Here’s my simple idea for this morning that I want you to be very clear on: in order to continue to preach the same gospel that saved you, the biblical gospel, you will have to endure controversy. Now if it’s early and you’re not good at early, that is the main thing I’m going to say. I’m going to say it again: in order to continue to preach the same gospel that saved you, the biblical gospel, you will have to endure controversy.
One of the sad but sort of amusing things that happens when you study church history is that you see other people put such great stock in some things that you spend time looking at and you realize, yeah, they’re really not all that great. No offense to all the patristic scholars out there, but the idea in this young generation that the older something is — at least among a subset of people — the more true it must be.
Brothers and sisters, have you read Galatians? There was heresy in the first churches. The very earliest churches we have record of are in letters in the New Testament that are written by Jesus in Revelation 2–3, by Paul, Peter, James, and John, to churches that are struggling in the truth of the gospel. And if you open up to Galatians 1, that’s where we’re going to be this morning.
Now, tomorrow morning, Lord willing, we get to hear from Jason something about the gospel-saturated, gospel-proclaiming life of Martin Luther. I look forward to that. I begin this morning simply with one little bit of Luther’s life, and that’s the Leipzig Debate. Now, the Leipzig Debate between Martin Luther and Johann Eck took place 498 years ago this coming July. Now, Luther was of course a German Augustinian monk, a professor of Bible, who had become convinced that some things the church had taught, some very important things, were false.
Eck was a professor of theology at Ingolstadt. He had relished the opportunity to dispute with Luther about some of these accusations he had made about the church’s errors. And so, after the encounter, the records of the debate were sent to the University of Paris for judgment, and the University of Paris judged that Eck had won the debate. They also included with their judgment 10 basic principles which they thought theologians should operate under in order to understand the Scriptures, especially during days of controversy. And I am not making these up. These are the 10 principles, basic principles that were being taught in the name of Jesus Christ at the University of Paris:
- The Scriptures are obscure.
- The Scriptures cannot be used by themselves.
- The Scriptures must be interpreted by masters, especially by the masters of Paris.
- The fathers are obscure.
- The fathers cannot be interpreted by themselves.
- The fathers must be interpreted by the masters, especially by the masters of Paris.
- The Sentences (The Sentences by Peter Lombard were the standard book of theology in the Middle Ages) are obscure.
- The Sentences cannot be used by themselves.
- The Sentences must only be interpreted by the masters, especially by the masters of Paris.
- Therefore the, University of Paris is the chief guide in matters of scriptural interpretation, for its decrees against Luther and Melanchthon are clear and can be understood by everyone.
Friends, I don’t know what your experience is like as a pastor. My inbox is full of religious controversy. It may be Southern Baptist pastors trying to convince some other Southern Baptist pastors that you can’t be a Baptist and a Calvinist. It may be some group of pastors trying to argue about whether or not God knows the future. It may be claims and counterclaims about a lesbian couple who have just become co-pastors of one church back in DC. Another pastor is in dispute with church leaders. All of those are just from among Baptist friends.
And lest of you non-Baptists take too much comfort in my omitting to mention your favorite group, just consider the things that are coming up in denominational meetings. You know how the press loves to report them during the summer. The Presbyterian Church in America this summer has a report coming out on the Ministry of Women. Mainline denominations are all in various stages of affirming homosexual practices as normal and God-glorifying. Friends, as the press covers religious controversies, there’s just so many fights between self-interested parties.
You and I, as workaday pastors, may begin to conclude we just want to keep our heads down and avoid controversy. We want to find the truth in the Bible that we can preach in peace and just keep going. I think there’s a problem with that way of thinking. Don’t misunderstand me, it is good to love peace, but it is never good to love peace at the expense of the gospel. And I think Galatians 1 is the right place for us to go when we think about controversy in religious matters, and particularly if we are tempted to think that religion is never worth fighting over with words. I mean, when is it worth fighting over?
No Other Gospel
Well, let’s just begin Galatians chapter one and see one example God’s Holy Spirit has given to us. Galatians 1:1–10 says:
Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead — and all the brothers who are with me, to the churches of Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 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.
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. For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.
Friends, that’s as far as we’ll go right now. I think you see immediately from how this letter begins that Paul wanted to clear a couple of matters up immediately. Some people may have thought, or even may have even been claiming, that Paul’s teaching ministry was something that he himself came up with, that it was his idea, that he conceived and directed this, and that he was working maybe perhaps in cahoots with the apostles, the church in Jerusalem or Antioch. But Paul says here in Galatians 1:1 that this self-generated idea of Paul’s mission and message was not the case. He says here in Galatians 1:1 that his commission was from God.
He explicitly says here that it was not from men. It was not some committee or someone who was merely human who had confronted Saul, the zealous Pharisee — Saul, the persecuting apostle of the Sanhedrin. It was the risen Christ who had confronted Saul and had transformed his heart and had called Paul to be the apostle to the nations. He says that explicitly here.
Furthermore, he hadn’t embarked on this mission and been sustained in it merely by men, rather it had been through the strength and the power, the direction and wisdom, of Jesus Christ and God the Father. Paul was an apostle of the risen Jesus Christ. His commission was divine. He had no merely human opinion that he was kind of presenting his one hue on the theological palette. Paul’s mission to the nations originated in and was empowered by God himself. Now, that shouldn’t be too surprising because Paul’s message, the good news, is all about what God has done.
Interpreting Christ’s Death
John, I appreciate the meandering through Scripture last night, looking at the way the gospel is rooted in the eternal plan of God and how it is crescendoing in those practical applications at the end from John’s gospel and elsewhere. Well, friends, this is a continuation of that same idea. If we were, as we were thinking last night, objects of the eternal love of God, of his foreknowledge and his predestination before the foundation of the world, then it is that same God who has brought us this good news of our salvation and of the way his love is worked out in our lives.
As some at the time in Paul’s day may have thought that the Christian message was ambiguous and plastic, maybe today people think that it’s ambiguous and plastic, like modern definitions of love, but friend, that’s not what we read in these verses at all. Looking in at Galatians 1:3, Paul says:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 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.
At the very heart of it all is what we read here in verse four. It says, “Jesus Christ, who gave himself . . .” Friends, if you read what some modern scholarship says about the crucifixion of Jesus, it’s often accepted that it’s a historical fact, but they come up with other construals of why they think it happened. They say it was simply a sad, unfortunately typical example of Roman severity. If only Jesus had stayed in Egypt when he’d fled Egypt as a boy with his family, the experienced Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt with a large Jewish community in Alexandria would not have so mishandled this erstwhile Messiah, so says one scholar I’m thinking of.
From that perspective, it was just an unfortunate happenstance that Pikate’s severity came in contact with Jesus’s teaching. Well friends, I think by suggesting that, some scholars may be intending good by it, but they merely intend to make Jesus seem more human, and whatever they do, they are ignoring or setting aside the earliest records we have explaining why Jesus died.
The Great Exchange
These words we’re looking at here may be the earliest written record we have of an explanation for the death of Jesus, and this is consistent with what Jesus himself taught in the gospels. He chose to lay down his life to become a sacrifice. Why? He says here clearly in Galatians 1:4 that it was “for our sins.” This is the great exchange that must be at the heart of all of our preaching. This great exchange is his death for our lives, his righteousness for our sins. This is at the very heart of the gospel, the substitution of the righteous Jesus in the place of sinners who would put their trust in him. That’s the headline and the heart. That’s the core and the center of the gospel, the good news.
Now, why exactly did Jesus give himself for our sins? Well, Paul says here in Galatians 1:4 it was “to rescue us.” According to the teaching of Jesus, we are all in bondage to our sin, so we are in need to be delivered. We are lost and hopelessly wandering in our own moral darkness. We are separated from God. We need to be saved.
We are trapped in the fatal moral choices that we’ve made. We are enslaved to our own sins, and we need to be set free from the penalty of our sins and from its power and its hold on us. Friends, Christ gave himself to accomplish all of this, and the life of every true Christian here in this room knows the reality of that.
We’ve been experiencing that even today, even this morning, his rescue of us. The way Paul puts it here is that we are hopelessly lost in the tossing, threatening, growing violence of our own sinful rebellion against God. Have you ever felt in great physical danger? Have you been in a place maybe in a time where you were scared for your life? It could have been as simple as being on an airplane sometime, or it could be being the victim of a crime, or it could be some other tortured circumstances that happen in people’s lives. Friends, Paul is using severe language here. If you can relate to that time of feeling trapped, that is the kind of image that Paul is invoking here, and he says here that we need rescuing from this present evil age. He sees this age as pressing in upon us like that.
The Present Evil Age
Sometimes we may not be so aware of that; other times we are painfully aware of that. We feel like we’re struggling for breath itself, so evil is the age. Surely some here in a group as large as this have been in times and situations of extraordinary physical danger. Well, in such a situation when real hope is gone and only fear motivates the struggle for life, if you’re right at that point of despair, imagine then all of a sudden the storm clouds breaking and help coming. You’re delivered and disaster is averted. That’s what Paul is talking about here. Paul is talking about as dark a night as a soul has ever faced, breaking suddenly into the broad noontime sunshine of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Friends, this is the truth of the life of a Christian. This is what we have experienced even in this present evil age. So the good news is that whereas some situations may be truly desperate and actually hopeless, finally lost, this present evil age, our wicked world in which we participate fully, is not such a finally hopeless situation exactly because Christ has died for our sins. He has died for our sins. He suffered the righteous, good wrath of God, the due penalty for our sins, specifically to free us from the killing power of this present evil age.
Friend, if you are here and you’re not a Christian, maybe you work here and you have to be here, maybe a good friend talked you into coming and so you thought, “Why not spend three days in Minneapolis in February? I’ll bring in the new month right here in Minneapolis” — friends, whatever that situation is that brings you here, I want you to understand this is real. This is true news. You’re in one of the best places you could be to hear more about that from just about anybody sitting around you. Repent of your sins, turn from your disobediences to God, trust in this sacrifice that Christ has presented. Ask your friends you’ve come with to understand more about this. Be adopted, be forgiven. Come into the relationship with your creator you were literally made to have.
This was all Paul says here, according to the will of our God and Father. This message was nothing Paul made up to curry favor with Gentiles or with some certain friends. This was actually — again, as we were thinking about last night — the plan of God himself. Jesus had given himself in obedience to God’s plan and then Paul had become a messenger of the salvation Jesus had wrought according to the will of God. Paul spends longer on his own apostolic call in the introduction to this letter than he does in the introduction of any of his other letters.
There had probably been some challenging of Paul and his message and authority in order to call forth a defense like this. I mean, we can tell that there were some serious problems in these Galatian churches.
Controversy: The Priority of the Gospel
So what can we learn about this controversy, about their confusion over the gospel, about how Paul met it? What should we learn about faithfulness and controversy in our own day? Let me simply point out three things. Number one: the Galatians’ confusion was about the gospel itself. The Galatians’ confusion was about the gospel itself. Pastor, there is no theological idea or no understanding in the minds of the members of your church that you should care about so much as their understanding of the gospel.
Look at Galatians 1:6:
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 (which is really no gospel at all) . . .
Paul is saying, “Evidently, some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ,” as these Galatian Christians were evidently turning away from the Christian gospel, that which had identified them and called them out and separated them from the world around them, rescued them — as we were just thinking — from this present evil age. All of this they were apparently trying to remove themselves from. They were turning away from it.
As extraordinary as that may seem, they had turned away from something so good. They were leaving the truth. They had turned away from the good news that they heard earlier and they were hastily shifting over to another gospel. They were turning. The word translated here as “quickly deserting” is the word which is often translated as “traitor”. They were so quickly deserting the gospel, they were becoming gospel traitors, Paul says here.
But I said so quickly deserting the gospel, and while from the context we know that’s true, that isn’t how Paul puts it here. He didn’t say you’re so quickly deserting the gospel. Notice exactly what he said there in Galatians 1:6. He says, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting (what?) the one who called you by the grace of Christ.” It’s “the one who called you” that these Galatian Christians were deserting. It was their personal loyalty that was dissolving. It was a personal relationship that they were forsaking. It was a personal treason that they were committing.
It was not merely that some of their opinions had changed, though they had, but these opinions were clearly tied up with something more than a merely abstract set of beliefs. We see here in Galatians 1:6–7 that they were turning to a different gospel, which is literally not another. They were turning to a different gospel, which is no gospel. And then they’re turning to another message, which Paul says here, really is not. It had no real substance and it gave them no real hope. And in all this, their turning was basically deserting God.
Turning from the Gospel, Turning from God
So if the good news of Jesus Christ’s death for our sins was to be received with thankfulness and humility, with confession and faith, and brought with it a reconciled relationship with God, what else would this rejection mean but that this restored relationship with God was being rejected? It was as if God himself were being rejected, as if these Galatians were preferring separation from God to fellowship with God, and it was all through their turning from the true gospel and accepting this counterfeit in its place.
It was this disastrous exchange that Paul wrote to prevent. We see here in Galatians 1:7 that some people were confusing the Galatians and they were doing so by changing the gospel. And friends, to change the perfect gospel of Christ is to distort it. It is to pervert it. I’ve been pastor of the same congregation now for over 22 years, and I can tell you, do you want to know what causes trouble in the church? Absolutely nothing does so much as confusing the gospel.
John Stott said:
The devil disturbs the church as much by error as by evil. When he cannot entice Christian people into sin, he deceives them with false doctrine.
John Perkins has said:
Something is wrong at the root of American evangelicalism. I believe we have lost the gospel, God’s reconciling power, which is unique to Christianity, and have substituted church growth. We have learned how to reproduce the church without the message.
Friends, moral scandals involving sex and money tarnish a church’s witness. Family feuds can tear at a church. Gossip and envy, worldliness and selfishness, can eat away at it, but teaching a false gospel kills it from its very core and center. It sets the whole course wrongly. Its data is dirty, its assumptions are erroneous, its material is unsound. So if you really want to trouble a church, start teaching a different gospel. A church confused about the gospel is like a blind Uber driver. It’s like a forgetful historian. It’s like a colorblind artist. A church confused about the gospel is worse than worthless. It is a blocked emergency exit. It’s an elevator to hell.
Pastors, this is one reason we have to keep on preaching the gospel. We have to make sure the next guy they hire after us is at least right on the gospel because everybody here knows clearly and understands the gospel, because we keep preaching the gospel.
Persevering in the Truth
I don’t know if Jason is going to tell the story tomorrow morning, but Martin Luther, when once asked why he was preaching on justification by faith alone for the 20th time, said it was because people didn’t remember it after the 19th. Keep preaching the gospel. We need to persevere in the truth and be sure we persevere in the truth and not let our preaching be subtly transformed into a different gospel. This can be subtle. We might not overtly deny the gospel, but we might so ignore it, assuming, “Well, everybody here has heard the gospel. They’ve understood it. Even the ones who aren’t Christians have heard it a thousand times. I’m going to go on and preach on more interesting things.”
Oh, brother, if that’s your spirit before you preach, when you plan a sermon series, when you’re working on a sermon, check your heart and check your Bible. Confess honestly to your fellow elders you’re facing that and call it what it is. It is a temptation, and it is a temptation which will do no good to the congregation the Lord has called you to shepherd.
Conclusions: A Different Gospel?
Here’s a question for us this morning though. We’ve seen that Paul and these Galatians were being taught a different gospel — different how? A couple of differences are especially brought out in these verses that I think would be good for us to note. Different gospels have different conclusions, so this will be my second main point of things we notice.
First is just the content. But here, particularly, different gospels have different conclusions. Look again at Galatians 1:7–10:
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. For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.
So friends, even now he’s saying these two different messages are having two different results. Paul says here in Galatians 1:10 that he himself has realized that he has a choice to make. He can either be a servant of Christ or of men. He can either be a God-pleaser or a people-pleaser. He can either crave the approval of men or of God, but he cannot be governed by both.
Brother-pastor, that’s a choice we face often in our ministries at some points crucially. In a group of pastors this large there are some people here who are very clearly facing that. I pray God will make that clear in your own mind if that’s what you’re facing this morning. Stare at this first chapter of Galatians.
Look at what he says here in Galatians 1:6 about the Galatians who were deserting God by deserting his gospel. Remember, this gospel didn’t come from Paul originally. He received it. It didn’t belong to Paul in the sense that he made it up. Paul neither effected it with his death nor commissioned himself to preach it. It was God who was directing this rescue work of Christ’s death and commissioned Paul to proclaim this good news, and Paul was committed to pleasing God more than man, whatever it would cost him.
Servants of Christ or Men
Again, it was Martin Luther who said:
This is not preaching that gains favor from men and from the world, for the world finds nothing more irritating and intolerable than hearing its wisdom, righteousness, religion, and power condemned.
It’s a good enough quote that I’m going to read it again. Luther, in his commentary on Galatians, says:
This is not preaching that gains favor from men and from the world, for the world finds nothing more irritating and intolerable than hearing its wisdom, righteousness, religion, and power condemned.
I love the account of John Gill, pastor of the same church that a century later Spurgeon would come to pastor. He was the pastor of the same church for over 50 years in London in the 1700s. He was famous for his preaching, his writing, his learning, and his piety. I think the University of Aberdeen gave him a doctorate, though he’d never been there, just because he was so learned in languages. Well, one time after Dr. Gill had written against a particular gentleman’s errors that he considered to be wrong, some friends of his nervously came to see him and suggested to Dr. Gill that he might lose some subscriptions — that is, some financial support might be withdrawn among some wealthy people who really liked this other guy whose ideas Gill was attacking in print.
How does the old Dr. Gill respond? He said:
Do not tell me of losing. I value nothing in comparison with the gospel. I am not afraid to be poor.
I wonder how many of us are so certain in our loyalty to the gospel of God. Would we be willing to have controversy and poverty for loyalty to the gospel? Also, because it was God’s message it makes sense that if you reject this message, you are rejecting the one whose message it is. You are choosing again to be alienated from God and that choice isn’t just for now. Paul, by his faithfulness to the gospel God had given him, was seeking the approval of God. That’s the language he uses here in Galatians 1:10.
On the other hand, those who are preaching these other so-called gospels were to be, he says in Galatians 1:8, “condemned” or “accursed”. That’s a harsh statement. The Greek word is anathema. Paul was basically calling upon God to curse, to punish, to finally condemn anyone who would lead people astray in such an important matter. This is why Paul was so harsh.
Harsh Sayings for Grave Errors
Now, some of you may think these kind of harsh words of Galatians 1:8 are not very Christlike. Years ago in Barnes and Noble I could not resist paying for a little book called The Positive Bible. It appealed to every sarcastic bone in my body. I foresaw an infinite number of good sermon introductions through this little Bible. And I am sad to say it has never disappointed me. You will search in vain for Galatians chapter one in this Positive Bible. It literally is not there. And friends, there are people sitting in your pews who, because you’re a minister of Jesus, think your main thing you’re supposed to do is smile and be sweet.
They think you’re supposed to be nice because they have a Thomas-Jefferson-like, edited Jesus in their brain. It’s just the bits that they like. It’s one of the most important reasons we must keep preaching, we must keep exposing God’s word to the people, because we know in Mark 9 about what Jesus says about those who would lead others astray. It sounds very parallel to the situation Paul is writing about here in Galatians one. What does, in fact, the real historical Jesus say about those who would lead others astray? Mark 9:42 says:
Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.
That’s sweet Jesus. He is utterly serious, and Paul here is his disciple. I think it’s no coincidence that both times such harsh language is linked to judgment about those who mislead others in matters of ultimate concern. Brother, if you’re going to begin to veer off to soften, to shape, to change, or to alter the gospel, do everybody in the world of favor — and no one more so than yourself — close your mouth, quit your job, and find another way to live. You will not serve anyone well if you alter the life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ, and you do not want that added accountability on your shoulders when you stand before God.
Unless these Galatians think that Paul simply got a little too worked up and misspoke himself there in Galatians 1:8 in the heat of the moment, he repeats himself in Galatians 1:9. Did you notice that? He says it in verse eight and people think that’s very harsh, and then just to be clear that people understood he said it again in verse nine. He emphasizes that this kind of misleading of people would be punished severely by God for the abuse of his people.
The Galatians were in danger of deserting God, and those who taught them this false way were to be condemned forever because different gospels lead to different places. Different gospels have different conclusions.
Contents: A Message Outside Ourselves
There is controversy, there are the conclusions, and then the third thing I want us to note from these verses is that different gospels have different contents. Friends, this controversy happens because they’re being led to different places, and these different places happen because the content of the gospel is itself different. They set different goals because they have different directions. And though Paul doesn’t go into exactly what the differences are in these first few verses of his letter — I think we’re going to have some more help on this from Thabiti in just a few minutes — he makes it clear here that there is an evident distinction between the two, and I want us to note what these distinctions are that he gives us even in these opening verses of Galatians. So look in Galatians 1:6.
He calls whatever this message is “a different gospel”, and then in the very next phrase, as if rethinking, even according to the status of counterfeit — because he called it a kind of counterfeit gospel — he demotes it to nothingness. Paul writes literally, “which is really not another.” Now the ESV and the NIV here simply supply the word “gospel” in order to clarify what Paul is saying, but he really just says “not another”. It’s really no gospel at all. It’s not the good news Paul says. It’s not good news at all. For if we are lost in our sins and you add anything to this gospel — this great news of what Christ has done for us in rescuing us from our sins — then you completely destroy the message.
Now do you see what this means? Do you see the importance of this? Among other things, it means that the essence of the gospel is cognitive. The gospel is not the reality of Christ’s death on the cross, his substitution; it is our proclamation of it. It is our speaking of it. The gospel is made up of propositions, statements of truth. It’s not simply a feeling. It’s not simply a relationship. It’s not simply an encounter.
In its fullness, the reception of the gospel will entail all of these things. It will entail a relationship, but the gospel itself is none of these things. It is the news of events outside of us and outside of our experience, at least initially when we first hear it. The gospel is not defined by the messenger.
The Gospel We Preached and You Received
Look down in Galatians 1:8–9 where Paul repeats himself. I love the way he does this. The repetition is not quite exact, and you’ve probably noticed that. What’s repeated there in Galatians 1:8–9 is:
But even if [someone] should preach to you a gospel contrary . . . let him be accursed.
So it’s basically the same statement, but in comparing it you’ll notice there are a couple of differences which I think are important. In verse eight, he’s enjoining his faithfulness to it. How does he put it? He says, “The gospel we preached to you.” But then in verse nine, that same place in the sentence you see what Paul says instead, “the gospel you accepted.” So Paul reminds them with emphasis that together, Paul and the Galatians were involved in their becoming Christians. Paul had preached this gospel and they had accepted it, and the message Paul preached in verse eight was the message they had received in verse nine.
Notice also the other difference between these two verses in who it is preaching the false gospel. In verse nine, Paul has the sweeping, “If anybody is preaching this other gospel, let him be condemned,” which is sweeping and true. But look what he does next then. Paul had already riveted their attention to his condemnation of it, and at the same time swept away any charge that this might be some petty personal rivalry by the way he put it. Look there in Galatians 1:8. He says, “But if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned.”
He prayed for this same curse of God’s condemnation to fall on him, on Paul himself. He valued this message so much, he so wanted to see it not altered, that he didn’t ask for any privileged position. He didn’t say, “I’m the apostle Paul. I am defining what the gospel is. There will be whole PhDs done, and a whole series of studies on Pauline thought.” That’s not in Paul’s purview at all. Here, Paul says, “May I be condemned if I preach any other gospel.” He didn’t see his authority as attaching to his person, but to his message. The message would not be true simply because there was a heavenly messenger.
We know in the Bible that there is a difference between superstitious and supernatural, and that the supernatural world is presented as real and not as all good. I had somebody come up to me Sunday night after church and ask me, “How did those magicians in Egypt do those things that they did?” And I said, as I so often do (you heard all my degrees that Chase mentioned in my introduction), “I don’t know. I’m not sure.”
I’m sure I give that answer at the door after church once or twice every Sunday, probably every service. I say, “I don’t know. I’m not sure.” But I said to this person, “Do you realize in the Bible everything that’s supernatural is not good. There is real supernatural power that is bad.” Now, there is a sovereign God over it all and God has his plans, but just understand that when you read something like this there’s nothing that should throw you in that as a Bible believing Christian.
The Gospel as the Standard of Truth
Well, Paul knew that there were things like angelic beings who are in revolt against God. Satan himself is one of those. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 11:14, “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.” Nor would the message be true simply because it came from Paul himself. Perhaps he would falter in his adherence to it. Simply because we believe that God’s Holy Spirit has preserved the words of Scripture from error does not imply at all Paul’s personal sinlessness or perfection.
Brothers and sisters, every word of first and second Peter is true, but we know from the record of the New Testament that Peter’s faults as a man are obvious. Paul knew himself to not be the standard of truth, but rather it was the message itself that he had already faithfully delivered. That message that was the same that was taught by Christ and preached by the other apostles was the same. That was the standard of truth.
The gospel that Paul had taught the Galatians and that they had accepted was true because it was the gospel of God. It was the same message that he had originally given his apostles. The gospel that these teachers in the Galatian churches were teaching was different from that original message, and therefore it was false. And Paul was willing, rightly willing, to stir up controversy, to lay down niceness, to cause a stink, to make things awkward, to risk not being liked.
I don’t know how many different ways I can put it. He was willing to do all of those socially uncomfortable things in order to be a faithful messenger conveying the message that he had been given to those whom God had called him to love. Friends, Paul contested for the truth of the gospel. Different gospels have different contents, and Paul was going to make sure that the content of his gospel stayed true.
So to summarize, this whole message has been exceedingly simple. The Galatians were being confused about the gospel. Paul told them that these gospels were different in content and in conclusion. They were different messages, they led to different places. In fact, those differences were so significant that Paul was willing to call forth controversy over them.
Now, the final truth I want you to notice as a bunch of pastors is the congregation’s responsibility for discerning the truth. This isn’t one of my points, I’m just throwing this into the conclusion for free. Because if you think the only way you make sure your congregation stays faithful to the truth is if your elders know the gospel, I think you’ve misunderstood the Bible.
You’ll notice who Paul writes this to. Look again at that final phrase in Galatians 1:2. He says, “To the churches in Galatia.” Someone might say, “Well Mark, ‘churches’ could just be standing in the place of elders. It could mean elders.” I’ve had more than one intelligent friend say that to me. And I understand the lexical possibility that churches there could simply mean elders. I just want to point out that the word presbuteroi was well available to Paul, and what Paul said was “churches”. It’s the churches in Galatia that he writes to.
Brother-pastor, I hope you are challenged by that. Paul didn’t write this letter calling for theological evaluation and judgment to another apostle like Peter or to an apostolic council. He didn’t just write it to those false teachers. He didn’t write it to the pastors of these churches or any other elders or subgroup of leaders. It says simply “to the churches in Galatia”. Now, maybe you’ll decide that’s of no particular significance. Well, that’s over to you. I’m just pointing out here this Holy Spirit-inspired text. He says “to the churches in Galatia,” and I think it’s worth pointing out.
We don’t know how many churches there were. It was an area of Turkey that had maybe five churches, maybe 10 churches. We don’t know how many, but it was to these churches that Paul wrote this letter, and in doing this, he seemed to assume that they were able to do what he was asking them to do.
Realize how revolutionary this is. Paul was in essence appealing to the members of the church to judge their teacher’s teaching. Have you thought of that? This letter to the Galatian congregations, as clearly as anything in the New Testament, seems to assume that the gospel is clear to the church. The gospel is clear to the congregation of Christians. The implications of this are so great, so far reaching in so many directions it would be another message. I would need Thabiti’s time in order to come through all that comes out of this if you just stare at it and think of it. But I want to just point this out to you for a minute because if you’re going to be a faithful pastor you need to understand this.
Test the Spirits
If an angel, calling himself Moroni, comes to us and tells us something that is different from what we have in the New Testament, what are we to do? Reject it, controvert it, show how it’s different, show how it’s wrong, and reject it. By what authority? By the authority of the word of God itself. Do we have the competence to sit in judgment on the teachings of a supernatural being? Yes we do. Yes we do. It’s right here. Paul says that clearly.
And if a bishop comes to us calling himself the Bishop of Rome, the successor of Peter, and tells us something that is different from what we have in the New Testament, what are we to do? We are to reject it. We are to controvert it. We are to show how it is different from what is in the Bible and how it is wrong. By what authority? What about all the councils and colleges and traditions and claims? Friends, you don’t have to know all of them in order to be faithful to the biblical message.
If you want to learn about how to spot a counterfeit, don’t spend time studying the counterfeits. Study the real thing and that will get you prepared for every counterfeit. Study the Bible. Realize that you not only have the ability, but you have the responsibility to discern the main points of the gospel in the Bible and to keep those clear for your congregation.
In this year (2017), I just can’t resist another Reformation reference. The great warning at the time to the Protestant Reformers from Rome at the time of the Reformation was that their wrong-headed controversy would cause Christianity to fracture into a million pieces. Do you think that prophecy has come true? It has not. I’m aware that in major language groups there are going to be a few score different denominations through whom local churches cooperate and send mission dollars. I understand that.
But friends, those who intend to believe the gospel, this message that we see here at the heart of the Bible, though they disagree on other matters do share to a remarkable degree the simple message. There is a unity worked by God’s Holy Spirit among all of those who are truly born again. The bishop of Rome has no apostolic authority. There is no apostolic succession in the bishops of any church that has any value whatsoever, except for faithfulness to the apostolic gospel. That is the only true biblical idea of apostolic succession. It’s not a succession of hands to head in physical ordination; it’s a succession of teaching.
Unity Around the Gospel
Who is teaching what the apostles taught? Who has the same gospel about Jesus Christ and salvation in him? And that faithfulness God by his providence has charged all of us in our local churches to keep even as he himself has promised that the very gates of hell will not be able to withstand the truth of the gospel. It is that gospel that all true Christians love and preach. We never have to have another worldwide conference for the reality of the unity in the Holy Spirit all Christians presently know to come about.
A free Methodist missionary in the Pacific Islands, a Baptist minister in Scotland, an evangelical Lutheran layman in Argentina, a Bible-believing Presbyterian pastor in Iowa, an Anglican parent in Uganda, a charismatic Christian in India — all to a remarkable degree — will tell people when they’re sitting next to them on the bus how they get saved. They are sinners. God has loved us. He sent his Son who died for us on the cross. God raised him from the dead. He ascended to heaven and presented his sacrifice to his heavenly Father. He calls us all now to repent and believe and we will be adopted as sons and daughters of God and forgiven of all of our sins.
Friends, we don’t have to have a new apostolic council to determine that message. They will tell them that God is holy, that they are lost in sin, that Christ has died for this salvation, that they must now repent of their sins and trust in Christ in order to be saved. Friends, that is what the Father planned, the Son died for, and the Spirit empowers, and it hasn’t failed and it’s not going to fail. It is the gospel that Paul preached to these earliest Christians. It’s the gospel these earliest Christians accepted. It is the gospel of God.
The Measure of a Man
Theological controversy certainly may be unpleasant, but it may every bit as certainly be necessary. Martin Luther King Jr said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” I don’t know the specifics of the controversy you’re facing in your pulpit in your city or town, but I know Satan hates this gospel. He will send out perversions of it. He will send out distortions of it. He will try to confuse you about it or its significance.
Maybe he’ll keep you believing the gospel itself, but you’ll just undervalue how important it is with a cavalcade and an avalanche of other emphases in your ministry. But it is our responsibility to believe the real gospel for ourselves and to make sure that it is taught to others even if it involves us in unpleasant controversy.
Brother-pastor, choose your controversy bullets carefully. You won’t have a lot of them. Make sure you use them up on that which is most essential to your calling and to our commission. This is the responsibility Christians have taken up from early church debates about the nature of Christ, to Luther’s championing of justification by faith alone during the Reformation. From the Great Awakening’s recovered preaching of conversion to the founders of the modern missionary movement — who, by the way, were at first mocked and despised even by fellow evangelicals — from those Christians who denounced slavery to those brothers and sisters who have contended for the truthfulness of the Bible in these last few decades, controversy has always accompanied truth’s proclamation in a fallen world.
We sit here today enjoying the fruits of the controversies that others were willing to wage out of faithfulness to the gospel which Paul preached. And more to the point, for which Christ died. Can we pastors today do any less?