This article is a condensed version of one which will appear in an upcoming book slated for publication in the summer of 1995. The book will deal with difficult NT passages on issues such as saving faith, assurance, eternal security, Lordship Salvation, rewards, and perseverance.
You have become estranged from Christ,1 you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.
Years ago I came across a tract entitled “Can a Saved Man Fall from Grace?” The author states:
Then, once he has been saved from his past sins, the newborn child of God must maintain his saved state by walking in the light (pp. 1314, italics added).
After quoting 1 John 1:7 he continues,
This is how a child of God stays saved. It is by walking in the light! One walks in the light by daily obedience to the truth-by regular worship, purity of life, love of the brethren, etc. (p. 14, italics added).
While I strongly disagree with the tract’s explanation of what falling from grace is, I agree that genuine Christians can indeed fall from grace!
Christians Are Being Addressed
Paul indicates that he is writing to those who have received the Gospel (1:9) and who have received the Spirit (3:2). In addition, he repeatedly calls them “brethren” (e.g., 1:11; 3:15; 4:12, 28; 5:11, 13; 6:1, 18).
The idea that those addressed in 5:4 were not genuine Christians is unsupported by the text. Christians are being addressed.
Falling from Grace Is Not Loss of Eternal Life
The tract I cited previously is right that genuine Christians are in view, but wrong that falling from grace refers to the loss of eternal salvation.
Before we turn to what the expression does mean, let’s confirm that it can’t be referring to loss of salvation Paul taught that it was impossible for Christians to lose their salvation. This is easily seen in Rom 8:38-39. There Paul says that nothing present and nothing to come can separate believers from the love of God which is in Christ. Whatever Paul meant in Gal 5:4, he did not mean that Christians can lose their salvation, since Scripture cannot contradict itself.
Because Paul was not addressing the subject of eternal security in Galatians, we don’t find explicit statements of eternal security in the book. (There are, however, implicit statements throughout the book. See, for example, 2:14-21; 3:1-14; 6:1-5.) Nonetheless, it is telling that we don’t find the opposite. Paul kept calling his readers “brethren” right up to the last verse of the epistle. Nowhere did he say something such as: “You once were Christians, but you are no longer,” or, “If you seek to be justified by the law, you will lose eternal life.”
Falling from Grace Is Loss of the Experience of Grace
What then did Paul mean? The word translated you have fallen (ekpiptō) means to fall (as in withered flowers that fall to the ground). In this context it is used figuratively and refers to the loss of one’s grip on grace as a principle to live by (cf. BGD, p. 244; Donald K. Campbell, S.v. “Galatians,” The Bible Knowledge Commentary, NT edition, p. 605).
The believers in the churches of Galatia were being influenced by legalistic teachers called Judaizers. These men were saying that while salvation began by faith in Christ, one could not obtain final salvation without obeying the Law of Moses.
Christians lose their grip on grace whenever they fall prey to the teachings of legalism. If a Christian leaves a church that is clear on the Gospel and grace and joins one which is not, he will quickly lose his grip on grace if he accepts the teaching at the new church.
That’s why Paul told the Galatians to run, not walk, away from the Judaizers (cf. 1:8-9). They were to stay away. They weren’t to listen to them.
Believers cease to experience God’s grace whenever they attempt to be justified by the works they do. Believers who fall prey to legalistic cults and denominations are one example. For instance, statistics show that three hundred Baptists in the U.S. convert to Mormonism every week. Surely some of these wooed into Mormonism by friendly people at their door who talk about family values are new or unstable believers.
Falling from grace is not always that dramatic. Many believers today have been taught something which may seem harmless to them: that their works are indispensable for their assurance of salvation. However, once a believer accepts that teaching, he too has fallen from grace, for he no longer looks to Christ alone for his assurance.
God’s grace is wonderful. Experiencing it is terrific. Losing one’s grip on it is terrible. Don’t fall from grace. It can and likely will happen if you immerse yourself in legalistic teaching or if you cease to read the Word and to fellowship at a church which is clear on the Gospel.
1The expression you have become estranged from Christ refers to a break in fellowship. Believers who fall prey to legalism are like husbands who were on good terms with their wives, but who aren’t at present. They became estranged because of something one of them said or did. So, too, there is a break in fellowship between a believer and Christ whenever we stop looking to Him alone for salvation and assurance. See Bauer, Gingrich, and Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the NT, S.v. “katargeō,” p. 417.