The sensation to some is exhilarating; to others terrifying. If you have ever been pushed out of a plane into a freefall, it’s hard to know which way is up or which way is down, and you can’t wait until your feet are on solid ground again. The subjects of our text had been pushed away from Paul’s clear teaching about freedom in Christ and found themselves in a spiritual freefall. Much of his letter to the Galatians was written to put these believers’ feet back upon solid ground once more.
The verses surrounding our text indicate a saved audience. They are referred to as “brothers” (4:28, 31; 5:11,13, ESV) and are told that “Christ has set us free” (5:1). It is quite evident in 5:4 that Paul is clearly addressing those already saved. They could not be “fallen from grace” if they never initially embraced God’s grace. This helps to explain the word “justified” in our text. These believers were justified by God’s grace at the moment of conversion, but were now attempting to keep themselves justified by the works of the law. They had received erroneous teaching pressuring them to be circumcised (5:2-3) in order to attain a higher spiritual level (5:6). Those who acted upon this false doctrine found themselves in a disorienting “free” fall.
Fallen From What?
Paul never says that these believers had fallen from salvation. In fact, none of the word forms of “salvation” (Greek, soteria) are to be found in this entire epistle! This is unusual, given that in most of Paul’s letters, he uses some form of soteria many times. The fact is that we cannot fall from salvation either by what we do or fail to do. Our best efforts could not save us to begin with; neither can our best efforts “keep us saved” now. We are saved by grace alone (Eph 2:8-9).
Speaking of grace, it is important to emphasize that we are not only saved by grace, but sanctified by grace. Works cannot save the sinner (2:16), nor sanctify the saint (3:1-5). The law stands absolutely powerless to sanctify us as it did to save us; it was given to show us our need of a Savior. That sanctification, not salvation, is the main subject of our text is apparent from 5:7 (“You were running the race beautifully. Who cut in on you and stopped you from obeying the truth?” ISV).
These believers had not fallen from salvation, yet Paul does write that they had “fallen from grace.” What does he mean? Perhaps the best way to seek an answer to this question is to ask another one.
Fallen To What?
First, Paul does not say they had fallen into a state of being lost. Norman Geisler writes, “If falling from grace means the loss of salvation, why does Paul not refer to hell? The only threat mentioned is that of eventuating in the ‘yoke of slavery’ (5:1), not in eternal torment.”
Second, Paul does not tell them they had fallen into sin. Neither salvation nor sin is in the context of this section. Circumcision is not a sin; neither is keeping the law.
What these believers are in danger of losing is their freedom: “Be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (5:1). The issue is not about falling from the position of being saved to being lost. The danger is about falling from grace to law. And since the context is sanctification, not salvation, these Galatians were attempting to achieve sanctification by works of the law. When Paul says, “Christ is become of no effect unto you” (5:4), sanctification is the “effect” they will not receive because they are seeking to achieve it on their own. It’s not that we needed grace for salvation and afterwards need it no more. It is within the realm of grace that we grow as believers and become more like the Lord Jesus. Apart from the Holy Spirit (whom we received by grace) at work in our lives, we could not produce the fruit of the Spirit (5:22-23). Here we agree with the Westminster Confession of Faith which says, “Their ability to do good works is not at all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ.” Obviously we must cooperate with the Spirit in order to do what is right and good, but ultimately, we owe our sanctification to the grace of God who freely gave us His Spirit.
While we may never in our assembly circles have to deal with leaders who would put us under Jewish law to be sanctified, we need to be on guard for the rise of legalistic teachers among us. Those who teach the keeping of man-made rules in order to attain a certain “sanctifying” status are to be noted and rebuked, so as not to bring believers into “the yoke of bondage” once more. The history of assemblies has been scarred by the devastating fallout of legalism. Some have taught and pressured believers to adhere to certain unscriptural standards, invading nearly every realm of life. Sadly, some assemblies have had to witness the fallout, seeing many believers leave because they have grown weary of this “yoke of bondage.” We need to be careful in our day to recognize legalism where it raises its head and “stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free” (5:1). Paul concludes this section with these words: “But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another” (5:15). Rules and laws as means of sanctification tend to tear people apart rather than build people up. Let us never be guilty of causing a modern-day “freefall” but stand firm on the solid ground of Scripture.
Does Galatians 5:4 teach that a believer can fall from salvation and ultimately be lost? Although it is possible to fall from grace to law (by choice) as an attempt at sanctification, it is impossible for anything or anyone to cause us to fall from God’s great salvation in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:38-39).