1 Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— 2 and all the brothers who are with me, To the churches of Galatia:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
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— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 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. 9 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.
Today we begin our study through Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Lord willing, we will work through this book at a rather quick pace and finish up just before Christmas.
The reason I feel compelled for our church to study this book of the Bible is because we are still a very young church, both in the median age of our members as well as in the time of our existence together. And Galatians is a very good place to go to get a basic understanding of the Bible’s central message. There really is nothing better that we could do together than to continue to ground ourselves together in the gospel while we are still a young church. After all, we believe that it is the gospel that creates true biblical community, so we need to become fluent in the gospel if we are going to be a healthy church.
Of course if you are a member here then you must have a basic understanding of the gospel since you are asked to explain the gospel to the pastors before you are permitted to join. But you also know that this gospel message is not intuitive; it has to be told to us before we can believe it. That means that in spite of how well we can recite the gospel to each other, we are naturally inclined not to believe it. The book of Galatians demonstrates that even the most committed Christian struggles to live out the implications of the gospel that he believes.
So it would help us to become better experts in the gospel if we can see the alternative that we are much more likely to gravitate toward. We need to know our enemy. And that is the topic about which Galatians was written. Today let’s consider first some of the background details to the book of Galatians. Then we will be introduced to the two competing “gospels” that fight for our allegiance.
THE REASON FOR GALATIANS
Any time we begin a study of a book of the Bible it is helpful if we keep in mind who wrote the book, to whom he wrote, and the purpose for which he wrote. This information can be quite helpful at times to interpreting and applying the biblical text in our day.
Paul, the undisputed author
According to the first word of the first verse of the first chapter of Galatians, the Apostle Paul was the author of the letter. He also sends greetings to the recipients of the letter from “all the brothers who are with me” (v. 2), but it is clear that the letter claims to be the work of the Apostle himself.
And there really is no debate about the authenticity of that claim. Even according to the most liberal Bible scholars, Galatians is one of Paul’s Haupbriefe (German for “main letters”) so there is no doubt that Paul really was the author.
The churches of Galatia
In verse two we read that this letter was addressed “to the churches of Galatia.” Galatia refers to an area within Asia Minor (present day Turkey), and there is some debate about the exact location to which Paul refers. The territory originally occupied by the Gauls lay to the north, but when Paul wrote, the Roman province to the south was also known as Galatia.
Today scholars tend to believe that Paul was writing to the southern area. The main reason is that Paul says he had preached the gospel to these people (Gal 1:8), but we have no record of his travelling through the northeastern part of Asia Minor. We do, however, have record of his travels through the Roman province of Galatia, an area that included the cities of Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. According to Acts 13-14, Paul evangelized these cities during his first missionary journey.
The occasion for writing
The most important background detail we need to uncover is Paul’s purpose for writing. What was the occasion that made him pick up his pen and write? For the book of Galatians, this is not too difficult of a question to answer.
As we read through the account of Paul’s mission in Galatia, we find that the Jews in those regions were quite hostile to him and his fellow missionary, Barnabas. In Acts 13:50 we find that the Jews incited the political leaders of Antioch to stir up persecution against the two missionaries and to drive them out of the area. Paul and Barnabas went on to Iconium, but things didn’t get much better. There “the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers” (Acts 14:2). Finally, in Lystra Paul was stoned and left for dead when the hostile Jews from Antioch and Iconium persuaded the crowds to act with violence toward Paul and Barnabas.
In spite of this severe opposition from the Jews, the mission to Galatia was a huge success. Acts 13:49 recounts that “the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region.” At Iconium “a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed” (Acts 14:1). At Derbe they “made many disciples” (Acts 14:21). In most of these cities churches were planted (Acts 14:23).
But the influx of both Jews and Gentiles into the church had created tension as many of the first Jewish converts to Christianity continued to practice their Jewish lifestyle. Apparently some of these Jewish Christians, whom we will call the Judaizers, were teaching that the Gentile Christians needed to submit to Jewish law and customs in order to be true Christians. They must have been persuasive, so Paul had to write Galatians in an attempt to silence the Judaizers who were unsettling the churches and to bring the churches of Galatia back to faith in the gospel he originally preached to them.
The reason for this series
So can you see now why we should also study Paul’s letter to the Galatians? If the churches that the Apostle Paul himself started were so quickly persuaded away from the gospel, how much more are we prone to drifting away from it, too?
This is no small matter for the church. The tone of Paul’s letter to the Galatians is as serious as we find anywhere else in the Bible. A sampling of two verses will suffice to demonstrate this.
- As we have said before, and now I say again, if any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let him be condemned to hell! (Gal 1:9, NET)
- I wish those who are disturbing you might also get themselves castrated! (Gal 5:12, HCSB)
Nothing was more important to Paul for the churches he planted than that they remained firmly committed to the gospel that he had preached to them. But this would not come easily. It would be a fight. A fight between two competing “gospels.”
THE GOSPEL OF LIBERTY
In one corner we find the gospel that Paul preached to the churches of Galatia. I’m calling it the gospel of liberty because a major theme we find throughout the letter is the theme of freedom (the word free or freedom occurs 9 times in Galatians). We need to see that the gospel of Jesus Christ is good news because it is a message of freedom and deliverance.
Grace and peace
Why wouldn’t you want to embrace this gospel when it comes with such a promise? In verse three we find Paul’s customary greeting: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Every one of the Pauline letters begins with some version of this salutation; most are worded exactly this way.
But what is different here is that rather than ending his greeting at verse three and beginning the body of his letter in the next verse, Paul continues seamlessly with a doxology (notice the word Amen at the end of verse 5). “Grace and peace” are not used here merely as a formality, like when we greet each other by saying, “How are you doing?” He calls attention to the fact that grace and peace are realities that are given to us by the gospel that God the Father offers through the Lord Jesus Christ.
The person of Jesus
So the gospel message is an announcement centered on the person and work of Jesus. It is all about him: who he is and what he has done.
Who is he? He is the Lord. We do not make him the Lord when we receive the gospel. He already is the Lord and the only question to be decided is whether or not we will submit to his lordship. He is also Jesus, the man from Nazareth who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He is the real man who lived in Israel and died on a cross as a Roman criminal some 2000 years ago. He is the same man whose grave is empty because he literally resurrected from the dead and walked out of a Palestinian tomb. And he is Christ, the promised Messiah, anointed by God to carry out the salvation of mankind from the devastation cause by his sin.
The work of Jesus
What did he do? He “gave himself.” This expression refers to the sacrifice that Jesus made on our behalf. He substituted himself for us. It refers to Jesus’ bodily death on a cross. Jesus “gave himself” by being crucified. This means that the work of Jesus that is central to the gospel is his voluntarily death on the cross.
Those who are fluent in the gospel should have no problem detecting the flaw in the following summary of the gospel:
I have been sent by God with this good news — that God loves humanity, even in its lostness and sin. God graciously invites everyone and anyone to turn from his or her current path and follow a new way. Trust me and become my disciple, and you will be transformed, and you will participate in the transformation of the world, which is possible, beginning right now.
No cross? No necessary death to atone for sin? There simply is no gospel proclamation where the bloody death of a Jewish man on a Roman cross is not at the center of the message.
The necessity of Jesus’ death
Why is the death of Jesus so necessary to the gospel? Paul gives two reasons. First and mainly, there is the problem of our sin. Jesus gave himself for our sins, that is, in order to atone for the sins of mankind. This points us to the fact that our biggest problem is the hostility that exists between us and God because of our sin which is always an offense against him.
But Jesus also gave himself “to deliver us from the present evil age.” Everyone agrees that the world is not the way it should be. The question is what hope do we have of deliverance from “the present evil age”? The Christian view is not that the world is evil because it is material. It is evil only because it is dominated by the evil of sin. So the Christian answer to the problem is not to escape this present evil age by dying but rather through being delivered from its evil dominance. This was accomplished by the death of Jesus on the cross for our sins. His death was not a defeat, but the ultimate victory. This is why Paul can say that Jesus’ death on the cross was not only God’s will but also the means by which God will be glorified forever (v. 5).
And this is why the gospel is good news for today. The problems we face in our world stem from sin, but sin is a conquered foe because of Jesus’ atoning death. However, people continue to reject this gospel in favor of another one.
THE “GOSPEL” OF LEGALISM
So in the other corner we find the “gospel” that the Galatians churches were turning to. I’m calling it the “gospel” of legalism for reasons we will soon see. We get our first glimpse at it in verses 6-9.
Desire for another gospel
Paul had heard that the churches in Galatia were turning away from the gospel of liberty that he had preached to them in favor of “a different gospel.” He was shocked at how quickly it had happened. “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” (v. 6).
Why would they give up the gospel of freedom for one that only enslaves them? This could only happen because the Galatians were tempted by the attractiveness of this alternate gospel. Whatever their reasoning, this alternate gospel was the one the Galatians were finding easier to believe.
Here then is the first threat of the alternative gospel. We are more comfortable with it. It makes more sense to us naturally. The gospel of liberty, on the other hand, is counter-intuitive. We are not programmed to think that way.
This is why we need the gospel of liberty preached to us regularly. We do not naturally believe it. And because of that, we are all susceptible to embracing any other gospel but this one.
Distortions of the true gospel
Of course, as Paul points out in verse 7, there is really no other gospel than the true Christian gospel. There is no “good news” outside of Jesus Christ. “I, I am the LORD, and besides me there is no savior” (Isa 43:11). Because he is the only Savior, every other object of salvation will ultimately fail us.
The problem is that while there are plenty of faiths and worldviews that are clearly opposed to the Christian gospel, there exist a great number of distortions of it, too. This was what had ensnared the Galatian churches. “There are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ” (v. 7). The danger of a distortion is the fact that it appears so similar to the original. Without us even knowing it, distortions of truth can lead us to believe a lie.
We will learn in our study of Galatians exactly how the gospel that Paul had preached to these churches became distorted, and from that we will hopefully be able to anticipate the ways we may also be led away from the gospel of liberty. Indeed I think it is true that all distortions of the gospel take a similar path and all end up in the same place. So although distortions are dangerous, I also believe they can be readily detected.
But doing so will require us all to become much more fluent in the gospel. Because the gospel is of primary importance to the Christian faith, we need to be able to discern whether or not a doctrine we hold is essential to the integrity of that gospel. We need to ask, if I compromise on this particular doctrine, will it also compromise the gospel? Getting that question wrong leads us to a distorted gospel. So we should ponder how important to the gospel are issues like:
- the deity of Jesus
- the virgin birth of Jesus
- how often the church should take communion
- whether or not there will be a secret “rapture” of the church prior to the second coming of Jesus
- the bodily resurrection of Jesus
- the baptism of infant children of believers
- whether or not hell is eternal
- whether or not women can be pastors in the church
You see, it is not enough to be able to recite a creed, that is, to know what we believe. It is also imperative that we know why we believe it. Knowing why we believe something to be true helps us to understand the critical importance about a doctrine so that we do not compromise any fundamental aspect of it. Not all doctrines are equally important; some are weightier than others. If we compromise on essential matters we end up with a distorted gospel. But if we make secondary matters of primary importance, that, too, can lead us to a distortion of the gospel.
The damnation of all other gospels
Verses 8-9 clearly show what is at stake here. In very strong terms Paul denounces those who distort the gospel of Jesus. “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.” The word accursed means to be set apart for destruction. Paul is saying, “to hell with anyone who preaches a distorted gospel!”
It does not matter who the preacher of a distorted gospel is, whether he be the pastor of a mega-church or a best-selling author or your best friend or an angel from heaven. No one, Paul says, has the authority to tinker with the gospel that the Galatians had received—not even the Apostle himself who was the one who originally preached it to them.
So how can we be sure that we have believed the true gospel? Maybe the ones we accuse of distorting the gospel are actually right and we are the ones who have perverted the message of Jesus. After all, aren’t we also frequently saying around here that the gospel has been misunderstood so often in our city? Yes, in Oklahoma City. In the Bible Belt of all places!
Nevertheless, in saying that the Galatian churches had “received” the gospel, Paul is describing the giving and receiving of tradition. However much our churches here need reform, the message ought to remain recognizable. We do not get to re-invent the gospel.
That’s why every week we center on the cross of Jesus, “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 forever and ever. Amen.”
 Brian D. McLaren, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 79.