“You have fallen from grace.” Galatians 5:4
You often hear this quote from church groups that believe that it is possible for people to lose their salvation. They will tell you that this means that a person can live like a believer for many years, attend church, tithe, and perform all the outward works of a good Christian. At some point, the person “backslides” and loses his or her salvation. They either commit some egregious sin, or perhaps a large number of lesser sins, and they fall from grace. In all the years that I have discussed this topic with those who believe in falling from grace, no one has ever been able to tell me what that point is. How does a person know when he or she falls from grace and loses his or her salvation?
One of the major themes of the Book of Galatians is the conflict between the doctrine of grace and works. Paul wrote Galatians in response to the movement of the Judaizers. This false teaching arose from a group of people who felt that it was necessary for people to become Jewish before they could become Christian. This meant that males would need to undergo the ritual of circumcision, which had been a standard mark of being Jewish or an Israelite for centuries going back to the time of Abraham.
The question of circumcision was one of the first controversies of the early church. The record of the Jerusalem Council is found in Acts 15. Verse one explains the controversy. “And certain ones came down from Judea and taught the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’” Paul and Barnabas “had no small dissension and dispute with them” (verse 2). The question went to the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem to deal with it.
The Apostle Peter testified at that council about his dealings with Cornelius, the centurion of the Italian (Gentiles) Regiment (Acts 10). He gave as evidence the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Gentiles without their being circumcised. Peter concluded, “God shows no partiality” (verse 34). The Jerusalem Council rendered their decision and wrote a letter to the Gentiles: “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.” (Acts 15:28-29).
Notice they said nothing here about circumcision, Sabbath worship services, animal sacrifices and Jewish feasts. This would have been a good time to have said, “Look guys, if you want to be good Christians, you must be circumcised as we are. You must do church on Saturday as we do, and you must observe the Passover and all the other Jewish feasts as we do. If you do these necessary things, you will be good Christians as we are.” Remember Peter’s question at the Jerusalem Council: “Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” (Acts 15:10). Not even good Jews could be good-enough Jews. Why then demand that Gentiles become Jews first?
We cannot keep the law. That is the point that Paul is making in the Book of Galatians. In Galatians 4, Paul compared the Law to a guardian to have authority over the son until he matured. The guardian took the son to be trained. He pointed the way to his teachers. The Law was never meant to save. It was only meant to point out our need for a Savior. Dealing with a similar problem in Colossians 2, Paul pointed out that laws regarding festivals, New Moons, and Sabbaths were “only a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (Colossians 2:17).
For Christians, trying to be saved by observing the Law is very dangerous. The Apostle James wrote: “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all” (2:10). If you are going to emphasize going to church on Saturday, then you are obligated to keep all the Sabbath law, not just Saturday church attendance. The Commandment reads: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:8-10ff). Notice it does not say to work five days and have a two-day weekend. You must work six days. That is the commandment. If you fail in one point, you are guilty of breaking it all.
These same principals can apply to many man-made requirements today. Acts 15:1 “Unless you…, you cannot be saved.” You fill in the blank. Unless you get baptized, go to church, take Communion, speak in tongues, wear certain clothing, read the Bible, tithe or whatever you want to add to it, you cannot be saved. That is what Paul meant by falling from grace. It means the exact opposite of what groups use it for today. They say unless you keep our list of rules, you will fall from grace as though we maintain grace by our own ability. In fact, Paul wrote that ones who are fallen from grace are precisely those who come up with lists of saving activities.
The rest of Galatians 5:4 reads: “You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.” In verse 1, Paul referred to the observance of the Law as a yoke of bondage”. He wrote that if anyone submitted to circumcision as a basis for salvation, that person was obligated to keep the whole law (verse 3), “which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear” (Acts 15:10).
“Falling from grace” is a club that is often used to beat people into submission to a group’s distinctive marks. It compels people to regular religious activities and compliance with group standards, but it leads to a yoke of bondage. Christ’s yoke is easy and his burden is light. Stop trying to please people. Relax in Christ. “Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
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