Are Christians Saved by the Skin of Their Teeth?

More than once I’ve heard a preacher say that Christians are saved by the skin of their teeth. If you aren’t familiar with this expression, it does in fact come from the Bible. Job claims to have only escaped death “by the skin of [his] teeth”; it means he is surviving, “by the thinnest or barest of margins,” like a layer of plaque on a tooth (Job 19:20). The preachers I’ve heard though using this phrase in connection with Christians aren’t talking about salvation from physical death like Job was but instead are discussing the soul’s salvation from eternal separation from God. Typically, this comment comes after the preacher has emphasized just how bad sin and its effects are, just how sinful and imperfect we are, and just how much Jesus did and gave (and does and gives) to achieve our salvation. The idea conveyed is this: be thankful for your salvation because God was barely able to achieve it. The byproduct though is often for Christians to feel less than certain about their salvation.

The text often used to justify this thought is 1 Peter 4:18. 1 Peter 4:18 itself appears to be a quotation of Proverbs 11:31 taken from an ancient Greek translation called the Septuagint. The Hebrew text (and consequently our English translations) reads quite differently than the Septuagint and seems to point to the law of sowing and reaping in operation, as the NKJV reads, “on the earth,” rather than in eternity. Is it possible to see something physical and earthly rather than something spiritual in the way Peter uses this quotation? I believe there is.

Surrounding 1 Peter 4:18 is what I sometimes call a contextual sandwich. Before the text, Peter is discussing a “fiery trial which is to try you” (v. 12), an opportunity to “partake of Christ’s sufferings (v. 13), being “reproached” (v. 14), and having to “suffer” (vv. 15, 16). Likewise, after the text, Peter says, “Therefore let those who suffer” (1 Peter 4:19). Trials and suffering surround the citation from Proverbs, forming a sandwich of sorts that encapsulates the idea (i.e., a contextual sandwich).

The thing that often leads people to ignore the surrounding context is the word “judgment.” People see that word and immediately think of final judgment, when “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10). But is there any indication in Scripture that this judgment is sequential, beginning with “the house of God” and proceeding to the lost (1 Peter 4:17)? This sequence would imply a sorting prior to judgment, whereas Jesus describes judgment itself as a time of sorting, a time when “He will separate […] one from another” (Matthew 25:31-33). In fact, in another place, judgment is described as coming “first” to the unrighteous (represented by tares) before it comes to the righteous (represented by wheat) (Matthew 13:30, 40-43).

Divine judgment is a concept used in many contexts in Scripture and not all of these contexts are connected with the final judgment which will be rendered by Jesus at the end of time. The Psalmist states that God “caused judgment to be heard” and “arose to judgment,” speaking of a time already passed (Psalm 76:8-9). Isaiah saw the Lord standing “to judge the people” of his day before Jesus was even born (Isaiah 3:13-14). Other examples could be cited.

Reflecting upon the above information, could it be that instead of saying that Christians will be judged first when our Lord returns and that they’ll only barely scrape by into heaven, that Peter is describing a different, physical judgment? Peter’s letter frequently alludes to a coming period of trial; in fact, there are several mentions in the context as we’ve already said. I understand Peter to be saying the following: 1) A period of intense, physical trial is coming; 2) This period of trial will affect the church first; 3) The temporal church will barely survive this intense trial; 4) If the church, helped by God, barely survives, what will be the fate of those who are ungodly and sinners when this trial begins to affect them too? Compare this to John’s words to the church at Philadelphia: “Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth” (Revelation 3:10).

The proverbial nail in the coffin on a belief that Christians are only barely saved is how the Hebrews author describes our salvation: “Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25). The word translated “uttermost” is a compound word that can be broken apart into the words “all” and “complete.” It is understood by some to mean to the greatest or fullest degree (“uttermost” in NKJV, ESV or “completely” in CSB and NIV) and others to refer to time (“forever” in NASB). It’s not necessarily an either/or situation though. God both totally saves Christians and saves them forever.

While we must never take our salvation for granted as the “escaped” can be “again entangled” and lost (2 Peter 2:20-22), we weren’t meant to live believing our salvation stands on a knife’s edge or that our powerful God was only barely able to achieve it. To borrow from the hymn, “Praise God for full salvation for whosever will!”
-Patrick Swayne  
patrick@tftw.org

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