The 1689 London Baptist Confession states of eternal security: True believers “can neither totally nor finally fall from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved” (Ch. 17). Yet, Paul states in Galatians 5:4, You have fallen away from grace.” Can we fall from grace or not?
This dilemma sets the stage for a case study in “immediate context.” In previous articles, I have touched on canonical context, book context, and sectional context. Now, let us narrow the focus even more. What is the “immediate context?”
The immediate context investigates how individual paragraphs relate to the larger section. Biblical authors write in chains of thought. We are not permitted to break any link in the thought-chain. Rather, we follow each link, tracing the connection between them. A few connecting clues we can seek:
- Historical. There may be a connection of facts, events, or happenings.
- Theological. A doctrine may be dependent on some historical fact.
- Logical. A paragraph may be a sub-point within a larger argument.
- Psychological. A parenthetical “aside,” which Paul includes often.
Kaiser points to Exodus 6:14-27, which is within a larger section in which things weren’t going well for Moses. Pharaoh had increased the work-load of the Israelites. The LORD encourages Moses, promising him (once again) to deliver the people from Egyptian slavery. Exodus 6:14-27 follows, which appears—at first glance—to be a meaningless genealogy. A closer examination reveals much more (see #1 above, the historical clue). The paragraph immediately preceding it (Exodus 6:10-12) and the paragraph immediately following it (Exodus 6:28-30) repeat the same point: “Tell Pharaoh king of Egypt . . . But Moses said, ‘I am of uncircumcised lips.’” This repetition is important an important clue. Why? When we examine the genealogy, we find it mentions only 3 of Jacob’s 12 sons (Reuben, Simeon, and Levi). Moses and his brother, Aaron, both came from Levi, so why mention Reuben and Simeon at all? It must be because Reuben and Simeon were as imperfect as Moses. Reuben slept with his father’s concubine. Simeon attacked a village without permission after his sister was raped. Now, the genealogy takes on a new light. God gently is reminding Moses (and us) that Reuben and Simeon had faults just as Moses did. The point is not to look at the man, but to look beyond the man to the God Who uses anyone He pleases to accomplish His will: Even this (flawed) Moses and this (flawed) Aaron can accomplish His will! You won’t see that unless you investigate how immediate context fits into the larger section.
Galatians 5:4 is a simpler example. I was teaching in Paris, France when a student suggested a believer can lose his/her salvation. He appealed to Galatians 5:4, “You have fallen away from grace.” He had isolated that phrase from its immediate context, which led him into doctrinal error.
We patiently showed him the value of investigating the “immediate context.” From the beginning of the Galatians letter, Paul has been declaring salvation is by faith alone. Beginning in Galatians 5:2, he entertains a common objection (see #3 above, the logical clue). Namely, if someone says salvation comes by law-keeping (“circumcision,” verse 2), then they must keep every point of the OT Law to be saved. Otherwise, “you have fallen away from grace.” Paul presented a hypothetical impossibility to show how preposterous it is to suggest a true believer can lose his/her salvation. In fact, Paul is declaring the exact opposite: True believers cannot fall away from grace. The very idea is theologically and logically flawed.
Here’s the point he was missing. He had lifted a phrase and divorced it from its specific role in the section. His mistake was forgivable. We all make mistakes. But the tragedy of his mistake is he turned the whole letter on its head and made Paul’s words say the exact opposite of what Paul intended; and that doctrinal error leads to a false gospel, which was the very reason Paul wrote in the first place!
A Final Thought
How many other heresies have sprung from neglecting to investigate the immediate context? Too many, I’m afraid. Many are in hell today because someone forgot to look at the immediate context of God’s biblical writers. On the other hand, many are rejoicing in heaven today because others were diligent to do so. The importance of “immediate context” has eternal ramifications.
Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. Toward an Exegetical Theology (Baker Books, 1981), 83-84.