For the next several weeks, we will be covering the Book of Galatians. Martin Luther, the man who started the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century, called this his favorite book of the Bible. In it, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is so clearly portrayed and explained that it is one of my favorite Books as well.
We live in a society today that considers truth claims about religion to be a personal matter. A pastor was once telling a woman about Christ and the need to repent of her sins and she replied: “Well, that’s good that you believe in God and Jesus. If He helps you then that’s good that it’s true for you but I don’t really need God to make me happy and He’s not true for me.”
Imagine, for a moment, that I ran into someone who didn’t believe in the State of California. What if I told him that I actually owned a house there and worked and lived there for several years? What if he replied: “Well, it’s good that you believe in a State of California but I don’t need to believe in California. California is true for you but not for me….”
A true thing is true whether or not I believe it. The Gospel, which testifies of the work of Christ, is either true or it is not. In Galatians, it is the very Gospel of Christ at stake and the Apostle Paul really cares about whether or not his readers believe the Gospel or not. If it’s not true, then who cares?
The funny thing is that most of us, when we think of a Church with problems will immediately think of all the bad behavior we find in First Corinthians: men living in adultery, disorder in the Church, and selfishness running rampant. But it is the Book of Galatians that Paul comes down with the hardest hammer. He expresses confusion, anger and wonder about what people believe. You see, to the Scriptures, what is primary, what comes first, is that we believe the Gospel and then our actions follow. It’s not that how we behave is not important but behavior is a fruit of what God has done. Paul is about to teach, in fact, that attempts at good behavior will utterly fail if we do not believe what God has done in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
What was going on in the Churches of Galatia that caused this letter to be written?
The problem is commonly called the Judaizing heresy and is quickly summarized by quoting Acts 15:1.
1 some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
You need to remember that the first Christians were Jews that had embraced the Messiah. The Church first spread around Jerusalem and Judea before it spread to Samaria and to the Gentiles. Many former Pharisees had believed in Jesus because the Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead and knew the Scriptures well. Many of them, however, were never really converted and did not properly understand what the Gospel was all about.
Remember, when Peter went to Cornelius’ house in Acts, he had to be prodded repeatedly by God to enter a Gentile home. When he finally did and preached the Gospel, the Spirit came upon Cornelius and his household and they believed. When Peter returned from this visit, many of the Jews were challenging Peter and asking him why he had gone to the home of a Gentile. Peter defends himself in front of the Church at Jerusalem and ends his explanation beginning in Acts 11:15
15As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” 18When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
It is very telling in this episode that Peter and the Church understand that the Gentiles are truly of the Church and just like them. They have not been circumcised but, instead, they have received the same gift: the Holy Spirit. They believed in Jesus Christ, just like the Jews, and God shows there is no unclean people group by placing His Holy Spirit within uncircumcised men.
But some of the Jewish believers were not content to let God decide who He had really accepted. They taught, as we already noted, that a person could not be saved unless he believed in Jesus Christ and he became circumcised. It is that small word AND that causes the problem because now what is happening is that something is being added to the Gospel of Grace. It is Christ AND something else.
But it wasn’t merely that men had to have surgery performed on them to become physically circumcised. We will learn that what the Judaizers were saying is that: “You need to believe in Jesus Christ and then live a life of obedience to the Law of Moses in order to be saved.” Another way of saying this is: “Believe in Jesus and then show Him that you’re serious about believing in Him or you won’t be saved.” It’s a message of believing and then behaving in order to be saved.
Now, because Paul was the Apostle to the Gentiles and the Gentiles were outside of Jerusalem and Judea, Paul had to deal with most of these troublemakers.
You’ll also notice some things that characterize Paul’s defense of the Gospel in Galatians – some of them we already read and you might have wondered why he’s dropping names and emphasizing that he’s an Apostle. These are responses to charges that are coming from the false teachers – the Judaizers. If you want to tear down another’s work then one way of attacking it is by attacking the person – it’s called mudslinging in politics. There were apparently charges that Paul wasn’t really an Apostle. There were charges that he was teaching differently than Peter, James, and John. There were charges that his teaching was not only different but less authoritative than theirs. There were charges that Paul had once taught the true Gospel but had changed it in order to be a “man pleaser” because circumcision and the Law would be too hard for Gentiles. Paul clearly demonstrates that all of these charges are absolutely false.
This letter from the Galatians opens with storm clouds on the horizon. Normally, these ancient letters would take a long form of introduction with greetings and introductions. Paul has a very short greeting before the clouds fully form and the storm is upon the Galatian Church. Paul is all business. But before he gets to business, he does take a moment to introduce what believers are supposed to be about: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
This is what Paul will be defending and reinforcing. He is going to take the enemies of this idea, examine their arguments, and then kill their idea. He’s going take that dead idea, and in case we still thought adding to the Gospel was a good one, he’s going to beat the idea to a pulp. He’s then going to take that idea that’s been beaten to a pulp and is going to grind it into tiny bits. At the end of Galatians, it is my prayer that you will have no desire left within you to ever question what the true Gospel is. It is my prayer that you will have no desire to add to the Gospel. At the end of Galatians, I hope you are left in wonder at how glorious the true Gospel is and how wicked false gospels are.
Notice, though, in verses 3-5 how it is God our Father and Jesus Christ that is praised for saving us. Christ gave Himself for our sins to save us. It is God working. It is God doing. It is God saving. That’s the Gospel. But man always wants to interrupt God and say: “But let me show you why you should save me!” He’s not content to let God save Him, he wants to contribute.
So Paul continues: 6I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel- 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.
The storm is upon us. Paul is literally shocked that the Church is so quickly deserting God. How is the Church deserting God? By not giving to the poor? By not being nice? By not acting properly? No, they are deserting God because they are leaving the grace that God has given them by turning to a different gospel. They are literally turning to different “news”, different “truth”.
Chill out Paul! As long as they’re sincere, can’t we just say that it’s a gospel for them? Can’t you just hear the world telling Paul to quit being so close-minded?
No! Paul says there is no other gospel! This false gospel is no gospel at all! These men are are distorting the only gospel that there really is and that is the gospel of Christ.
Now, I want to warn you that Paul is about to commit the only sin that you can possibly commit in a world that doesn’t believe in sin. He is about to be close-minded. He is about to be intolerant. If you ate a large breakfast today then I don’t want you to become sick as we listen to Paul use the most shocking words: 8But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.
The word here is literally anathema. Let the angel or any man that teaches you a false Gospel be eternally condemned to hell. I do hope you’re beginning to sense how serious it is that the true Gospel be taught. But Paul is not satisfied with saying it once. I’ve taught you guys this before. If I want to emphasize something in the English I might underline it or put it in bold print. The Jews, when they wanted to make sure you knew they were serious, would repeat something. Paul is dead serious and so he says: “9As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.”
Is it any wonder that James warns men that not all should be teachers because they will be held in stricter judgment? Beloved, I hope you realize how seriously I take the Word of God and that that very same curse rests upon me today if I preach to you a false Gospel. We live by sight so much that we don’t take stock of the power and holiness of God that exists beyond our sight. I believe in God and so I’m trying to convey to you how serious this is. It is good that we live in societies that permit us to worship without the government interfering but please never believe, even for a moment, that God is pleased with all worship and with every gospel. The state doesn’t judge what is right and we don’t judge what is right but all things will be brought under the judgment of God and the very worst judgment, throughout the Scriptures, is upon those that corrupt the gospel.
Why? Because in your presence today I am supposed to be giving you words of life. We have all been created in Adam and, apart from God saving us, we are all running to hell as fast as our legs can carry us. Apart from God, we would be content to worship Him falsely and be condemned in our sins for doing so. But God sent His Son, in the person and work of Jesus Christ, to save us from our sins. He was despised and rejected of men and lived a life of sorrow. We didn’t deserve a single day of the life that He lived among men. He came to save us from our sins and mankind spit in His face and put Him to death as a blasphemer. The night before He died, He prayed to God to learn if there was any way other than the Cross to save men from their sins.
Now, I’m sorry but I just can’t please men at this point. Today, men would say: “Sure there’s another way Jesus! As long as someone is sincere then it doesn’t matter what they believe.” Such men spit in my Savior’s face because on that night He prayed with such distress at the thought of facing God’s wrath for His people’s sins that drops of blood poured out of Him like sweat. The Father answered and said: “There is no other way! Your death is the only thing that will take away the sin of men!”
And so He went to the punishment that I deserve and that you deserve and He took all of God’s hot, holy wrath upon Himself so we don’t have to be eternally condemned.
Do you believe this? Do you really? Are you willing to stand with Paul against those who teach a false Gospel? Are you willing to stand against a false Gospel and receive the disapproval of men who look at you strangely in this world because believing in absolutes is so close-minded?
Is Christ the only hope, the only chance you have or do you have other options as long as you’re sincere?