Falling from Grace by Keeping God’s Law? Is That Possible?
There is no doubt that the Bible teaches we can fall from God’s grace. That is, having received the gift of God by His grace, we can so live as to abandon that gift. In fact, the Bible is so plain about this that I’m amazed anyone disagrees. Galatians 5:4 says, “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen from grace.”
However, have you ever noticed what these folks were doing for which they had fallen from grace? They weren’t living in sinfulness. They weren’t giving themselves over to immorality and idolatry. They weren’t abandoning their faith in God. Now don’t get me wrong, these would all be reasons for which someone would fall from God’s grace. We can see that in other passages like II Peter 2:20-22; Hebrews 6:4-6; et al. I’m simply pointing out that wasn’t the problem in Galatians 5:4.
What was the problem in Galatians 5:4? They were trying to be justified by law. They were trying to be justified by being righteous according to the Law. They were working hard to obey everything the Law said. Had they done well at that, they would have been pretty holy people. How can people who are working hard at living such holy lives fall from grace?
Is the issue here they were trying to be justified by the wrong law? Since Paul goes back and forth from talking about “the Law” and simply “law,” I believe he was using the Old Law to make a point about being justified by a system of law. The problem was that trying to be justified by the Law, or any law, meant trying to be justified by their own power and will. The Law was not intended to justify anyone according to Galatians 2:16. Why? Because people wouldn’t obey it. All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). Think about it. If our problem is we haven’t kept the Law, how would throwing more law at us help?
What concerns me is we might end up doing the exact same thing today and never even know it. Do we try sometimes to justify ourselves by law? Do we think if we “go to church” enough we’ll be justified? Do we think if we cut out enough sins we’ll be justified? Do we think if we do enough good works we’ll be justified? Do we think if we get enough things right we’ll be justified? Why do we think we are going to heaven? Is it because of how well we’ve kept God’s law? If so, aren’t we doing the exact same thing Paul condemned in Galatians 5:4? Can we fall from grace and all the while still be trying really hard to do God’s will? It appears that we can.
While we can fall from grace when we run headlong into sin (II Peter 2:20-22) and the sacrifice of Christ will do us no good if we simply go on sinning willfully (Hebrews 10:26-27), it appears we can also fall from grace by thinking we can justify ourselves through our strength and ability to keep God’s law. We need to remember that the entire purpose of the Old Law was to capture us under sin, to prove we are sinners in need of a Savior (Romans 3:20; Galatians 3:22). If righteousness could come by law, then that Old Law would have been able to do it (Galatians 3:21).
Here’s the rub, of course. Hearing this, some of us might think, “Great, it doesn’t matter if I go on sinning. In fact, that might be good because of God’s grace.” That is exactly the flaw Paul anticipated Christians following. In Romans 6:1-4, Paul demonstrated that we have died to sin. Jesus didn’t set us free so that our faith in Him would allow us to disregard God’s will. Rather, Jesus died so we could die to sin and be free to live in His righteousness. He died to set us apart for good works (Titus 2:14). We pursue those good works.
However, if we pursue those good works from a motivation to be justified for our ability to keep God’s law, Galatians 5:4 says we fall from grace and are severed from Christ. Instead, we pursue those good works because of our love for God. We pursue those good works because God deserves to be glorified. We let Him worry about justifying us through His grace. We focus on glorifying Him because we know how much He has done for us. Isn’t that the story we see from the sinful woman in Luke 7:36-50. We love much because we have been forgiven much.
Obviously, if we disregard God’s will and follow our own path, we’ll end up outside of God’s grace (cf. Proverbs 14:12). But if we think we can justify ourselves by keeping God’s law, we’ll just as equally fall from God’s grace. The problem is we may not realize it because we are convinced we are doing so good that He has to give us His grace. But grace doesn’t work that way.
Let’s not fall from God’s grace either by turning our back on God or by trying to justify ourselves and earn God’s grace. Let us stand in God’s grace, surrendering to Him, living by faith in Jesus, and relying on His grace for our salvation.