When Not to Believe an Angel

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel—not that there is another gospel, but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which 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 that which you received, let him be accursed. Am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still pleasing men, I should not be a servant of Christ.

The truth that underlies this passage is that there is only one gospel. Growing up out of this truth are three statements which are very crucial for us to hear and believe, because nothing has happened to change them between Paul's day and ours. The first is that it is astonishing when a person hears and believes the gospel but afterward turns away from it (1:6–7). The second is that if a person rejects the gospel, he stands under God's curse, whether he is an angel or an apostle (1:8, 9). The third statement is that the servant of the gospel seeks to please God alone, not men.

Only One Gospel

The text does not define the gospel. The rest of the book does. So our focus today will not be on the content of the gospel but on its cruciality. First of all, the underlying truth of the passage: There is only one gospel. In verse 6 Paul says that the Galatians are starting to turn away to a "different gospel." Then in verse 7 he corrects a false impression. He did not mean to say that there are several possible gospels and that they have simply chosen another of several options. In verse 7 he carefully says, "Not that there is another gospel, but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel." This verse is very clear: There is no other gospel than the one he preached to them and which they received. To be sure, as verses 6 and 7 make plain, there are people presenting their ideas as gospel, but these are perversions.

The implications of this text for our day are very important. The text is a radical and forthright denial of a pluralism which says that we are all on different roads to heaven, but our destination is the same. There are popular forms of this universalism, and there are technical, scholarly forms of it, but there is no biblical universalism—that is, no biblical teaching that a person can go on rejecting the gospel of Christ and still be saved. There are other religions besides Christianity, and there are other leaders besides Jesus Christ, but there is no other gospel, no other good news of salvation.

And what makes that underlying truth in the text so powerful is that the "different gospel" in the churches of Galatia was not a religion from a foreign land. It was a close counterfeit to the real thing. The people in verse 7 who were perverting the gospel were professing Christians. They probably belonged to the church in Jerusalem and knew its leaders (2:12). This "different gospel" was not on the order of Buddhism or Hinduism or Islam. It was an in-house distortion. It was promoted by men who called themselves Christian "brothers" (2:4).

So another implication of verses 6 and 7 for us is that doctrinal maturity is not a luxury at Bethlehem. It is a necessity. If a "different gospel," which is no gospel but only a perversion, can spring up inside the church, then surely we must make it our aim to become rigorous and discriminating in our doctrinal knowledge. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 14:20, "Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; be babes in evil, but in thinking be mature." Galatians is one of the best books in the Bible for helping us refine and clarify what the heart of the gospel is, which can't be replaced or altered. There is a tragic pattern in churches and in history, I think. Renewal breaks forth on a church or on an age through a fresh encounter with the gospel and the Spirit. Hearts are filled with the love of Christ, and mouths are filled with praise. The concern for evangelism and justice rises.

But in all the glorious stirrings of heart there begins to be an impatience with doctrinal refinements. Clear doctrine requires thought, and thought is seen to be the enemy of feeling, so it is resisted. There is the widespread sense that the Holy Spirit will guard the church from all error, and so rigorous study and thought about the gospel are felt to be not only a threat to joy but a failure of faith. The result over a generation is the emergence of a people whose understanding of biblical teaching is so hazy and imprecise that they are sitting ducks for the Galatian heresy. It arises right in their midst. Paul said to the elders of Ephesus in Acts 20:30, "From among your own selves will arise men speaking distorted things to draw away the disciples after them." He says in verse 27 that he has done his part to prepare them by "declaring the whole counsel of God." I hope to be able to say the same thing some day about Bethlehem: "I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God."

So the underlying truth of the passage (Galatians 1:6–10) is that there is no other gospel. And the two implications we need to hear from that are that universalism is wrong (there are not many roads to heaven, but only one) and that rigorous attention to doctrinal clarity and faithfulness is crucial in the long run of church life.

To Turn Away Is Astonishing

The first of three statements now that grow up out of this underlying truth is that it is astonishing when a person first believes the true gospel and then turns away from it. In verse 6 Paul says, "I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel." In this verse there are two reasons implied why turning to a different gospel is so astonishing.

First, it is a turning from a calling God. "You are deserting him who called you." They are not just turning from a doctrine, or an idea. Don't fall prey to the notion that a concern for doctrine is impersonal. The gospel is the very personal good news of God's call to you. If you turn to a different gospel, you turn away from God, and that is astonishing. The second reason turning to a different gospel is astonishing is that it is a turning away from grace. In Galatians 5:4 Paul describes what is happening like this: "You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace." Paul is simply stunned that so soon after his beautiful portrayal of Christ crucified for their sin they would begin to turn to another gospel. He says in 3:1, "O foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?" You can picture Paul back in Antioch listening in stunned silence to the reports that the churches of Galatia are turning away from God and away from the grace of Christ. And he puts his head in his hands and wonders if his work was in vain. It was astonishing then, and it is astonishing today that anyone hearing the best news in all the world (God offers you full and free forgiveness and hope) would turn to a different gospel, which is no gospel at all.

To Turn Away Brings God's Curse

The second statement that grows out of the underlying truth that there is no other gospel is that rejection of that gospel leaves a person under God's curse. Verses 8 and 9: "Even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you the gospel contrary to that which 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 that which you received, let him be accursed." The word repeated here is anathema (accursed). When a person is anathema, he is cut off from Christ (Romans 9:3) and doomed to eternal punishment. In 2 Thessalonians 1:9 Paul said that those who don't obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus "shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might." When a person rejects the gospel, the free, gracious gift of God's forgiveness and kingship, then he remains under the divine curse for his sin—a terrifying prospect because of its torment and unending length. The reason I say this curse abides on anyone who rejects the gospel and not just on the false teachers in these verses is that Paul uses the same word in 1 Corinthians 16:22, "If anyone does not love the Lord, let him be accursed."

Paul does not have a cotton candy concern for the gospel. He does not offer sugary smiles in controversy and say, "To each his own." For Paul the gospel of Christ is the point at which the awesome life of God touches the life of this foul world of sin. And when that offer of eternal grace to utterly unworthy creatures like us is rejected or perverted to satisfy our pride, somewhere someone must rage at the heinousness of the crime. O, how we need to meditate on the horror of rejecting the gospel. Satan does his best with television and radio to create in us a mind that is so trivial and banal and petty and earthly that we find ourselves incapable of feeling what terrifying truth is in this word anathema. O, how we need to guard ourselves from the barrage of eternity-denying entertainment. We need to cultivate a pure and childlike imagination that hears a word like anathema the way a child hears his first peal of thunder, or feels his first earthquake, or suffers his first storm at sea. The Bible does not reveal to us the eternal curse of God that we may yawn and turn the page. The wrath of God is revealed to shake unbelievers out of their stupor, and to take the swagger out of the Christian's walk and the cocky twang out of his voice. Don't skim over verses 8 and 9 quickly. There is much humbling and sobering and sanctifying to be had here. Ponder these things in quietness.

Seeking to Please God, Not Man

Finally, the third statement that grows out of the underlying truth of only one gospel is that the servant of the gospel seeks to please God alone and not men. Verse 10: "Am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still pleasing men, I should not be a servant of Christ." In verses 8 and 9 Paul had just said something that will not win him many friends. It doesn't please most people to hear someone pronounce the sentence of eternal damnation. And so what Paul does in verse 10 is give an account of why he is willing to talk this way. He is willing to talk this way because pleasing people is much lower on his list of priorities than serving Christ. Two things are at stake when the gospel is perverted: one is the glory of Christ; the other is the salvation of sinners. If the gospel is twisted, the all-sufficiency of Christ's work is dishonored, and the way to salvation for sinners is blocked. Therefore, in order to serve Christ—to advance his glory and achieve his saving purpose—Paul must oppose the perversion of the gospel with all his might, whether it pleases people or not. For the glory of Christ (6:14) and for the good of those who may yet believe the gospel (2:5), Paul is willing to speak unpleasant truth.

The lesson to learn from verse 10 is not that the more people you can displease the more spiritual you are. It was never Paul's aim to alienate people. On the contrary, in 1 Corinthians 10:31f. he says, "Do all to the glory of God. Give no offence to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please all men in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage but that of many, that they may be saved." And in Romans 15:2f. he says, "Let each of us please his neighbor for his good to edify him; for Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, 'The reproaches of those who reproached thee fell on me.'" In other words, it is good to please people provided that pleasing them is a means to their salvation and their edification and to God's glory. This calls for a heart of deep spiritual wisdom to know when to be angry and say, "Woe to you Scribes and Pharisees!" and when to weep and say, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how oft would I have gathered you like a hen gathers her chicks, but you would not." "Let your speech be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone" (Colossians 4:6).

The most thrilling implication of verse 10 for me personally is this: The absoluteness of Christ's lordship is gloriously liberating. It frees me from having to worry about pleasing one person here and another person there. It brings unity and integrity to my life. When you live to please only one person, everything you do is integrated because it relates to that one person. Shall I go to this movie? Read this book? Make this purchase? Take this job? Go out on this date? Marry this person? What a freeing thing it is to know that there is one person who is to be pleased in every decision of life—Jesus. Sometimes pleasing him will please others. Sometimes it won't, and that will hurt. But the deep joy of a single-minded life is worth it all.

In summary: The underlying truth of this passage is that there is one, and only one, gospel. It is therefore astonishing to turn away from it—away from God who calls, and away from grace in Christ. It is not only astonishing, it is tragic, because the person who rejects the gospel is anathema, accursed and cut off from God. But on the other hand, if you embrace the one true gospel, not only are all your sins forgiven by God, but a thrilling unity and integrity and liberty come into your life because there is only one person to please, Jesus Christ, and he only wills what is best for you.

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