“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-- not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 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.”
(Galatians 1:6 ESV)
At the end of October, we look back to the Reformation. October 31st is remembered as Reformation Day. It’s remembered in this way because it was on this date, in 1517, that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. He was concerned that the church had wandered from the gospel and was in need of reformation.
This is a problem that we continue to see today. It’s not new for us, nor was it new in Luther’s day. It’s a problem that goes all the way back to the beginning of the church.
We’re continually lured by the world, by the devil, and by our own sinful nature to a legalistic faith. We’re led to believe that our salvation is dependent upon our actions. We’re led to believe that the death and resurrection of Jesus is not enough to secure the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
In the above passage, and throughout this entire letter, Paul is addressing a problem that had become apparent in the Galatian church. The people were being led astray by false teachers who were promoting a form of legalism. They were bringing a different gospel than the one the people had initially received from Paul himself.
This was very destructive to the church and very dangerous for the individual faith of its members. He gives them this warning in verse 4 of the fifth chapter: “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” We see from this that it isn’t a minor issue which can be ignored. It’s not an issue on which we can agree to disagree. It’s a matter of life and death.
Teaching people that, in order to be forgiven, they must obey the law results in the salvation of no one. It cannot save because, no matter how hard we try, we cannot perfectly keep it. The law reveals only our guilt. It reveals only our need for salvation. As Paul writes in Romans 3:20: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
It also strikes a blow to the sacrifice of Christ. As Paul writes in Galatians 2:21: “…for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” If we could earn our salvation by obedience to the law of God, Christ’s death becomes meaningless. There was no reason for Jesus to come into the world, and there was no reason for him to die.
This is why Paul was astonished that they had turned from the true gospel to a different one. Why would anyone pass up the gracious gift of God for one we must earn? Why would they pass up his unmerited favor for something impossible to attain?
As the church, as believers in Jesus, we must remain faithful to the true gospel. This is why Paul says that if anyone, if even an angel, brings a different gospel, let him be accursed. If someone promotes a doctrine that leads people to destruction rather than salvation, let him receive the judgment he deserves.
There’s a fear by some that, if we preach the salvation of Christ as a free gift, this promotes lawlessness. They believe that, if we preach the pure gospel, it encourages people to live in sin while they trust in Christ alone for salvation. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
Paul warns the people against this mindset in Galatians 5:13 where he says this: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” He tells them that their freedom from the law is not to be used to engage in sin, but that we might love one another. In this way, he says, we fulfill the law of God.
When we receive Jesus in faith, we no longer want to live in sin. Our desire is to glorify Christ. We then follow him, not to receive salvation, but because of his salvation. Our obedience is an act of thankfulness to the one who gave himself on our behalf.
So, as those who profess faith in Jesus, let us trust in message of the gospel. Let us trust in Christ alone for salvation and the forgiveness of sins. Let us trust not in ourselves or in our actions. And let us faithfully proclaim this truth that others might believe and be saved.