There are times in my routine Bible reading where a certain phrase or verse will stop me in my tracks. I may try and keep reading to get to the end of the chapter or passage, but my mind stays on that phrase.
This recently happened to me as I read through a chapter in the back half of Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia, where he is reminding the church of how they have been set free in Christ from the entanglement of sin and misbelief. The immediate context is addressing a situation where Jewish Christians had come to Galatia and were falsely spreading the fact that if someone wanted to be a true Christian, they would need to be circumcised. In their eyes, faith in Christ alone didn’t save, but rather faith + something else, which in this case was circumcision. This distorting of the gospel was eliminating the gospel all together, for it held the belief that something we do contributes to salvation as opposed to solely what Christ has done.
Anyway, I was humming along in my reading until I got to verse 7, and that’s where I came across the four words that stopped me:
“You were running well.”
Were. Past tense.
The full verse goes on to read, “You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?” I’ve read that verse before countless times, but I couldn’t shake it this time, indeed it haunted me. I know that is what the Holy Spirit does – he illuminates the ancient Word in such a way where it falls afresh on us (and I realize saying it “haunted me” may not be the best way to describe it).
But why? Why did it stop me this time? That’s what I wanted to know.
Here’s the truth that was illuminated before me on that day during a routine reading of Scripture: past faithfulness does not guarantee future delivery. The church leaders in the city of Galatia were running well, they were living by the truth of the gospel, they were faithful in their doctrine and lives, but not anymore. I don’t think there is a more frightening phrase we could hear. Were. Past tense.
What was it that changed? That is perhaps the most frightening part – it was something seemingly “small”. It was just a simple misbelief about the need for non-Jewish Christians to be circumcised (a sign of the old covenant amongst Israel), and that is all it took to completely derail a faithful life and a faithful church. One little lie, and it ruined it all. This is what Paul means in the following verses when he says, “This persuasion is not from him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump.” (Gal 7:8-9). Just a little leaven, just a small misbelief, and it spiraled everything.
Now let me put my cards on the table. I am of the theological persuasion that believes in “once saved, always saved”, meaning that once God transforms our hearts through the person and work of His Son, Jesus Christ, that salvation cannot be lost. Jesus himself said that “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10: 27-28). Therefore, I believe those in the church at Galatia that were led astray weren’t in danger of losing their faith, but rather were in danger of being exposed to have never been saved in the first place. Perhaps they had the right head knowledge at one point, but their beliefs and lives now are revealing that it never made it to the heart. Knowledge about Jesus doesn’t transform, faith in Jesus does. This is why Paul is so confused – because from his perspective, they were running well. It appeared they were on the right path, but now that is in question, and it was heartbreaking for him.
This is why Paul says elsewhere that we ought to regularly “examine ourselves to see if we’re in the faith” (2 Cor 3:15). For while once a person is saved, they are always saved, one of the means through which God equips his people to persevere is through the continual examination of themselves and others to ensure their beliefs and lives reflect the fruit of true salvation. We examine ourselves, and then we stare back at Christ, for true assurance comes as God’s Spirit testifies to our own that Jesus is the author and perfecter of our faith (Rom 8:16; Heb 12:2).
This gets personal for all of us, because we all have friends or family that have walked away from church and the faith. People whom, at one point, “were running well” and then for any number of reasons, dropped off and began to believe in something else that replaced the gospel message. As the church in Galatia shows, all it takes is one little addition or subtraction from the Gospel to destroy it altogether. This is a sobering reality we see all too often, and none of us should think too highly of ourselves to think it could never happen to us. So how can we defend against the drift? How can we ensure that our faith will not someday be referred to in the past tense?
Here are three quick lessons to learn and be strengthened by:
1) Never stop pursuing the Lord and being reminded of the Gospel. Salvation is not the end of the road in the Christian life, just like a wedding day is not the end of the road for a couple getting married. The simple, yet profound gospel message should regularly be in our ears and on our lips, that men and women are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone to God’s glory alone. This is why the gospel message is, in some way, presented in every sermon I preach, for it’s not just for unbelievers, but it’s for the regular reminder and sustaining grace for believers as well. Pursue the Lord daily, be reminded of the gospel often, and continuously fan the flame of affection for Christ in your life.
2) Be watchful of the things and beliefs that threaten to pull us away from faith in Jesus Christ alone. Beware of a little leaven that can ruin the whole batch – for the most dangerous false beliefs are the ones that are closest to the real truth of the Gospel. We are immersed in a culture that has anti-gospel convictions, and if we’re not careful, we can slowly drift back into beliefs that pull us away.
Further, what are morally neutral things that are not sinful in itself, but over time can pull us away from living out a faithful Christian life? Things like an obsession with sports, or a certain hobby, or a relationship that is not Christ-centered can and does threaten to pull us away from our focus on Christ a little bit at a time until, like a subtle riptide in the ocean, until we realize that we’ve drifted far from our source of hope and truth.
3) One of the primary means of grace that God uses for the perseverance of his people is other believers in their lives. This is the truth behind the charge in Hebrews 10: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (vv23-25).
Being under the accountability of elders, pastor, and fellow church members is a primary defense against drifting to a false belief or a double life. Following Jesus is hard, persevering in the faith is difficult, and we are not islands that are meant to figure this out on our own.
By God’s grace, on that Day when we all will stand before Him in judgment, we will not hear the past tense claim, “you were running well”, but rather, in Christ, we shall hear “well done, good and faithful servant.”
Run well, brothers and sisters, and let God receive all the glory for your perseverance.