Thursday, November 1, 2012

Not Inheriting the Kingdom of God

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 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.  (Gal 5:19-21)

I listened to a message recently that equated inheritance in the kingdom of God with the fullness of Christian reward with the net effect that believers who practice such things will lose out and be saved "though as through fire" (1 Cor 3:15).*  While this thesis bolsters the doctrine of Eternal Security, it forces an unwarranted interpretation on the plain text.  In this section Paul is admonishing and exhorting the Galatian believers to "walk according to the Spirit."  For effect he intersperses warnings to not "bite and devour" or indulge in other sinful practices, which is a characteristic of those who will not inherit the kingdom (i.e., unbelievers).

The clarification can be found by examining the words used.  Paul writes that the fleshly characteristics are found among those who do them.  The Greek (πράσσοντες) can be translated this way, but
is the verb for habitual practice…, not ποιω for occasional doing.  The habit of these sins is proof that one is not in the Kingdom of God and will not inherit it.†
As a result there appears to be no possibility to confuse these practitioners of fleshly works with true believers, who are manifest by the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23) having crucified the flesh (Gal 5:24).  The early church had this understanding as well:
  • Irenaeus, Against Heresies, VI.3 – Wherefore also it comes to pass, that the “most perfect” among them addict themselves without fear to all those kinds of forbidden deeds of which the Scriptures assure us that “they who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”
  • Tertullian, Against Marcion, V.10 – Therefore, when exhorting them to cherish the hope of heaven, he says: “As we have borne the image of the earthy, so let us also bear the image of the heavenly,”—language which relates not to any condition of resurrection life, but to the rule of the present time.  He says, Let us bear, as a precept; not We shall bear, in the sense of a promise—wishing us to walk even as he himself was walking, and to put off the likeness of the earthly, that is, of the old man, in the works of the flesh.  For what are this next words?  “Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.”  He means the works of the flesh and blood, which, in his Epistle to the Galatians, deprive men of the kingdom of God.
  • Nemesianus of Thubunae, Seventh Council of Carthage – Therefore, whatsoever things all heretics and schismatics do are carnal, as the apostle says: “For the works of the flesh are manifest, which are, fornications, uncleannesses, incest, idolatries, witchcrafts, hatreds, contentions, jealousy, anger, divisions, heresies, and the like to these; concerning which have told you before, as I also foretell you now, that whoever do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”  And thus the apostle condemns, with all the wicked, those also who cause division, that is, schismatics and heretics.
  • John Chrysostom, Commentary on Galatians 5 – Answer me now, you who accuse your own flesh and suppose that this is said of it as of an enemy and adversary.  Let it be allowed that adultery and fornication proceed, as you assert, from the flesh; yet hatred, variance, emulations, strife, heresies, and witchcraft, these arise merely from a depraved moral choice.  And so it is with the others also, for how can they belong to the flesh?  You observe that he is not here speaking of the flesh, but of earthly thoughts, which trail upon the ground.  Wherefore also he alarms them by saying, that “they which practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”  If these things belonged to nature and not to a bad moral choice, his expression, “they practice,” is inappropriate, it should be, “they suffer.”  And why should they be cast out of the kingdom, for rewards and punishments relate not to what proceeds from nature but from choice?‡
What of Corinth?
Those who know their Bibles typically raise questions about the church in Corinth, since many of the above fleshly works were active in that church, causing no end of pain and work for Paul as he attempted to correct the errors.  Were those who engaged in them unbelievers?  Possibly, but the error in Corinth was a reckless misuse of spiritual things in the name of freedom, while the Galatians were being enticed to overly regulate or control that freedom.  Both groups were assuming their course demonstrated spiritual maturity, but both led away from the truth.  The problems in Corinth were specific in nature and could be addressed by pointed correction.  In Galatia, the foundation of their salvation was being undermined, so that Paul needed to make the broad comparison between flesh and Spirit.

In the end, Paul is not accusing the Galatians of practicing the works of flesh, though they may be certainly present in some occasional form, but building a case to broadly illustrate how they were trying to use the flesh to fulfill the work of the Spirit, denying Christ's sufficiency and placing ultimate completion of salvation on what I can accomplish—a hopeless endeavor.

*  I know of this interpretation having read The Reign of the Servant Kings by Joseph Dillow, Schoettle Publishing Company, Miami Springs, FL 33266.

† A. W. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament.

‡ A little background may be helpful.  Chrysostom is arguing against those who were teaching a dualism of of man's flesh and spirit.  He concludes that this is improper and whatever one claims for the origin of the sins in life, the practice of those prevents us from the kingdom.

No comments: