After returning to Antioch, Paul learned that controversy was brewing among the newly founded churches in the Roman province of Galatia. Some Jewish Christians accused him of “sweetening the pot” to make the message of the gospel more appealing to Gentiles. They disagreed with Paul’s teaching that Gentile believers didn’t need to follow the Jewish laws and customs to receive salvation, and told the members so.
In response, Paul wrote a letter to the churches calling them back to the one true gospel he had first given them. He both warned against, and cursed those who would distort the gospel saying, “Even if we, or an angel of heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you any gospel contrary to what you have received, he is to be accursed!” (vs. 1:8-9)
Now accursed may seem like a strong word, but it shows exactly how serious a matter it is when we change God’s gospel, and twist it into a “different gospel”. For as Paul says in verse 1:11, the gospel he preaches is one that came straight from Jesus Himself. It is perfect and complete both in its meaning and simplicity, and those who change it in any way seek to, “spy out our liberty, which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage.” (vs. 2:2:4)
Paul calls them, “false brethren” and tells us to turn away from their teachings. Rejecting the freedom that Jesus offers, they take the gospel and add rules and laws, distorting and demeaning God’s message of justified by grace through faith alone. They distort Christ’s sacrifice as not enough and somehow through our own works, we can earn forgiveness.
In Paul’s day the “different gospel” dividing the church was the teaching that all male believers, Jew and Gentile, needed to be circumcised under Jewish law. They couldn’t give up their ideas that no human acts, nor works, nor observance of any rule could earn them favor with God.
Yet Paul says he didn’t give into pressure or yield to the ritual demands of these “false brethren”, so that “the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.” (vs. 2:5) Why was this so important to Paul? Because as he states in verse 1:7, any “different gospel” is wrong, causes nothing but trouble, and is a distortion of the true gospel.
The true gospel is about faith, not works, and not the Law. God never gave us the Law as a means to earn our salvation. He knew full well how horribly we would fail in our attempt to obey it. Instead He gave it to us to show our desperate need for a Savior. And our Savior, Jesus Christ, is the perfect, and complete fulfillment of God’s Law. For as Paul tells us in verse 2:16, “A man is not justified by the works of the Law, but through faith in Christ Jesus….since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.”
Even the most devout Christian isn’t immune to struggling with the simplicity of the message of the gospel. Because in our fallen minds it seems too easy and good to be true. We think salvation has to come both through faith, and….. But there is no and. There is only unmerited grace.
The gospel is meant for freedom and joy, not bondage and despair. It wipes clean our record of guilt and condemnation and counts us innocent and blameless. It calls us to be like Paul and declare, “For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God.” (vs. 2:19) Paul knew there is no grace to be found through the works of the Law, for if there were, why did Jesus have to die?
Could you ever imagine saying to Jesus, “I appreciate you allowing Yourself to be rejected, tortured, and crucified, but I’ve got this!” Of course you wouldn’t. But that’s what exactly what we’re doing when we try to earn God’s love.
Paul loved Jesus, and because of Christ’s sacrifice, and out of appreciation of God’s grace, Paul died to the Law. And so should we. God, because of His mercy and great love for us, sent His only begotten Son to pay the sin penalty that we owe. And through Jesus’ work on the Cross, we can be reconciled to God and have eternal life. This is the Good News. This is Grace. This is the Gospel, and there is no other.