xclose menu

"No Other Gospel"

September 5, 2021

Passage: Galatians 1

  • Downloads

No Other Gospel

Galatians 1:1-10

September 5, 2021

 

Read Galatians 1:1-10

This is the Word of the LORD.

These could be some hard words to read in a letter you received, wouldn’t they?  “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ…”  That’s a joke, right?

Not so much.

Background

We are starting a new series today: we are looking at Paul’s letter to the Galatian congregations.  As you may have heard, there was a nice salutation and then things changed.  Abruptly.  Why?  What happened?

Paul was writing to people he knew.  He knew them because he had served as a missionary to them.  He knew them because he had a relationship with them.

Paul started these congregations.  They were part of his first missionary journey.  We read about his ministry in these cities in Acts 13 – 14.  In his missionary efforts, Paul would go first to the synagogues to address the Jews.  Then he also went out into the town and addressed the Gentiles.  In some places the Jews responded favorably, some not; but in all, there was a positive Gentile response.  These were places where he boldly proclaimed his message, people responded, and then he was driven out of town by those threatened by what was happening.  Despite – or perhaps because of – how he was treated, churches began.

For those of you familiar with the history given in Acts, Paul founded these churches prior to the time he was summoned to a Council in Jerusalem.  We read about that Council in Acts 15.  Paul had been called to meet with Peter, James, John, and the other leaders of the early church.  The issue was Paul’s reception and acceptance of Gentiles in the Christian churches he was starting.  Some in Jerusalem were demanding that Gentiles undergo circumcision and be required to abide by the law of Moses before being admitted into fellowship in the Christian churches.  This was not the case in the congregations Paul was founding; thus, Paul was summoned to Jerusalem for questioning.  The outcome of that council was in Paul’s favor, and representatives from Jerusalem were sent out with Paul to affirm his good standing with the church.

As I mentioned, the churches in Galatia were founded before Paul went to that Council. This letter was sent at some point after the decision of the Council.  It appears that even though the Council had issued a declaration in support of Paul, there were Jewish believers who trailed behind Paul telling Gentiles just the opposite – that is, Gentiles needed to be circumcised and abide by the law of Moses before being considered authentically Christian.  Believing in Jesus was a good start, but then the Gentiles needed to do the rest in order to earn acceptance in God’s sight and in the eyes of the church.  Given Paul’s personality – he could be kind of intense – it is not difficult to imagine how this would strike him.

The occasion for this letter was that Paul got word that the opponents were beginning to have an effect.  Some of the Galatian churches were beginning to move in that direction.  You can imagine the confusion by new believers: look, Paul, they were experts from Jerusalem – that’s where the church leaders are.  If this is what we are supposed to do, then we are going to do it.  What is it we are supposed to believe? What is it we are supposed to do?  I can sympathize with their confusion.

In a book entitled, “Truth Is Stranger Than It Used To Be,” authors J. Richard Middleton and Brian Walsh use the illustration of the carnival to describe our culture:

We could say that postmodern life is like a carnival.  Unlike classic theater, in which one show is going on, postmodern culture “seems like a carnival with a never-ending array of sideshows.”  There is no center to this production.  Unlike even a three-ring circus, this carnival offers only the clamor of multifarious sideshow hawkers calling out for our momentary attention.  They do not seek our commitment in any ultimate sense; they only want to entertain and titillate us with the weird and wonderful worlds they are peddling.  And, of course, there is nothing heavy or serious about this.  The heavy seriousness of classical theater and the heavy-handed domination of modernity are replaced by the lightness of the postmodern carnival. (p. 42)

In short: welcome to a society led by social media.

It is confusing.  It is so easy to get distracted, there is so much noise.  We have so much access to so much information and yet we struggle to figure out which information we can trust.  Perhaps that confusion, distraction and noise was why Paul got so aggressive in his approach.  

Beginning with his salutation (verses 1-5), Paul exhorted Jew and Gentile believers in Galatia to not give up salvation by faith through grace – the gospel he proclaimed – in favor of a works-based righteousness demanded by adhering to the law of Moses.  Look at how he said it, though, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ.”

That is a text or an e-mail in all capital letters.  It stands out and shouts at you.  It was a rebuke.  It was a verbal admonishment of unacceptable failure by the people in the Galatian churches.  It was a call to wake up.

Paul wanted – and got – their attention.  Clearly to Paul what the opposition was insisting was not a nuance or something that was up for debate.  What was being challenged was foundational, critical, and non-negotiable.  It was a “perversion” of the gospel of Christ.

But why?  Why was this such a huge deal that it triggered this reaction in Paul?  What is the big deal about asking people to be circumcised?  If it was a sign of being part of God’s covenant community – why not?  What was the big deal about asking them to obey the law that had been good for a couple of thousand years by that point?

The reason why Paul struck out so hard was because the Galatian believers were being persuaded to stop taking God at his word.  That is who they were abandoning.  They were deserting God, the one who called them in the grace of Christ.

They were being persuaded that receiving Jesus as Lord and Savior was only the first step; that Christ had not fully reconciled us to God.  Think of it using this image: when Christ died on the cross, the curtain in the temple was torn from top to bottom – demonstrating that God had destroyed the division between himself and his people.  The effect of requiring Gentiles to become Jews through circumcision and submission to the law in order to be considered Christian was like re-hanging a new curtain separating them from God.

So if Paul sounded angry in the letter, it was of his urgency to stop their error.  The temptation that had seduced the Galatians ultimately would serve to try to take glory away from God.  By trying to add to the sacrifice Jesus made – by requiring people to submit to the fullness of the Old Testament law in order to be considered a Christian – they were acting as if they had to do something else on their own to deserve God’s favor.

Now, if this all is too esoteric or too time distant, let me bring you into this week.  Why does this matter?  Because what we believe leads to what we do, what we believe matters.  Be discerning.

This past week, the New York Times reported that Harvard University announced that it has named an atheist as its campus chaplain.

The Puritan colonists who settled in New England in the 1630s had a nagging concern about the churches they were building: How would they ensure that the clergymen would be literate?  Their answer was Harvard University, a school that was established to educate the ministry and adopted the motto “Truth for Christ and the Church.”  It was named after a pastor, John Harvard, and it would be more than 70 years before the school had a president who was not a clergyman.

Nearly four centuries later, Harvard’s organization of chaplains has elected as its next president an atheist named Greg Epstein, who takes on the job this week.

“Maybe in a more conservative university climate there might be a question like ‘What the heck are they doing at Harvard, having a humanist be the president of the chaplains?’” said Margit Hammerstrom, the Christian Science chaplain at Harvard.  “But in this environment it works.  Greg is known for wanting to keep lines of communication open between different faiths.”[1]

Are you kidding me?  I have no objection to an academic seeking to educate regarding various faiths; but someone who is a mentor and a shepherd?  Friends, this is all too real and all to prevalent throughout – not just our universities, but also – our churches: we have lost the essence of the gospel in its familiarity and in our complacency.  And remember, even though my tone may be incredulous and a bit irked, the truth is that the gospel is good news – it is the only good news.  

In the first four verses of Galatians – in the salutation – Paul had already repeated and declared the substance of the gospel: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever.  Amen.”  Now, recognizing that Paul could be a little wordy, let me break that up into a series of sentences:

  1. Grace to you. You have received a gift; you did nothing to earn it, in fact, you could not earn it or deserve it.
  2. Peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. What is that gift?  You have peace with God through the Lord Jesus Christ.
  3. Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age. God took the initiative to broker the peace by having Jesus give himself to fulfill the law.  God tore the curtain from top to bottom.
  4. Jesus gave himself for our sins according to the will of our God and Father. It was not a mistake.  It was not a happy accident.  It was not “the first step” or “just a start.”  It was not just “a” way that God was effecting peace with us; rather, it was “the” way God willed to reconcile us to himself.
  5. We give God the glory forever and ever. Amen.  We have no righteousness apart from Christ.  We have no standing before God apart from Christ.  We have no hope, no salvation, no life apart from Christ.

But here’s the good news one more time: we do have Christ.

Paul’s frustration was that the Galatians were harming themselves by going backwards. In order to try to be more like God or likeable to God, they were turning their back on God.

Let me stop here for a moment because this is important: we need to give God glory. God does not need us to give him glory.  God is fully glorious in his own being.  God’s demand that we give him glory is not a narcissistic demand, God is not immature or insecure that he needs our words of affirmation.  God is not diminished by our failing to praise, nor is God’s greatness enhanced by our praise.

The reason we need to give God glory is because we need to remember and reflect how we are completely and utterly dependent upon God for each moment, each breath, each blessing, each everything we enjoy.  The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.  We need to trust that God is who he has revealed himself to be.  We need to put our hope on him.  The purpose of God’s redemptive work in Christ is peace with us – we cannot add to what God has already done.  Nor does God require anything else – it is all about the relationship and not anything about our performance apart from God.

There is no other gospel. In all the noise and confusion, hold onto the one true gospel.  In all the discord and chaos, measure every demand according to that one true gospel.  

Anathema

In verse 8, Paul uttered a curse against all who would teach differently.  “Even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed.”  And then he repeated it.

It is more than rhetorical flourish.  He was warning about the folly of trusting a leader without discerning the message.  The “angel from heaven” to which Paul was referring was likely a sarcastic characterization of those who claimed to be experts sent from Jerusalem.  Paul’s declaration that they should be accursed – the Greek word is anathema – means that they should be delivered up to the judicial wrath of God.  They should be banned and turned over to God for destruction.

The same warning holds true today: any preacher who demands personal loyalty, or claims to be the expert, or asks you to trust them that Scripture does not mean what it says, has to be suspect.  We see celebrity preachers leading people astray by tweaking the gospel to their own benefit.  You cannot trust a preacher because he or she draws a large number of people.  Packed arenas or pews are no guarantee; it does nothing more than highlight how much like sheep we are.  We can cite horrible examples: Jim Jones in Guyana; David Koresh in Waco, Texas; or any number of televangelists who have bankrupted undiscerning and susceptible souls.  But there are many more who – either maliciously or out of misguided theology – are leading people to give up the peace and security of their salvation by requiring “Christ and…”

What do I mean by “Christ and…”?  I mean when we create litmus tests for judging who is and is not a “real” Christian.  The area where I see this most these days is in our dueling patriotism.  There were lots of folks on January 6 this year proclaiming Jesus and storming the Capitol.  There are lots of people on both sides of the vaccines claiming the Christian banner and condemning others.  When we use God to support our position and create litmus tests of “You cannot be a Christian if you…”, we are putting our own agenda between others and the cross.  That means we are saying, Christ’s sacrifice was not sufficient; you need “Christ and…”  That is a different gospel.  Let me say it one more time with Paul: There is no other gospel.

“Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval?  Or am I trying to please people?  If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”

As Christians we are to be discerning.  We must measure everything through Scripture.  We cannot trust “our heart” or “our intuition” or “what we feel” or “what everyone thinks.”  None of those things are trustworthy.  We cannot put our ultimate trust in any human.  To put a blunt point on it: you should not take my word as gospel – or, at least, you should take my word as gospel only insofar as it is consistent with Scripture as you have engaged it.  I certainly measure all my sermons against the standard of the gospel I have been commissioned to proclaim.  But I am human, sinful, and flawed.  Paul was saying, “do not put your trust in people, put your trust in God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ.”

The only gospel is: salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.  Full stop.  Now, having received the saving grace of Jesus Christ and declaring him Lord of your life, that binds you to a community in which we mutually exhort one another to faithfulness.  We are to build up one another; not put roadblocks or litmus tests between others and the cross.

 

Conclusion

Consider the key words:

  • Grace – and unmerited gift; and,
  • Peace – community after reconciliation
  • Rephrased, Paul was saying: I greet you reminding you of the unmerited gift of a reconciled relationship you have received from God our Father through the atoning sacrifice of Lord Jesus Christ.

 Communion

It is that atoning sacrifice and reconciliation we remember and worship in communion. When we come to the Table, we are bearing witness, we are testifying, we are declaring by our participation that Jesus gave himself for our sins and to set us free.  We are affirming that this wonder occurred according to the will of our God and Father – not because some really smart guys figured it out and planned it.

So as we begin this series, hold on the clear and foundational stone upon which our faith, our hope, our worship, and our salvation depend: God raised Jesus Christ from the dead.  That is it.  Everything else is evaluated based upon that truth.  As much as other things try to be similar and do not feel a whole lot different, everything else is different. Hold fast to what is true.

 Amen.

 Questions:

  1. How does Paul’s opening line hit you? “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ…”  What was he saying?  How would you respond if you received it – is his point accurate?
  2. Why is the gospel important? What difference does it make in your life?  How would you explain the gospel and Paul’s urgency to an unbeliever?  To another believer?
  3. How do you hold onto the truth in a world influenced so heavily by social media? What can you do to bear a faithful witness in your neighborhood, in this community, and beyond?

 

 

[1] https://www.yahoo.com/news/chief-chaplain-harvard-atheist-152603005.html