Falling from Grace: The Galatian Heresy

Now, with Paul’s use of “law” properly defined, let’s take a fresh look at the passage previously quoted —

(Gal 5:2-4) Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3 Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole [moral and positive] law. 4 You who are trying to be justified by [moral and positive] law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.

We see Paul’s point more clearly. If you insist that salvation comes from perfect obedience to, for example, the command to be circumcised, then you must insist on perfect obedience to all commands, moral and positive. And because no one can meet such a standard, you fall from grace.

You see, it’s either all grace or all law. There’s no grace + law or even grace + some law, that is, you must choose between salvation by faith or else salvation that requires perfect obedience to all commands. The option of requiring perfect obedience to some commands but not others is not available. (Of course, “faith,” as discussed earlier, includes faithfulness, that is, submission to Jesus as Lord.)

Why doesn’t grace lead to license?

The obvious objection, of course, is that if justification is by faith, not law, then why obey even the moral law? Why not rely on grace? And Paul anticipates that objection and addresses it.

(Gal 2:17-21) “If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! 18 If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker. 19 For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

First, the fact that Paul anticipates exactly the objection made when we argue for this meaning of “law” strongly suggests that we are right. If Paul were only upset about Christians insisting on the ceremonial law, there’d be no need for Paul to make this argument.

Second, Paul notes that Jesus justifies sinners, but this doesn’t mean that Jesus promotes or endorses sin.

Third, Paul declares that all Christians “died to the law” to “live for God.” This is the nature of our conversion and the same point Paul makes regarding our baptism in Rom 6:1-7. In other words, to become candidates for baptism, we have to repent — commit to live in submission to Jesus as our Lord, that is, to live for God. We must remain true to our repentance to remain saved.

But Paul also says we “died to the law,” meaning that as Christians, we are no longer judged by the law — moral and positive — but by whether we are living for God. They are closely related things but still very different things.

Fourth, Paul declares that, in being crucified with Christ, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” He will explain this in more detail in chapter 5, but he is speaking about Christ’s living in us through his Spirit.

Fifth, Christians now live “by faith in the Son.” Of course, “faith” includes submission to Jesus as Lord. As N. T. Wright has shown from Josephus, “by faith in the Son” also carries the meaning “by loyalty to the Son.”

Sixth, righteousness cannot be gained through the law, that is, because perfect obedience cannot be achieved, we must be under a system where we are judged by our penitence rather than the perfection of our lives.

This is not Paul’s complete argument, but it’s an essential beginning. We cannot obey perfectly, and therefore salvation by law is impossible. But when we were saved, we committed to repentance, to submitting to Jesus as Lord, to faithfulness, to dying to self, and letting Christ live in us.

This is a radically different standard from perfect obedience or perfect doctrine. The new standard is repentance — an entirely attainable standard.

James and baptism

We in the Churches of Christ have been trained to believe that such teaching contradicts James — but it doesn’t, as we’ve already considered.

Or we think such teaching would allow for an indulgent lifestyle, but no one can have Biblical faith in Jesus as our Lord and live a sinful, disobedient life. You cannot be faithful to Jesus and willfully continue in disobedience to him (Heb 10:26 ff).

You see, having faith, being faithful, being penitent, and being led by the Spirit all lead to the same place — a devout life of love and fruits of the Spirit. It all ties together in a perfect, beautiful unity.

And we need to reiterate that Paul is not speaking about baptism. In fact, in Galatians 3:26-28, Paul makes quite clear that we become clothed with Christ in baptism. He sees no problem with associating baptism with salvation while rejecting salvation by works (more precisely, works + faith). Therefore, we have no reason to fear that Paul’s teaching on justification by faith somehow contradicts the New Testament’s teaching on baptism.

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