will “reap corruption,” while the latter will “reap eternal life.” Obviously, the one who “reaps corruption” will not “reap eternal life.” Regardless, sowing to the Spirit, that is, “doing good,” is something we must do to reap eternal life. And we must continue sowing, as Paul wrote, “for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary.”
We should not be surprised that Paul made a similar statement elsewhere:
So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God (Rom. 8:12-14, emphasis added).
I italicized the words “brethren” and “we” so you could not miss that Paul was writing to Christians. Paul warned Christians that if they were “living according to the flesh” they would “die.” If, however, they were “putting to death the deeds of the body” they would “live.”
Everyone who teaches that it is impossible for Christians to forfeit their salvation by how they live makes the claim that Paul was warning in this passage, not of spiritual death, but of physical death. But the fallacy of that is exposed in Paul’s promise to those Christians who were “putting to death the deeds of the body” that they will live. If physical death is what Paul had in mind in his warning, then physical life is what he had in mind in his promise. So, was Paul promising Christians who were “putting to death the deeds of the body” that they would never die physically? Obviously not.
2,000 years of history show us that all Christians die physically. Were all of them “living according to the flesh”?
All of this is to say, Christians who don’t “by the Spirit of God put to death the deeds of the body” but who live “according to the flesh,” have no true assurance of eternal life. If they think they do, their “assurance” is a deception.
I should add that the many passages like these in the New Testament epistles remind us of the blessed fact that Christians are not “on their own” regarding their struggle against sin. They have the power of the indwelling Spirit. Still, it is each believer’s responsibility to yield to the Spirit. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16).
None of the early apostles advocated the kind of grace being promoted today by hyper-grace teachers, or for that matter, by semi-hyper-grace teachers, the latter of whom exist by the tens of thousands within modern Evangelical Christianity. On the contrary, the apostles relentlessly refuted any notion of a grace that offered a license to sin. Jude solemnly penned:
Certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ (Jude 4).
I think it is safe to assume that, had those “ungodly persons” been publicly teaching, “We deny Jesus Christ,” they could not have “crept in unnoticed.” No, their teaching was the subtle introduction of a perverted grace that led naïve Christians to think that holiness was not important, and so that teaching gave them license to indulge in sin. By that, the heretics effectively denied Jesus Christ.
And did you notice that Jude said they denied, not “Jesus Christ,” but denied “our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ”? If the grace you promote gives license to sin, you are denying Christ, the Master and Lord. That sounds pretty serious, particularly in light of Jesus’ words, “But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 10:33). Hyper-grace teachers should take note.
The true grace of God, according to Paul, is a temporary opportunity to turn from what will otherwise pull us into hell. It is a temporary opportunity to be forgiven, receive the indwelling Holy Spirit, and begin a new life of devotion to our new Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, before whom all of us must one day stand and give an account for what He entrusted to us. Paul wrote of that grace:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds (Tit. 2:11-14, emphasis added).
God’s grace does not give us a license to sin. Just the opposite. His grace gives us an opportunity to repent of sin and be forgiven of a lifetime of sins, and it empowers us to live righteously if we want to. That is salvation “by grace through faith.”
Note that the very next verse says:
These things speak and exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one disregard you (Tit. 2:15).
And that is what I have tried to do. I could go on with many more relevant scriptures, but hopefully this will be a sufficient foundation on which you can build. For a more in-depth study, see my book, The Great Gospel Deception. — David