Paul Wishes His Readers “Grace and Peace” (Gal 1:3)
We just completed an introduction to the book of Galatians by looking at Gal 1:1-2. Here Paul greets the Galatian church, and reminds his readers that he is an apostle of Jesus Christ who was directly appointed by Jesus. He goes on to greet the Galatians: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 1:3).
Grace has two connotations: sheer beauty, and undeserved favor. So, Paul’s wish that the Galatians experience grace is this. “May the beauty of the undeserved love of God be on you, so that it will make your life lovely too” (Barclay).
He then goes on to wish them peace. This would have had to remind his Jewish readers of the Old Testament concept of “shalom”. This means far more than “the absence of trouble”, or “a truce between enemies”, although these meanings are encapsulated in the word as well. It means “everything that is to a person’s highest good. Everything that will keep the mind pure, and the heart glad” (Barclay). This is what enables a Christian’s heart to be at serene, even if their body is being tortured. This is the kind of peace we will experience perfectly in heaven.
Christ Died for our Sins (Gal 1:4-5)
Paul then continues to say that this grace and peace is from Jesus Christ, who: “gave Himself for our sins to deliver us from this present evil age” (Gal 1:4). It speaks about the love of God that caused Him to suffer for us when He saw the predicament, we were in. Our sins deserve the wrath of God, and Jesus dies to save us from that wrath. What are we actually saved from? We are saved from the wrath of God that is being stored up against human rebellion and sin. Without Jesus, since He is a just God, He will sentence us to an eternity in hell. This is what Jesus saved us from.
Paul also says that the purpose Jesus came was to die for our sake on the cross, and Jesus came “to deliver us from this present evil age” (Gal 1:4). By default, everyone is headed there, just like all the people in Noah’s time were headed for destruction by the flood. What Jesus did is also a demonstration of the power of God’s love to conquer sin and deliver us.
Paul also adds “according to the will of our God and Father” (Gal 1:4). This is to remove any thought that Jesus somehow coerced His Father’s hand to forgive us. Our salvation originated in the mind and the will of God the Father. He is as involved in our salvation as God the Son is. As Paul reflects on this glorious gospel he bursts into praise to God: “to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen” (Gal 1:5)
This is a part of the core gospel. When any preacher soft-pedals around teaching about the wrath of God and hell – that all those who do not believe in Christ are headed to – they have taken away from the truth of the gospel. Many prosperity preachers and Word of Faith preachers today do not talk about the holiness of God or the wrath of God against human sin. They avoid these truths and focus on a more positive message of blessing and prosperity. They speak of the death of Christ as unlocking all physical and material blessings without mentioning that Christ came primarily to deal with our sin.
Here is a specific example – and I am just choosing one out of many. Joel Osteen is famous for his self-help pep talk, and if you have listened to him for any length of time, you may have noticed that he does not preach what he calls “fire and brimstone” messages. He focuses on the power of positivism. He has sold millions of books preaching a gospel that wants to make you happier and healthier. However, hell is an integral part of the true gospel. Ultimately Jesus said that we should not fear those who can kill our bodies, but He who can cast both body and soul into hell (Matt 10:28) – a sobering truth that should evoke a reverent fear of the Triune God. We should therefore recognize that Joel Osteen is not preaching the true gospel.
However, Joel Osteen is not the only false teacher. If anyone does not explicitly teach that Jesus died to deliver us from the penalty and the power of sin which will lead to hell, then that person is not preaching the same gospel that Paul preached. There is so much corruption in Christianity that many ministers and pastors no longer believe or teach the reality of hell (although they may not explicitly admit this, in order to preserve their jobs).
In comparison, when Paul took leave of the Ephesian church for the last time, this is what he told them: “I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:26-27). This shows us that Paul realizes what a serious responsibility he had, and he was implying that not to teach “the whole counsel of God” was to be guilty before God.
There is Only One True Gospel (Gal 1:6-10)
After this preliminary greeting, if we look at Paul’s other letters, he usually writes about how he is thanking God for them. Paul does this in every letter except this one!
By way of contrast, consider this. Paul even thanks God for His work in the Corinthian church but not in his letter to the Galatians. The Corinthian church was messed up. Persistent problems such as division, sexual immorality, social snobbery, considerable theological confusion about marriage, divorce, participation in pagan worship, order within corporate worship, and the bodily resurrection of believers. So, you look at them and see that they were a mess. The Galatian church’s issue is that it was characterized as having false teachers who taught that circumcision and obedience to the law along with Jesus were necessary for salvation. Paul says they are both wrong. Both need correction. We may think the Corinthians were really bad people. But when Paul writes to the Corinthians, he continues by thanking God for the Corinthians, as he does in every other epistle he writes except his letter to the Galatians! This is the only epistle that starts with a rebuke and does not have an initial thanksgiving.
For Paul, the external behavior is not deadly. It can be shepherded, provided that the truth of the gospel is not compromised. This is why He is so much more critical of the Galatian church than the Corinthian church. He says: “Not that there is another gospel”. To be sure there are those who pervert the gospel and are presenting it as the gospel, but those are not different gospels but perversions.
The text is a denial of pluralism. We are all not on different roads to heaven. Today we live in an age of moral relativism. We are encouraged to allow each person to live lives according to their truth. We tend not to think in terms of absolute truth, but that my truth can be different to your truth, and we need to let each other live and let live. However, no truth is right unless it embraces God’s truth as revealed in the gospel. Thus, those who do not believe this are not exempt, however broad and accepting they think they are. They will all be swept away together during God’s judgment as being a part of “this present evil age”.
However, the real danger is that it is not something that comes from other religions, but a counterfeit version of the real thing. It is even more subtle and deadly when it comes from people promoting a false gospel who are professing Christians. That is the danger Paul is addressing here. The false teachers likely belonged to the Church of Jerusalem and possibly knew the elders personally. It was an in-house distortion by those who called themselves “Christian brothers”
Paul’s letter to the Galatians is one of the best books to help us understand what the heart of the true gospel is. We will try and think about various teachings around us with this lens and see what we can learn. These false teachers often come from among us: “from your own selves will arise men speaking distorted things” (Acts 20:30).
Sometimes we tend to be impatient with thinking through doctrinal nuances. We think that too much knowledge is an enemy of emotion and feeling in our devotion to God. However, true knowledge of God enables us to love Him more fully. We have been commanded to love Him with all our hearts and also all of our minds (Matt 22:37). We think the Holy Spirit will guard us from error, so a rigorous study is actually a failure of faith. However, doing this makes us vulnerable to false teaching. The result is that we are so shallow in our understanding of the truth that we are swayed by any persuasive speaker and are literally “ripe for the pickings” of false teachers. I am grateful to God that all of you here have a desire to dig deeper into the Word of God and to know the full truth, even if that knowledge is costly.
To Turn Away From the True Gospel is Astonishing
Paul expresses his stunned surprise at the Galatians like this: “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” (Gal 1:6)
Why is it so astonishing? It is astonishing because:
- We are turning away from God who is calling us (Gal 1:6)
- We are turning away from grace (Gal 1:6, see Gal 5:4)
- We have stopped seeing the beauty of the crucified Christ (Gal 1:7).
Those of us who have been saved have been enthralled by the intrinsic beauty of the gospel. We bask in the love of God as revealed in it. It is a love that caused Jesus to be willing to suffer and to die on the cross for us in order to extend the most unmerited gift to us. It is a love that is completely unconditional and is being offered to us for free. Why would we want to desert this amazing God and abandon His glorious gospel? That is why Paul finds it so astonishing.
To Preach or Teach a Different Gospel is to Invite God’s Curse
However, the issue is not just one of great surprise and astonishment. It can be deadly. Paul says that it is so important, that even angels are not to be believed if what they preach contradicts the truth of the gospel. He says: “Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one that 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.” (Gal 1:8-9)
The true gospel becomes false if we either add to it or we remove from it. In both cases it is no longer the true gospel. I am referring to what we believe to be the pure kernel of Christianity that is required for saving faith. That is the gospel that we believe, and it is critical we hold fast to the true gospel and vigorously guard against what is false. Of course, there are things we believe that lie outside this kernel, and we should show grace to other Christians who differ from us in these “non-essential” areas. But we do need to recognize what the absolute kernel of faith we believe is and evaluate that with Scripture. To get that wrong is to not be saved.
Examples of Taking Away From the True Gospel
Thinking along these lines, that severs the credibility of Mormonism at its root in one sweep. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism claimed that He had visions of God and of Jesus Christ who told him not to join the established Christian church. He then had several angelic visitations which enabled him to write the book of Mormon, with the assurance that God would use him to re-establish the true Christian church. Paul tells us in no uncertain terms, that if we get our message from angels, it needs to measure up to biblical truth. Mormonism attacks the supremacy of Christ and His sacrifice for us and is therefore another gospel. I do not know if you have come across any Mormons. Here they are extremely passionate about spreading their faith and go house to house speaking to all those who will listen. However, what they teach is not the biblical gospel and therefore it is no gospel at all. We can dismiss it, regardless of how nice the people who share it with us appear to be. Their niceness and sincerity do not compensate for the fact that their gospel does not come from God, but from the pits of hell, and all those who follow it will be accursed along with their founder.
Similarly, it helps us see clearly, that the God who is worshiped by Jehovah’s Witnesses is not another name for Jehovah. They claim they love God, but they do not believe Jesus is God. They do not believe that Christ died on the cross for our sins. Jesus clearly said that anyone who rejects Him rejects God Himself (e.g. John 8:42: “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me”
Examples of Adding To the True Gospel
For example, the “Church of Christ” teaches that only if you are baptized in one of their local churches, you are truly baptized, and that true baptism is a prerequisite to salvation. Thus, they consider themselves the only true Christians. Someone I know from that church once made a statement that it is better to be safe. It is like when you are going for a job interview, we take all our certificates with us, just in case. However, if you think through what he is saying carefully, he clearly does not believe that salvation is by Christ alone, and therefore what he believes is a false gospel.
Here is a very explicit example that helps us understand what is at stake here. In the mid 1500’s the Council of Trent was convened by the Catholic church to discuss the challenge of the protestant reformation. Among other things, they made these pronouncements:
- If anyone saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification … let him be accursed. (Canon 9).
- If anyone saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified; let him be accursed. (Canon 12).
The members of the Council were using Galatians 1:9 as the basis of their pronouncements. Their gospel says that salvation is not by faith alone but by faith + works. Effectively they are saying that those who believe the true gospel are accursed, but in reality, the very content of their declarations demonstrated that they are following a false gospel! So that curse they pronounced actually falls on themselves. Incidentally, these pronouncements were never recanted by the Catholic church. That makes the Catholic church as an institution apostate, even though of course, this does not mean that there are no true Catholic believers. Most Catholics do not embrace the true gospel and are therefore not saved, however sincere they may be (see Rom 10:2-3).
Unity in Diversity – Beware Of Adding To the True Gospel
There is room for us to differ in beliefs that are not part of the “essentials”. However, if we make any of those differences essential, then we are in danger of adding to the true gospel, and of distorting the gospel, making it false. Such teachings can be identified with statements such as “You are only a true Christian if ….”.
Let us now think about Seventh Day Adventists. We have liberty regarding the day we choose to worship God, or the day we want to use to practice the Sabbath principle. However, if we insist that the only correct Sabbath is Saturday or Sunday and the others are wrong, we are veering into the territory of a false gospel. This is a warning to all of us, whether or not we are Seventh Day Adventists. A Seventh Day Adventist is within the fold of evangelical Christianity. However, if that person believes others are not true Christians, then it is likely that they do not believe the one true gospel.
We can press this further and think about issues Christians do not agree within themselves. For example, let us think about baptism. As you know, there is division among Christians regarding whether we should be baptized as adult believers (i.e., believer’s baptism), or whether it is legitimate to baptize babies born in Christian households (i.e., infant baptism). This is a doctrine that is outside the core gospel, and in this case the biblical case is not rock-solid either way. However, I will go further to say that if anyone insists that one kind of baptism is the only legitimate kind, that person may be veering into the side of “another gospel”, just like the Church of Christ is. This may not necessarily be by what they are specifically saying but by what they emphasize. Baptism is required for Christians, but the manner and mode of baptism is not a part of the kernel of the true gospel that saves us. To elevate it to that position makes what we teach a false gospel.
We can go even further and start thinking about other kinds of teaching and preaching that we hear around us. For example, there is a lot to be learned from Pentecostal churches or the Charismatic movement. However, if anyone says that those who do not speak in tongues are not true Christians or that they are just half-baked Christians – that would make it another gospel.
The point I am making is, that if we need to clearly understand what the gospel is at its core. Neither less nor more of it is the true gospel. If we remove parts of it or add things to it is no longer the true gospel. We need to embrace others as fellow-believers, even if we disagree on matters outside this core – as long as both sides agree that it is outside the core. That is critical. If there is anyone who disagrees with what is core, then that is a false gospel – and at least one side is believing another gospel, and Paul says that eternity is at stake here. On the other hand, there is a lot of room for us to disagree with other genuine believers on matters of faith that are not part of the “essential core” for salvation, and yet to be able to have meaningful fellowship with them .
Credibility of Paul – He Does Not Seek Man’s Approval
Paul understands that what he has just said in Gal 1:8-9 will cost him a lot of friends. Who is not going to get upset when they are pronounced with a sentence of eternal damnation?
Why should the Galatians believe him? For one, he has said that he is an apostle appointed by Jesus Christ Himself. Here he gives another reason. Paul explains that he is willing to speak this way because pleasing people is very low on his priority list. He cares about the glory of Christ and the salvation of sinners. If the gospel is distorted, both are lost – the sufficiency of Jesus’ work is distorted, and the salvation of sinners is hindered.
Following Jesus can cost us friends. It can cause people to speak against us. This is why Jesus said: “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets” (Luke 6:26). However, this does not mean that the number of enemies that we have is correlated with how spiritual we are. Paul did not desire to offend. Being pleasing to people is good, but only provided it does not compromise the truth. When the truth is at stake, our primary allegiance is to Jesus alone.
It is gloriously liberating when we stop being influenced about what other people think of us, and only care about what God thinks. Then everything we do will be integrated, because it is all related to One Person and Him alone!
As I was studying this passage, I realized that I tend to be a people-pleaser. Galatians shows me that I don’t need to be that way. In fact, when the gospel is concerned, I should not be that way. This study inspires me to be bolder for the truth.
Well, all this was quite an earful. I warned you that Galatians is a dangerous book! It tends to cut right to the core of what we believe and separates the truth from falsehood at its very root (see Hebrews 4:12). This can be convicting, and it can also cause us to lose friends! However, my prayer for you is that like Paul, keeping friends will be lower on your priority list compared to pleasing God. May He give you the discernment to do this well.
I also hope that our study today has given you some tools to evaluate the preaching and teaching that you hear. You will be surprised at how far many preachers have strayed from the true gospel that saves. Since we all have limited time, it may be wise for us to avoid feeding ourselves from teaching that deviates from the one true gospel, so that the Word of God can take strong root within our hearts.
I pray that God will grant us a love for apostolic authority, and a passion for the apostolic gospel. A passion that fills us with inexpressible joy that our sins are forgiven and A passion that shows itself in astonishment and sadness that people we love turn away, because they are turning away from the glory of the true gospel of grace alone through Christ alone by faith alone on the authority of Scripture alone and for the glory of God alone. What a tragedy that people would turn away from all of this to that which is not the gospel. May God also grant us a righteous anger against those who distort the gospel and destroy human souls and lead people astray, including our loved ones. May He grant us the courage to speak into the lives of friends and family who have somehow been deceived into believing another gospel, which is no gospel at all!