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Back to the gospel

May 2014 | by Roger Ellsworth

‘I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed. For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ’ (Galatians 1:6-10).

The apostle Paul usually begins his letters with expressions of appreciation for his readers and with prayer for them. He does not do so in his letter to the Galatians. After wishing his readers grace and peace, he plunges right in. There is no time for preliminaries. The issue is far too important for that.

And what is the issue? It is the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Galatians had professed faith in the gospel, but now they were moving away from it. Paul’s love for the gospel would not allow him to take this lightly. So he writes to rebuke them and to call them back to faith in the gospel.

I wonder what Paul would say if he were to write to our churches today. Would he accuse us of abandoning the gospel?

Almost 500 years ago, Martin Luther stepped to the door of the church in Wittenburg, Germany, and nailed there his 95 theses. The 62nd read: ‘The treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God’. How many churches and pastors today can honestly say the gospel is the treasure of the church?

It certainly does not seem so. Pastors load their sermons with tips for living this life, making sure that they add generous doses of humour as they go along. There cannot be much talk about sin and judgement, because such topics would make their hearers feel bad!

If there is no sin and no judgement, there can be no gospel — which is, of course, God’s answer to sin and judgement. And if the gospel is not preached, it cannot be called the treasure of the church.

The truth is that we need Paul’s words in the above passage as much as the Galatians of old.

A gospel that is not really a gospel

Paul says he is astonished that the Galatians are turning from the gospel of Christ to ‘a different gospel’. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news of God’s grace. It is the good news of what God has done in and through his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to forgive sinners of their sins.

But the Galatians were now showing themselves to be soldiers who had deserted the army. They were spiritual deserters! They were setting aside the gospel of grace to embrace a Christ-plus teaching. John R.W. Stott writes of the Galatians: ‘They did not deny that you must believe in Jesus for salvation, but they stressed that you must be circumcised and keep the law as well.

‘In other words, you must let Moses finish what Christ has begun. Or rather, you yourself must finish, by your obedience to the law, what Christ has begun. You must add your works to the work of Christ. You must finish Christ’s unfinished work’.

Recent surveys indicate that many today essentially hold the same notion: that salvation is a matter of believing in Jesus and doing good works.

What such people do not understand is that the gospel has to be completely ‘grace’ or completely ‘works’. One negates or cancels out the other. If it is grace, it can’t be works; if it is works, it can’t be grace (Romans 4:4; 11:6). Yes, salvation produces good works (Ephesians 2:8-10; Titus 2:11-14), but good works do not produce salvation.

If the gospel is a matter of our works, it is not really a gospel at all. The gospel is good news, but there is no good news in salvation by works. It is bad news, for God demands perfect righteousness of us, and, no matter how many good works we do, we can never do enough.

Let us always be clear on this, we cannot modify or amend the gospel and still have the gospel. After our tampering, we have something, but it is no longer the gospel.

Teachers who are not really teachers

Why had the Galatians got into such a mess? Paul leaves no doubt about it. He says it was because of men who ‘trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ’. He was referring to ‘Judaisers’, whose position is stated so clearly by Luke, the author of Acts: ‘unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’ (Acts 15:1).

These men professed to be teachers, but they were actually troublers (the word for ‘trouble’ here means to ‘shake’ or ‘agitate’).

Do we understand this? To tamper with the gospel is to trouble the church! We are living in very difficult and threatening days. Christianity is under attack on every hand. But the greatest danger to Christianity is never the hatred and opposition of those without. It is always those within who pervert the gospel.

A choice that should not really be a choice

Paul could anticipate some of his readers defending the false teachers that had come into their midst: ‘But, Paul, these men are so brilliant and so interesting. How could they possibly be mistaken?’

Wanting to put down this objection, Paul answers in the strongest possible way. On one hand, he says, they, the Galatians, have the gospel that ‘we have preached to you’. This is the apostolic message.

On the other hand, here comes now ‘an angel from heaven’ to preach another gospel. So they have before them the apostolic message of God’s grace and the angelic message of man’s works. What should they do? Keep in mind, that the angel is very dazzling and impressive!

Many would say that this is a hard choice. Paul says it should not be a choice at all. We are not to accept any message on the basis of how impressive the messenger is. We are to judge the messenger by the gospel, and not judge the gospel by the messenger!

Alan Cole says, ‘The outward person of the messenger does not validate his message; rather, the nature of the message validates the messenger’.

A curse that really is a curse

Paul closes this passage by pronouncing a curse, an ‘anathema’ (‘devoted to destruction’), on all those who preach ‘any other gospel’, other than the gospel of the grace of God.

Some profess to be upset by Paul’s language. They consider it to be an ill-advised, intemperate outburst that is out of keeping with the spirit of Christianity. They think that Paul, if given the opportunity to do so, would take this back or delete these words.

But Paul meant every word of this curse, and he meant every word for two reasons: the glory of Christ and the good of men and women.

Paul knew the truth about the person of Jesus; he was not just another man, but God in human flesh. Paul also knew why Jesus came to this earth; it was to provide salvation for sinners.

If what Jesus did was not sufficient for the salvation of sinners, as the Judaisers insisted, Jesus had failed. And if Jesus failed, there was certainly no point in glorifying his name. So the Judaisers’ teaching robbed Jesus, the God-man, of his glory.

It also robbed men and women of the hope of salvation. If God in human flesh could not achieve salvation for sinners, what hope was there for those sinners to achieve it for themselves?

With the glory of Christ and the good of sinners in mind, Paul could do no other than pronounce a curse on those who detracted from Christ and the salvation he came to provide.

Zeal for the gospel

James Denney was right on target when he wrote these words: ‘If God has really done something in Christ on which the salvation of the world depends, and if he has made it known, then it is a Christian duty to be intolerant of everything which ignores, denies, or explains it away. The man who perverts it is the worst enemy of God and men’.

If we find the curse of Paul upsetting, we have all the proof we need that we are not as zealous for the gospel as we should be.

Roger Ellsworth

The author is a pastor and conference speaker, who has authored books for Day One, Evangelical Press and Banner of Truth.