When the gospel is not the gospel. Galatians 1:6-10

There Is Only One Good News
Galatians 1:6-10

6 I am shocked that you are turning away so soon from God, who called you to himself through the loving mercy of Christ.[a] You are following a different way that pretends to be the Good News 7 but is not the Good News at all. You are being fooled by those who deliberately twist the truth concerning Christ.

8 Let God’s curse fall on anyone, including us or even an angel from heaven, who preaches a different kind of Good News than the one we preached to you. 9 I say again what we have said before: If anyone preaches any other Good News than the one you welcomed, let that person be cursed.

10 Obviously, I’m not trying to win the approval of people, but of God. If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant.

When we use the term “gospel,” all sorts of images begin to appear in people’s minds. If we think of Jesus Christ, His atoning death, His burial, His resurrection, faith alone in Christ alone, then we are contemplating the biblical truths presented in the gospel. But when we begin to venture outside of this realm into the arena of human ability, then we have left the gospel completely.

I recently asked a young man, who is very active in his church, to state in concise terms the answer to this question, ‘What is the gospel?’ Here is his response word for word: “I have been a charismatic Christian all of my life. I believe in the Holy Spirit and in being born again.” What type label a person wears has nothing to do with the answer to this question. Nor does the fact that he believes in the Holy Spirit and being born again. I was taken aback by the fact that this young man openly professes to be a Christian, yet he does not have even a slight understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This fellow does not stand alone. For multitudes attend churches week after week but they have not the slightest understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ. They consider that because of their outward profession and their active participation in all that is related to Christianity that they are Christians. But apart from the saving grace of God revealed in the gospel, there is no salvation.

The apostle Paul dropped any kind comments in this epistle as he immediately launches into the heart of his concern for the Galatians: they were close to abandoning the gospel! The Judaizers had beguiled them with their Jesus plus works gospel. So the apostle sounds the “tornado warning” (as Timothy George calls it) to alert them to the eternal danger they faced. The warning still stands. The gospel has not changed with the centuries. How does this unchanging nature of the gospel affect us?

I. The danger facing the church in every age

What took place in Galatia concerning the gospel has taken place throughout the history of Christianity. There have always been those individuals who either deny the teaching of Scripture concerning the gospel or have interpreted Scripture in a man-centered fashion, and therefore have abandoned the gospel of Christ alone. This is not just a difference of opinion on a non-essential area. This is the heart and soul of biblical revelation concerning God and man! And this deals with eternity, as well as the glory of God!

In the 16th century, Martin Luther spent much of his life dodging the attempts by the Roman church to have him put to death, all because of Luther’s stand on the gospel. He understood that the Church in every age faced the danger of departing from the gospel. He saw it happening right before his own eyes with the popularity of papal indulgences which taught men to buy their way out of divine punishment for their sin. He could not be silent! He continued to express this in his preface to Galatians:

Yet I am compelled to forget my shame and be quite shameless in view of the horrible profanation and abomination which have always raged in the Church of God, and still rage to-day, against this one solid rock which we call the doctrine of justification. I mean the doctrine that we are redeemed from sin, death and the devil, and made partakers of eternal life, not by ourselves (and certainly not by our works, which are less than ourselves), but by the help of another, the only-begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ. [p. 16]

Luther could identify with the Apostle Paul who is stunned, shocked, and perplexed that the Galatians have “so quickly” deserted the God who had called them by grace and the finished work of Christ. Quite frankly, I hope that we can identify with the Apostle as well, that there might be in us a holy passion for the purity of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Why should we be passionate about the true gospel? Because there is a…

1. Desertion for a different gospel

The text points out that the Galatians were in the process of deserting rather than having completed their desertion or apostasy from the gospel. The present tense of the verb “deserting” shows this. The danger was that they were threatening to leave the gospel of grace for a salvation by the law. The good news was that there was still hope for them, so Paul writes to call their attention back to the gospel of Christ. I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel.

By the word “different,” Paul expresses the idea of ‘a difference in kind’. He qualifies this in verse 7 as not even being a gospel. For the gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ and His redeeming work on behalf of sinners. Anything less than this is just not “good news.” What the Galatians were doing was substituting the “bad news” of a works-oriented salvation for the “good news” of the grace-alone salvation in Christ.

For Paul, any claim of “gospel” which deviated from faith in Jesus Christ and His finished, saving work alone was “a different gospel.” The irony of what was being passed off as “the gospel” to the Galatians was that it betrayed the whole concept of gospel. The need for the gospel arises due to our enmity with God, our separation from Him as sinners. It is only when the enmity is removed that we are reconciled to God and brought into a saving relationship to Him in Christ. The previous centuries proved that adherence to the Law never saved anyone; divine and gracious intervention by God was necessary. Now, the Judaizers wanted to return the Galatians to this same dependence upon the Law for salvation, which really was a dependence upon one’s own abilities to remove the enmity with God. It never happened before and they were deceived to think it would happen again!

Paul gives a good explanation of what was taking place by his words in chapter 3:1-3 of this same epistle. “You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched [lit. ‘cast a spell upon’] you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”

False teachers had come in, claiming to speaking with authority, and disrupting the Galatian believers’ understanding of the gospel. They were saying, “Yes, Jesus died for us, but that is not enough. We must add to his death our adherence to the law of Moses in order to be truly saved.” But Paul argues quite logically with them that it is Christ alone that has atoned for our sins. If our sins have been atoned for, if our standing with God is now one of righteousness based on the imputed righteousness of Christ, if God’s justice is fully satisfied through the substitutionary death of Christ, then how can anyone think that he can add to this salvation with his own works of righteousness? If we can add one drop to our salvation by our own works, then Christ died needlessly. As the apostle expressed it, “I do not nullify the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly” (Gal. 2:21).

But is this really a danger which we face in our own day? I believe it is and that it can be seen by a…

2. Distortion of the true gospel v. 7

Distorting the gospel implies a perversion or a twisting of its truth and content. It is the slight manipulation of gospel truth to give it more of a man-centeredness rather than a God-centeredness. It subtly moves the inquirer away from Christ alone, grace alone, and faith alone, into a dependence upon the flesh or techniques or an organization or another person. It may well have been that these false teachers, who likely claimed to be missionaries as Paul, agreed with everything that Paul had preached, BUT they added what they considered he had left out. This is where the words and terms we use are important in defining precisely what is and what is not the gospel. The idea of the false teachers, known as Judaizers, was that, as Luther explained, “‘Christ’s a fine master. He makes the beginning, but Moses must complete the structure’.” Luther continues, “The devil’s nature shows itself therein: if he cannot ruin people by wronging and persecuting them, he will do it by improving them” [quoted by Timothy George, NAC, 96].

‘Yes, get all the truth of the gospel! But add to it a twist here and an addition there’. That is the devilish ruse to keep men from Christ alone who can save them.

How does the gospel get perverted in our own day? I believe one prevalent way happens each week in Baptist churches. There are some pastors who do a marvelous job explaining the gospel, then throw it all away in the last five minutes of their sermon. It takes place when the pastor preaches at least some of the gospel but the real emphasis in salvation is “walking the aisle.” ‘You need to walk this aisle today…right now. If you want to be saved, then just come down this aisle right now!’ In the mind of the listener, what is the true gospel? Believe in Jesus and walk down the aisle. This is Christ plus some action on the person’s part. Many times I’ve heard people describing their salvation by the term, “I walked the aisle.” You never find such terminology in the Bible in reference to salvation! Yet many trust in Christ plus the physical act of walking down an aisle for their salvation. That is not faith alone in Christ alone. It is exactly the same problem confronting the Galatians: adding something to the work of Christ for salvation. Paul said this was “another gospel.”

In response to the question, ‘What must I do to be saved?’, the typical reply is, “Just pray this prayer with me.” Then the person is led in saying some words which are supposed to save him. He satisfies himself with the idea, ‘I’m okay now, I prayed the prayer’. Yet, when this question is asked in Acts 16:30, Paul did not give the Philippian jailer some words to say or even the prayer to pray, but told him, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved.” It was faith alone in Christ alone that saved him. When the multitude on the day of Pentecost began to ask in response to Peter’s proclamation of the gospel, “Brethren, what shall we do?” Peter did not say, “Just pray this prayer with me.” Nor did he say, “Just ask Jesus into your heart.” He told them, “Repent and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:37-38). The command was to repent, while the confession that demonstrated true repentance and faith (two sides of the same coin) was baptism.

The emphasis of the gospel is never upon what we do, but upon what Christ has done on our behalf. The gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ died on behalf of sinners. His death was substitutionary. His death atoned for our sins. His death satisfied the justice of God so that we can be justly declared righteous in God’s sight. His resurrection confirmed that the penalty due to each of us for our sin was sufficiently paid and that now this resurrection power operates in us who believe, bringing us to life through Jesus Christ.

What is to be the sinner’s response to this gospel? His response to what Christ has done is to be one of repentance, turning from his sin and self-centeredness to God who alone saves, and trusting or believing in Jesus Christ as the Son of God “who gave Himself for our sins, that he might deliver us out of this present evil age” (Gal. 1:4). His faith is not mixed with his works so that he can appeal to God on the basis of what he has done. But he comes to Christ empty-handed, trusting in Christ alone and depending upon the grace of God alone without any confidence in the flesh.

Can you, in all honesty, say that you are trusting in Christ alone for your salvation? Have you abandoned trusting in your own works of righteousness to save you? Are you resting confidently in Jesus Christ and Him crucified on your behalf? Have you been adding to the work of Christ, seeking to put your trust in Christ plus some addition of your own? Then you have fallen prey to the same type heresy that threatened the Galatians. This epistle stands as a warning to you and an urging to repent of such man-centered ideas of salvation and cast yourself upon Jesus Christ and His merits alone.

“Come on Paul! what’s a little disagreement anyhow? We all have a right to our own opinions!” The apostle would vehemently disagree and assert…

II. The declaration for anyone distorting the gospel

Here Paul offers no middle ground. There’s no candy-coating the serious nature of distorting the gospel. He declares anyone preaching another gospel or distorting the gospel to be anathema or accursed. But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed. The word means ‘to be devoted to destruction’, so in essence, Paul was damning them to hell. Paul was so jealous of the purity of the gospel that to add one thing to it or to take away one thing from it brought forth the strongest curse he could utter: “Let him be anathema.”

1. An inclusiveness

He makes sure that the Galatians know that he is not trying to simply cover his territory, as if they thought he was upset they had other teachers. He would have rejoiced in anyone who joined him in preaching the gospel to these people! He includes himself and his associates when he speaks of preaching “a different gospel”: “But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you….” He uses a mood in the Greek verb, “should preach,” to show that it had not happened, but in case it ever happened that Paul, his associates, or even an angel preached another gospel, bring on the anathema!

Are there different gospels being preached? Obviously, there are groups and so-called churches that are clearly heretical that do not even come close to resembling gospel preaching. These are easy to spot by their denial of the deity of Christ or even the denial of a need for personal salvation. But Paul’s concern, and I believe ours as well, revolves around those individuals who would agree with much of what the Bible says concerning Christ, but they add some twist to what is necessary for salvation or they delete some other truth the Bible declares essential to salvation.

I received a tract entitled, “Bible Plan of Salvation,” which came from a church not more than three miles from us. They have a beautiful building and occasionally advertise in the community. In reading through their tract that is supposed to explain salvation, I noticed that they make no mention of sin nor our enmity with God, other than one verse quoted which speaks of “remission of sins.” There is no mention at all of the death of Christ, the atoning work accomplished on the cross, the justice of God, the imputed righteousness of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, the sufficiency of Christ, faith in Jesus Christ alone, or even salvation by the grace of God. Everything revolves around experiences and man-centered acts. It does not even state why we need salvation or how God has provided salvation through Christ. Do we say that this is just a ‘weak tract’? I think we better call it heresy! It is “another gospel” which is no gospel at all.

I believe it is important to note that this matter of a pure gospel is of such importance that Paul even rebuked Peter about his failure to stand upon faith alone. In Galatians 2, Paul continues giving a biographical sketch of his pilgrimage in the faith and the fact that he received the gospel by revelation from Jesus Christ. In Antioch, Paul encountered Peter who had given way to a group of Judaizers that spoke confidently about adding the works of the law to the gospel. Paul writes, “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James [i.e., Judaizers], he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of circumcision. And the rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?…knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified” (Gal. 2:11-14, 16 italics added for emphasis).

The warning of this text is clear: any of us can slip into heresy concerning the gospel! We must guard ourselves lest we find ourselves falling under this same apostolic anathema.

2. An exclusiveness

Paul wanted the Galatians to understand what gospel he referred to in his admonitions. He first identifies it as “that which we have preached to you,” then gives further clarification as it being “that which you received.” The gospel is that which was preached first by our Lord, then the apostles. It is the good news proclaimed with apostolic authority to which Paul refers. The gospel is not a warm feeling, it is truth that can be proclaimed in logical, clear terms. It is truth that can be written and spoken, yet at the same time experienced. The apostle further amplifies this matter of the gospel being truth proclaimed in Romans 10:14-17, in which he clarifies, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” The Galatians had heard the gospel proclaimed and had responded with faith in its life-imparting truth.

The gospel is also received. It is experiential. My friend, you can hear the gospel over and over until you can quote its truth in your sleep, but until you receive it by faith, you really do not know the saving power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Sometimes in orthodox circles, where the gospel is clearly stated, people are lulled into a false sense of salvation because they are around sound gospel preaching. They don’t argue with what is preached nor do they disagree with it, so they conclude that they are converted. But Paul’s emphasis is upon a gospel that is not only preached but one that is “received” or experienced.

The false gospel the Judaizers were proclaiming could not save, but could only leave a person in deeper bondage. The true gospel alone can be received to the saving of the soul for eternity. Receiving the gospel means receiving the Person of the gospel, Jesus Christ. For Christ alone is the content of the gospel. The gospel is all about Jesus Christ, God Himself, coming to earth on behalf of sinners, fulfilling the law on behalf of sinners so that His righteousness might be imputed to the account of sinners, and dying a justifying death on behalf of sinners. Paul reminded the Galatians that this work of God’s free, unmerited grace of salvation through Christ alone was what they had received by faith. To preach any other gospel demands anathema! To neglect faith in Jesus Christ alone as proclaimed in the gospel demands eternal damnation.

So it is exclusive: that which is preached and that which is received. You can add nothing else to it. But the gospel is merely a bunch of words until you have responded to this gospel by faith. Mere words do not save. Jesus Christ alone saves as we trust in Him and His merit on our behalf. Faith in the gospel of Christ is faith in the Person of Christ. Receiving the gospel is receiving Christ as your Prophet, Priest, and King.

“But Paul, you are letting everyone off the hook with your grace alone preaching. You are giving people just what they want!” On the contrary, notice…

III. The distinction in the true gospel

The tenth verse shows that Paul was being accused of going light due to preaching grace alone. He insists that his message is actually centered in God because he could have had much more popularity by proclaiming a man-centered message rather than a God-centered message. “For am I now seeking the favor of men [the implication being that he therefore would have had a man-centered gospel that appealed to the flesh], or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ.” This gospel is a gospel of Christ alone, so therefore it must be of grace alone, and of necessity it is therefore by faith alone.

Any man is more comfortable trusting himself for righteousness rather than trusting in the righteousness of Another, i.e., until he comes to the point of recognizing his own depravity and the nature of his offense against God. Dr. Timothy George reminds us that, “So serious is the breach between us and God caused by our sins that nothing less than the substitutionary atoning death of God’s Son can reconcile us to the Father” [NAC, 86]. The issue in salvation is not pleasing men. It is coming to terms with our infinite offense against God’s holiness, understanding our separation from God, seeing that we are hopeless to justify ourselves before God, and trusting in Christ alone who has justified us through His own righteousness at the cross.

But to leave a person helpless before God is not popular! Are we not supposed to be preaching an enticing message more akin to the smooth talk of a talk-show host so that people will decide to join the ranks of Christianity? Again, I quote Dr. George who nails this issue clearly.

In a market-driven age we are accustomed to think of every church having a special niche, of every visitor as a prospective customer, and every aspect of worship designed to satisfy the consumers. Paul was reminding the Galatians that the gospel was not a product to be peddled on the marketplace of life. It has no need of shrewd salesmen to make it more palatable to modern tastes. The gospel has its own self-generating, dynamic authority and need not be propped up by artificial means, however sophisticated or alluring. [p. 101]

Paul was more interested in being a bond-servant of Christ than securing “decisions for Christ” at the expense of compromising the gospel. He knew that he was responsible to one day give an account for how he stood for the gospel. We, too, are included in this accounting. The day will come when all of us, preacher, teacher, Christian alike, will give an account for how we handled or mishandled the gospel of Jesus Christ. As Paul exhorted the Galatians, so too he exhorts us concerning the purity, truthfulness, and trustworthiness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

1. Bond-servants or people-pleasers?

We must be clear on what we are doing in confronting men with the gospel. We are not trying to win a popularity contest! The nature of the gospel is offensive because it declares men to be at enmity with God. It tells men that they are without hope apart from Jesus Christ and Him crucified. It leaves men empty-handed in being able to offer God anything to merit salvation.

Paul quizzed the Galatians, “For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men?” The obvious answer is that if Paul was trying his best to please men then he sure would not be under fire by so many people. His life would not be so complicated. There would not be so many people hating him. For men-pleasers avoid the kind of persecution in which Paul lived.

He explains to us that men-pleasers cannot be bond-servants of Christ. “If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ.” We have the idea that service for Christ is a nice, voluntary act on our part. But that is not the meaning of bond-servant. As one writer put it, “The ‘bond-servant of Christ’ is not free to offer or withhold his ‘service’; his life is not his own, but belongs entirely to his Lord.” The slave “is wholly at the disposal of his Master,” so it was impossible for Paul, as a slave bound to loyal allegiance to Christ, to seek instead the favor of men [Leon Morris, Galatians: Paul’s Charter of Christian Freedom, 47].

How do we fall prey to this danger of being men-pleasers with the gospel? When our focus is on impressing others with our evangelistic prowess, then we’ve begun to curry the favor of men. When we can water-down the message of the gospel with the rationale that we are trying to be more ‘seeker-friendly’, we are seeking the favor of men and not of God. When we can eliminate or gloss over the cross of Christ and its centrality in the gospel message, placing our emphasis in salvation upon what a person prays or upon some outward profession, then we are seeking to please men. Plenty of sinners will be glad to do anything you ask of them in terms of outward response, as long as they do not have to abandon themselves to the grace of God alone revealed in Jesus Christ and His atoning work. But leave them shut up with the gospel alone and the power of God revealed in the gospel alone, then you will have them running for the cover of self-righteousness, until the Holy Spirit graciously regenerates them.

2. Christ alone

The apostle’s emphasis in verse 6 and 7 on “the grace of Christ” and “the gospel of Christ” stresses the fact that our salvation is in Christ alone. It is not in the church, nor our baptism, nor our own works of righteousness. It is not Christ plus something else that saves you, as some would teach. It is not Christ plus your merits, nor Christ plus your penance, nor Christ plus your service nor Christ plus the Church that saves you. If you are trusting in Christ plus anything, then you have missed the gospel. You have staked your eternity upon that which cannot save, for as soon as you add anything to the sufficiency of Jesus Christ alone and faith in Him for your salvation, you have embraced a false gospel.

If I offered you a quart of cool refreshing water to satisfy your thirst, but I added to it just one drop of poison, would you accept it? It is good water! It will quench your thirst! “Ah, but it will kill me in the process,” you point out. Exactly! It is Christ alone who can satisfy the sinner for eternity. To add something to Christ in all of His purity and power to save is to poison your attempt at being saved.

There are countless people who have trusted Christ plus something to save them. They have been sorely disappointed, even to the point now of despairing of Christianity. Many of them have hardened themselves against the true gospel because they swallowed a poisoned gospel, not knowing that what they received was not Christ alone. Our exhortation is to trust Christ alone to save you.

Is your faith in Christ alone? My friend, if you are trusting anything other than Christ alone and His righteousness for you, then I urge you to repent of your sin and trust in Christ to save you. He is merciful, gracious, and ready to save. Flee to Him and find the only refuge for your soul.

To all who are truly saved, let’s stand for the purity of the gospel of Jesus Christ. There are many temptations around us to water-down the gospel or to soften it to make it more palatable to the flesh. Let’s resist such temptations steadfastly. Let’s hold to the same gospel of Christ that saved us and will sustain us for all eternity! Let’s proclaim this gospel boldly and freely, recognizing that “it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).

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