“Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law. You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” (Gal 5:2-6 NRS)
When I was younger I was in a denomination that constantly talked about people who had “fallen from grace.” This term was used for those believed to have lost their salvation. It was usually thrown at those who did not behave as the church required—those who had fallen into sin. I always find it interesting how terms and phrases are used and why they are used this way, so I wanted to find out what “falling from grace” meant. In studying the scriptures I was surprised to find that the term only appears in one passage—Galatians 5:4. As much as my earlier churches had used it, one would think the phrase was sprinkled throughout scripture as a central theme. It is amazing how someone can take one idea, in one passage and make it the center of their theology.
The phrase, “fallen from grace” is in scripture, so it is a scriptural concept. However, when you take it in context, it is nothing close to what it is often used to mean. It does not refer to someone who gets saved and then falls into a pattern of sin leading to their loss of salvation. If you look at the context you see that falling from grace means trusting in one’s own legalistic actions for justification. It is trying “to be good enough through one’s own actions in keeping the law.”
Paul uses circumcision to stand for all law-keeping justification. He does this because circumcision has long been a stumbling block to Jewish converts and had even become a matter of discussion among diaspora Jews—some had stopped circumcising their children because of the social handicap it caused. Using this, Paul gives a very graphic, if not disturbing, image. Paul says that those who seek to be justified by being circumcised (law-keeping) have “cut [themselves] off from Christ.” Think about that for a moment. In circumcision, the foreskin is cut off. Paul is saying that those who seek justification through cutting off their foreskin have cut themselves off from Christ. In a manner of speaking Paul is saying, “If you seek to be justified before God by cutting your foreskin, that same cut actually cuts you away from Christ.” The only justification before God is found in Christ, through grace. In effect, you spiritually make yourself the foreskin removed and discarded from the body of Christ. Seeking justification through any other means, actions, sacrifices, behaviors is to be cut off from Christ, to fall from grace.
The problem is that most of those misusing the term are also using it to inflict upon people what had been inflicted upon the Galatians. Paul says that anyone who proclaims a different gospel (a gospel of law-keeping) is to be considered accursed. He goes on to say that following their example and teaching is to become legalists, bound to keep the whole law (something Paul tells us elsewhere is impossible, and something incapable of saving anyone) and to be cut off from Christ. The churches I knew as a child who used this term actually twisted it 180 degrees to mean the exact opposite. They used it as a bludgeon to force law-keeping and to inspire legalism. “Do this or you might fall from grace.” “Make sure you remove this from your life or you might fall from grace.”
When sharing the gospel, make sure it is the actual gospel. Make sure you share the gospel that gives freedom. If you are sharing a gospel that binds rules and observances to a person as a requirement of being justified then you are a modern equivalent to the people Paul wishes “would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” (Galatians 5:12 NIV)
In the gospel, there are no deeds that one must do to be justified. There are no deeds one must do, no observances one must submit to in order to be saved. In the gospel, salvation is through the divine act of Christ. Does this then make us free to sin? Does this eradicate the standard of sin? Absolutely not! However, we do not keep observances to be justified. We do not keep rules in order to be justified or saved. We observe what Christ commanded us to observe and obey what he commanded because of what he has already done for us. This is not “easy-believism.” This is actually far harder, because it discounts the benefits of any action on my part. We all want to believe that we were saved because we were good enough. We want to be able to write the book—“How I did it on my own.” We all want to know that we made it to heaven because God was impressed. It is this conviction that is easy for sinful humans. To admit that there is nothing I can do to be saved, nothing good within me, nothing I can do to be good enough, is hard.
When sharing the gospel, make sure it is the gospel and not law. Make sure you are bringing people to Christ and not actually cutting them off from Christ. It is a shame when one replaces bad news for good news when one replaces “evangelism” with “legalism.”
Please comment below if you have anything germane to add.