On Falling From Grace (Part 4): Some More Texts on What it Actually Means to Fall From Grace

In the last installment we were looking at some Scriptures to see what it actually means to fall from grace. And today we’re going to do a bit more of that. (For the previous posts in the series so far, see: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.)

The writer to the Hebrews takes up the topic again in Hebrews 10. There we’re encouraged to ‘hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful’ (Heb. 10:23). Our hope doesn’t need to be shaken, for our God is the faithful God. At the end of the chapter the writer quotes from the LXX of Habakkuk: ‘Now the just shall live by faith; but if anyone draws back, my soul has no pleasure in him,’ followed by the assurance: ‘But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul’ (Heb. 10:38-39). In both the OT quotation and the assurance, the contrast is between faith and drawing back. Faith leads to life and salvation, but drawing back to perdition and God’s displeasure. Again, then, here we see that falling away is associated with unbelief, the opposite of faith.

But, in-between the two sections of Hebrews 10 I’ve quoted above, comes one of the strongest warnings in the NT about falling away:
For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries. Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. And again, “The Lord will judge His people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:26-31)
Now, you might be thinking that this seems to immediately go against all that we’ve been saying about unbelief, rather than bad things we do – sins we commit, being the cause of falling from grace. After all, this passage starts off by warning what will happen ‘if we sin wilfully.’ But what does it mean to sin wilfully? If it simply means having willingly sinned, then that would cast us all out into this ‘fearful expectation of judgment’, for ‘if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us’ (1 John 1:8). Thankfully for us all, sinning after we become a Christian doesn’t cause us to lose our salvation, but instead we have a remedy for our post-conversion sin for ‘if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1:9). So Hebrews 10:26 can’t in any way be suggesting that we need to lead sinless lives to avoid falling.

What then does it mean? Well, let’s have a look at Numbers 15:22-31 to find out. There we find a distinction between presumptuous sins (or sins committed with a high hand) and unintentional sins (or sins of ignorance). The Greek word used sinning ‘wilfully’ in Heb. 10:26 is the opposite of the Greek words used for sins of ignorance in the LXX of the OT. The sinner wasn’t necessarily ignorant of his sins of ignorance, but rather they were essentially sins which flowed from weakness – for in this life the saved are always simil iustus et peccator (at the same time righteous and sinful) – but from which the sinner would want to repent and receive God’s forgiveness. The presumptuous sins on the other hand were sins committed with a high hand raised against God – just imagine someone shaking their fist against the Almighty. These were sins committed in arrogance, defiance and unbelief: sins committed with a disdain for God and His Word. So, ultimately, to sin with a high hand was an act of apostasy. There was no sacrifice for sin committed with a high hand.

So, coming back to Hebrews 10 we can see how that fits in. The writer to the Hebrews is talking about Christians: those who have ‘received the knowledge of the truth’ and were ‘sanctified’ by ‘the blood of the covenant.’ But now they sin by ‘trampl[ing] the Son of God underfoot,’ counting His blood ‘a common thing, and ‘insult[ing] the Spirit of grace.’ So, even the way their sin is described here in Hebrews isn’t in terms of bad stuff they’ve done, but rather in terms of apostasy in turning away from the Lord Jesus and His saving work, rejecting the grace of God. Their wilful sin is the sin of the high hand against the Lord: apostasy from gospel.

The result of this unbelief is the Lord’s vengeance, for ‘there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins’ for those who have rejected the only sacrifice that can avail for sin. Instead, they are once again God’s ‘adversaries’ who will be devoured by ‘judgment and fiery indignation.’ For, ‘it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.’

Peter also warns of the perils awaiting those who fall away:
For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning. For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them. (2 Peter 2:20-21)
Again, we might be tempted to think in terms of doing bad things here, when we read the warning against ‘turn[ing] from the holy commandment.’ But is that what Peter’s talking about? Well, what’s ‘the way of righteousness’? It’s not a life of our own righteousness, but rather trust in Christ for righteousness. Salvation is not found in obeying a legal commandment, so then how could falling from salvation come about by turning away from a legal commandment? I’d suggest that, in line with what all the other passages about falling away have taught us, Peter’s not writing about keeping a legal commandment, but rather he’s writing about the gospel command to repent and believe in Christ (see Peter’s words in Acts 2:38 and compare what Paul has to say in Acts 17:30-31). The holy commandment which they had received was the commandment to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation, and so to turn from that commandment would be to turn away from faith in Christ.

James encourages us to bring back those who wander from the faith:
Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20)
The one who wanders here is a brother from ‘among you’. He was in the truth and wanders from it. So this is a Christian that James is talking about. Yet the one who turns him back from his wandering saves ‘a soul from death’! So this is someone who was saved, but has fallen away from eternal life to death. And how does he do that? By wandering from the Truth: turning away from Christ the Truth to unbelief. (John has a similar encouragement for us to pray for those ‘sinning a sin which does not lead to death’ so that God will ‘give life’ in 1 John 5:16-17).

John writes in his first epistle of how we persevere. ‘Therefore let that abide in you which you heard from the beginning. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, you also will abide in the Son and in the Father’ (1 John 2:24). We continue in our fellowship with the Father and the Son by abiding in what we have ‘heard from the beginning.’ And in case it isn’t clear what that is, John’s already told us in the opening verses of the letter:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life— the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us— that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1-3)
We abide in the eternal life which is knowing the Father and the Son, by abiding in the Word of Christ – the gospel which we have heard. For faith comes by hearing.

This fits in well with the words of Jesus which John records in his Gospel about the vine and the branches:
I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned. If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples. (John 15:5-8)
The branches which don’t abide in Christ are cast out and thrown in the fire. But not only that, we also see there that abiding in Christ goes together with having Christ’s Word abiding in us. As we receive the Gospel word in faith, we entrust ourselves to Christ in whom is salvation. Those who no longer abide in Christ, and so are cast out of the Vine, then, are those who no longer have His Word abiding in them – those who have turned away in unbelief.

So, then, we’ve seen that, not only are the Scriptures rather clear about the possibility of falling from grace, but they’re also rather clear about how that happens. Falling from grace is just that – falling from grace. So it’s a rejection of God’s grace in Christ by turning away from faith in him and back to relying on something we can do for ourselves. Which brings us right back, full circle, to Gal. 5:4: ‘You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.’

Right, now that we’ve looked at the Scriptural texts, next time we’ll look at some questions and issues that arise from that. Stay tuned!