“You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.”
You have become estranged from Christ,
When Christians involve themselves in legalism, they become “estranged from Christ.” “Estranged” means to make inoperative, bring to nothing, make of no effect. Legalism renders our relationship with Christ ineffective. It paralyzes our spiritual life by producing a deadening effect on fellowship with Christ.
you who attempt to be justified by law;
The second word for “you” in this verse means whoever. The emphasis is upon the class of people who attempt justification by law. The principle of this verse applies to everyone, saved or lost – it is a universal principle. In the immediate context, Paul addresses weak Christians in Galatia who were in the process of changing their theology of salvation and sanctification by grace to one based on works. Even if people change their theology, this does not change their status quo with God, but it will render them ineffective in their spiritual lives.
Those who attempt to be justified by the law estrange themselves from Christ and fall from grace. The present tense of “justified” implies that the Galatians were contemplating justification by the law. They had not fully come to that place yet.
you have fallen from grace
The Greek word for “fallen from” literally means to fall out of. Legalists are outside grace. They cannot experience God’s grace while their works get in the way. People fall from grace when they seek salvation by merit. The Greek tense (aorist) indicates the point people enter legalism, they fall from the grace principle.
Paul challenged the Galatian Christians to take a stand on their liberty (Ga 5:1, 2), but they fell from the privileges of that standing. They put themselves in a place where they could no longer benefit from Christ’s provision. Either Christ must be everything or nothing to us. He does not accept divided loyalty. We must not lose our hold on Christ for daily living; otherwise, we will fall from the higher level of living by grace to a lower level of legalism. It is possible to receive the grace of God in vain (2 Corinthians 6:1). God wants us to “continue” in the grace of God (Acts 13:43).
“Grace” is not salvation in itself but God’s way for us to engage salvation. Paul does not speak of someone losing their salvation in this verse but of the method by which one participates in a relationship or fellowship with God.
When we move into legalism, we fall from the grace principle and sever ourselves from the benefits that flow from Christ daily.
Whether in salvation or sanctification, living by legal prescriptions preempts us from Christ and His work. Legal routes for relating to God are mutually exclusive from grace. They are in direct antagonism to grace. We renounce grace when we adopt legalism. When we wholly rest on God’s grace, we embrace Christ.
Either Christ is everything, or He is nothing; there is no in-between position. There is no limited faith or divided allegiance to Him. The person justified by grace is a Christian, but the person who trusts justification by merit is not. The individual who seeks sanctification by law is not right with God, but the one who seeks fellowship with God by faith operates according to the grace principle. We cannot receive anything from Christ except by grace. Our spiritual life operates by grace alone. Grace finds a huge victory when we are most powerless. We cannot receive spiritual benefits from Christ apart from humble acceptance of what He did on our behalf (2 Corinthians 12:9,10).
“Fallen from grace” has nothing to do with committing sin and falling out of salvation. It has to do with the fact that we are too bankrupt to offer anything to God, for we have no righteousness in ourselves. Christians can fall from grace, but not by sinning. We descend from grace by reverting to the law as a system of merit with God. Whether we realize it or not, we received justification at the point we came to trust Christ’s death on the cross to forgive sins. The law cannot impart a means of salvation nor provide a rule of life for the believer. Jesus’ death on the cross freed us from the obligation to merit salvation and sanctification. If we reject God’s provision for salvation, we reject His grace. A genuine believer cannot truly depart from grace in salvation except in his contemplation of the possibility of it.
Legalism is as far below grace as kindergarten is below graduate school. Christians can fall from the high principle of grace to the low valley of legalism. If they do, they operate on a principle that could never save a soul or sanctify a saint. In this situation, Christ has no effect on us, and we have no effective relation to Christ. We lose our hold on the grace principle for daily living.
The issue of this verse is not eternal security but a contrast of grace and law as systems of relating to God. Grace and law are mutually exclusive; we cannot mix them. A Christian cannot lose his justification. Legalism does not draw us close to God, but it drives a wedge between God and us.
Christians must understand the importance of taking a stand on the grace principle alone. Grace and legalism cannot co-exist. When we adopt legalism, we desert from the grace of Christ.
“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).