What we can see immediately in this first chapter of Galatians, and at the end of verse 9 in particular (“If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” —anathema, damned), is that this letter, and in this conference focused on this letter, and the 500-year-old Reformation enflamed by this letter, and the Christian faith that stands or falls with this letter — what you can see is that the Christian faith, and that Reformation, and this conference, and this letter deal with matters on which your eternal destiny hangs. “If anyone brings you another gospel, let him be damned!”
“Every day, people in your church and your family are being lured away from Christ as their supreme treasure.”
And therefore, this letter and this conference and the Reformation and Christianity should echo in us with unparalleled seriousness.
Unparalleled seriousness in joy at the grace and peace that is ours in verse 3, and the deliverance from evil and destruction that is ours in verse 4, and the soul-satisfying glory of God in verse 5.
Unparalleled seriousness of astonishment (like we see in verse 6) that we or our children or friends would turn away from this grace to a gospel that is no gospel.
Unparalleled seriousness of anger at anyone who, like those in verse 7, distort the gospel and destroy human souls — let them be accursed.
Eternity at Stake
Just think of it. Accursed. Whose curse? Paul’s? Paul’s curse is as nothing compared to God’s curse. Paul says in Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” But now we have a group, purporting to come from James in Jerusalem (Galatians 2:12), who are directing the Galatians away from the all-sufficient, curse-removing substitution of Christ. So Paul says, Cursed — damned — be those who lead people away from the curse-removing gospel of Christ. Damned be the damners.
This is happening to people in your church and your family. They are being exposed to kinds of “gospel” — which are no gospel — every day. They are being lured away from Christ as their supreme treasure and away from grace. And they need to hear from you a very serious word.
You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. (Galatians 5:4)
O foolish one! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. . . . Did you suffer so many things in vain — if indeed it was in vain? (Galatians 3:1, 4)
Woe to the pastor and worship leader who create an entertainment atmosphere in their church where this kind of seriousness feels out of place.
Authority and Justification
Two of the great, indispensable truths of the Christian faith that the protestant Reformation recovered in Scripture out from under the mountains of sacramentalism and ritual and meritorious works in the Roman Catholic church were
the supreme authority of Scripture over all human authority (including the Pope and all Councils), and
the truth that sinful human beings stand justified before God not on the basis of any righteousness of their own doing, but only on the basis of Christ — crucified, risen, righteous.
Those two recoveries are sometimes called the formal principle of the Reformation (the supreme authority of Scripture) and the material principle of the Reformation (the truth of justification by grace alone through faith alone on the basis of Christ alone).
The reason Paul’s letter to the Galatians was so crucial in the recovery of these truths is that these two principles are exactly what this book deals with. Chapters 1 and 2 deal mainly with the formal principle — Paul’s apostolic authority. Chapters 3 and 4 deal mainly with the material principle — the truth of justification by faith apart from works of the law. Chapters 5 and 6 deal mainly with what that looks like in life.
From the Bottom Up
My assignment is chapter 1, and so the focus falls heavily not on the material content of the gospel of justification, but on the foundation of the gospel in its divine origin through Paul’s apostolic authority. The way I am going to tackle this is by focusing on Paul’s argument, not in the order that he gave it, but by rebuilding his argument from the deepest foundation that he mentions to the final outcome, with each step in the argument being built on the one that most immediately supports it.
Let me illustrate, since this is hard to grasp in the abstract, but easy to see from examples. Suppose you say to me, “I can’t talk now, I’m late, I have to hurry, or I’ll miss my train.” Now if I want to tell someone what you said, I could just repeat it as you said it. Or I could analyze it, and then rebuild it starting with the deepest foundation and ending with the final outcome. So, it would go like this: “He was late. Therefore, he was about to miss his train. Therefore, he was in a great hurry. Therefore, he couldn’t talk to you.” The order of the four statements in my exposition is totally different from the order you spoke them. But the logic is exactly the same.
“Be done with man-pleasing, or you will not be a reliable witness to the truth.”
Here’s the reason I find this so helpful to preach like this (It’s not the only way!). Where there are only four statements you can see immediately and intuitively what the logical connections are — what’s the cause and what’s the effect. But when you are dealing with 24 verses, as we are in Galatians 1, you can easily lose track of how the pieces fit together. That’s one of the things I think preaching is for: to make the structure of the argument plain. One way to do that is to rebuild it from the most foundational to the final outcome, with each step in the argument built on the one that most immediately supports it.
We’re going to work our way from the bottom up through eight steps in Paul’s argument to the final outcome of his astonishment at the Galatians’ departure from the gospel — which he hopes he can stop.
1. God set Paul apart for his salvation and his apostleship before he was born.
That’s where everything starts.
But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone.” (Galatians 1:15–16)
God chose Paul before he was born to be his emissary to the Gentiles. This is not even a main clause. Why point this out, as if in passing? It has at least two relevant implications:
The mission to include Gentiles through Paul was not an afterthought in the mind of God.
It’s not as though God looked down and saw how slow the twelve apostles were going about the Great Commission and said, “Well they are not doing the job I gave them; I’ll need plan B. I’ll find an enterprising Jew with some real diaspora experience and see what we can get going among the Gentiles with him. Hardly! God planned to spearhead the Gentile mission in the world with Paul before Paul was born (verses 15–16). Neither the Gentile mission nor Paul’s leadership in it was Plan B. God planned Paul’s apostleship before there were any apostles. That’s the first implication of Paul’s being set aside before birth. The apostleship he is defending was plan A, not an afterthought.
Paul did not simply put himself forward for the job.
God put Paul forward for the job, and he did it on the Damascus Road when Paul was a Christ-hating, Christian-persecuting Pharisee. Look at verses 13 and 14:
For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.
In other words, when God chose me before I was born to be his apostle to the Gentiles, he planned to let me become a hateful persecutor of his children, so that it would be crystal clear that, when he called me, it was totally his doing. “He chose me before I was born and let me become an enemy of the church for all those years so that it would be plain that his calling me was utterly and totally gracious. I had no desire to be an apostle or even a Christian. I hated Christians. I was advancing in zeal against the church, not for the church.”
The fact that Paul is a Christian and an apostle to the Gentiles is utterly inexplicable from any human standpoint. This leads now to step two in Paul’s argument.
2. God called Paul to himself by revealing Christ to him.
As Paul said in Romans 8:30, “Those whom he predestined he also called.” So, again verses 15-16:
But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me . . .
Before he was born, God destines him for his calling, then decades later in the midst of Paul’s hatred of Christians, God sovereignly takes what he had predestined. He calls Paul to himself. How? By revealing Christ to him on the Damascus Road. Verse 16: “He was pleased to reveal his Son to me.” It was more than a blinding physical encounter. God revealed Christ deeply to Paul — in Paul as verse 16 literally says. Paul saw the utter truth and beauty and worth of the Jesus he had been persecuting. And he saw that here was the end — the destruction — of all his religion. All his achievements were rubbish. And if this Jesus was anything, he was everything.
“Christ alone is the sum and total of your right standing with God. Don’t leave him as your supreme treasure.”
What would he do? Everything had to change. How could he even imagine what it would be like to serve the one he had tried to destroy? How could he imagine preaching a gospel that he hated and rethinking his entire understanding of the Old Testament? His answer is step three in the argument.
3. He avoided all contact with the twelve apostles by going to Arabia for three years and then spent only fifteen days getting to know Peter.
The point of verses 16–21 is that Paul did not consult with flesh and blood while his understanding of the gospel was taking shape. He did not depend on the twelve for his gospel or his apostolic commissioning. He only went to get to know Peter after three years. If his gospel and his authority were going to be valid, two things would need to be true: (1) His apostleship and gospel would need to be from Christ, not the apostles, and (2) his message — his gospel — would need to be in harmony with theirs. Independence in authority. Unity in message. That’s what verses 16–21 aim to show.
When God was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone [literally flesh and blood — I realized immediately this is not a time to depend on any human input; God is calling me to be a agent of divine revelation]; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me [you can hear the implication that he realizes he is being made an apostle like them], but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.
Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit [historeō — to get to know] Cephas and remained with him fifteen days [the implication being: I did not go to school with him. I did not get my gospel from him. The time was short — two weeks. I had been preparing for three years already, and the aim was to meet him. You’ll see in chapter 2 that the next visit was fourteen years later and Paul explicitly says in 2:6, “they added nothing to me.”]. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ.
So the point of those verses (16–21) was that, flesh and blood — that is neither the Jerusalem apostles nor any other human — did not call me; flesh and blood did not reveal Christ to me; and flesh and blood did not teach me the gospel. I am not dependent on Peter, James, and John. There is no apostolic succession to me. I am not secondary in apostolic authority.
4. Paul is a radically new man whose change can only be accounted for by the risen Christ and to the glory of God.
He ends his description of this period of non-influence from the apostles in verses 21–24 with the amazing impact he had on the Christians in Judea.
Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ [during all these years he was not circulating in the territory of the apostles — they don’t know him in that region]. They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they glorified God because of me.
Paul the persecutor and destroyer of Christians, Paul the Pharisee, “who was advancing in Judaism beyond many of [his] own age among my people, so extremely zealous was [he] for the traditions of [the] fathers” (verse 14) — this Paul was preaching the faith he had tried to destroy. Indeed, at enormous cost. And they gave God glory. Paul’s point is: there is no adequate explanation for my life, apart from the glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
This leads, then, to step five in the argument. All of verses 13– 24 are written in support for this.
5. Paul’s apostleship and his gospel came directly from Christ .
You can see the word for at the beginning of verse 13. All of verses 13–24 are the foundation for verses 11 and 12.
For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
We see three negatives and a massive positive here :
- Verse 11: The gospel I preach is not man’s gospel (kata anthrōpon).
- Verse 12: I did not receive it from any man.
- I was not taught it [by any man].
That was the point of all that distance between him and the apostles and that inexplicable revolution in his life — “My apostolic message is not from man! I didn’t receive from man! I wasn’t taught it!”
And then the massive positive: (verse 12b) — “[It came] through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” I met the risen Christ. And from him directly I received the message that I preach. And he means not just the message, but also the authority as an apostle because he uses the same words in Galatians 1:1 —
Paul, an apostle — not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.
The very first note he strikes in the letter is: My apostleship is not through man — that is not through Peter or James or John — it directly from Jesus Christ by God’s will.
“If we lose the supremacy and authority of the apostolic word of Scripture, we will lose the gospel of grace.”
Before I turn to step six in Paul’s argument, we in the twenty-first century need to pause and let it sink in at this point that we are listening firsthand to a man whose life overlapped with Jesus Christ in the first century, who is claiming to have direct authoritative revelation from Jesus, who is alive from the dead. Either this man, Paul, is pathetically deluded with some kind of hallucination, or he is a devious impostor lying through his teeth — all while he’s willing to suffer in every city in obedience to this calling.
Or he is telling the truth and speaks as an apostle with the very authority of God. You will hear his voice in six messages at this conference, and your heart will embrace one of those three options. And your life hangs on that embrace. I will simply bear witness with joy, that in sixty years of walking with Christ together with the apostle Paul, I have not been able to find him a fool or a fraud. He’s real.
6. Therefore, since Paul is not dependent on men, but has his authority and gospel from Christ, he is not a man-pleaser but can say the hard things that need to be said.
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. (Galatians 1:10)
One of the marks of being dependent on men for your authority and message is that you speak with one eye on the approval of men. It is a wretched way to serve Christ. Be done with man-pleasing, or you will not be a reliable witness to the truth. Since he cares little for the opinion of men, and since he knows that his gospel and his authority are from Christ, then he can claim step seven.
7. Therefore, if an angel contradicts the gospel I preached to you, or if I myself contradict it, or anyone else, then let the angel and let me and whomever else be cursed.
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 1:8–9)
Notice, Paul does not say, “If Peter or James or John preach a different gospel, let them be accursed.” He raised the stakes higher — much higher. An apostle’s conflict with heaven and an apostle’s conflict with himself. Surely if heaven says, “Paul the gospel you preached is flawed. It left out the necessity of circumcision,” then Paul would concede he should back down. No. His gospel is not his own. It is from the risen Christ. His authority is higher than angels.
Well then, surely, if you yourself with your apostolic authority decide that your gospel is flawed you will change your message. No. Whoever this new Paul is, he’s calling the first Paul a preacher of a false gospel — I don’t not know him and would never own him. For Paul has spoken, and he has spoken with the revelation of Christ. This leads to the final explicit step in the argument.
The second Paul would be saying that an apostle can err. Therefore, the second Paul is a false apostle. When apostles are teaching the church, they do not err. Therefore, angel, man, or myself — let them be accursed if they bring another gospel. And Peter’s dissimulation in chapter two does not contradict this because Paul explicitly calls it hypocrisy (Galatians 2:13; see also the we of verse 15). His teaching was true. His life was flawed. Paul’s authority as Christ’s apostle is unimpeachable. And every alternative gospel to what he preached is damnable.
8. It is absolutely astonishing that you would turn away from the God whose way of salvation is grace in Christ.
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.
Even though the whole thrust of this chapter is that they shouldn’t turn away from Paul’s gospel because of Paul’s true and unimpeachable authority as a spokesman for Christ, when he actually cries out with astonishment at their defection, he puts the focus on the personal preciousness of grace, not on his authority.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ. (Galatians 1:6)
Him! Him! God Almighty. The all-glorious God, the all-satisfying God has called you to himself. Himself! Himself! And he has done it by grace. By grace. Grace provided by Christ.
“Paul’s gospel is not his own. It is from the risen Christ. His authority is higher than angels.”
How did he provide grace? By giving himself in death in your place to deliver you from destruction coming on this age.
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.
Grace from the will of God, thought the cross of Christ, leading to rescue from this doomed world under the wrath of God (1 Thessalonians 1:10).
Implicit in Paul’s astonishment (verse 6) is a plea. “O dear, foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you? Do not treat circumcision as a necessary part of your right standing with God. Christ alone is the sum and total of your right standing with God. Don’t leave him as your supreme treasure. Oh you say you are not leaving him. You are just adding to him. Listen, dear Galatians”:
Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. . . . Every man who accepts circumcision as part of his right standing with God is obligated to keep the whole law as his right standing with God. You are severed from Christ if you add law-keeping (of any extent or any kind) as a necessary part of you right standing with God; you have fallen away from grace. (paraphrase of Galatians 5:2–4)
Don’t nullify the grace of God! If any part of your right standing before God comes through law-keeping, Christ died in vain. (paraphrase of Galatians 2:21)
Grounded in Scripture Alone
And if this gospel of grace is precious to you (And how can it not be our best possession under Christ himself?), then we must never forget that this gospel is bound together with the unerring authority of the word of God. If we lose the supremacy and authority of the apostolic word of Scripture, we will lose the gospel of grace. Paul devoted two chapters of Galatians to make it plain — the formal principle of the Reformation.
Luther saw it and showed that the Roman Catholic elevation of the Pope’s authority equal to or above Scripture was a threat to the gospel of grace:
I considered it proper that the words of Scripture, in which the saints are described as being deficient in merits, are to be preferred to human words, in which the saints are said to have more merits than they need. For the pope is not above, but under the word of God, according to Galatians 1:8: “Even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed. (266)
Indeed. The pope is under the authority of the apostles — the Scripture. If he or an angel or any voice in any religion or any media preaches another gospel, let them be accursed. There is one gospel that saves. There is one authority that never errs. That gospel is glorious news of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, on the basis of Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. And that authority is the unerring word of Scripture.
May the Lord grant you not only a love for apostolic authority, and a love of apostolic gospel, but also a taste of apostolic seriousness. The seriousness of astonishment and sadness that people we love turn away from the gospel of grace to what is not gospel. The seriousness of anger at those who distort the gospel and destroy human souls. And above all, the seriousness of joy — inexpressible and glorified joy (1 Peter 1:8), that your sins are forgiven and your righteousness is complete by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone, for the glory of God alone.