In his letter to the Galatians, Paul is deeply concerned about the gospel and its purity. Early in the letter, Paul speaks as harshly as we ever see him speak in Scripture. Inspired by God, the apostle pronounces that anyone who preaches any gospel other than the gospel that Paul had already been preaching should be accursed.
Galatians 1:6–9 – 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— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 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. 9 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.
In case the language of accursed is not clear, that is Paul saying that a person who would preach a false gospel, a warped and non-gospel gospel, should be thrown by God into hell forever. Thus, we can fairly conclude that this is a big deal.
When we see this strong language used in the beginning of the book, we should be asking two questions. First, we should be asking what it is that is being proclaimed by the false teachers in Galatia. What is it that Paul is speaking so harshly against? Added to that, we should ask if there is anything like that in our generation that we need to watch out to avoid.
For several paragraphs in chapters 1-2, Paul tells his story and defends the gospel as he has preached it. He is careful to let the Galatians know that he is not preaching what he preaches to be a man-pleaser. Paul heard the gospel as revelation from Jesus himself. And Paul preached the gospel with clarity. Paul did travel to Jerusalem to compare notes with the apostles after 14 years of being saved, but nothing in his gospel changed, not even a little bit.
So, what is Paul speaking out against? We see a hint early in chapter 2 as Paul talks about his trip to Jerusalem to conference with Peter and James.
Galatians 2:1–3 – 1 Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. 2 I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain. 3 But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek.
To our modern ears, verse 3 seems to come out of left field. But, if we will pay attention, verse 3 brings to light a very significant element of the gospel that is in danger of being lost. The reason that Paul points out that Titus was not compelled to be circumcised is that this was what certain Jewish believers were attempting to add to the simple gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. These false teachers, known as Judaizers, believed that gentiles, because of their ethnicity and background, should be forced to submit to particular rituals and restrictions in order to be counted as Christians.
Now, we must grasp that, to some, this argument was quite persuasive. In fact, Peter almost falls for it as Paul points out later in chapter 2. Why was this persuasive? For centuries, there had been a clear difference in status between Jew and gentile in the Old Testament. The Jews were the chosen people of God. The Jews were the ones given the law of God, a good and perfect and holy law. And Old Testament gentiles who wanted salvation had to come to Israel and submit to the laws of God, including circumcision, in order to be forgiven.
Is it possible, then, now that Christ has come, that there is no longer any sort of division that is to be made in the church between people of differing ethnicities and backgrounds? What if the gentiles had been previously cruel and oppressive to the Jews? What if the gentiles had lived particularly immoral lives in their worship of false gods before their conversion? Should those gentiles not be put on equal footing with the Jews by being forced to obey the law that the gentiles had previously not known? Should they not at least still be forced to go through circumcision?
No! Paul is emphatic here. Titus was not forced to be circumcised. No gentile should be forced to be circumcised. There is no differing requirement for the gospel based on one’s ethnicity. And to add such a thing is to warp and destroy the gospel. Look why Paul says that he would not submit to those who pushed the addition of law requirements for gentiles.
Galatians 2:5 – to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.
Paul did not allow the addition of ethnic laws to the gospel because he wanted to preserve the gospel. Get this. Paul would not allow an addition of something beyond the gospel to the gospel because to do so would lose the gospel. That is why not adding to the gospel preserves the gospel.
Do we face anything like this today? Are there any who would threaten the gospel? Yes, there surely are. Any person who adds to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ any element that is more than salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone is warping and destroying the gospel—they are preaching a non-gospel. We should beware, then, of who might be willing to add to the gospel. Religious cults add to the gospel. Legalistic moralists can come dangerously close to adding to the gospel. But what is most striking in our culture for today is the fact that, in some corners of evangelicalism in the United States, believers are bringing back into their discussion of the gospel divisions, and even at times new requirements for penance or shaming, based solely on ethnicity.
But the word of God is abundantly clear that, once we are in Christ, we take on brand new identities. No, we do not lose our ethnicity or culture. But we find who we are as defined by Christ and not by the past animosities that used to define us. Jews and gentiles hated one another. The supposed upper class looked down and mistreated the lower class. The rich often ignored the poor. But once we are in Christ, we take on the identity of Christian, and that identity is more important than all that went before.
Galatians 3:26-29- 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
The danger that we must avoid in today’s culture is to add to the gospel rules, laws, or penances that would elevate any group based on their ethnicity or past or denigrate any group based on their ethnicity or past. In Christ, we see that we are one family of God. The blood of Jesus Christ helps us to do away with all that socially divides us.
In Galatians, inspired by God, Paul particularly removes from the table any notion of making gentiles jump through extra hoops to be saved simply because of their gentile past. Paul also particularly removes any notion that Jews in the church were to be elevated to a higher position because of the oppression they faced at the hands of the gentiles. Instead, Paul was clear that, in Christ, we are now one family. And this principle must define the church of the Lord Jesus today. If we are going to keep the gospel, if we are going to preserve the genuine promise of God as Paul did in this book, we must not allow secular thought to bring additions to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ that divide us based on our pasts, good or bad. Because the gospel is so plain and so transformative, we must identify as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ first and foremost, and we must avoid anything else that we could welcome into our identities that would then splinter us based on social status, former religion, skin tone, native language, or anything else like these.
May God protect his church from any temptation to add anything to the only saving gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.