No Other Gospel

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Galatians 1:6-7
Galatians 2:11-21

There are many gospels in the world, many messages that claim to present the truth about God and religion. Today we begin a study of a letter that explains the only authentic gospel.

You might think that because the apostle Paul is revered today by all Christian believers as the greatest teacher in the history of the church that his own contemporaries viewed him that way too. You could imagine Paul proceeding through the Mediterranean world on his missionary journeys as if they were a sort of first-century celebrity tour, with adoring crowds hanging on the apostle’s every word and treating him with the reverent awe we would give to him were he to visit our churches today. You would probably figure that Paul’s teaching must have been received everywhere as the Word of God, since his letters have come to be recognized as just that – God’s very Word in written form since his letters have come to be recognized as just that, God’s very Word in written form.

But if you figured that, you would be wrong. In Paul’s own lifetime it wasn’t that way at all. Almost everywhere he went Paul was challenged and criticized. In the churches he himself established Paul’s authority was questioned, his teaching rejected, even his character was maligned. The apostle’s every step was dogged by other preachers who contradicted what he said and tried to turn his own converts against him. More significantly, Paul’s opponents urged the young Christians in his churches to reject the gospel message as Paul had proclaimed it and substitute for it a religion of rituals and human works.

This was the conflict that produced one of the apostle Paul’s earliest letters, his epistle to the Galatians.

NO OTHER GOSPEL

Paul’s letters normally follow a regular pattern in their opening chapter. They begin with the apostle identifying both himself and his correspondents, then extending a greeting in which he blesses them with God’s grace. This opening salutation is followed by a paragraph of thanksgiving, where Paul expresses his gratitude to God for the life and faith of the church he is addressing before moving on to speak about the issues that prompted him to write. But in his letter to the Galatians, Paul breaks this normal pattern. There is no thanksgiving in Galatians, no words of commendation or praise for the church. Instead, following the address and greeting, Paul begins his letter this way:

6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel- 7 not that there is another gospel, but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed.

Galatians 1:6-8, rsv

You can hear Paul’s agitation clearly, even after two thousand years. How could these new Christians, people whom Paul himself had just evangelized perhaps a few short months before, already be turning away from the truth and embracing another message? This was no small change the Galatians were contemplating. They weren’t just making a minor doctrinal adjustment. If they accepted the teaching of Paul’s opponents, they would be deserting Christ and turning to a different gospel, a counterfeit gospel. That’s what Paul says. And he asserts in no uncertain terms that there is only one genuine gospel, the one he himself had preached to them. If anyone tries to confuse the issue by teaching that people must do something else to be saved besides putting their faith in Christ, Paul cries, “let him be anathema!” It doesn’t matter who the preacher is, even an angel from heaven! Whoever contradicts the gospel of salvation by faith alone should be accursed.

But who exactly were these enemies of Paul and what was their “different gospel”? Scholars have given them the name “Judaizers.” They were apparently conservative Jewish Christians who had accepted Jesus as the Messiah and who proclaimed the need of faith in him, but who added to that the necessity of observing the Jewish ceremonial Law. These were the people who said, as they are quoted in the book of Acts, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).

Paul’s response to this teaching is sharp, even violent. This was no small matter. The Judaizers’ teaching was not merely a theological alternative within the same basic faith tradition. It wasn’t a matter of nuance, a question of emphasis, perhaps. It was another gospel altogether. That is to say, it was no gospel at all. The gospel is the message of salvation by God’s free grace received through faith in Christ. The gospel is an announcement: God has done all that is necessary for anyone to be saved by sending his Son to die on the cross and rise again from the dead. The gospel is also a promise: all who believe in Christ and rely upon his power to save will be justified – made right – in God’s sight.

It is not faith in Christ plus anything that saves . . . not faith plus good works, not faith plus religious rituals. The gospel is faith in Christ plus nothing. We are justified by faith alone. Paul’s words in Galatians, said the great Martin Luther, “are very thunderclaps from heaven against all kinds of self-righteousness.”

Paul’s passionate outcry sounds a little bit strange in our tolerant day, a day in which the church, taking its cue from the relativistic age in which we live, no longer thunders anathemas against false teaching. Indeed, many Christians seem embarrassed even by the suggestion that some ideas are true and others are false. Most people today prefer to think that all ideas are equally valid, especially when it comes to religion, just as any belief is acceptable as long as it is sincerely held. We like to pitch a big tent today, and welcome all comers. Nowadays everything is tolerated except intolerance.

But Paul had no tolerance at all for those who perverted the gospel because he was convinced that beliefs have consequences, and that non-Christian beliefs end up costing people eternal life. The difference between the apostle and his opponents was not a minor one; their controversy wasn’t a matter of theological quibbling or hair-splitting. As Mark Twain remarked, the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and lightning bug. The difference between the real gospel of salvation by faith alone and the almost gospel of faith plus works is the difference between life and death. The question being decided between Paul and his opponents was grace versus law – and it would determine whether Christianity would be an announcement of Good News with power to save or just one more in the endless number of world religions teaching human merit and salvation by effort. No wonder Paul was worked up.

JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH

But perhaps he was overreacting. Was this really that big a deal? After all, the difference between Paul and his opponents might not have been as significant as Paul made it out to be. They both acknowledged Jesus as Messiah, Son of God and Savior. They were both spreading the news of Christ’s death and resurrection. All the Judaizers did was to add some practices from the Old Testament law to the Christian life, rituals and customs that God’s people had observed for centuries and which would make the new gentile converts more acceptable to Jewish believers. What was wrong with that? Even the great apostle Peter was briefly swayed by their arguments.

In Galatians 2 Paul describes a dramatic, face-to-face showdown he had with Peter. Peter had been waffling over the issue of whether gentile converts to Christianity also had to undergo circumcision and begin to obey the Jewish ceremonial law before they could be accepted as full members of the church. This would have implied that faith in Christ alone was not enough to gain acceptance into the church (and by extension acceptance with God). Paul confronted Peter publicly, saying to him, “You have ben saved by grace and set free from the law; why would you impose it upon others who have also been saved?” (Galatians 2:14).

Then Paul goes on in Galatians 2 to offer one of the finest expositions in the whole New Testament of the nature of the authentic Christian gospel. He writes this:

. . . we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.

Galatians 2:16, nrsv

Paul is explaining here the Christian doctrine that has come to be called “justification by faith,” what Luther called “the chiefest article” of Christianity. Justification by faith means that we are declared righteous by God – and therefore saved – simply on the basis of our trusting in Christ and not by virtue of anything else, anything that we do. And lest we should miss the point, Paul repeats this fact no less than four times in this one verse that I read, Galatians 2:16, concluding with the statement: “no one will be justified by the works of the law.” That may seem like overkill, but the reason Paul talked so much about justification by faith is because the idea of earning salvation through righteous good works is one of the most deeply ingrained of all religious instincts. It’s very hard to break.

But just a minute, Paul. Do you really mean to say that people are saved just by believing in Christ, no matter what else they do or have done? That can’t be right. Surely you must want to qualify that. If that’s true, anybody could just do anything and still be saved. Have you thought about that? Yes, he has, for Paul goes on to say this, “If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not!” (v.17, niv). The most basic and immediate objection to the Christian doctrine of justification can be stated in this phrase from Galatians 2:17, “that Christ promotes sin.” All this talk about justification by faith apart from obeying the law is going to make people careless of morality. So the criticism goes: If bad people are saved only by God’s grace, what’s the point of trying to be good?

The answer to that has two parts. Here’s how Paul puts it in the closing verses of Galatians 2:

I have been crucified with Christ; 20 and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

Galatians 2:19-21, NRSV

First, we must understand that those who are justified by faith are also born again into a new life. Our old self has been crucified with Christ; Christ now lives in us, and we live by faith in him. How could anyone under these circumstances possibly be careless about or indifferent towards sin? Second, we must think through the implications of Christ’s death on the cross for sin. If justification is not by faith alone in that death, in Christ crucified, if it requires somehow our law-keeping, then why did Jesus die on the cross anyway? If we can save ourselves through moral effort, Paul said, Christ died for nothing!

So here it is: two important truths to remember as we sum it up:

  1. Anything extra for salvation that we would require beyond simple faith in Christ will compromise the truth of the gospel. We need to distinguish between “should” and “must.” There are all sorts of things people should do once they are saved, or even if they’re not, but there’s only one thing they absolutely must do to be saved, and that is to trust in Christ. We need to take care, lest in turning any other “should” into a “must” we “nullify the grace of God” (v. 21).
  2. Justification by faith in Christ gives us a new life, not a license to sin. Like Paul, I ought never to lose my sense of wonder that the Son of God loved me, and gave himself for me, and that realization is going to make me live for him always.