‘Inheriting the Kingdom’: A Theological-Exegetical Consideration of Galatians 5:21b, Salvation Maintained, Lost, or Never Present

Recently I heard reference in a sermon to Galatians 5:19-21, this passage:

penance16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness,self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (ESV)

Since I don’t have the space to do an exegetical analysis of this whole pericope (or unit of thought), I will focus on the last clause of verse 21, since that, indeed, is what I want to discuss in regard to the sermon that I heard just last Sunday, and how this was appealed to and applied. The following will be a brief exegetical consideration, and then a theological engagement with the implications of taking this clause a particular way.

The appeal, almost in passing, that I heard made to this clause (v. 21b), “… I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God …,” was troubling. If I were to give the pastor the benefit of the doubt I might conclude that he just passed through this too quickly without giving the necessary context for what he actually meant when he appealed to it. But since he indeed did move too quickly with this passage, and this clause about not inheriting the kingdom if there is sin in our life, let me take it the way, by implication, that it could have been taken in the way it was communicated. In other words, let me tease out the negative conclusion one might draw if they were to internalize and take to heart what this pastor said about the relationship of sin, and the inheriting of the kingdom have with each other. To be clear, the pastor claimed that if a person has continual sin (of the kind listed in Galatians 5:18-21a) in their life, that they will not inherit salvation. Left to itself, this pronouncement could be very troubling for the thoughtful and internalizing among us. Left to itself here is what this sentiment could sound like: The Christian Thinker: I have sin in my life that I struggle with daily, in fact I am sure that I have sin in my life that I am not even aware of because I am a born sinner, and if I have continual sin in my life and person, according to what the pastor just communicated I am not going to inherit eternal life, I am not saved, nor will I be saved in the future if Jesus comes back or I die in a moment of sin. I am hopelessly lost then, even as a Christian; I mean I have continual sin in my life, and it is constant, it is as if I move from one sin to the next.*

There seems to be, underlying the premise this pastor is working from, a doctrine of ‘perfectionism.’ In other words, if we logically play this out and reduce it to its conclusion, the sentiment pronounced by this pastor seems to require a level of perfectionism achieved in the Christian’s life. Or at least there seems to be a requirement on behalf of the would-be Christian to stay in a posture of movement toward God, driven by their own ‘will-power’ which ultimately is rewarded with eternal life (i.e. ‘inheriting the kingdom’). In fact what this pastor communicated sounds eerily close to the medieval Roman Catholic conception of salvation articulated by theologians such as Thomas Aquinas, William of Ockham, and Gregory Biel. Aquinas provides the traditional Roman Catholic conception of salvation; Steven Ozment gives a summary of Thomas’ view of salvation:

1. Gratuitous infusion of grace 2. Moral cooperation: doing the best one can with the aid of grace 3. Reward of eternal life as a just due[1]

And here is William of Ockham’s and Gregory Biel’s variation of the traditional “Thomist” Roman Catholic view of and order of salvation:

1. Moral effort: doing the best one can on the basis of natural ability 2. Infusion of grace as an appropriate reward

3. Moral cooperation: doing the best one can with the aid of grace 4. Reward of eternal life as a just due[2]

Left to itself, without further explanation, I think this pastor’s pronouncement on Galatians 5:21b sounds most closely related to Thomas Aquinas’ view on the order of salvation. Knowing the pastor I do not believe what he said would fit well with Ockham’s or Biel’s variation of Thomas’ order of salvation (Ockham and Biel would both be a full Pelagian understanding of salvation, while Thomas’ would just be semi-Pelagian). Nevertheless, there is a deep theological problem with this; it has to do with number 2, in particular, vis-à-vis Thomas’ view. The way this pastor articulated what he did, ‘sounds’ like the idea that the person must cooperate with God in maintaining their salvation; ultimately rewarded with ‘inheriting the kingdom’ or eternal life. But in what way can this actually be said to be biblical when tempered with the weightier reality of what we know of God’s grace (ironically we know of some of this from the epistle of Galatians itself!)? If we can cooperate with God in our salvation with the aid of grace, what does this say about our concept of grace (it makes it sound like a thing a ‘created thing’ that we can manipulate per our own desire to have eternal life)?

I am going to have to end this post here; I will follow it up later with a part two getting further into some theological consideration, and exegetical analysis. But I wanted to bookmark this topic as it is on my heart even now, since I believe this is a serious issue, and not something we ought to gloss over or throw the mystery card at (we have too much teaching for that, in both the history of interpretation and with straight exegesis).

*A caveat is usually made here, the caveat is: “I am just referring to someone who habitually remains in sin.” But I will contest that this caveat, left to itself is too easy, and in fact is a cop-out, at least without further explanation. If the person/pastor is going to make this caveat (and I am not just referring to the pastor in my post), then they need to flesh out what this habitual continuation in sin means. It is too subjective to make such an assertion without explaining if there are certain thresholds of habituation in sin that must be met before becoming disqualified for eternal life or what. There is also the question here of whether someone believes salvation can be ‘lost’, or would Paul be talking about someone who was never saved to begin with? Or is there another way to understand this list of the ‘flesh’ up against the list of the ‘fruit of the Spirit?’ I think there is, and I will attempt to show what that looks like exegetically in a following post.

[1] Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform 125-1550: An Intellectual And Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe (New Haven • London: Yale University Press, 1980), 233.

[2] Ibid., 234.