How a person becomes a Christian is of vital and prime importance. In Galatians 1:3, Paul very simply tells us that it is through ‘the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins and rescued us from the present evil age’. This is the gospel. This is God’s way of salvation.
It involves the atoning death of Jesus as our substitute on the cross (he ‘gave himself for our sins’), and the justifying, redemptive work of grace (he ‘rescued us’). This and nothing else can save a guilty sinner. It was this that Paul preached to the Galatians when he visited their cities on his first missionary journey, in AD 47 (Acts 13–14). They believed and were saved, but, soon after, some Jews who claimed to be Christians came to them with a ‘different gospel’(Galatians 1:6), which said that grace alone was not enough and circumcision was also necessary for salvation (Acts 15:1). Paul was not surprised that another way of salvation was being preached because the devil was always trying that, but he was astonished the Galatians believed it.
There is only one gospel. Anything else is a different gospel. Indeed, it is no gospel at all, because it distorts the good news of God’s free gift of salvation in Christ. It is a ‘perverted gospel’ (Galatians 1:7) in that it may sound like the real thing and will speak of Jesus, but it keeps souls away from God and does not open to them the divine plan of salvation. If you are a young Christian, it is almost certain that your doctrinal roots have not had time to grow very deep. Therefore you too can be vulnerable to a wrong gospel. Any message that tells you the grace of God in Jesus Christ is not enough to save you, but you also need something else, is to be shunned as poison to your soul. For example, you do not need the grace of God plus circumcision to be saved; and you do not need the grace of God plus speaking in tongues to be saved. There is no ‘plus’ that needs to be added to the grace of God.
For you to try to add a few improving touches to a masterpiece by Leonardo de Vinci with a four inch paint brush in your hand would be reasonable compared to trying to add to the grace of God.
Grace is the amazing message that God has done all that is necessary through the Lord Jesus Christ to save sinners. The grace of God is the most thrilling concept that can occupy the mind of a Christian, and it floods the heart with praise to God. Without grace there is no hope for any of us. The only alternative to it is salvation by our own efforts. This is a non-starter, because God will not accept it; the New Testament makes that abundantly clear.
This is so important that Paul speaks in the strongest possible terms against this perverted gospel. He says, ‘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’ (Galatians 1:8-9).
We may be tempted to think that he is going too far here, but is he? The great question the Bible is always seeking to answer is, ‘How can a man or woman be right with God?’ It asks the question because it accepts the fact that we are not right with God. Man is a sinner and God is holy. There is therefore a great barrier between them. The Bible also teaches that the wages of sin is death, and this means an eternity in hell. So this gives the question great urgency, for our eternal destiny rests upon it.
So what is the answer? Basically there are two answers offered us: ‘law’ or ‘grace’.
Law includes just about every system of religion or morals that says you must ‘do this’ or ‘go there’ in order to be saved. It teaches that man’s salvation is in his own hands. Grace says that man is helpless and can do nothing to save himself; salvation therefore has to be all of God.
The two answers are irreconcilable. They have nothing in common and cannot both be right.
Anything that confuses us as to the way of salvation has to be exposed. It is not tolerance to accept doctrines that deny the sufficiency of Jesus alone to save, and this is why Paul uses such strong language. The gospel was at stake and no compromise could be tolerated. This is not popular thinking today, but it is certainly the New Testament way. There can be no tolerance of teachings that send souls to hell.
Would you allow an African witch doctor to perform a delicate brain operation on a loved one? Of course not. So do not tolerate the teachings of British or American doctrinal ‘witch doctors’ whose message is not biblical. John Stott says, ‘As for actually desiring false teachers to fall under the curse of God and be treated as such by the church, the very idea is, to many, inconceivable. But I venture to say that if we cared more for the glory of Christ and for the good of the souls of men, we too would not be able to bear the corruption of the gospel of grace’.
The strength of Paul’s feelings about the uniqueness of the gospel and his fierce denunciation of false gospels is also explained by how he himself came to believe the truth about Christ. Previously he had been so bitterly opposed to Christianity that no human agent could have persuaded him to change his position. He had been a passionate follower of Judaism and his path was set firmly in the traditions of Israel. He saw the destruction of Christianity as a God-given purpose for his life.
A man-made gospel can save no one, and certainly not a man like Saul of Tarsus. A man-made gospel cannot deal with the depravity of the human heart and never takes into account the holiness of God. It always majors on unimportant external activities like circumcision and fails to come to grips with the demands of the holy God.
Paul’s gospel was not man-made, nor did any man teach it to him. He certainly did not make it up. So where did he get it from? He tells us: ‘I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ’ (Galatians 1:11-12).
Church history is full, right up to the present time, of people who claim to have received a revelation direct from God. Most of the cults, like Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, started this way. If we reject their so-called revelations, why do we accept Paul’s? What is the difference? The difference is that Paul’s gospel substantiates the facts of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It does not add to or detract from the facts. All that Paul has to say centres on Jesus Christ and magnifies him. In other words, it is fully biblical.
Any revelation that contradicts the teaching of Scripture is not from God. We do not need any so-called revelation that introduces activities and practices unheard-of in the Word of God.
Another difference is that Paul’s gospel was not man-pleasing, but honoured and praised God and Christ at all points. A gospel that seeks to please man will always, at some point, play down the significance or consequence of sin. Or it will present sin in such a way that gives the sinner no hope of salvation other than trusting the teachings of a particular man or cult. Either way, it seeks to keep sinners from Christ.
A gospel that honours God will always, all the time, delight in the character and grace of God. It will point sinners to Jesus Christ alone for salvation, because it sees divine grace as essential in getting us right with God. This was the gospel that saved Paul and the gospel he preached with uncompromising persistence. It always focused on what God has done for us, not on man’s efforts.
Do you believe this gospel? Have you received it, not because your parents have, or because your friends have been saved, but as a personal conviction that has transformed your life? It has been well said that God has no grandchildren. In other words, faith cannot be inherited. We all have to come ourselves to know Jesus as our Saviour. Do not be satisfied with a second-hand faith, but be sure that Christ is real to you.
Called by God
Paul’s gospel recognised the predestinating right of God to set him apart from birth to be a preacher. When God wanted an apostle to the Gentiles, he did not have to look around to see who was available. The matter had already been settled long before the need arose. Paul felt as Jeremiah did: ‘Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Before you were born, I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations’ (Jeremiah 1:5).
God does not wait for man’s co-operation, but breaks into lives with shattering conviction and life-changing salvation. What happened to Paul on the road to Damascus has happened to every true Christian to some degree. The circumstances will vary greatly from one believer to another, but the end result of meeting with Christ is common to us all.
Such a gospel flows out of the pleasure of God and always brings pleasure to God when his Son is honoured in a sinner’s redemption.
The author is a retired pastor, who has ministered in Cwmbran, Rugby and Swansea