On Falling From Grace (Part 3): What does it Actually Mean to Fall From Grace?

Let’s have a closer look at some Scriptures to see what it actually means to fall from grace. A good place to start would be the text the expression comes from – Galatians 5:4: ‘You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.’

Here we see what we’re talking about and what we’re not, which will help clear up a few misconceptions about the possibility of falling from grace. For a start, Paul’s writing about Christians who go back to relying on attempts to keep the law for salvation. (Specifically here, it’s about Christians who decide they need to get circumcised.) Now, the whole point here is that he’s writing to Christians. These aren’t unbelievers. These aren’t just people associated with the Church. They can only become estranged from Christ because they were united to Christ. They can only fall from grace because they were in grace. So this is a warning about true Christians losing their salvation.

But how? By attempting ‘to be justified by law’. It’s a case of people stopping relying on Christ and starting to rely on something they do instead. There’s no mention of doing bad things here; it’s not through committing certain sinful actions that these people fall from grace. Instead it’s all a question of faith. Once their faith was in Christ alone; now their faith is in Christ plus their own attempts at keeping the law. Ironically, they’re looking for assurance of salvation and that’s what causes them to lose their salvation, because they’re looking in the wrong place: in to themselves instead of out to Christ and Him crucified!

So, the very place where the expression ‘fallen from grace’ occurs in the Bible teaches us that falling from grace isn’t a matter of what you do, but rather a matter of where your confidence lies. Is your confidence in something else other than Jesus? Have you stopped relying on Christ alone for salvation? So, it’s not a case of being saved by faith but falling by (bad) works. No, we’re saved by faith, and those who fall, fall through ‘unfaith’.

We can see this connection between unbelief and falling very clearly in Romans 11 as well. There Paul’s writing about the Gentiles being grafted into the good olive tree. But he warns them about what happened to the natural branches:
Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either. Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off. And they also, if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. (Romans 11:20-23)
Those who stand, stand by faith. Those who are broken off are broken off by unbelief. Those who continue in God’s goodness remain in the tree. Those who don’t continue in unbelief are grafted into the tree. So, the difference between being in the olive tree and out of the olive tree is the difference between faith and unbelief. Faith is the way into the tree. Unbelief is the way out.

In Colossians we see that its faith in the Gospel which keeps us in salvation:
And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight— if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard (Col. 1:21-23).
We have been reconciled through the death of Christ, and we will be presented holy, blameless and above reproach, but there is a condition here in the text: ‘if indeed [we] continue in the faith.’ Salvation and faith go together. We’re not to be moved away from the hope of the gospel. Our confidence is to remain in Christ and Him Crucified for us. Salvation continues as faith continues. But to move away from faith, to move away from the hope of the gospel, is to move away from the salvation proclaimed in the gospel. In 1 Cor. 15:1-3 Paul similarly tells us that we’re saved ‘if you hold fast that word which I preached to you – unless you believed in vain’, that word being the gospel word of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.

In Hebrews again we’re warned of unbelief.
Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called “Today,” lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end. (Hebrews 3:12-14)
Again, it’s unbelief that causes one to depart from the living God. (And notice, it’s not sinful actions on the outside that make a heart ‘evil’, but what’s on the inside – unbelief!) We partake of Christ as we ‘hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end.’ In other words, we partake of Christ through faith. But we depart from Christ through unbelief. We are Christ’s dwelling, not if we’re really good all the time and avoid sinning, but rather ‘if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm to the end’ (Heb. 3:6). It’s not what we do that keeps us in the faith, but rather it’s the One in whom we trust.

Hebrews goes on to give a very strong warning about falling away in chapter six:
For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame. (Hebrews 6:4-6)
The people in view here were believers. How do we know? Well, they were ‘enlightened’, whereas unbelievers are in ‘darkness’ (John 12:46; Acts 26:18; Rom. 1:21; 2 Cor. 6:14; Eph. 5:8; Col. 1:13;1 Thess. 5:4-5; 1 Peter 2:9; 1 John 1:6). They’ve ‘tasted the heavenly gift’, which could either be a figurative reference to experiencing salvation or a reference to partaking of the Lord’s Supper (which is only a heavenly gift to those who eat with faith; for those who eat without faith, to partake of the Supper means condemnation and judgment – 1 Cor. 11:29-32). In either case, those who have ‘tasted the heavenly gift’ are Christians. As Hohenstein puts it:
To “taste the gift from heaven” is to possess it and to experience it in the fullness of its sweet and saving power … [It] involves much more than a passing touch of its blessing. It involves much more than just “catching the crumbs” which happen to “fall from the Master’s table,” the “leftovers” of His meat of mercy and love. Tasting the gift implies a happy and hearty feast upon that “living Bread which has come down from heaven.” Cf. John 6:50-55. This is a keenly conscious tasting of the sweetness of the Lord’s grace (1 Peter 2:3). (Hohenstein, ‘A Study of Hebrews 6:4-8’, Concordia Theological Monthly, xxvii.6, p.438)
The same is true for those who ‘have become partakers of the Holy Spirit.’ Those who do not have the Spirit do not belong to Christ; conversely those who partake of the Spirit belong to Christ (Rom. 8:9). These people have tasted of God’s Word and found it to be good. The Greek phrase translated ‘the good word of God’ here is used in the LXX in Joshua 21:45 and Zechariah 1:13 for comforting words from the LORD (rather than words of judgment). So what they’ve received is the goodness and comfort of God’s Gospel Word. And, in the Holy Spirit, they have experienced the in-breaking of ‘the powers of the age to come.’ (Also, they had previously repented – otherwise it wouldn’t make any sense to talk about renewing them ‘again’ to repentance in v.6.) So, there can be no doubt that this passage is speaking of Christians.

And yet, we’re told, that it’s possible for them to ‘fall away’. And this falling away is not light matter. It’s a crucifying again of the Son of God, putting Him to an open shame. In fact, it’s impossible to renew these people to repentance, and their ‘end is to be burned’ (Heb. 6:8).

In the context here, to ‘fall away’ can mean nothing other than apostasy. This is the only time the word is used in the New Testament, but in the LXX it’s used for people falling away from trust in the LORD or from worshipping the LORD. But what does it mean that they ‘crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame’? These are the reasons they can’t be renewed again to repentance, but what do they actually mean?

Well, remember, a huge focus in the letter to the Hebrews is the uniqueness of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice. So a re-crucifixion is just unthinkable! As O’Brien explains it: ‘They totally reject the saving work of the Son, and show their contempt for him … putting themselves in the position of those who had him crucified.’ Or as Hohenstein paints the picture:
Through the medium of faith, or lack of it, men transcend the boundaries of space and time and still stand before the Crucified. To that cross men may react in one of two ways. Either they will confess [Jesus is Lord] or say [Jesus is Anathema]. The first is faith, the second unbelief. And even as the believer benefits from the blessings bestowed in that redemption, so the unbeliever, by his rejection, actually repeats the same crime of [those who crucified Christ] and with them brands Christ as a cursed criminal and pseudo-Messiah. In this sense an unbeliever, a fallen Christian, can be said to “recrucify the Son of God.” To recrucify Christ is to deny His claim as God’s Messiah sent from above to reveal God and to rescue men from this present, perishable creation to that new world which knows no slavery to pain and death. To recrucify Christ is to say “No!” to the “Yes!” of God’s Son. It is to attempt to enter life by another door, another way, another truth, apart from Christ. It is the futile effort to find salvation in a name other than Jesus. (Hohenstein, ‘A Study of Hebrews 6:4-8 (Concluded)’, Concordia Theological Monthly, xxvii.7, p.541)
(I wish all technical exegetical papers were written like that!)

But not only do they crucify Christ again, they also ‘put Him to an open shame.’ So their recrucifixion is not just a private thing, but it publicly brings dishonour to Christ. When people fall away from the Gospel, the church sees it and the world sees it (and the principalities and powers as well).

So how do these people fall from grace? They fall from grace by going from clinging to the Crucified to crucifying Him all over again; by going from trust in Jesus who shed His blood for us to contempt for Jesus and His precious blood. In other words, by abandoning their faith in Christ and returning to unbelief. And that’s just what we’ve seen in all the other texts we’ve looked at so far.

Now, I think that’s enough for today. So next time we’ll continue with a closer look at a few more Scriptures.

Previous posts in this series: 
Part 1: Scriptural Assurance and Scriptural Warning
Part 2: Holding the Assurance and the Warnings Together