Amazing Grace by John Montgomery Boice 1993
You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. GALATIANS 5:4
In the fifth chapter of Galatians there is a reference to grace that has assumed an importance in some people’s thinking far beyond the apostle Paul’s use of it and entirely out of keeping with his context. It is the phrase fallen from grace. Perhaps it came to your mind when I was writing about “standing in grace” in the last chapter.
The point of the last chapter was that Christians have been given a new standing before God because of grace. They have been justified, and having been justified, nothing can remove them from it. But if that is true, how can Paul speak about falling from grace in Galatians? Doesn’t that mean that a believer’s salvation can be lost? I grew up in an evangelical church where people thought that way. They were afraid that they might lose their salvation. I remember a prayer meeting in which one of the women was crying about the behavior of her daughter. The daughter was a Christian, but she
had been going to the movies, which this woman thought was sinful. “What if the Lord should return while my daughter is in a movie?” she asked. She believed that the daughter would not be taken to heaven. She would be lost. She was afraid that her daughter had “fallen from grace” and might perish.
The answer is that this is not what the phrase fallen from grace means. The words do not mean that if a Christian sins, he or she falls from grace and thereby loses salvation. There is a sense in which to fall into sin is to fall into grace, because God is gracious to us even when we sin. But to fall from grace is a different matter. To fall from grace is to fall into legalism, since to choose legalism is to abandon grace as the principle by which a person wants to be related to God. It is to turn away from the all-sufficient saving work of Jesus Christ.
This is what Galatians is about. Therefore, at this point in our study we need to look at Galatians and its teaching. In Galatians the word grace occurs eight times (in 1:3, 6, 15; 2:9, 21; 3:18; 5:4; and 6:18).
The Crisis in Galatia
Galatians is one of the most significant documents of religious history, second perhaps only to Paul’s great letter to the Romans. Galatians was the cornerstone of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther having called it his Catherine von Bora because, as he said, “I am wedded to it.” Galatians has been called the Magna Charta of Christian liberty. It was born in crisis, the first great crisis to face the emerging Christian church.
When the gospel first began to be preached in Judea, it was preached largely to Jews, and because the church was more or less homogeneous, its early internal development progressed smoothly. But Christianity is a worldwide religion, and as the
gospel began to move outward from Jerusalem and churches that were largely Gentile began to be established, questions inevitably arose about a Gentile Christian’s relationship to the law of Moses and to Judaism. Was the church to open her doors to all comers, regardless of their relationship to the law and Judaism? That is, could the church be Gentile without being Jewish first? Or was the church to be at heart merely an extension of Judaism to the Gentiles?
To put this in more specific terms, was it necessary for a Gentile believer in Christ to keep the law of Moses to be a Christian? Should he be circumcised? Should he or she observe the Jewish feasts and keep the dietary laws of Judaism, eating only kosher food?
Galatians is a record of the form this struggle took in the area of southern Asia Minor known as Galatia, but it is also a reflection of how the issue was being debated in Jerusalem and in Antioch in Syria.
Paul had visited Galatia on his first missionary journey, preaching and establishing churches in such cities as Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe (Acts 14). As usual, he had preached a gospel of God’s grace. He taught that salvation is never to be sought by human works, even by strict attempts to obey the law of Moses. We are incapable of obedience and can never bring anything but God’s righteous judgment on ourselves. Law can only condemn us. Therefore, if we are to be saved, salvation must come by a different means entirely. It must be provided by God through the work of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and be received through faith.
The Galatians had received this gospel at the time. But some time after Paul’s visit conservative Jewish teachers had arrived in Galatia from Jerusalem, claiming that Paul was mistaken in his teaching. They said that mere faith in Christ was not enough for salvation. Faith was good. But for those who wanted to be
Christians it was also necessary to come under the full authority of the Old Testament. Gentiles could have Jesus, but they had to have Moses, too. They could have grace, but they also needed to be circumcised. After all, God had given the law. Who was Paul, or anyone else, to disregard it?
Paul did not teach disregard for the law, of course. The book of Romans explains in considerable detail how the law is to function and why salvation by grace does not lead to antinomianism. We will come to that in time in these studies. But that was not the issue here. The Jerusalem legalizers — that is what they were called — were teaching that works, that is, obeying the law, were necessary for salvation. And that was an outright repudiation of the gospel, according to Paul’s understanding. Paul was filled with indignation. He saw in a moment that if the views of the legalizers won out, grace and the Cross of Jesus Christ would be emptied of all value.
“Mark my words!” he said. “I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” (Gal. 5:2-4). His emphatic assertion means that if a person is trying to be saved by works, that person has fallen from grace into legalism and therefore cannot be saved, since no one can be saved by legalism.
As we read Paul’s letter, we are aware that Paul was facing three devastating charges from his opponents: first, that he was no true apostle; second, that the gospel he preached was no true gospel; and third, that the gospel he did preach leads to loose living. Paul
answered these charges in the three major sections of the letter: the first in chapters 1 and 2; the second in chapters 3 and 4; the third in chapters 5 and 6.
1. The charge that Paul was no true apostle.
Paul had been called to be an apostle by Jesus Christ, which means that he had received special revelation about the gospel from Jesus and had been given authority to preach it and to establish and govern Christian churches. But now his enemies were saying that he was not a true apostle. After all, he had not lived with Jesus when Jesus was on earth, as the “true” apostles had. He was not one of the Twelve. In truth, he was just an evangelist who, after he had received some small knowledge of Christianity, turned to his own devices and invented a gospel that would be pleasing to Gentiles in order to gain favor with them and advance his career.
Paul answers this charge by retelling the story of his life, especially the parts of it that involved his relationships to the other apostles.
First, he argues in the introduction (Galatians 1:6-10) that he had not been trying to please men, otherwise he would not have been preaching the gospel he had been preaching. The ones who were really trying to please their hearers rather than preach the true gospel were the legalizers. In what are some of the strongest words in the New Testament, Paul pronounces an anathema on these men: “Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!” And again, “If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!” (vv.8-9).
It is in reference to those harsh words that Paul then asks the Galatians, perhaps even with a bit of amusement, “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to
please men?” (v.10). People who are trying to please others do not go around pronouncing anathemas upon them.
Second, Paul admits that he did not get the gospel he had been preaching from the other apostles, but he turns the negative implication of that admission on its head, arguing that the very mark of an apostle is that he has not gotten his message from other men, but from God: “I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not received it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ: (vv. 11-12). The next paragraph explains that after his conversion in Syria he did not go to Jerusalem, where he might be supposed to have learned the gospel from those who were before him, but rather spent there years in Arabia. By the time he got to Jerusalem and met the others, his understanding of the gospel had already been well formed.
Third, on every occasion when he was in contract with the other apostles, which came later, he and his gospel were affirmed by them. That was true on his first visit to Jerusalem following his conversion, when he spent fifteen days with Peter (Galatians 1:18), and later at the Council of Jerusalem (Galatians 2:1-10, also described in Acts 15). As far as the Council of Jerusalem is concerned, Paul claims to have defended the gospel almost single-handedly for a time but to have been supported by the other apostles in the end. Equally important, the legalizers were repudiated. “James, Peter and John … gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me [and] agreed that we should go to the Gentiles” (Galatians 2:9).
Fourth, Paul provides an account of a disagreement he had with Peter when Peter came to Antioch. On that occasion Peter seemed to have wavered on the issue of Gentile liberty out of fear of what the legalistic Jews might think of him, separating himself from the Gentile Christians in order to eat only kosher food with
the Jews. Paul calls this hypocrisy and tells how he rebuked Peter publicly: “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?” (Galatians 2:14). The closing paragraphs of chapter 2 contain a summary of what he said to Peter and the others on that occasion, concluding, “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (v.21).
Paul shows how he stood for the truth of the gospel when Peter wavered, but he does not deny that Peter was a true apostle. In fact, it is Paul’s significant achievement in the first portion of the letter that he asserts his own authority as an apostle without diminishing the true and legitimate authority of the others.
2. The charge that Paul’s gospel was no true gospel.
The second charge against Paul followed from the first. If Paul was no true apostle, it was evident that the gospel he preached was no true gospel. On the other hand, if Paul was an apostle, then his gospel was the true gospel, and he had every right, indeed the duty, to expound it. This is what the next section of the letter does (chapters 3-4).
Paul’s opponents had probably argued that because the law is God’s law and is eternal in its effect (God’s character does not change), keeping the law was and continues to be the way of salvation. They would have claimed that all who have ever been saved have kept the law. Jesus himself kept the law. So did his disciples. Who, then, was Paul to dismiss the requirements of the law as things necessary for salvation?
But that was not the issue. Those who are saved do keep the law. They are not lawbreakers. In fact, they keep the law in its true spirit, rather than in the letter only. Paul will make that point next, just as he does in Romans. The issue is not who does
or who does not keep the law, but rather: What is the true basis upon which God reckons a sinful man or woman to be righteous?
Paul answers this charge and defends the true gospel in two ways.
First, he appeals to the Galatians’ personal experience. When Paul went to Galatia he preached the gospel, the Galatians believed it, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and God even worked miracles in their midst. How did that happen? Paul asks. “I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?” (Gal. 3:2). Obviously, it was by faith in Jesus and the gospel. Well, then, Paul continues, “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?”(v.3).
Presumably, the Galatians would acknowledge that God saved them through believing the gospel, not by observing the law, and that they ought therefore to continue their Christian life by faith and not by law, bowing to the legalizers’ teaching.
Second, Paul argues his case from Scripture, primarily from the example of Abraham. Abraham was the father of the Jewish people, the greatest of the patriarchs. How was Abraham saved? As in Romans 4, Paul cites Genesis 15:6, where Scripture says “[Abraham] believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Galatians 3:6). Abraham was not saved by law, since the law had not been given at that time. He was saved by believing God. Therefore, all who follow him are to be saved in precisely the same way. Paul observes that “the Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’ So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (vv. 8-9).
In this critical section of the letter Paul adopts an alternating
argument, comparing the way of simple faith, on the one hand, with the way of law, on the other. The argument goes like this:
First point: Abraham was saved by faith (Galatians 3:6-9) Genesis 15:6, the first Old Testament text Paul cites, shows this to be true. The other Old Testament text, Genesis 12:3 (cf. 18:18; 22:18), shows that this must be true for everyone else, too, because it promises blessing for “all nations” and these have no physical descent from Abraham. The only way they can be part of the covenant of salvation is by faith.
Second point: The law can only bring a curse (Galatians 3:10-14). This is because we cannot keep it, and the law itself says, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law” (Galatians 3:10; cf. Deut. 27:26). Jesus took our curse by his crucifixion.
Third point: The covenant of salvation was established by God’s promise to Abraham apart from works (Gal. 3:15-18). The law not even been given in Abraham’s time; it came 430 years later.
Fourth point: The law was given, not to save anyone, but rather to expose transgressions (Galatians 3:19-25). The law is not a bad thing. The law would save us if we could keep it. Or rather, it would show that we do not need saving. We do, however. So when God gave the law 430 years after Abraham, it was to show that we are sinners and need salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Paul says, “The law . . . was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come” (v.19) and “The law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith” (v.24). So the legalizers had a wrong starting point in their argument that: (1) God gave the law, (2) God does not change, and therefore (3) keeping the law continues to be the way of salvation. Their error was not understanding that God never gave the law as a way of salvation in the first place.
Fifth point: Faith makes us sons of God and God’s heirs (Galatians 3:23-29). The law does not join us to Christ. Only faith does that,
and it is only by belonging to Christ that we can become Abraham’s seed and God’s heirs.
Sixth point: The law keeps us in the position of slaves (Galatians 4:1-7). “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons” (vv. 4-5).
The last parts of this middle section (chapters 3-4) contain an impassioned appeal to the Galatians to continue on in faith (Galatians 4:8-20), followed by an allegory in which Sarah (Abraham’s wife), Isaac, and Jerusalem stand for salvation by the grace of God through faith, and Hagar, Ishmael (Abraham’s son by Hagar), and Mount Sinai stand for law-observance. The point is that those who are being saved are descended spiritually from Isaac and not from Ishmael, who was born of the slave woman.
3. The charge that the gospel Paul preached leads to loose living.
The charge was that Paul’s gospel abolished restraints against sin. The Jews had the law, and they had stressed rigorous morality. Therefore, they looked down on Gentiles who did not have the law and lived immoral lives. What would happen if the law should be removed from Gentile churches? Clearly, lawlessness would increase and immorality would rise, according to the legalizers.
In the final section of the letter (chs. 5-6), Paul argues that this is not true. And the reason is that real Christianity does not lead a believer away from the law into nothing, still less into lawlessness. Rather it leads him to Jesus Christ. And that means, to put it in other language, that the Holy Spirit comes to live within the Christian, giving the person a new nature, creating love for God and a desire to obey him, and providing the ability to do what God requires. In other words, the gospel leads to an internal transformation. So it is from within, rather than from
without, that the Holy Spirit produces good behavior. The key texts say:
In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (Galatians 5:6)
You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. (Galatians 5:13)
So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. (Galatians 5:16)
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23)
According to these verses, life by the power of the Holy Spirit is entirely different from either legalism or lawlessness. Legalism imposes an outward code, but it does not change a person’s inner nature to enable him or her to please God. Lawlessness gives vent to the sinful nature, allowing the unregenerate person to express himself in self-indulgence and debauchery. Christianity maintains the moral law but also provides the inner desire and power to obey God and so be all God intended us to be, which is true freedom, and to serve God fully.
The verse at the beginning of chapter 5 is at once both the high point and key to the entire letter: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” The first part of the verse
sums up the preceding four chapters. The second part is a challenge from which the ending of the letter flows. To put it in the terms of this study, Paul is saying, “Do not fall from grace. Rather, stand in grace.”
Why? For the following reasons:
1. Legalism does not lead to holy living.
Normally we think it does because whenever something is not right or some great wrong is done, our natural instinct is to pass a law to correct it. And with the law goes punishment. If a person disobeys the law, he or she should be punished. Impose a fine. Send the criminal to jail. Execute the murderers. But even our own culture should tell us that this does not work. To some extent law does restrain evil actions. We might not do something for fear of getting caught. That is one reason God gave the law, to restrain sin. But neither law nor punishment produces holiness. And if the truth be told, law and the fear of punishment do not even restrain sin very much.
What is the problem? The problem is that sin is seated in the heart and passing laws is at best only an external attempt to solve the sin problem.
Jesus said this when he was explaining the dietary rules of his day. He said, “Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean’ . . . For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly” (Mark 7:15, 21-22). This is why despotic political regimes never produce morality among their citizens but only feed corruption. I would argue that the only time any nation ever really moves forward in the area of morality is in periods of spiritual revival.
2. Legalism produces bondage.
Not only does legalism fail to produce what its defenders seek — that is, it does not produce morality — it actually has a contrary and harmful effect if it is seriously pursued. It produces bondage. Don’t you know people who always seem to be trying to live their lives by rules? People who are constantly afraid that they might transgress some legal or moral boundary and be knocked down by God? They are not free people. They are not even happy. They are oppressed, sad, grim, burdened, and discouraged.
Paul says that to live this way is to be “burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). The Jews of his day often referred to becoming a member of the covenant people of Israel as taking on “the yoke of the law.” They considered it to be their glory. But it was a heavy yoke, and Paul calls it the yoke of a slave, just as a yoke placed on the neck of a farm animal was to harness the animal for hard work. This is what the apostle Peter was referring to at the Council of Jerusalem, recorded in Acts 15, when he advised against imposing the yoke of the law of Moses on the Gentiles. He said, “Why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10). According to Peter, this yoke was not only difficult to bear; it was impossible. According to Paul, it was slavery.
3. True holiness is the product of the Christian’s new nature and is produced by his or her love for Jesus Christ.
It is why Paul says, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6). But let me illustrate that by a story.
Donald Gray Barnhouse was counseling a man who had met a fine Christian girl and wanted to marry her but was afraid to do so because of his sinful past. He was afraid to tell her of his past,
and afraid that some of his old sinful habits might get the better of him and cause him to betray her love and hurt her deeply. Barnhouse counseled him to be open with the woman, telling her briefly about the nature of his past sins. “If you are going to be spending your lives together, there should be no barriers between you, and her knowledge of your weakness will help you all along the road,” he said.
Barnhouse continued by relating the story of another couple he had heard of not long before. The point of the illustration is in what the young man said to him when he had finished. The man in this story had also lived a sinful life before his conversion, had met the Christian woman to whom he was now married, and had confessed the nature of his past to her. She was a spiritually mature woman, and she replied, “John, I want you to know that I have studied the Bible for a long time and am aware of what the human heart is like. I know we are all capable of terrible sin and that you might fall into it. I also know that if you do — I pray you will not — but if you do, the devil will tell you that you will never be able to live the Christian life, that you might as well give up and continue sinning, and that above all else you should never tell me because it will hurt me. But I tell you this now. This is your home. When I married you, I married your sinful nature as well as your regenerate nature, and I want you to know that there is full pardon and forgiveness in advance for any evil that may ever come into your life.”
As he had been listening to this the man Barnhouse was counseling had bowed his head in his hands, obviously deeply moved. But when the end of the story came, he lifted his face, looked Barnhouse in the eyes, and said with great insight, reverently, “My God! If anything could ever keep a man straight, that would be it.”
Suppose the woman in the second story had approached her husband’s confession legalistically. Suppose she had said, “So
that’s what your life has been like! Well, I want you to know that if I ever get wind of any hanky-panky on your part, I’ll really give it to you when you get home. See this rolling pin? I’ll hit you over the head with it.” If she had said that, the man might have mused, So she wants to play that game, does she? Well, I’ll just be careful then. I’ll do what I want. I’ll just be sure not to get caught.
Legalism does not produce righteousness.
But love does. And it is by love that God has chosen to lead us onward in the Christian life. The Bible says, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
God loves you and has been exceedingly gracious to you. He has proved it by sending Jesus Christ to die in your place. If you know that and really understand it, you will determine in your heart never to violate the wonder of such a great love. And the love you have for Jesus, as well as his love for you, will enable you to both stand in grace and grow in holiness.