Don’t We Enter the Kingdom by Grace Through Faith?
In this passage Paul seems to contradict Eph 2:8-9, where he reminded the believers in Ephesus: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” But when speaking to the disciples in the region of Galatia he said, “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.” So which is it? Do we enter the kingdom by grace through faith or by grace through persecution?
Paul Was Talking about a Future Event, Not a Past Event with Eternal Significance
I imagine many of you are saying, “But in Eph 2:8-9 Paul wasn’t specifically talking about entering the kingdom. He was talking about having been saved, that is, having been given eternal life (2:5).” That is correct. In Acts 14 Paul is not reminding the new believers of Galatia that they had been born again through tribulation! He was linking future tribulation with future kingdom entrance. Of course, that still is a seeming problem since everlasting life is everlasting. All who simply believe in Jesus will one day enter the kingdom even if they shrink back from persecution. The solution is recognizing whom Paul was addressing.
Paul Is Speaking to Open Disciples of Jesus, Not to Secret Believers
Paul had already evangelized in the region of Galatia. He then returned to the cities of Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, “strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying, ‘We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.’”
Paul is speaking publicly to open disciples of Christ. They were unlike Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea whom John tells us were secret disciples of Jesus (John 19:38). Paul is exhorting the new believers in Galatia to continue in the faith in spite of coming tribulations. Clearly they couldn’t continue in the faith unless they were currently abiding in the faith. Equally clear is that continuance in the faith is not guaranteed. Paul is warning that believers may shrink back from openly following Christ.
If these new believers were unaware that persecution for their faith would come, they would be less likely to continue in the faith. That is, they would be less likely to continue walking openly in the faith.
Paul’s point is this: For the open disciple of Christ, tribulation will precede kingdom entrance.
Is this saying directly applicable to all church-age saints? In light of other NT texts, the answer is yes. See Phil 1:27-30; 2 Tim 2:11-13; 4:6-10; 1 Pet 4:13; 2 Pet 3:14-18.
We Should Warn Open Disciples that Tribulation Precedes Kingdom Entrance
While this passage isn’t a problem for the Free Grace position, it is a problem for any church that doesn’t teach it. As we can see, for Paul this is milk-of-the-Word truth which he taught to new believers.
As an old Campus Crusader, it’s my conviction that people, and not just young people, thrive on challenges. Christians do better if they are taught early and often that there will be opposition to the message the Lord Jesus has given us.
We need to urge believers to count the cost of following Christ. Are they prepared to suffer for following Christ?
I’ve been an open disciple of Jesus for 35 years and I’ve experienced much tribulation as a result. It hasn’t always been easy to follow Jesus. I don’t like suffering, but I pray that I never shrink back from following Christ for any reason.
Let’s continue in the faith, in spite of the tribulation that comes, that we might hear those great words from the lips of our Lord and Savior and soon returning Judge: “Well done, good servant” (Luke 19:17).