An athlete is suspended for taking performance enhancing drugs. A corporate executive is indicted for unethical business dealings. A politician is caught in the midst of an affair.

If you haven’t heard one of these stories recently, I’m sure you’ve at least heard one a lot like it. The news cycle seems to be dominated by tales of successful, influential people who have stumbled headlong into shocking moral failure. And this isn’t just something that happens “out there.” Even many within the church have made serious mistakes and compromised their reputations. In fact, this phenomenon of moral failure is so common that we have a well-known term for it: we call this sort of thing a “fall from grace.”

But is it really?

When we talk about a fall from grace, we’re usually talking about sin. The sin could take a thousand different forms—like consuming greed, blinding pride, or burning lust, just to name a few. But in the end, it’s all sin. As one website defines it, to fall from grace is “to sin and get on the wrong side of God,” or more generally, “to do something wrong and get in trouble with someone other than God.” I might simplify the definition to something more succinct: falling from grace means messing up—big time.

Or does it?

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul warns against the possibility of falling from grace. But if we carefully listen to his words, we’ll find that he seems to be talking about something entirely different from what we might expect: “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly await the hope of righteousness” (Gal. 5:4-5).

For most of us, when we talk about falling from grace, we’re thinking of someone with an otherwise impeccable record who tarnishes that record with some sort of serious (and usually very public) sin. But that is in fact the opposite of what Paul is talking about. He’s talking about someone with a decidedly inadequate record who believes that he can improve his record through doing good works and obeying the law. For Paul, falling away from grace isn’t so much about stumbling as it is about climbing.

Think about this for a minute. In order for grace to be grace, it must be bestowed upon undeserving people, right? The only people who can enjoy the gift of grace are those with absolutely no basis on which to boast or brag of their own moral goodness. After all, if their own moral goodness was so magnificent, they wouldn’t even need grace, would they?

If this is true, then what it means is that we don’t fall from grace by sinning. We fall from grace by trying to be good as a means of earning our favor with God and others. As Christians, it’s vital that we recognize this difference.

The tragic reality of our sinful world is that we’re all weak and vulnerable creatures. All it takes is the right temptation at the right time to cause us to come completely undone. I’ve been there before. And I’m sure you have, too.

But the good news for those of us who have royally messed up recently is this: Even though we have fallen, it is precisely for this reason that God’s grace exists. So long as our faith is in Christ alone, we can be comforted in knowing that we haven’t fallen from grace. We’ve fallen into it.

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