A month ago, before Easter, Jonathan introduced us to Paul’s letter to the Galatians and this new series. You can catch up with that on the website. Now we come to Galatians 1.6-10. That’s on page 972. Please have that open in front of you. My outline is on the back of the service sheet, and that too will I hope be helpful. ‘No Other Gospel’ is my title, and that’s the theme of this extraordinary passage of Scripture. And it’s very appropriate for this day on which we celebrate our unity in the gospel with our brothers and sisters in Mburi, Kenya.
Some experiences leave a mark. I remember as a boy visiting the steel fabrication shop of our family engineering business. Health and safety was not what it should have been. In my youthful and naïve curiosity I took hold of a steel rod. In fact under a dark cooling surface it was red hot. I quickly learned the warning value of pain. The palm of my hand was badly burned. My dad had a lot of explaining to do to my mum later. The scar across my palm took years to fade.
Getting a grip on this passage of Galatians in my late teenage felt to me like the equivalent spiritual experience of being branded. It left a mark that has so far not faded. I pray that it never will. It was a formative experience for me. As cattle is branded with the owner’s mark, it seemed to me like Christ was establishing unmistakeably his ownership of my life.
Or to put it another way, getting a grip on this section of Scripture was like a spiritual rite of passage for me. This puts steel down your spiritual backbone. Understand the implications of what the apostle Paul says here and it’s like moving from spiritual boyhood to manhood, like moving on from playing with toy soldiers to being on the battlefield.
Like many men of my generation who have never known war first hand, I watch programmes like Band of Brothers about the D-Day invasion, or the current compelling drama from a German perspective called ‘Generation War’, and I wonder how I would measure up in time of war.
But we don’t have to wonder in the spiritual realm. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, as Paul makes clear elsewhere, but as disciples of Christ we are engaged in a profound, life and death spiritual conflict. We are being tested. And the question is whether we will accept Paul’s God-given apostolic authority, and whether we will then live to serve and please God or men.
What’s Paul saying here that made such a deep and lasting impression on my young self? I’ve summed it up in my five headings.
First, TO TURN TO A DISTORTED GOSPEL IS TO DESERT GOD
Paul sums up the true gospel that he teaches in his introductory greeting, so we’re clear from the outset. Verses 3-5:
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 the glory for ever and ever. Amen. (Galatians 1.3-5)
The good news is all about the grace of God in rescuing us who are otherwise lost, and the risen and reigning Son of God who did the rescuing through his death for us on the cross. Grace and Christ. That’s what it’s all about. Of course that needs unpacking in more detail, and that’s what Paul goes on to do in this letter. We’ll be following that through as we work through Galatians. Don’t miss it!
But now Paul leaps in to make clear just how critically important it is that we get this gospel right and that we stick with it. And it’s no exaggeration to say that he does that because he’s in a distressed state about what’s going on with the Galatians. Verse 6:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— (1.6)
He is astonished. It is a shocking thing that is happening. What is it? They’re being swayed by the offer of a different gospel that’s coming to them from people who are inside the church but who disagree with what Paul is teaching. And this is having very, very serious spiritual consequences. The effect of this is that they are deserting God. They are transferring their allegiance away from the living and true God, away from Christ.
A transfer of allegiance is what’s happened in Crimea. It’s when an individual or group says, in effect, “We are no longer going to accept your rule; we’re not going to be subject to you any more. We’re going elsewhere. We’re under new management.”
And this is something that can happen very quickly. Change can be catastrophic rather than evolutionary, and often is. Things can happen very fast. The collapse of the church in the UK since the 1960s is an example of that.
So what is going on with the Galatians, which is causing Paul such anguish, is that they’re turning their backs on the true God; their faith is being destroyed; and the church is in danger of being hollowed out, just leaving a shell. And if that sounds horribly familiar as we look around our country, then that’s why Galatians is a letter for here and now.
And what is going on is a distortion of the gospel which has the effect of destroying it, even though it might not look like that at first. A while back I came home and tried to open our front door. I found I couldn’t. Why? Because my key was bent. It was distorted. It still looked pretty much the same as it always had. But that bend meant that the whole key no longer worked. It wasn’t fit for purpose. It was useless to me – in fact if anything worse than useless because having it had lulled me into a false sense of security that I would be able to get into my home, but when it came to it I found I couldn’t. In fact I managed to bend the key back in to shape. I got rid of the distortion. And then it worked. A distorted gospel, even if at first sight it looks similar to Paul’s gospel, is as useless as a bent key.
To turn to a distorted gospel is to desert God himself.
Secondly, SOME PEOPLE CAUSE TROUBLE IN THE CHURCH BY DISTORTING THE GOSPEL
Look at verse 7:
not that there is another one [gospel, that is], but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. (1.7)
This trouble keeps cropping up through the letter. So in chapter 5 Paul talks about “the one who is troubling you”, in 5.7 he says:
You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? (Galatians 5.7)
This trouble is like a runner being tripped up and so caused to fall. Do you remember the famous scene in the film Chariots of Fire (I realise I’m showing my age) when the Christian and brilliant athlete Eric Liddell is tripped in an international running race, falls and finds himself at the back of the field going nowhere? His recovery tells us something about how to deal with such trouble, but the danger is that if we get tripped up we’ll be out of the race for good.
This trouble comes from within the church. These troublers start with the gospel and change it – which is worse than attacks from outside the church because it’s so much more credible and persuasive at first. Wolves in sheep’s clothing are harder to spot.
And it’s just some people who cause the trouble. Discernment is needed. These are people deliberately teaching a distorted, unbiblical gospel – not just those, for instance, who are themselves untaught and still learning but wanting to know the truth.
These troublers, at some level perhaps even hidden to themselves, want to distort the gospel. There’s a heart issue here. Why do they want to do this? The usual suspects are money, sex or power. But we can leave the heart issue to God. We don’t need to know.
Different distortions of the gospel happen at different times and in different places. Paul here had to grapple with the Judaisers, who wanted to add law to the gospel of grace as the means of salvation. In Jude 7 the issue is the libertarians who used grace as an excuse and a cover for immorality. There are those who add to the gospel and thereby destroy its power. And there are those take away from it and end up doing the same thing.
In places, official Roman Catholic teaching adds to the gospel. The theological liberalism of so much of the mainstream Protestant denominations takes away from it. If you want an incisive and readable analysis of how that works, you can’t do better than the old book by Gresham Machen, recently republished, called ‘Christianity and Liberalism’.
I couldn’t prepare this passage of Scripture without being reminded of some of my encounters with the hierarchy of the Church of England. It is a shocking thing that the leadership of Girlguiding UK, having replaced God with self in the Guide promise, were able to make their new promise together in Westminster Abbey. The current Bishop of this diocese distorts the gospel and turns the grace of God into a licence for sin when he condones in some circumstances sex outside marriage as God has established it. I won’t forget being told by a one time (no longer) Archdeacon of this diocese that we were all far too nice ever to be subject to God’s condemnation. Salvation by niceness, which sounds so, well, nice, is in truth a deadly distortion of the gospel. What Paul is astonished and distressed by is all around us, and but for the grace of God it will destroy the church in this country.
Some people cause trouble in the church by distorting the gospel.
Thirdly, TO DISTORT THE GOSPEL IS DEADLY SERIOUS
Move on to verses 8-9:
But 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. As 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. (1.8-9)
What is at stake with getting the gospel right is the glory of Christ and the saving of souls. So it doesn’t matter who it is – if they’re distorting the gospel then it is disastrous and it needs to be called out. That’s true whoever it is, or however unexpected the source. It could be an angel even. (And after all Satan is a fallen angel.) It could be Paul himself gone off the rails, he says. (Well, he didn’t know about trains – you know what I mean.) So this is not personal. It’s a life and death matter of truth. Please be ready to challenge any of us who preach and teach at the first sign that we’re going off the rails.
Paul starkly says, if anyone is distorting the gospel in this disastrous way, “let him be accursed”. This is not Paul losing his temper. This is sober and considered language. Blessing and curse lie at the heart of the gospel, as he will spell out in chapter 3. So in 3.13-14 he says:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. (Galatians 3.13-14)
The gospel rescues us from the curse. If we teach a distorted gospel that destroys the blessing of the gospel, then we deserve to be back under the curse. The utmost seriousness of this issue cannot be overstated. We’re talking about the potential destruction of a generation’s relationship to Christ.
And Paul repeats himself for sheer emphasis. If we teach a distorted gospel that destroys the blessing of the gospel, then we deserve to be back under the curse. The utmost seriousness of this issue cannot be overstated.
John Stott in his brilliantly helpful Bible Speaks Today volume on Galatians put it like this:
We are not to be dazzled, as many people are, by the person, gifts or office of teachers in the church. They may come to us with great dignity, authority and scholarship. They may be bishops or archbishops, university professors or even the pope himself. But if they bring a gospel other then the gospel preached by the apostles and recorded in the New Testament, they are to be rejected. We judge them by the gospel; we do not judge the gospel by them.
To distort the gospel is deadly serious.
Fourthly, THE ONLY TRUE GOSPEL IS THE ONE PAUL PREACHES
This is a theme that’s going to be developed and defended from 1.11 onwards. So come back next week. But Paul is clear about this from the start. In the first verse of the letter he states his apostolic, God-given teaching credentials. In verse 8 he says – look at it again:
... 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.
And then again in verse 9 he describes the true gospel as “the one you received” – that is, from him. Then go on to verses 11-12 by way of a taster for next time:
For I would have you know, brothers, 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. (1.11-12)
Is this arrogance on Paul’s part? Of course not – for all his bold talk. Vivienne, my wife, was once witness to a fatal car crash. She was right behind it. She saw it all. No one was closer than her. She had to give evidence at the inquest. Was she being arrogant in saying, “I saw it; I know what happened; I know the truth”? No. It would have been a dereliction of duty if she had not.
So it is with Paul. He knows because God has shown him. If we accept Paul’s credentials, which we must, then paying close attention to his teaching and to the other Scriptures to which he points must be at the heart of what we’re about as a church. And that close attention must lead to believing and obeying.
The only true gospel is the one the apostle Paul preaches. Finally and:
Fifthly, WE MUST SEEK THE APPROVAL OF GOD NOT MEN BY BEING FAITHFUL TO THE TRUE GOSPEL
That’s the obvious end point of all that the shocked apostle Paul is warning us of here. That’s why he draws attention to his own example there in verse 10. Take a look:
For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. (1.10)
Who was Paul trying to please? His suffering and in the end his execution make that perfectly clear. God’s approval, not that of man, was what mattered.
Etched on my mind is that day, many years ago now, when David Holloway and I sat in the Bishop’s study and said ‘no’ to his teaching. I remember being told by a previous Archdeacon that I would never be appointed to another position in this diocese because of the stand I had taken.
But none of us can afford to be swayed by such things. We have to decide who we’re accountable to and who we want to please – and be prepared to pay the price. This is the only way we, like Paul, can be servants of Christ. And it is the greatest privilege; and the greatest freedom.
So this searing passage of Scripture needs to be branded on our souls. We must seek the approval of God not men by being faithful to the true gospel.