Falling From Grace - Part 1

Theme: The Crisis in Galatia

This week’s lessons teach us what the idea of falling from grace really means, and that the freedom of God’s grace in Christ produces a holy life.

Scripture: Galatians 5:4

In the fifth chapter of Galatians there is a reference to grace that has assumed an importance in some people's thinking far beyond the Apostle Paul's use of it and entirely out of keeping with his context. It is the phrase “fallen from grace.” Perhaps it came to your mind when I was writing about “standing in grace” last week.

The point of that study was that Christians have been given a new standing before God because of grace. They have been justified, and having been justified, nothing can remove them from it. But if that is true, how can Paul speak about falling from grace in Galatians? Doesn't that mean that a believer's salvation can be lost? I grew up in an evangelical church where people thought that way. They were afraid that they might lose their salvation. I remember a prayer meeting in which one of the women was crying about the behavior of her daughter. The daughter was a Christian, but she had been going to the movies, which this woman thought was sinful. “What if the Lord should return while my daughter is at a movie?” she asked. She believed that the daughter would not be taken to heaven. She would be lost. She was afraid that her daughter had “fallen from grace” and might perish.

The answer, of course, is that this is not what the phrase “fallen from grace” means. The words do not mean that if a Christian sins, he or she falls from grace and thereby loses salvation. There is a sense in which to fall into sin is to fall into grace, because God is gracious to us even when we sin. But to fall from grace is a different matter. To fall from grace is to fall into legalism, since to choose legalism is to abandon grace as the principle by which a person wants to be related to God. It is to turn away from the all-sufficient saving work of Jesus Christ.

This is what Galatians is about. Therefore, at this point in our study we need to look at Galatians and its teaching. In Galatians the word “grace” occurs eight times (in 1:3, 6, 15; 2:9, 21; 3:18; 5:4, and 6:18).

Galatians is one of the most significant documents of religious history, second perhaps only to Paul's great letter to the Romans. Galatians was the cornerstone of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther having called it his “Catherine von Bora,” because, as he said, “I am wedded to it.” Galatians has been called the “Magna Charta of Christian liberty.” It was born in crisis, the first great crisis to face the emerging Christian church.

When the gospel first began to be preached in Judea it was preached largely to Jews, and because the church was more or less homogeneous, its early internal development progressed smoothly. But Christianity is a world-wide religion, and as the gospel began to move outward from Jerusalem, and churches that were largely Gentile began to be established, questions inevitably arose about a Gentile Christian's relationship to the Law of Moses and to Judaism. Was the church to open her doors to all comers, regardless of their relationship to the law and Judaism? That is, could the church be Gentile without being Jewish first? Or was the church to be at heart merely an extension of Judaism to the Gentiles?

To put this in more specific terms, was it necessary for a Gentile believer in Christ to keep the Law of Moses to be a Christian? Should he be circumcised? Should he or she observe the Jewish feasts and keep the dietary laws of Judaism, eating only kosher food? Galatians is a record of the form this struggle took in the area of southern Asia Minor known as Galatia; but it is also a reflection of how the issue was being debated in Jerusalem and in Antioch in Syria.

Paul had visited Galatia on his first missionary journey, preaching and establishing churches in such cities as Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe (Acts 14). As usual, he had preached a gospel of God's grace. He taught that salvation is never to be sought by human works, even by strict attempts to obey the Law of Moses. We are incapable of obedience and can never bring anything but God's righteous judgment on ourselves. Law can only condemn us. Therefore, if we are to be saved, salvation must come by a different means entirely. It must be provided by God through the work of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and be received through faith.

The Galatians had received this gospel at the time. But after Paul's visit some conservative Jewish teachers had arrived in Galatia from Jerusalem, claiming that Paul was mistaken in his teaching. They said that mere faith in Christ was not enough for salvation. Faith was good, but for those who wanted to be Christians it was also necessary to come under the full authority of the Old Testament. Gentiles could have Jesus, but they had to have Moses, too. They could have grace, but they also needed to be circumcised. After all, God had given the law. Who was Paul, or anyone else, to disregard it?

Paul did not teach disregard for the law, of course. The book of Romans explains in considerable detail how the law is to function and why salvation by grace does not lead to antinomianism. We will come to that in time in these studies. But that was not the issue here. The Jerusalem legalizers—that is what they were called—were teaching that works were necessary for salvation: you have to obey the law to be saved. And that was an outright repudiation of the gospel, according to Paul's understanding. Paul was filled with indignation. He saw in a moment that if the views of the legalizers won out, grace and the cross of Jesus Christ would be emptied of all value.

“Mark my words!” he said. “I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” (Gal. 5:2-4). His emphatic assertion means that if a person is trying to be saved by works, that person has fallen from grace into legalism and therefore cannot be saved, since no one can be saved by legalism.

Study Questions

  1. How has the expression “fallen from grace” sometimes been understood? What Scripture verses can you find that disprove this wrong understanding?
  2. What does “fallen from grace” mean?
  3. From the lesson, we learned that Galatians was a book written in crisis. What crisis was facing the early church?

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