You’ve heard of people who have experienced a fall from grace. The celebrity said something foolish, the media ran with it, and she never quite recovered. “You like me. You really like me.” The athlete was found to have used substances that enhanced his performance, earning him stolen medals, records, and victories. He lied about it, the truth came out, he became a punchline. “I have been on my deathbed, and I’m not stupid. I can emphatically say I am not on drugs.” We’ve all seen these dramatic plunges, these falls from grace.
To experience a fall from grace is to undergo a great loss of prestige, a loss of reputation. It is to become an object of scorn and derision. A recent article in The Fiscal Times describes “Chris Christie’s Long, Slow Fall From Grace.” This decline “from brash tell-it-like-it-is frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination to designated liar for the man who ultimately deprived him of that honor, may be nearing its end.” And the expression is not only used of people. A piece in Entrepreneur tells “What Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Theranos’s Fall From Grace” after “a Wall Street Journal exposé claimed Theranos exaggerated its services.” It’s a common phrase, a poignant one, always an unhappy one.
Like so many of our English idioms, “fall from grace” originates in the Bible and is a direct quote from the King James Version. In his letter to the Galatian church, the Apostle Paul warns “Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.” Or, in a more modern translation, “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.”
Of course that fall is a consequence of the very first fall from grace, the one where Adam and Eve chose to sin against God, plunging themselves and all of humanity into a state of sin, of disorder, of chaos. The whole of the Christian faith is concerned with this fall from grace and how those who have fallen can be restored. Now Paul is warning this church against legalism, against thinking they can be restored to favor with God on the basis of their adherence to the law. He knows better. He knows that the law brings only captivity. “For freedom Christ has set us free;” he says. “stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (1). If they reject righteousness by a gift of grace to pursue righteousness by works of the law, they will fall—fall from any hope of experiencing God’s grace.
Deep within the sinful human heart is the knowledge that we have fallen from grace, and with it the conviction that if the fault is ours, so too is the remedy. We naturally believe we can and must be made right with God by our often efforts. Grace is too good, too foreign, too unbelievable for our minds and hearts to receive. And yet the Christian gospel calls us to abandon our own efforts and instead to embrace the work of Christ. The restoration can’t originate from within so it must originate from without. John Stott explains it well: “You cannot add circumcision [as the ultimate sign of law-keeping] (or anything else, for that matter) to Christ as necessary to salvation, because Christ is sufficient for salvation in Himself. If you add anything to Christ, you lose Christ. Salvation is in Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone.”
We have all fallen from grace. Paul says elsewhere “For the wages of sin is death.” Our fall has taken us from grace to alienation, death to life. Thankfully, wondrously, he goes on: “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Grace is there for those who will surrender their own efforts at righteousness and instead grab hold of the righteousness of Christ. No wonder, then, that so many Christian songs celebrate the beauty of grace, for grace is all we have. Why not listen to a couple of them.
“Grace Alone” by The Modern Post (or Dustin Kensrue, if you prefer) declares “By your blood I have redemption and salvation / Lord, you died that I might reap what you have sown / And you rose that I might be a new creation / I am born again by grace and grace alone.” Here’s their acoustic version.
The old hymn “Grace Greater Than Our Sin” ends with a question: “Marvelous, infinite, matchless grace, / Freely bestowed on all who believe! / You that are longing to see His face, / Will you this moment His grace receive?” Here is Matthew Smith’s Nashville-inspired rendering: