Galatians 5:4 You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.
As we have been emphasizing over and over again throughout these studies and meditations on the Book of Galatians, the defining concept about what it meant to be a Jew in Paul’s day – and even today – is that a Jewish person was born into the covenant by virtue of being Jewish – ethnically. Of course, this is the very thing Paul has been arguing against all along here – not against Judaism per se – but against any kind of ethnic exclusivity for the covenant promise. Yet, even Jews recognized that one can be cut-off from the covenant by refusing to obey it. The NIV uses the word “alienate” here. Other translations present this word as “separated” or “severed,” which suggests something harsher than “alienate” or even the King James Version’s “no effect.”
“You have fallen away from grace” Paul has clearly established that salvation is only by Christ (see, e.g., Galatians 2:21). Paul seems to be saying – even emphatically – that seeking salvation any other way leads to being “severed” – cut off.
This last phrase – “fallen away from grace” – is troubling, in that it seems to state that a believer in the promise, by returning to a reliance on obedience to the law in order to be saved, “falls away from grace,” is alienated, cut off – exiled from the promise. This is a difficult construct, and would appear to contradict all of Paul’s earlier arguments about the promise taking precedence over the law. Is Paul suggesting that one can lose their salvation?
I don’t think so. While passages such as 2 Peter 2:20-22 and 2 Peter 3:17 seem to allow for this concept, the clear teaching of John 10:27-30 (especially verse 28), Romans 8:28-39, and much of Paul’s arguments from Galatians chapter 3 and 4 explain that no genuinely saved person can be lost. So what does Paul mean here by “fallen away from grace?”
As an initial aside, I believe we can temper some of the “severity” of this argument somewhat by considering Paul’s word choices and the art of rhetoric. The focus of this entire section is Paul’s arguments against the specific Jewish religious/legal requirement of circumcision. Beginning here, Paul will use words that reflect violence, physical mutilation and words that can be used to describe literal “cutting” as a rhetorical word-play to accentuate his arguments against this practice. The use of the Greek word for “alienate” in the NIV, which literally means “severed,” fits into this concept.
Also, we need to take the statement “fallen away from grace” in the context of the rest of the Letter. Paul has been focusing on the concept of slavery. In Galatians 3:22, 4:8-11 and then in the section just preceding Chapter 5 (Galatians 4:21-31, the “figurative” argument regarding Hagar & Sarah), the emphasis has been on being slaves to the Law. Then, in 5:1, Paul warns the Galatians to not be “burdened” again by a yoke of slavery. All of these passages, combined with the current verse, suggest that a genuinely saved “child of the promise” can choose to live like a slave again.
Indeed, the language of this passage implies that a true believer can willfully place themselves outside the scope of God’s divine favor. How? Remember, trying to gain God’s favor by observing the law is mutually exclusive from receiving God’s favor through His grace. Recall the curse Paul discussed in Galatians 3:1-14 (“All who rely on observing the law are under a curse”). 2 Peter 3:17 warns us to be on guard so that “you may not be carried away by error.” Taken in the context of the rest of Galatians, and indeed, the whole of Scripture, this is not a statement about losing one’s salvation – but rather an indicator that the Galatians were deceived. We can fool ourselves, and choose to live like a slave, and reap the bitter fruit of that spiritual mindset and lifestyle. But a truly saved person doesn’t lose their salvation by making this choice. Some will point to the aforementioned citations in the Second Letter of Peter , and even Galatians 5:21 along with this passage as evidence that salvation can be “reversed.” Well, I don’t buy it. Even 2:Peter 2:22 ends the argument by saying “a dog returns to its vomit” and “a sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud.” In both cases, the nature of the animal has not changed. The sow is still by nature a pig – the “wash” was merely a cosmetic change. Paul says elsewhere in 2 Corinthians 5:17 “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” Later on in Galatians 6:15 he says “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation.” God sees our hearts. There must be a fundamental change – I don’t think the 2 Peter discussion is speaking of that. Plus, Romans 6, 7, & 8 and later on in Galatians 5, there is plenty of discussion of the ongoing struggle with the sin nature in the life of a true believer. The good news is, even when we make a mistake, and choose to live in the slavery of the law and/or sin, however incrementally we may choose, the promise is NEVER invalidated. Just read on to the next verse, and look back at Galatians 4:26-28 and 2:17-21. Our status as “sons” cannot change.