You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.
In the “If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard” category, this verse would be prominent in its placement. The issue? This verse is cited over and over as definitive proof that a person can “lose their salvation.” Why? ”See? It says right there – you can fall from grace.” Well, it does indeed say a person can fall from grace – but is the conclusion to be drawn from that to be that a person who was, prior to this, born-again, brought from death to life by the Spirit, granted repentance and faith, was seated in the heavenly places with Christ, who cannot be separated from the love of God in Christ – is that person the one being addressed here? Let’s see.
What is the big picture here? Paul is writing a scathing letter to the church at Galatia. He does not begin with his usual pleasantries. he lights in the church from the git-go. He declares anathema (damnation, being accursed) upon anyone who preaches a gospel other than the one he preached to them – the gospel he received from Christ? That gospel? Salvation by faith alone in Christ alone. he goes so far as to say his fellow apostle Peter has joined in the hypocrisy of the Galatians Judaizers because Peter did what? Demanded circumcision be required for salvation? Said that the dietary laws are still in effect? Taught that animal sacrifices were necessary as atonement for sin? No. Paul said this action by Peter endangered the gospel itself: Peter switched seats at the dining table. Yes, that’s what Peter did that Paul said endangered the gospel itself.
Gal 2:12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.
Gal 2:13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.
Paul also calls out Barnabas for joining in this hypocrisy, as he calls it. Why such harsh language? Because Paul wanted to make the very important point that justification is by faith alone – faith plus nothing. Faith in Christ plus nothing.
In chapter three he goes on at great length about how a man is not justified by works, or obedience to the law, but by faith alone.
In chapter four he poses a serious question and questions whether his labor in that church may have been in vain, if they wish to return to the requirements of the law:
Gal 4:9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?
Gal 4:10 You observe days and months and seasons and years!
Gal 4:11 I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.
In brief, this is the setting for 5:4. How does chapter five begin? With a statement that for freedom Christ had set them free. What had Jesus himself said about being set free? If he is the one who sets people free – free from what? Free from bondage, as he says in John 8, and the people set free are free indeed. Those whom he sets free do not return to the bondage from which they have been released. Paul tells them because of their freedom – in Christ – to stand firm and don’t go back to that from which they were freed. Does this mean people can lose their salvation? No, it doesn’t. Those who would return to their bondage were never freed in the first place, but only appeared to have been free (cf. Hebrews 6 and a similar situation – people being tempted to return to their Jewish roots). These warning passages are also the means by which God preserves his elect – those who fail, show them selves to be non-elect.
The Judaizers were demanding circumcision as necessary for justification – what does Paul say in verse two? If that’s the case, then Christ is of no value. He is reiterating what he said at the end of chapter two, in verse 21:
Gal 2:21 I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.
Think about it – if we could be justified by keeping the law, be it one point of law or the entirety of the law, then why did Christ come and die in our place, having obeyed the law perfectly himself? he then adds this – if one wishes to say that circumcision is necessary, then not just one point of the law is necessary, but keeping the entire law is necessary.
Now, verse four. ”You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” What had Paul just said in chapter three, verses 2-6?
Gal 3:2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?
Gal 3:3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?
Gal 3:4 Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain?
Gal 3:5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—
Gal 3:6 just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?
As Paul also did in the letter to the Romans, he states that Abraham was not justified by works of the law, but by faith (cf. Rom. 4). in 3:10 Paul says everyone who relies on the works of the law are under a curse. In 3:11 he says that no one is justified by works of the law, citing Habakkuk 2:4, as he did in Rom. 1:17, saying ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ in 3:23 he says this law, which the Judaizers wish to add to faith, held people captive – that law didn’t free people, it enslaved them.
Paul says those who wish to keep the law in 5:4 are severed from Christ – they are cut off. Does that mean they were in Christ to begin with? No – by all the statements he has already made in the letter, it is clear that one who wishes to attain justification by the works of the law will never be justified at all. John 1:14 says Jesus came filled with grace and truth. If these people wish to believe that law-keeping of any sort is necessary as the basis upon which one is justified, Paul says they have fallen away from this grace. These people who wish to place their faith in their ability to keep the law have created a problem which Paul says is very, very serious and is one that damns themselves.
Galatians 5:4, in closing, states nothing about those who have “lost their salvation.” It says much, however, about those who were never saved in the first place.