‘Ye are fallen from grace’

Galatians 5. 4.

This verse is at the centre of a section of Galatians in which the bondage of the law and the liberty of grace are contrasted. Chapters 3 and 4 drew a contrast between our liberty in sonship and the old covenant standing of Ishmael under law. Paul writes of the law as a tutor, a trusted servant in a household who was responsible to discipline and control little boys until they were old enough to act in the liberty of knowing their father’s will and upholding the good name of the family. When they were minors they were no more free than if they had been slaves – they could even be beaten by the tutor. Now that believers are ‘grown up’ they understand their father’s expectations of them; they are freed from that stage in which they behaved simply because they feared the tutor’s rod. That old stage was equivalent to bondage.

At chapter 4 verse 21 Paul takes up a different figure. To any who hankered after old bondage under law he writes of Abraham’s two sons, one born to a slave girl, Hagar, the other to his freeborn wife, Sarah. At this point he emphasizes, not the constraints of legal bondage, but the issue of inheritance. The inheritance, including the land, belonged to the seed of Abraham. But it was made clear to Abraham by God that that inheritance belonged to Sarah’ s son, not Hagar’s, Gen. 17. 17, 21. When the inevitable conflict between Sarah and Hagar climaxed in chapter 21, it was Sarah who articulated the issue with ruthless clarity, ‘Cast out this bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac’. This is quoted in Galatians chapter 4 verse 30.

The issue was inheritance; therefore the solution must be exile for Hagar and her son Ishmael. Abraham clearly understood the matter in this light, for we read in Genesis 21 verse 14, ‘And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread, and a bottle (literally ‘skin’) of water, and gave it unto Hagar … and sent her away’. Isaac’s future lay in the promised land, Ishmael’s lay in the wilderness, even though he too would become head of a great nation, v. 18.

Now Paul develops this figure. Hagar was a bondwoman, so her son, though he was a son of Abraham, was exiled from the land, from the promise. The son born of the freewoman, Sarah, would inherit the land and the promise. Paul has said that in Christ we are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to promise, Gal. 3. 29. We enjoy the liberty of free people under grace, not the bondage of law.

Those who insist on the necessity of being under bondage to law must face the implications of that position. Ishmael was exiled because of his link to Hagar the bondwoman; he could not inherit. So, says Paul, those who insist on the necessity of circumcision and the rituals of law, have no place in the freedom, which grace brings to us in Christ. He clarifies the issue by referring to those who undergo circumcision with a view to being justified. These would presumably be Gentiles, for the Jews would have been circumcised as infants, on the eighth day. Such a course is incompatible with dependence on Christ for justification. Paul keeps within the theme of Hagar and Sarah when he writes at the end of chapter 5 verse 4, ‘ye have fallen (literally ‘fell’) from grace’. But Ishmael did not fall out of the Promised Land; he was driven out, exiled. J. B. LIGHTFOOT is surely correct to interpret this verse as ‘are driven forth, are banished with Hagar your mother’. But this requires some explanation.

As Lightfoot’s notes make clear, Classical Greek usage has examples of the verb’ to cast out’, ekballo in the sense of ‘banish, exile’ .It also has many examples of the verb ‘fallout’, ekpipto, in the sense of ‘be banished’. LIDDELL and SCOTT cite examples from four Classical Greek authors of the verb in this sense.

What is the ground of our justification? Is it the work of Christ, or legal systems? The issue is whether a person can depend on an ordinance or a system on the one hand and at the same time also be depending on the work of Christ. Paul says that if we refuse the liberty of justification through grace, by Christ’s blood, to go back to ordinances for our justification, this is to deny in the most fundamental way possible our place in Christ. We simply cannot have both works of law and salvation by grace together.

When we examine our verse in its context, we see that it has nothing to do with a person ceasing to be a believer because he or she has failed the Lord or grown slack in spiritual exercises. It is a statement of the impossibility of depending on the work of Christ while also depending on one’s own efforts. It was written to protect believers from a Gentile background from a feeling that they were less than complete Christians because hey had not been circumcised. We need to guard stoutly against the error of thinking that believers from one background are, for that reason, better or worse than those from a different background. Whether that difference of background is religious or racial we all stand by grace, in the liberty purchased by Christ’s blood, indwelt by the same Spirit.

‘But far be it from me to glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world hath been crucified unto me, and I unto the world’, Gal. 6. 14 RV.


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