By Pastor Glenn Pease
Saint-Exupery was a French aviator who wrote a number of books that have been an inspiration to many. He was recalled to military service in World War II. On July 31, 1944 he was flying an observation mission in a plane with no guns. He was shot down that day by a young man from Germany who was writing his doctrinal thesis. Believe it or not, he was writing his thesis on the works of Saint-Exupery. When the young gunner learned that he had shot down his own hero, he went to pieces and had to be taken to a psychiatric hospital. All he could say was, "I killed my master, I killed my master."
This true story is a perfect illustration of how men can become the enemy of that which they most love. This perplexing paradox began in the Garden of Eden where man was persuaded to take sides against himself and spoil paradise. Sin might well be defined as man's incredible ability to be persuaded to cut his own throat. All God wants for man is for his own good, and yet he is so easily persuaded to forsake God's plan and follow a path that leads to sorrow. Man is his own worst enemy. It is easy to say, when you do that which makes you an enemy to yourself, that the devil made me do it, but the fact is, you are held personally responsible for the choices you make.
Paul is amazed that the Galatian Christians would choose to desert the Gospel of grace and turn to another gospel. He is absolutely astonished that men can voluntarily decide to be enemies of that which is most precious and beneficial to them. Here are people who are actually joining the forces of those who threaten to destroy them, and like the young German gunner, they are in danger of opposing Him that they most admire. Paul is trying to save them from themselves. He does not let them off the hook by saying the devil made you do it. Paul is fully aware of the power of Satan, what he does not always assume that Satan is to blame for the folly of believers. They are responsible agents who can be guilty of foolish choices on their own.
Paul is dealing with two categories of people in this paragraph, and both of them are considered to be free agents who can do something different from what they are doing, and so they are responsible for their decision. The two categories are the deserters of the Gospel, and the distorters of the Gospel. We want to look more closely first at-
I. THE DESERTERS OF THE GOSPEL.
Paul is appalled that they would alter the altar before which they bow, and change from the cross of Christ to the law of Moses. The KJV has, "I marvel that ye are so soon removed." The RSV has, "I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting." The Living Bible has, "I am amazed that ye are turning away so soon." Stephen's Epistles of Paul in Modern English has it, "I am surprised that so soon after your conversion you should have deserted the doctrine of grace."
Paul is actually accusing them of desertion from the army of Christ. They are turning from the Captain of their salvation and are marching under another banner in which Moses is their commander. The issue here is not the great battle of Calvinism and Arminianism concerning the once saved always saved theme. There is no question about their salvation, but rather their loyalty to Christ and the Gospel of grace. When we get to the distorters of the Gospel we will see that even many of them are saved men. There is no doubt as to their love of Christ, for even Peter and Barnabas were persuaded by them to joy their ranks. The battle in Galatians is not between believer and unbeliever, but ones priorities. Is Christ central, or is the law of Moses still first in the Christian life?
What these deserters of the Gospel are illustrating for us is that it is possible for a believer to become an enemy of the one he loves most. It is possible for a born again Christian to be persuaded to follow a false cult, for example. He may love his Lord and yet join forces with those whose doctrines subtly undermine the centrality of Christ. He is a deserter taking shots at his own master, and he may not even be aware of his folly, as were the Galatians before Paul enlightened them with this letter.
Martin Luther's greatest discouragement in the Reformation was due to the ease with which Christians yielded to seducing spirits. He complained that after long labor to build up people in the faith some man will come along who has heard two sermons and read a few leaves in the Scriptures and by his eloquent persuasion lead them contrary to the authority of the Word. So frequently did this happen that Luther was convinced that the Germans may have been descended from the Galatians. He writes in his famous commentary on Galatians, "Some think that the Germans are descended of the Galatians, neither is this divination perhaps untrue, for the Germans are not much unlike to them in nature. And I myself also am constrained to wish to my countrymen more steadfastness and constancy, for in all things we do, at the first we be very hot, but when the heat of our affections is allayed, anon we become more slack, and with what rashness we begin things, with the same we give them over and utterly reject them."
To run alternately hot and cold is better than a state of lukewarm indifference, but it is still a dangerous and unstable way of life, and can lead true believers to desert the Gospel and follow after some perversion of it. It happened in Galatians, and has happened time and time again through history. It is not a hypothetical issue, therefore, but a very real one, and a very relevant one in our day of multiplying voices from the world of the cults and the occult.
An innocent child of God can be seduced into just about anything you can imagine. It is amazing that it is so, and that is why Paul was amazed at the Galatians, but it is true. Some studies show that the major target of the cults is young males from conservative Christian churches. Eric Linklater titled his autobiography The Man Upon My Back. It was himself, of course, and he was saying that he was his own worst enemy. This is so often the case, and that is why Paul will stress in this letter the need to crucify the self, and gain freedom in Christ from the self-centered and self-dominated life. When self is on the throne a man is his own worst enemy. He becomes the most obstinate obstacle in his way to becoming a victorious Christian.
Let us learn from the experience of the Galatians that true believers can be deceived into becoming deserters of the pure Gospel. Let's now look at Paul's treatment of-
II. THE DISTORTERS OF THE GOSPEL.
It is obvious that Paul feels that to fall away from the Gospel is bad, but that to pervert the Gospel is worse. As Jesus said, "Temptation must indeed come but woe unto them by whom they come." To fall away and be deceived is foolish and dangerous, but to be the cause of the deception is fatal and damnable. We see a distinction in levels of sin in the way Paul treats those who distort as over against those who desert. It is far worse to be a teacher of heresy than to be a believer of it. Many innocent but gullible people fall for all kinds of subtle error, but they will not be severely judged for their ignorance. Those who proclaimed the error, however, will suffer severe judgment, for their guilt is much greater. There is a great difference between being stupid and sinful. Paul says the Galatians have been stupid, but the Judaisers have been sinful by distorting the Gospel.
If a patient takes some medicine that causes a great reaction and they become sick because of it, the patient is not condemned for doing such a stupid thing. It is the doctor who prescribed the medicine who is responsible. He may not have known the consequences either, but he is the one accountable, and so it is with the Judaisers. Many of them loved Jesus, and many were, no doubt, superior to the Galatians, but they were more responsible for the consequences of their trying to add the law to the Gospel. Keep in mind that Paul is dealing strictly with the Gospel. He is not denouncing all who disagree with him as if he was the final authority on every issue.
Paul was a very gracious and flexible man who could see life from many perspectives. On issues where Christians differ he urged them to let every man be persuaded in his own mind. It is unfair to look at this passage and label Paul as narrow minded. He is only narrow on this basic issue of the Gospel. He knows that it is the foundation, and if that is not solid, it is vain to build anything at all. Paul is not opposed to variety in the structure, for he clearly teaches that there are many different gifts in the church, and there will be a great variety of labors, services, and methods of building the church.
If Paul was narrow, it was at the point where all believers must be narrow, and that is on the issue of the Gospel. Either we are saved by the sacrifice of Christ for us, and by means of faith in His sacrifice, or we are saved by some other means such as obedience to the law. The first is good news, and all alternatives are other gospels which are not good news at all. It is no vice to be narrow on an issue like this. It is a very definite vice not to be narrow. What kind of a doctor will he be who would take all of his patients over to a medicine cabinet and say to them, "Take any of the pills you like. They are all good for something." Such a man would be a failure as a doctor, and so is the man who says that all religions have some good, and so choose any you like. What he says maybe just as true as the statement of the doctor, but what you need is not some good.
You need a very specific good. You need medicine to cure your particular problem. You need a means whereby your sin can be forgiven so that you can have fellowship with God. In other words, you need a Savior. Only the man who offers you what meets your real need is a good and virtuous man, and to be that he must be narrow. He must give you the specific medicine you need, and he must preach to you the Gospel of salvation by grace. Narrowness is the greatest of virtues when there is only one Way, and one cure. Jesus said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, no man comes to the Father but by me." Paul is blessedly narrow on this issue, and all of us must be so to be truly virtuous people striving to do good to all men.
I stress this point because it is too easy to feel it is a virtue to be narrow on everything, and this is just not so. Billy Graham wrote an article many years ago on what ten years had taught him. He wrote, "Ten years ago my concept of the church tended to be narrow and provincial, but after a decade of intimate contact with Christians the world over I am now aware that the family of God contains people of various ethnological, cultural, and class, and denominational differences. In groups in which my ignorant piousness I formerly frowned upon I have found men so dedicated and so in love with the truth that I have felt unworthy to be in their presence."
Paul, the world traveler, learned this truth much more quickly than did Graham, for he was called to minister to the Gentiles of the world. The point is, let us not hear Paul condemning all who disagree with him, but let us hear him denouncing those who distort the Gospel. What Paul is doing is an example of the paradox of a very virtuous narrowness. There is also the vicious vice of narrowness, and we distort Paul's words ourselves if we use this passage to justify our condemnation of those who differ with us.
Now let us look briefly at just exactly what these who distorted the Gospel were doing. In Acts 15:1 we have a clear description of the message of the Judaisers. "But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, 'Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.'" The distortion was not a denial of the cross, but an addition to the cross. It was a Gospel of faith in Christ plus obedience to the law. They were obviously sincere for they wanted people to be saved, and they were convinced they had a better way. Like most who preach error, they no doubt felt superior to those who were trusting Christ alone for their salvation. Luther quoted a German proverb, "In God's name beginneth all mischief." This was the spirit that Paul fought with all the forces of his authority, for it was a distortion of the Gospel, and a denial of the cross as an all sufficient saving work.
It is like a disease to be cursed says Paul. They want you to be circumcised to be saved, but in reality they way to be saved is to cut them off and trust in Christ alone. If you cut yourself off to be saved, you are cutting yourself off also from the grace of Christ. May God cut off these who distort the Gospel is the cry of Paul, and may He bring you deserters of the Gospel back to a trust in Christ alone for assurance of salvation. John Morley said, "Every man of us has all the centuries in him." All the folly of believers in the past is still present and still possible. Each of us can be enemies of ourselves yet today, and we always are until Christ alone is central in our faith, and Lord of our life.