The subtlety of deception and distortion is, in part, what makes it so disastrous. The Galatian believers, most likely, did not think that they had “deserted” the gospel of God. They had not intentionally abandoned it or distorted it. But Paul sees the whole picture, and they have fallen prey to a “different gospel.” The same thing can happen to us, to our churches, when we lose sight of the uniqueness of the gospel. Galatians reminds us of the uniqueness of the gospel which is our hope of salvation.
The introduction of the letter to the Galatians, like the whole letter itself, is remarkable. It stands out because of its construction and tone. Paul gets right to the heart of the matter quickly in this letter skipping his usual “thanksgiving” for the recipients. He is angry, and it comes out quickly in his letter. By verse 6 he is moves from a simple greeting to “astonishment.” Readers must be careful not to skip over this salutation, for it sets the tone for the whole letter.
His goal is to directly address to major issues in these churches to whom he writes. On the one hand he writes to defend his apostolic authority, which is being challenged. He explains then, that his authority comes “not from man, nor through men, but through Jesus Christ, and God the Father” (v. 1). Paul has the right to speak to the Galatians with authority, to clarify the gospel, to rebuke them for their distortion of it, because He is appointed by God for such a purpose, and this gospel message was revealed to Him from God himself (v. 12). On the other hand, Paul also seeks to clarify the gospel itself. Even from the start of his letter he is indicating what this message is. It is the message that Jesus “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (v. 4). This is the message that must be believed.
The problem in Galatia was not simply that Paul was being challenged, but rather that the message of salvation was being undermined by a group of professing believers who were adding to the gospel. A group of Jewish Christians were insisting that the new gentile converts to the faith must keep the Old Covenant law in order to be acceptable to God. In other words, it was a message of Jesus + law-keeping = salvation. This, Paul says, is a “different gospel” (v. 6). Paul says, of these Jewish Christians, “there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ” (v. 7). They are causing confusion and undermining the truth of salvation.
These are serious issues and help to explain Paul’s unique tone even from the introduction. He is angry and rightfully so. The perversion of the gospel is a serious matter, it is a life and death matter. In our own day and age when there is much frustration over theological debates and divisions, Paul is an example that some things are worth dividing over. Some things matter enough to get angry about. Some things, like the loss of the gospel, are just that serious. We ought to follow Paul in being concerned for the purity of the message of redemption. Yet, this letter is not simply about defending the gospel from those out-there who would oppose. This is a letter about defending the gospel from our own hearts, minds, and wills.
Galatians is a letter, to quote Phil Ryken, for “recovering Pharisees.” All men are born with a desire to earn their salvation, a conviction that we can do it on our own. We believe that our best efforts will win us affirmation, acceptance, and eternity. This is false. Our best efforts, says the Old Testament prophet, are as “filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6), they don’t appeal to God or earn us anything but condemnation. When we accept the free offer of grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus we leave behind these beliefs and this way of living. We are declared righteous in Christ, not in ourselves or our works. We become “former Pharisees.” But “former Pharisees” are still in recovery from their legalistic ways. As Ryken says:
Most former Pharisees have a problem, however. It is hard for them to leave their legalism behind. Although initially they received God’s grace for free, they keep trying to put a surcharge on it. They believe that God loves them, but secretly they suspect that his love is conditional, that it depends on how they are doing in the Christian life. They end up with a performance-based Christianity that denies the grace of God. To put this in theological terms, they want to base their justification on their sanctification. This means that most former Pharisees – indeed, most Christians – are still in recovery. There is still something of the old legalist in us. Although we have been saved by grace, we do not always know how to live by grace. The gospel is something we received some time in the past, but not something we live and breathe. Galatians was written for people like us. (Galatians, 4)
This is a subtle distortion that can creep in on any of us. Adding to the gospel is altering the gospel, it is creating a new gospel, “not that there is another one” (v. 7a). That lingering Pharisaical tendency in all of us must be reminded that the gospel is unique, it is different. It isn’t earned, it isn’t won or merited. The gospel is ours only because of Jesus’ death on our behalf. It’s all of grace.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is a message of salvation that is unlike any other in the world. It’s message states that we must be “delivered” (v. 4). We are in a helpless state, unable to do anything to alter our situation, nature, and eternal damnation. We are delivered through the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ on our behalf. He “gave himself for our sins” (v. 4). It is Christ’s work, not ours, that merits salvation. All “glory” then, goes to God who purposed this salvation for us (v. 5). It was according to His “will” (v. 4). Our world, the religions of our world, devise plans of salvation that revolve around our best efforts, and our self-improvement. They focus on our path to God, our journey, our discovery, our achievement. The one true gospel, the real good news, says God comes to us. It’s a unique message and grasping firmly that uniqueness can keep us from becoming deceived by the subtle additions and alterations that many, even with the church, propose to make to the gospel.
Galatians is a letter for Christians because we are all “recovering Pharisees” in need of the reminder of our true hope of salvation. Paul sets up the letter from the very start to emphasize both the weightiness of this matter and the truly unique character of our salvation. Read this letter and be challenged; read this letter and be encouraged. Ours is a unique gospel, and its uniqueness is our hope.