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A Righteousness by Faith #16: How do you fall away from grace?

You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. Galatians 5:1-5

I, like many others, was influenced by the books and seminars of a popular Christian life teacher of the 1970’s and 80’s. His teaching was biblical. His concerns echoed those who came in droves to learn from him. How does one live a holy life devoted to God? I would be lying if I said that I did not quote him and use his materials as a pastor. It wasn’t until I began to understand the transformational truth of the gospel that I realized that all along he had been teaching us to live under the law. He didn’t use so blatant a form as the version Paul is confronting in the Galatian churches. He did not ask us to be circumcised! But he consistently pointed to the various teachings in the Law as the spiritual way every Christian should live.

That other way is so tempting. It seems so biblical. It gives off the odor of true righteousness. But living under the Law is as spiritually poisonous as antifreeze in your coffee.

What Paul is contesting are the teachings of spiritual leaders who grew up with Jewish roots. They showed up at churches planted by Paul and Barnabas in what is now central Turkey. These churches had larger percentages of Gentile believers than those who came from the Synagogues. Many of the Gentile believers came from messy lives. They were better at partying than sacrificing. It looked like they needed to shape up and understand how to truly become holy.

And these teachers knew exactly how to help them. “Here’s the Law. Keep it and you will become like Jesus,” was their shtick. It sounded so right. It felt so right.

I never understood how they could be so taken in until I woke up myself. Like them, I and many others had been hoodwinked too. We were subtly taught that, by focusing on the Law, we would become spiritually mature.

Paul calls this ‘fallen away from grace.’ No, he is not suggesting believers will lose their salvation. ‘Fallen from grace’ is about loss of trust in the Spirit leading you to become righteous. It’s about not listening to him. Not keeping in step with him.

Grace is a word that Paul uses to express a central theme of the work of God in our lives. Grace is not about God having good thoughts about us, hoping that we will dedicate ourselves to becoming holy or at least faking it until we make it. God knew when He made covenant with us through the cross we were unable to pull this off. It did not matter if we were Law-driven or easily-led-astray types. God knew that our righteousness was dependent on grace—His empowering work.

Trying to live under the Law, even in its most appealing form, is a distraction. It is the ‘wet paint’ sign of spiritual effort. We see it and our flesh wants to test it. The Law becomes the narrative of our lives instead of Jesus. We work, struggle, strive, fail and despair of the paint now all over our hands while trying to achieve the promise of the Law. This is not what Jesus had in mind when he invited us to come to him and find rest for our souls.

Rest is about trusting the Spirit’s work. Paul follows with, “For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope.” If you have fallen away from grace, you no longer are hoping in the Spirit’s work, but your own efforts to be good for God. Not only that, you have become alienated from Jesus. He was the one who promised our lives would be changed by the Spirit. You are being suckered into believing some other leader knows more than Jesus!

Galatians 5 is about focus—what do you see as the source of power to be righteous? Are you focused on keeping the Law or are you surrendering to the Spirit? Which of these will actually change you? Paul is convinced from his own experience as a Pharisee and because of his encounter with Jesus that our only way to righteousness is by grace alone.

Grace’s work was not all in the past when you were saved. Grace is about our daily journey, receiving from God what no law, rules or regulation could produce in us, regardless of how sweet a face they have acquired or the respect we might have for the teacher who is stressing their significance.

-Steve Smith