Category Archives: Grace

Fallen from Grace?

by Peter Ditzel

A black and white image of the angel with the flaming sword expelling Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.
Theologians often say that Adam and Eve fell from grace. People commonly use the term to mean other things, too. But what does the Bible mean when it says that someone has fallen from grace?

We sometimes hear both Christians and non-Christians use the expression, “fallen from grace.” Occasionally, they use it to refer to Adam and Eve’s Fall in the Garden of Eden. At times, the media use the term to refer to someone—often a prominent Christian—who has had some secret sin, such as adultery, publicly exposed. Certain denominations frequently use the idiom to describe Christians who have so sinned that they have, according to their theology, lost their salvation (at least until they respond to another altar call). “Fallen from grace” is a biblical term with a specific meaning that matches none of the ways it is commonly used. Unfortunately, this confusion obscures the Gospel. In this article, I’d like to explain what the Bible really means by “fallen from grace.”

Belying the False Notions

Can Adam and Eve be said to have fallen from something? Yes. But no one can fall from what he or she doesn’t have in the first place. Nothing in the Bible says that Adam and Eve ever had grace. To say that they fell from grace is an assumption theologians make without any biblical evidence. God offered Adam and Eve grace through the tree of life (see “What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden?“). But they never ate from it. When they disobeyed God and ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve went from a state of not knowing good and evil—a state of innocence—to a state of knowing good and evil. What Adam and Eve fell from, then, was a state of innocence.

When the media refer to someone as having fallen from grace, they mean he or she has fallen from a reputation or position that was highly esteemed by others. Although the media seem to take some pleasure in using this expression when the person they are reporting about is known as a Christian, they are really using “grace” in a totally non-theological way to loosely mean “respect” or “honor” and, sometimes, “trust.”

As I mentioned, there are those who use “fallen from grace” to express the state of Christians whose sins have caused them to lose God’s grace and lose their position before God as saved sinners. It should be immediately apparent that this belief is self-contradictory. Grace is God’s favor, particularly as it refers to God’s unmerited favor in saving sinners. If someone can lose God’s favor because of what the person has done, it would mean that God’s favor was not unmerited but earned by works. To say that a saved sinner can become unsaved because he sins is complete confusion.

Grace does not depend upon works. Sinners do not receive God’s grace because they deserve it. For a sinner to receive God’s grace and then fall from God’s grace because she sinned means that the grace was not really unmerited. It means that the grace depended upon the sinner living up to a certain standard of righteousness. This would mean that grace is not really grace: “And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work” (Romans 11:6). Grace and works do not mix. If we are saved by grace, then our salvation is entirely apart from any works we may perform at any time—past, present, or future. Falling from grace and losing one’s salvation because of sinful works is utter nonsense.

What the Bible Says

The Bible does use the expression “fallen from grace” or “fallen away from grace,” but its meaning is very different from what we have seen. Contrary to the common but erroneous notions of what it means to fall from grace, the Bible clearly says, “You are alienated from Christ, you who desire to be justified by the law. You have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4). The Bible does not say that those who have sinned by breaking a law or transgressing a moral code have fallen from grace. Nor does it associate falling from grace with losing one’s salvation. (For much more information about the impossibility of losing one’s salvation, read the booklet Perseverance of the Saints: Once Saved, Always Saved? downloadable from this page.)

Those “who desire to be justified by the law” are the ones who have fallen away from grace. In other words, Paul is not saying anything about falling from God’s favor because of a moral failure. He is speaking about falling away from reliance upon grace and into the error of reliance upon the law.

The concept is really quite simple. If you are looking to the law, you have turned from grace. You can’t have both at the same time: “For sin will not have dominion over you. For you are not under law, but under grace” (Romans 6:14). Analyze that verse. You cannot be under law and under grace at the same time (if you think that Christians must at least be under the law of Christ, see “Are We Under the Law of Christ?“). Romans 6:14 also logically means that, if we are under law, sin does have dominion over us. Because the law is contrary to our natural inclinations (Colossians 2:14), relying on the law results in more sin (Romans 7:5-9; 1 Corinthians 15:56), and turning from the law to grace completely ends sin’s rule over us (Romans 6:14).

Wouldn’t this mean, then, that falling from grace and relying on the law would cause us to lose our salvation? No! If someone, despite past professions of faith, reveals that he or she is really trusting in the works of the law and never turns from this, that person was never really saved. In appearance, such a person may look like he or she has fallen from grace, but that person was never really under grace in the first place.

On the other hand, one of God’s elect, even after confessing faith in Jesus Christ as Savior, might temporarily slip into a mindset of trying to keep the law (often after hearing law-keeping touted by a legalist preacher). Paul pulls no punches in Galatians 5:4 about the state of this person while seeking righteousness from the law. He or she is katērgēthēte apo tou Christou—literally “idled down away from Christ.”

An elect person who falls from grace will ultimately and finally turn back and put his or her trust entirely in God’s unmerited favor given freely through Jesus Christ alone. In the meantime, however, while he or she is turned to the law, he or she is turned away from Christ and rendered powerless and useless. Why? Because, just like trying to power a cell phone with a dead battery, this person is putting his or her trust in something that is powerless and useless—the law.

It is a tragedy when brothers and sisters fall from grace and waste part of the time they have in this life “idled down.” That’s why we should pray for them, do what we can to restore them to full trust in Christ alone, and not shy away from exposing those who preach the false gospel of reliance on the law.

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Must We First Forgive to Be Forgiven?

Peter Ditzel

Picture of lighthouse on cliff overlaid with the Scripture, For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you don't forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. Matthew 6:14-15
We commonly see pictures with Bible verses like this one posted on social media as a form of encouragement. But is it really encouraging to be told that God won’t forgive us unless we first do a work? Jesus did say these words, but did He intend them for believers?

As part of what is commonly called the Lord’s Prayer, and in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). Again, in Matthew 6:14-15, Jesus taught, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you don’t forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” These passages have caused theologians some consternation. They seem to pin our receiving God’s forgiveness upon a human work—the work of our first forgiving others. Will God not forgive us unless we forgive others first?

Jesus’ statements on this subject are very straightforward. In Matthew 18, after telling the parable of the unforgiving servant—which ends with the master delivering the servant to the tormentors because the servant had been unforgiving—Jesus says, “So my heavenly Father will also do to you, if you don’t each forgive your brother from your hearts for his misdeeds” (Matthew 18:35). And Mark 11:25-26 plainly says, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father, who is in heaven, may also forgive you your transgressions. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your transgressions.”

If we must first forgive others before God will forgive us, wouldn’t that mean that we initiate our own forgiveness? And, as we all know, God’s forgiving us is an essential aspect of our salvation. Therefore, if it is true that we must first forgive, then by our work of forgiving others, we have initiated a part of our salvation.

On the other hand, what about 2 Timothy 1:9? This verse speaks of God “who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given to us in Christ Jesus before times eternal.” What could be plainer? God purposed our salvation “before times eternal” and saved us “not according to our works.”

Here’s another very plain verse: “But God commends his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Many other Scriptures agree that it is God who acts first in our salvation, and that He did not base our salvation on our works. These verses make the idea that we must first forgive others before God will forgive us an impossibility, at least for Christians. Why, then, did Jesus teach the idea that people had to first forgive others before God would forgive them?

Before the Cross

The Bible does not contradict itself. These passages seem to contradict each other only when we leave out an important part of the equation. Jesus spoke the words in the Gospel before His death on the Cross for our sins and the beginning of the New Covenant. Like so many of His statements at that time, He intended them to teach the Jews under the Old Covenant the utter futility of trying to obtain salvation by our works. To the Jews who thought they were obeying the outward letter, He explained that they were still not achieving God’s standard of righteousness. He told them they were not even to look upon a woman with lust or be angry without a cause. They were not to take any oath. They were not to resist evil people. They were to be quickly reconciled.

Humans are sinful by nature and cannot perfectly obey any commands, including those that tell us to forgive. Even if we could perfectly obey, we would only be doing what is expected and would be unprofitable servants: “Even so you also, when you have done all the things that are commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants. We have done our duty'” (Luke 17:10). Unprofitable servants cannot earn anything, including salvation. As Paul said at the end of Galatians 2:16, “no flesh will be justified by the works of the law.”

James Tries to Explain to the Post-Crucifixion Jews

James begins chapter two by saying that we shouldn’t show partiality; for example, we shouldn’t treat a rich person any better than a poor person. Then, in verses 8-9, he teaches, “However, if you fulfill the royal law, according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you do well. But if you show partiality, you commit sin, being convicted by the law as transgressors.” Is James saying that believers must perfectly keep the law and can be convicted by the law as sinners? No. That’s just the point. Let’s let James explain himself further.

In verse 10, James says, “For whoever keeps the whole law, and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” Those who teach that the New Covenant is merely a new administration of the Old Covenant and who say that Christians are still under the law use this verse out of context to try to prove their point. They say, “See. We need to keep the whole law or we will be guilty.”

They are wrong. Remember, James was an elder in Jerusalem, and, as he told Paul when that apostle visited Jerusalem, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are amongst the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the law” (Acts 21:20). James was not pointing out their zealousness for the law as a good thing, but as a dilemma he faced when ministering to these people.

Writing to the Jews of the dispersion (James 1:1), James is trying to help the Jews to see the uselessness of trying to keep the law. James is not giving a truism for believers. He is teaching a general principle of the law: Those who are under the law are responsible to keep all of it. He elaborates in chapter 2, verse 11: “For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not commit murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery, but murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.” Rather than teaching that Christians should keep the law, he’s saying that trying to keep the law is hopeless. If you don’t offend in one point, you are sure to offend in another.

James wants his readers to use this information about the inescapability of breaking the law. Seeing that breaking the law is inescapable and that man’s only hope lies in God’s forgiveness through grace, they should also take pity on others and forgive them. “So speak, and so do, as men who are to be judged by a law of freedom” (verse 12). In other words, because God will judge us by what James calls the law of freedom—which is really grace, love, and mercy—we should judge others by that same law of freedom: “For judgment is without mercy to him who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (verse 13).

If we judge others without mercy, we are demonstrating that we are still under the law that is merciless. Those who are truly saved may temporarily slip into such thinking, but God will open their eyes to their fault before it is too late. When we are merciful, that mercy negates judgment. We don’t initiate God’s forgiveness, but we manifest it.

If we are judgmental toward others, we are exalting the law over grace. We are saying that we want the law. And if we want the law for others, then God will judge us by the law without mercy. Those who have falsely professed belief and who are excited by the ideas of religion, morality, law, and justice will be judged by the law with no mercy.

So, in the verses I quoted at the beginning of this article, Jesus was speaking from the point of view of those still under the Old Covenant and its law because that was the covenant still in force. But He was showing why the ending of the law and the coming of the New Covenant—under which there is no condemnation (Romans 8:1)—was needed. No one can meet God’s standard of righteousness, including His standard of forgiveness. God will not judge with forgiveness those who don’t show forgiveness toward others. Instead, He will judge them by their works because their works reveal their still hardened hearts (Revelation 20:13). Those who do show forgiveness toward others are bearing the fruit of the forgiveness God has already given them through Christ. Because He was both God and man, He was the only human who ever met God’s standard of righteousness. Through Christ, God always initiates every aspect of our salvation—including our forgiveness—and this is amply supported by Scripture (e.g. Colossians 2:13; 1 John 2:12).

Writing well after Christ’s death and the start of the New Covenant, Paul puts forgiveness in its correct order for believers: “Put on therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, a heart of compassion, kindness, lowliness, humility, and perseverance; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, if any man has a complaint against any; even as Christ forgave you, so you also do” (Colossians 3:12-13; see also Ephesians 4:32). Christ first forgives us, and then we forgive others.

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Are We Under the Law of Christ?

by Peter Ditzel

A montage of Lady Justice and Moses facing each other with a Cross between and behind them.
Can Christians be under both law and grace?

In 1 Corinthians 9:21, Paul writes that he is not “outside the law of God but under the law of Christ” (English Standard Version). Yet elsewhere, he writes, “For sin will not have dominion over you. For you are not under law, but under grace” (Romans 6:14); and, “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Galatians 5:18). Surely, Paul was under grace and led by the Spirit, so why does he describe himself in 1 Corinthians 9:21 as “under the law?” Is it the fact that Paul is speaking of the law of Christ in 1 Corinthians 9:21 that makes the difference? Does grace take us out from under the law of Moses and put us under the law of Christ? Or, does Paul mean something else entirely?

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Lessons from the Adulteress

by Peter Ditzel

A detail from the painting, Jesus and the woman taken in adultery, 1888, oil on canvas, by Vasily Dmitrievich Polenov (1844-1927)
The scribes and Pharisees brought the adulteress to Jesus to entrap Him, but Jesus used the occasion to teach important lessons. (Vasily Dmitrievich Polenov [1844-1927] Jesus and the woman taken in adultery, 1888, oil on canvas [detail])

In chapter 8 of his Gospel, John tells us about the incident of the woman the scribes and Pharisees caught in the act of adultery and brought to Jesus. Most people who have read John 8 likely remember that Jesus ended His encounter with the woman by telling her that He didn’t condemn her, and, “Go your way. From now on, sin no more.” We see forgiveness, but we also see a command to stop sinning. This leaves a question: Was Jesus’ forgiveness dependent on the woman’s obedience? The answer to this question teaches us much about the relationship between grace and works.

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Q. I thought we received the Holy Spirit by grace. Why, then, does Acts 5:32 say that God gives the Holy Spirit to those who obey Him?

A. The answer to this seeming contradiction between the grace taught throughout the New Testament and Acts 5:32 lies in the tenses of the verbs in this verse and the meaning of the Greek word translated “obey.”

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If We Are Not under the Law, How Do We Avoid Sin?–Part 2

by Peter Ditzel

For what the law couldn't do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God did, sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh. Romans 8:3
If the law was unable to do what God has already accomplished in the flesh of His Son, why turn back to the law?

Law Mongers

Of the Galatians, who were beginning to believe that they needed to perfect themselves through the law, Paul wrote, “I just want to learn this from you. Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now completed in the flesh?” (Galatians 3:2-3). The legalist Judaizers who were tempting them might well be called law mongers. They were purveying a method of salvation that said, Sure Jesus took care of our past sins, but now we must keep the law to remain moral. Too many people assert that the only issue among the Galatians was that they were being falsely taught to be circumcised. But this wasn’t the only issue.

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If We Are Not under the Law, How Do We Avoid Sin?–Part 1

by Peter Ditzel

The painting, Moses with the Tablets of the Law by Rembrandt.
“For the law was given through Moses. Grace and truth were realised through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). But don’t we need the law to avoid sin? (Moses with the Tablets of the Law by Rembrandt.)

“For sin will not have dominion over you. For you are not under law, but under grace. What then? Shall we sin, because we are not under law, but under grace? May it never be!” (Romans 6:14-15). Many people read this, and then they tag on this assumption: Paul is saying that just because you are under grace doesn’t mean that you should not strive to keep the law to avoid sin. But nothing could be further from the truth! If Paul were saying this, he would be contradicting himself. He would be saying, you are not under the law, but you must keep the law to avoid sin. This would be putting us back under the law. It would give us freedom from the law with one hand while taking it away with the other. It would be saying, you are not under the law, but you are under the law. This would be nonsense.

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How the Need for Repentance is Compatible with Grace–God as the Conquering King

by Peter Ditzel

Many of us are familiar with such passages as Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” And it is most certainly true that our salvation is entirely gracious. God gives it to us as a free gift. We cannot earn it; God never owes it to us.

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