(Gal. 5:21) Will sinners not “inherit the kingdom of God”?

CLAIM: Some interpreters argue that Christians with these sins will not be forgiven, and they will not go to heaven. After all, Paul wrote, “The deeds of the flesh are evident… those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:19-21). Is this the case?

RESPONSE: Paul cannot be saying that Christians do not struggle with sin. In verse 17, he writes, “For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.” Moreover, in Romans 7:14ff, Paul describes his own personal struggle with sin.

OPTION #1. Paul could be arguing that those who live for sin demonstrate that they are not true believers

If someone was engaging in these things, we would probably wonder if these people really were ever Christians in the first place. In other words, those without an identity in Christ live this way. In 2 Corinthians 13:5, Paul writes, “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?” Fung notes that the term “practice” is the “the participle prassontes [that] denotes not an occasional lapse but habitual behavior.”[1] If someone is in a habitual lifestyle of sin, it is an appropriate question if they are even a believer. Many commentators adopt this view:

John Stott: “Such works give evidence that they are not in Christ.”[2]

Walter Hansen: “Those whose lives are characterized only by the expressions of the sinful nature demonstrate that they have not been born by the power of the Spirit.”[3]

R. Alan Cole: “Paul’s whole point is that those who do such things thereby show themselves to be without the transforming gift of faith which leads to the gift of the promised Spirit, which, in turn, leads to the fruits of the Spirit, the seal of our inheritance.”[4] He argues that this could be rendered “will never prove to be heirs.”[5]

James Montgomery Boice: “The point is that those who keep on living in the flesh give evidence that they are not Abraham’s seed and therefore will not inherit salvation.”[6]

OPTION #2. Paul could be arguing that these are BELIEVERS, but not INHERITORS of the kingdom

Robert Wilkins sees a difference between inheriting the kingdom, and getting into the kingdom: “Inheriting the kingdom refers to ruling with Christ in His kingdom, not to getting into the kingdom.”[7] Under this view, believers who live in sin will lose eternal rewards, but they will not lose eternal life.

The difficulty with this view is that Paul seems to equate being a son with being an inheritor of the kingdom (Gal. 3:29; 4:7; Eph. 1:11, 14). On the other hand, the NT may distinguish eternal life from eternal rewards, when it refers to gaining an “inheritance” (Acts 26:18; Col. 3:24; Heb. 12:17).

OPTION #3. Paul could be referring to non-Christians, who are headed toward judgment

Notice that Paul switches his pronouns from “you” (believers) to “those” (non-believers). This could be similar to Paul’s argument in Ephesians 5:5-6 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. That is, why would you live like people who are destined for judgment?

For further reading, see our earlier article “Eternal Security.”

[1] Fung, R. Y. K. (1988). The Epistle to the Galatians (p. 261). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[2] Stott, J. R. W. (1986). The message of Galatians: Only one way (p. 148). Leicester, England; Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[3] Hansen, G. W. (1994). Galatians (Ga 5:19). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[4] Cole, R. A. (1989). Galatians: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 9, p. 218). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[5] Cole, R. A. (1989). Galatians: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 9, p. 218). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[6] Boice, J. M. (1976). Galatians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans through Galatians (Vol. 10, p. 497). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[7] Wilkin, R. N. (2010). The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians. In R. N. Wilkin (Ed.), The Grace New Testament Commentary (p. 850). Denton, TX: Grace Evangelical Society.