READ : Galatians 1:1-24
The New Testament tells us that the early church was devoted to the teaching of the apostles. To put it another way, to be authentic, a church must be apostolic. David Bast explores why and how to be that in today’s program.
Acts 2:42 offers four simple signs or characteristics that mark the life of an authentic Christian church. Speaking of the early church in Jerusalem, Luke says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers.” So as we consider these marks of a true church, we begin with this idea of the apostles’ teaching. To put it another way, to be authentic a church must be apostolic.
In the Nicene Creed, the most universal expression of the Christian faith, we confess that “we believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” So what does it mean to have a church that’s apostolic? How do you know if you do? And why is that important anyway?
Let me address that last question first. The reason the true church must be apostolic has to do with the nature of the Christian faith itself. Authentic Christianity is a historical faith. That is, it is based on certain facts of history that are held to be true. The Christian gospel does not begin by proclaiming theories about God or an ethical system for human behavior. It begins by announcing certain events that happened in time and space, in the first century, to be specific, in Palestine, to be even more specific, and involving a man named Jesus of Nazareth.
The apostolic gospel is the message consisting of the facts about the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, plus their meaning. It’s not simply that something happened; the apostolic gospel is what happened plus what it means, fact plus interpretation. So, for example, Paul, in a famous summary of the gospel, says:
I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.
1 Corinthians 15:3
Christ died, he was buried, he rose again. Those are the facts. Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures. That’s fact plus meaning; that is, the gospel message that Christ’s death is the way of salvation for everyone, everywhere. Obviously, people are free to believe whatever they want. But if you do not choose to believe this apostolic testimony about Jesus Christ and specifically about what his death and resurrection mean for human life and salvation, then don’t claim to be a Christian. Call yourself something else.
So the first mark of a true church is apostolicity. A Christian is not defined first of all by what they think or even by how they live, which is not to discount the importance of doctrine or of love, or personal holiness. But, first and foremost, a Christian is someone who accepts the apostles’ testimony and who says, “Yes, this is true. I believe this. Christ died and rose again for my salvation.”
The Apostolic Gospel
Let’s think a bit more about the nature of the apostolic gospel. What was the substance of the apostles’ message or teaching? For that we could range across the whole New Testament, but let me focus instead on just one chapter, the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. As we open Galatians chapter 1 we discover that the apostolic gospel is first of all a divine revelation rather than a merely human message. Paul introduces himself in the very first verse as
an apostle not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father.
And a bit later in verse 11 he says,
For I would have you know, brothers and sisters, that the Gospel that was preached by me, is not man’s gospel, for I did not receive it from any man nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
Other messengers, other preachers, have invaded Galatia with a very different gospel from the one Paul had proclaimed. He can say,
I’m surprised that you are so quickly turning away from the gospel you had accepted and believed.
And we know from a study of Galatians and elsewhere in the New Testament that these people were probably what are called Judaizers. They were coming with the insistence that faith in Christ alone was not enough for a person to be saved. To faith had to be added the keeping of the Jewish law, and particularly receiving circumcision as a sign of acceptance of that law.
Paul is passionate in his opposition to this teaching because he recognizes that the gospel itself is at stake here. This isn’t some mere church-y disagreement. If you add human achievement or human religion to faith in Jesus Christ as the ground of salvation, you destroy the very possibility of salvation. If it becomes a matter of our performance, then we haven’t any hope of forgiveness. So Paul begins, thundering out his qualifications as a preacher of the gospel that’s been divinely revealed to him, this message that he proclaims. It’s not human in its origin. “I did not think this up,” says Paul. “It came to me as a revelation of Jesus Christ.”
That is, Paul’s message was a revelation whose origin is Jesus Christ: Christ himself gave it to Paul. We could also say that it was a message whose content was Jesus Christ. Paul’s gospel consisted of Jesus Christ. He is the whole of it: his person, his work, his promises, his life, his Spirit.
So the apostles’ teaching consists of truth that it’s not merely human but divine. And where, we ask, is the apostles’ teaching to be found? It has been written down for us in a book, the book we call “the New Testament.” John Wesley, in his preface to his collected sermons, wrote,
I want to know one thing: the way to heaven. God has vouchsafed to show it to me. He has written it in a book. O, give me that book! By all means, give me the book of God! I have it! Here is knowledge enough for me.
And we have it too, by the mercy of God. We have the apostles’ teaching, all of it, written down for us in the pages of the New Testament. We don’t worship this book; we worship the Lord whom the book reveals to us. But we value the book because it comes from that same Lord of whom it speaks.
Grace and Peace
Secondly, Paul goes on to say in the opening verses of Galatians 1, that the gospel is a divine revelation of God’s grace and peace in Jesus Christ. Listen to the familiar words of Paul’s salutation:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age according to the will of our God and Father to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen (vv. 3-5)
The gospel, you see, is all about grace and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. There is a kind of caricature of this New Testament message that sees an angry God who is somehow pacified by a self-sacrificing Christ. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The gospel, from start to finish, is all about the gracious love of the triune God — “Father, Son, and Spirit together. The Father does not drag the Son, kicking and screaming, to the cross against his will. Jesus Christ, says the apostle, “gave himself for our sins to deliver us. . . .” It was an act of pure, voluntary grace. Nor does the Son interpose himself between sinners and a terrible God bent on destroying them, crying out, “Here, punish me instead.”
Christ’s act of self-giving flows from the Father’s own decision to be gracious to those very sinners who have earned his just condemnation. It all happens, Paul writes, “according to the will of our God and Father.” The reason there is any gospel at all is because God “God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit”is love. Because of love he wills to save, by love he chooses those he saves, in love he sends Christ to save, out of love Christ goes and dies to save, all for love. And all, all of grace. It is all due to him, “to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.”
That’s the gospel, and there is no other. But of course, there are all kinds of other gospels, various “isms” and sects and cults and heresies. The world is chock-full of different gospels, all claiming to be the one, true, authentic word from God. But here’s the point. You can recognize the genuine gospel by its fidelity to the apostolic witness. Paul writes,
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you. . . . contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (vv. 8-9)
You see, it doesn’t matter how big your church is, or how many television stations you’re broadcasting on, or how many books you’ve sold, or how great your reputation, or what you look like, or even, in a sense, how you behave. The messenger does not validate the message. It’s the other way around. The message validates the messenger.
So test the messages you hear. Test them by the apostles’ teaching, which God has graciously preserved for us in the New Testament. If the gospel you are hearing is genuine, rejoice! Believe it, and you will be saved. Proclaim it, and you will be blessed. Change it, and you will be accursed.