What Is the Anathema
of Galatians 1:8-9?
Are All Who Preach a False Gospel
by Bob Wilkin
But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.
Late last year at a meeting of Bible scholars I presented a critique of a book promoting Lordship Salvation. During the question and answer time afterwards I was asked a two-part question I have received many times before. The first part was this: "Do you believe that the author, someone who preaches what you consider to be a false gospel, is saved?" I replied, "Yes." Then the second part of the question: "How can you say he is saved if you believe he preaches a false gospel and Galatians 1:8-9 says that those who preach a false gospel are accursed?" This article is an expanded version of my response that day.
The New International Version (NIV) translates the Greek word anathema much differently than the KJV and the NKJV which have "let him be accursed." The NIV reads instead, "let him be eternally condemned."
That is a common misunderstanding. One paraphrase actually reads, "let him go to hell"!
Those who hold to Lordship Salvation normally understand anathema in Gal 1:8-9 in this way. Their view actually demands such an understanding. They say that only true believers escape eternal condemnation and that all true believers persevere in both sound doctrine and practice. Thus anyone who departs from a fundamental of the faith, of which the Gospel is surely a prime example, must necessarily not have true faith and must not be saved.
Somewhat surprisingly, I have found that Lordship Salvation teachers are reluctant to state what their view of Gal 1:8-9 indicates about the eternal state of Free Grace proponents. Of course, they are faced with a dilemma. If they say that they think we are errant brothers and sisters in Christ, then they deny their own view that all true believers persevere in sound doctrine. If, however, they say that we are unregenerate false teachers bound for hell, they go against the tolerant tone of our day and they risk alienating a significant segment of Christendom.
Imagine if a Lordship Salvation preacher came out and indicated that he believed that John Nelson Darby or Lewis Sperry Chafer were in hell. Imagine if they said that Charles Ryrie or Zane Hodges would soon join them there.
Occasionally Lordship Salvationists clearly imply as much. Dr. J. I. Packer wrote recently, "If I seem harsh in my critique of Hodges' redefinition of faith as barren intellectual formalism, you must remember that once I almost lost my soul through assuming what Hodges teaches, and a burned child always thereafter dreads the fire" ("Understanding the Lordship Controversy," Tabletalk, May 1991, p.9). Read that again and note that he says that he nearly lost his soul by believing what Zane Hodges teaches. (Earlier in the paragraph he indicated that for two years he believed he was eternally secure, yet lacked personal commitment to Christ and hence was in reality unsaved.) What does that say about Zane Hodges's eternal destiny according to Packer? Clearly he is accusing Zane—and all of us who believe the Free Grace message—of being unsaved!
Similarly, Dr. John Gerstner said as much when he wrote that Calvinism is "just another name for Christianity (Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth, p.107). Since his definition of Calvinism excludes those who hold the Free Grace view of the Gospel, he is indicating that we are unsaved.
There is, however, another way to view the anathema of Gal 1:8-9.
Under God's Judgment
A better rendering of the word anathema in Galatians 1 is: "let him be accursed" or "let him be under God's judgment." Either of those translations allows the English reader to decide for himself whether temporal or eternal judgment is in view.
That Paul was referring to temporal judgment in Gal 1:8-9 is indicated by the immediate context and supported by the use of the term anathema elsewhere in Scripture.
The word anathema is only used four times in the NT outside of this passage. In two of those passages, Acts 23:14 and 1 Cor 16:22, the understanding that temporal judgment is in view is suggested by the context. In addition, it is not even certain that either of the other two passages (Rom 9:3 and 1 Cor 12:3) refer to eternal condemnation (although the addition of the words "from Christ" after anathema in Rom 9:3 strongly suggests that eternal condemnation is in view there).
Similarly, anathema was routinely used in the Greek OT (the Septuagint) to refer to the temporal destruction and cursing of people and cities (e.g., Josh 6:17; 7:1-13ff.; 22:20; Judg 1:17; Zech 14:11). There are no clear examples of it being used in the OT to refer to eternal condemnation.
It is noteworthy that in the context of Gal 1:8-9 Paul included himself and the other apostles and even unfallen angels in the anathema: "even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you…" Paul may have been implying that it was remotely possible that even the apostles were capable of distorting the Gospel in some way. This seems a reasonable inference since in chapter two Paul points out that for a time the Apostles Peter and Barnabus were guilty of acting inconsistently with the Gospel (Gal 2:11-14ff.; especially note v 14 where Paul says that Peter and Barnabus "were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel")!
If apostles were capable of distorting the Gospel, surely all other believers are as well. This is born out by comparing verses 6 and 9 of Galatians 1. In the latter verse Paul clearly indicates that his readers had previously "received" the Gospel which Paul proclaimed to them. There can thus be no question but that Paul was writing to genuine believers. Yet in v 6 Paul rebukes them for "turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ to another gospel." Genuine believers are capable of being duped by false teachers. And, logically, once duped they will become false teachers themselves whenever they share their faith with others.
Paul's point is that if we learn of anyone preaching a false gospel, we should treat them like someone with a highly contagious deadly disease. We should stay away from them. Turn a deaf ear toward them. Avoid supporting them in any way. False teachers are carriers of a virus much worse than HIV. It is imperative that we separate ourselves from such people (cf. 2 John 10-11). Otherwise we are likely to become infected with their disease and to spread it to others.
According to their own testimony, MacArthur, Packer, and many other Lordship Salvation preachers once believed the Free Grace Gospel Thus my answer to the question about their spiritual condition is that it is possible for a Christian to fall under the curse of Gal 1:8-9. (Exactly when the effects of this curse will fall, and how they will be manifested, is not described by Paul.) The Free Grace position holds that it is sadly possible for saved people to distort the Gospel and suffer the temporal consequences that result from that.
I once saw a neat message on a church marquee. It read: "Avoid truth decay: Read your Bible every day." The believer who fails to read his or her Bible will likely find that truth decay has occurred as surely as the person who fails to brush and floss daily will discover tooth decay. We must be very careful to stay in God's Word. False teachers are a danger because they distort the clear meaning of Scripture and color our understanding of it.
Any of us could personally fall under the curse of Gal 1:8-9. I know that I do not feel immune to that possibility.
Galatians 1:8-9 thus contains two implicit warnings for believers: (1) Do not listen to or support those who distort the Gospel, and (2) Do not become such a person yourself (cf. Gal 1:6-7). If we fail to heed these warnings, then we become subject to the curse associated with them.
My prayer for each of you is that you will grow in your ability to communicate the Gospel clearly and that you will stand fast against those who would seek to win you over to a trust-plus view of the Gospel.