Only One Gospel: Why We Preach an Unpopular Doctrine
May 6, 2001
Listen to this Sermon
Today we are beginning a brand-new sermon series on the book of Galatians. Whenever a pastor starts a new series, especially an exposition of a book of the Bible, it’s always useful to know why this book and why now. After all, there are 65 other books in the Bible. So why study Galatians now? For me the answer is simple. In the last several years the Lord has blessed our congregation with many new people from many different religious backgrounds. Whenever a church adds lots of new people, and adds them quickly, there is always a danger that people will join the church not knowing what they are joining or what the church really believes. As your pastor, I am deeply concerned that all the people who worship at Calvary (and all those who read these sermons week by week) be firmly grounded in the basic truths of the Christian faith. And there is no truth more basic than the gospel of Jesus Christ. We need to know how God saves sinners—and we need to make sure that we ourselves are included in the number of those being saved. We need to know this for ourselves and we need to know it so we can share the Good News of Jesus Christ with others.
That’s where the little book of Galatians comes in. It is short—only six brief chapters. You can easily read it in a half-hour. But do not be deceived by its size. A tiny stick of dynamite can blow up a big building. That’s more than a figure of speech; it’s a metaphor for the book itself. Galatians is spiritual dynamite. This is a dangerous book! Read it at your own risk. Martin Luther read it and an explosion went off in his heart that led to the Protestant Reformation. John Wesley heard a sermon based on Luther’s commentary on Galatians and was profoundly converted. From Luther to Calvin to Wesley to the Puritans to Spurgeon to Billy Graham, there is a direct line from this ancient epistle to who we are and what we believe today.
“How can I be free?”
More than anything else, Galatians is a book about freedom. It answers the question, “How can I be truly free?” Free from guilt, free from fear, free from doubt, free from sin, free from always trying and never quite making it. When the world looks at that question, it offers two contradictory answers. Some people think freedom comes from keeping the rules. Do good, try harder, go to church, be baptized, give your money, follow the Ten Commandments, obey the Golden Rule, do what your priest tells you to do, offer a sacrifice, light a candle, say the Hail Mary, meditate, use the prayer wheel. The list is endless because the human mind is endlessly creative in the ways it devises to please a God it cannot see or understand. But rule keeping always fails in the end because you can never be sure you’ve done enough. If one prayer is enough, would two be better? How many candles should I light? You can never be absolutely certain. Just this morning I spoke with a woman whose 97-year-old mother died recently. When the hospital chaplain came by, he said he hoped she had gone to heaven. But the woman knew her mother had definitely placed her faith in Christ so she said, “We know she’s gone to heaven.” When the chaplain replied, “We hope so,” the woman told him, “We don’t hope so, we know where she is.” But rule-keepers can never say that because they can’t be sure they have done enough to merit salvation.
“I hated life”
On the other extreme are those who say that freedom comes by throwing all the rules aside. “Do what you want. Have a blast. You only go around once. There are no rules. If it feels good, do it.” But in the end, hedonism cannot satisfy either. You end up exchanging one form of slavery for another. You drink and end up with a hangover, you gamble and lose your money, you sleep around and even if you don’t get some strange disease, you wake up the next morning with a guilty conscience and a hole in your heart. You end up like Solomon who had it all and tried it all and concluded with a cry of desperation, “I hated life” (Ecclesiastes 2:16-18). Rules can’t save you but you won’t be happy if you ignore the rules either.
But if legalism (trying to find happiness by keeping the rules) doesn’t work, and if hedonism (the pure pursuit of pleasure regardless of the rules) doesn’t work, where can we find true freedom in life? Galatians offers us a simple and compelling answer: Freedom comes not from rules or the lack of rules but in a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. The only true freedom is the freedom that comes from knowing him as Savior and Lord. Those whom Christ sets free are free indeed.
That’s why this little book is so powerful. It points us in a revolutionary direction and invites us to discover the meaning of life itself. Are you interested in real peace, lasting freedom, and the power to live a new life? If you answer yes, then stay tuned because over the next few weeks we’re going to follow Paul on a journey we’re calling Truth on Fire.
Our first installment covers the first ten verses of Galatians 1. It breaks neatly into two parts—the salutation (verses 1-5) and the denunciation (verses 6-10). Let’s jump in and see what we can find.
I. Salutation 1-5
Whenever an unexpected letter arrives, I want to know three things about it. Who is it from? Who is it to? What’s it all about? The salutation answers all three questions.
A. Paul’s Authority 1-2
“Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—and all the brothers with me, To the churches in Galatia” (Galatians 1:1-2).
These verses tell us that this letter was written by the Apostle Paul. The word “apostle” means “one sent with delegated authority.” In this case, it means that Paul was not appointed by men or elected by men nor was he chosen by some church council. His calling and his authority come directly from God. Since he speaks with God’s authority, to reject Paul is to reject God himself.
We also learn that the letter is addressed to the churches of Galatia. The region of Galatia was located in the central portion of modern-day Turkey. It was a Gentile region, which meant that these churches were primarily Gentile, not Jewish. That point will become very important as we attempt to understand what Paul wrote.
On his first missionary journey (Acts 13-14), Paul (accompanied by Barnabas) preached the gospel and established local churches in Galatia. He taught the new believers the basics of the Christian faith, appointed leaders, and then moved on to the next town to repeat the process. Sometime after he left, a group of Jewish-Christian “converts” from Jerusalem came into the region claiming to speak for the original apostles in Jerusalem. Over time they spread rumors that Paul was not a “real” apostle and that he had not preached a full or complete gospel. In particular, they told these young Galatian believers that they needed to be circumcised in order to be saved. That came as a disconcerting shock since circumcision was essentially a Jewish practice connected with the Old Testament law. They evidently also attempted to get the Galatians to mix their Christian faith with part of the Old Testament law. The false teachers must have been persuasive. It is clear from this letter that the Galatians were at best badly confused and at worst were almost completely seduced by these “Judaizers” (the name given to so-called Jewish-Christian converts who were in fact perverting the gospel they claimed to believe).
“Jesus Only” vs. “Jesus Plus”
To Paul this was no small issue. He preached a “Jesus only” gospel. Another term for that is justification by faith alone apart from the works of the law. He taught that the way of salvation was “by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.” The Judaizers taught a “Jesus plus” religion. They didn’t deny that Jesus was the Son of God, and they didn’t deny his death and resurrection, and they didn’t preach against believing in him, but they in essence said, “What Christ started, you need to finish. You must finish the unfinished work of Christ.” In Paul’s mind, this was nothing less than an attack on the gospel itself. If the Judaizers prevailed, his work would have been in vain. The doctrine of grace itself was at stake in this controversy. It comes down to a simple question: Are we saved by believing or by achieving? Paul said by believing, the Judaizers said by achieving.
When Paul heard about the inroads made by the false teachers, he sat down to write this epistle. In many ways it is an emergency letter. The tone is personal, passionate, and polemical. More than any other letter, he pours out his heart and his soul as he pleads for his young converts not to be led astray by the clever, charismatic Judaizers and their dangerous and deceptive heresy.
B. Paul’s Message 3-5
“Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (Galatians 1:3-5).
Paul is so concerned that he puts a statement of the gospel right at the very front door of his letter. These verses tell us that the gospel is centered in the Lord Jesus Christ. Sometimes we speak of the gospel as if it were about what happens to us: “I can accept Christ and be saved” “Peace, joy and love” “A personal relationship with Christ.” As good as those things are, they are not the gospel. The gospel is not about us; it’s about what God has done for us through his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. The gospel is about the death and resurrection of our Lord. Those were space-time events that actually happened 2,000 years ago. Jesus came to earth on a divine rescue mission to save us from our sins and to deliver us from the power of this evil age. He came by the will of God and his death and resurrection brought great glory to his Heavenly Father. Through him all the benefits of the gospel flow freely to everyone who believes in him. This is the truth that the Galatians were in danger of deserting.
II. Denunciation 6-10
Galatians is unique among Paul’s letters because it is the only one that does not contain a word of thanksgiving for the readers. In every other case Paul takes a verse or two or three to give thanks for his readers. But not this time. He is so concerned for their spiritual welfare that he jumps right to the heart of his letter.
A. The Crisis 6-7
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ” (Galatians 1:6-7).
Paul’s astonishment comes from the fact that the very believers he had discipled were such easy prey for the false teachers. Had he not taught the truth? Had they not gladly listened? Did they not welcome the liberating truth of the gospel into their hearts? How then could they be so quickly deceived? The word “deserting” is a military term that refers to a traitor, one who leaves the army of his own country and goes to work for the enemy. In this case it meant leaving the gospel of grace for the gospel of salvation by works. But that “gospel” is no gospel at all. It is a man-centered attempt to attain salvation, and as such, it appeals to our natural pride and our desire to think that we have contributed something to our own deliverance.
A friend commented that grace is “counter-intuitive” in that it goes against the grain of what we naturally think. Grace teaches us that there is nothing we can do to merit our salvation and that all our efforts to attain salvation by doing good works actually move us in the wrong direction. Until we are willing to give up our “We try harder” attitude and simply cry out for God’s mercy, we can never be saved. This insight is at the heart of the famous Twelve Step program of Alcoholics Anonymous. You must admit that you are powerless to change and that you are in the grip of something that will destroy you. But alcohol is only one manifestation of the deeper sin problem that plagues all humanity. Sin has us in its grip and no amount of religious activity or self-reformation can save us from ourselves. We are doomed and damned unless Christ rescues us from our sin. This is a shocking truth that many people cannot accept. That is why grace is “counter-intuitive.” It forces us to admit what we don’t want to admit—that we are in trouble and there is nothing we can do to help ourselves.
The false teachers tapped into that “natural” desire we all feel that makes us want to contribute something to our salvation. In the case of the Galatian believers, it was circumcision and the works of the law. For us it may be something equally good in itself, such as baptism, church attendance, giving, missionary work, helping the poor, or reaching out to the hurting. That’s the insidious nature of this false doctrine. It takes something that is good and attaches that good thing to the finished work of Christ as a condition for salvation. Thus does something good actually become a damning heresy.
It is clear that Paul will not tolerate this false teaching in the church. If you tolerate false teaching about the gospel, you are actually deserting Christ himself. This is no small issue. It’s either salvation by Christ alone or there is no salvation at all. God doesn’t have a “Plan B” for those who don’t want to be saved by faith alone in Christ alone.
B. The Issue 8-9
“But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!” (Galatians 1:8-9).
These are some of the strongest words in the New Testament. The key phrase is “let him be eternally condemned.” Some translations say “accursed.” The Greek word is “anathema,” which comes from a Hebrew term that means “devoted to destruction.” It basically means to reject something completely and to condemn it to destruction. Here Paul declares that anyone (himself included) who preaches any other gospel than the gospel of free grace should be eternally condemned. He is in essence saying, “Let them go to hell.”
When I preached this, I commented to the congregation that these are not “Oak Park-type verses.” In our village we love to talk about tolerance, diversity and pluralism as a kind of secular trinity. You don’t hear much about anyone going to hell. And the notion that a person should declare that someone else is deserving of hell, well, only a narrow-minded bigot would say something like that. In Galatians 1, those words are coming from a man writing under the inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit. What Paul says, God says. Here is a clear rejection of rampant pluralism, the notion that all religions are equal and that in the end, we are all going to the same place. These verses may not be popular but they are as true today as when the apostle wrote them 2,000 years ago.
C. The Motive 10
“Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).
This verse adds a key point. Paul wrote as he did because he cared deeply for the eternal welfare of his new converts. He cared so much that he dared to tell them the hard truth about the Judaizers and their false gospel. It would have been easier to overlook it or to issue a mild warning. But he didn’t take the easy way out. He risked everything, including their friendship, in order to save them from eternal destruction. Because he cared more for the approval of God than of men, he spoke the truth. We should all be as bold as he was to speak the truth today.
Truth For Today
Let’s wrap up this message with four truths that we need to ponder today.
1. Even well-taught Christians may unwittingly follow false doctrine.
Let everyone who reads these words take heed. You may be deceived even though you are well taught and well grounded. Take nothing for granted. Satan disguises himself as an angel of light for that very purpose. And be on guard for your friends and for those new believers around you. If Paul’s converts could be seduced, the same thing could certainly happen to those folks you lead to Christ.
2. Standing for the truth demands that we expose error when great issues are at stake.
Pay special attention to the phrase “great issues.” Not every issue is a great issue. I think there is room for disagreement on the timing of the rapture or the proper mode of baptism. Certainly we can have fellowship with believers from many different backgrounds and denominations. And whether or not you use Power Point to put the words to the hymns on a big screen, that’s not a “great issue.” It’s not even a biblical issue. It is purely a matter of personal preference. Ditto for a thousand things we like to argue about. But there are some “great issues” that go the heart of our Christian faith. And none is more fundamental than the doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. When that doctrine is denied or challenged or when it is watered down, it’s time to march. To arms! To arms! Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war. This is a hill worth fighting for and dying on, if necessary. Paul certainly felt that way, and so should we. I don’t believe in splitting churches, but here is a reason to split a church. Or to leave a church. If the church isn’t straight on the gospel, whatever else they are straight on doesn’t really matter.
3. Not everyone who claims to be a Christian is telling the truth.
This is an obvious truth that perhaps needs to be repeated in our day. Jesus warned about people who work miracles and claim to be his followers, but in the Day of Judgment he will declare, “Depart from me, you workers of iniquity. I never knew you” (see Matthew 7:21-23). Lest we take that too lightly, ponder the thought that those words might one day be directed at you personally. Make your own calling and election sure. Before you point the finger, make sure you are not among those who claim to be something they are not.
4. God still pronounces a curse on anyone who adds anything to the simplicity of the gospel of free grace in Jesus Christ.
Again, this is not a popular statement but it is exactly what Paul is teaching. Anyone who preaches any other gospel than the gospel of the New Testament is under a curse from God. That’s not a good place to be.
There is only one gospel.
There is only one Savior.
There is only one way of salvation.
Let those who preach any other gospel, any other Savior, any other way of salvation …
Let those who preach that the Bible is a myth …
Let those who declare that Jesus is only one among many ways to God …
Let those who say that all religions are equal …
Let those who proclaim a do-it-yourself spirituality …
Let those who deny the narrow road to heaven …
Let those who add to the gospel such things as baptism, good works, Mass attendance, giving, tithing, Sunday school, praying, deeds of kindness, giving to the poor, missionary work, or anything else that may be good in itself …
Let those who say that Jesus never lived or that he never claimed to be God …
Let those who say that there is no such thing as absolute truth …
Let those who claim that tolerance is more important than truth …
Let those who mock the followers of Christ …
Let those who want Christianity but without the bloody cross …
Let those who prefer culture to Christ and accommodation to evangelism …
Let those who deny heaven and laugh at hell …
Let those who preach that sin is a myth and the Cross a mistake …
Let those who say, “That’s just your opinion” when told that Christ is the only to God …
If they will not repent, if they will not turn from their evil teaching, then let them all, each and every one, be eternally condemned.
This is the Word of God.
This is God’s judgment on false teachers.
Jesus Makes All the Difference
Where does all of this leave us? One thing is clear in the letter to the Galatians. Your relationship to Jesus Christ makes all the difference in the world. Ultimately, nothing else will matter. We must run to the cross as our only hope of salvation. Perhaps I can press home the issue this way. God is satisfied with what his Son did on the cross. Are you satisfied with what Jesus did? Is Jesus enough for you? Or do you think you need to add something of your own to what he accomplished in his death and resurrection? I urge you to humble yourself, turn from your pride, and bow before the One who loved you enough to die for you. Trust in Christ as your Lord and Savior. Do it now.
And for all of us, this passage calls us to stand strong for the gospel. I realize that we live in an age when anyone who expresses a strong opinion on anything is liable to be ridiculed and called narrow-minded—or worse. So be it. Let us be as narrow as God’s truth is narrow and as broad as God’s grace is broad. All truth is narrow. We understand that 2 + 2 = 4, not 3 or 5, and not even 41/2. Herschel Hobbs offers a good word for us to consider: “No sane person wants a banker who says that two plus two equals three. We do not want a pharmacist who just throws together any drugs that may suit his fancy. We want him to follow exactly the doctor’s prescription. This is true narrow-mindedness. We commend this quality in lesser matters—finances and health. But many condemn it in matters of religion.”
Thank God for this “emergency letter” to the Galatians. It reveals the heart of the gospel and calls us to be faithful to the truth revealed in the New Testament. And thank God that the “finished work” of Christ is truly finished. Let us join together with true believers everywhere in declaring the free grace of God. This is the message the world needs to hear.
May God deliver us from the fear of man. Never be ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Preach it, believe it, tell it to someone else this week. Amen.