“Let’s take a look at Scripture.
Galatians 5:4 is a go-to text for Catholics when it comes to defending the belief that Christians can lose their salvation:
“You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.”
Notice that St. Paul says the Galatians were “severed from Christ” and that they have “fallen away from grace.” Both statements imply that the Galatians had been saved, since to be in Christ and in grace is to be free from condemnation (Rom. 8:1). Yet, these Galatians, who were looking to be justified by the Old Law, are no longer in Christ and in grace. As such, they are currently subject to condemnation, which means they lost that initial saving relationship they had with Christ.
For some Protestants, the Catholic take on Paul in Galatians 5:4 is based on a fundamentally flawed assumption. Basically, Catholics don’t understand what Paul is talking about here! They will say “Paul is not talking about a loss of salvation. He’s talking about a loss of sanctification.”
Protestant apologist Norman Geisler, in his book Four Views on Eternal Security, wrote, “they have not lost their true salvation but only their sanctification . . . they have fallen from grace as a means of living a sanctified (holy) life.”
Geisler gives two reasons for this claim. First, “they are already saved,” since they are called “brothers” (6:1) and have placed their “faith” in Christ (3:2). Second, Paul mentions only the threat of the “yoke of slavery” (5:1) and not eternal torment in hell.
How should a Catholic respond?
Our first response is directed toward the overall interpretation here. An immediate glaring problem is that it clashes with the plain sense of the text. Paul doesn’t say, “You who would seek to be sanctified by the law.” Rather, he says, “You who would seek to be justified by the law.” The Greek word for “justified” is dikaioō, the same word that Paul uses when he speaks of justification by faith in Romans 3:28, a text that all Protestants acknowledge refers to justification in the sight of the God.
Now we can turn our attention to the two points in support of Paul talking about sanctification. Galatians 5:4, the argument goes, can’t refer to salvation because “they are already saved,” since they are called “brothers” and have “faith” in Christ. The problem here is the assumption that “already being saved” (being a Christian) necessarily entails being eternally secure in that salvation.
The status of “already being saved” can just as easily be read within the Catholic framework of salvation. On the Catholic view, a believer is truly saved when he initially comes to faith in Christ and enters the body of Christ via baptism. Being a member of Christ’s mystical body constitutes all Christians as spiritual brothers and sisters. It’s just that on the Catholic view, the saving relationship with Christ that we initially enter through baptism can be lost by mortal sin.
Since the “already saved” status of the Galatians can fit within the Catholic framework, just as it can within an “eternally secure doctrine” framework, a Protestant can’t appeal to the Galatians’ “saved” status to counter the Catholic interpretation of Galatians 5:4.
What about the “yoke of slavery”? Why not hell? Well, Paul mentions the yoke (i.e., the Old Testament Law) several verses earlier, and after doing so, he says, “If you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you” (5:2). What advantage does Christ give us? Salvation! Therefore, Paul is saying that to go back to the Old Covenant—i.e., circumcision—is to cut oneself off from salvation. The reason is because Christ alone is our source of salvation (Acts 4:12). It is in this light that we must understand Paul when he says, “You have been severed from Christ” and “you have fallen away from grace.”
So, in fact, Paul does threaten the Galatians with damnation. As such, Paul teaches it’s possible for a Christian to lose salvation.”
Love & truth,