Distorting the Gospel

Galatians 1:6-10

Paul gets right to the point by noting that the intruding religionists in Galatia are distorting the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ.

©1999 by James A. Fowler. All rights reserved.

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 Galatians Series

   The initial two sentences of "grace greeting" were more than customary courtesies ­ certainly more than schmaltz before the assault. They were laden, as indicated, with theological import that served as the foundation for Paul's argument throughout the epistle.

   Whereas most of Paul's letters commence with some words of commendation, praise or thanksgiving (cf. Rom. 1:8; I Cor. 1:4; Phil. 1:3,4; Col. 1:3-5; I Thess. 1:2,3), Paul forgoes such in the opening words of this letter. He was "champing at the bit" to unleash his impassioned remonstrative rebuke of the Galatian's reversionism, which he was only able to hold in check until the third sentence. Paul's preference would have been to engage in a face-to-face confrontation with the Galatians and their seducers (4:20), but for whatever reason he had to settle for addressing the issues in this letter. He wastes no time in getting straight to the point.

  The apostle loved these young Galatian Christians. He was so concerned about their being sucked into the dead-end religion of behavioral performance that he could not remain silent, but felt compelled to confront the intolerable situation. His grieving soul was full of emotional intensity that would criticize their credulity and denounce their defection, but it was the infiltrating false-teachers that most roused his seething consternation and indignant invectives. New Christians are so fragile, vulnerable and susceptible to the introduction of distortions and perversions. They so want to believe that religious teachers have their highest good and intent in mind, and will lead them on in their walk with God. They often lack the discernment to recognize that diabolically inspired religious peddlers (II Cor. 2:17) will inevitably misrepresent the gospel of God's grace in Jesus Christ for their own selfish benefit and ends. This is not to imply that the neophyte Galatian Christians were not to be held responsible for their backsliding, for Paul certainly holds them accountable. They should have been able to recognize that when the peripatetic outsiders began to criticize Paul and the gospel he shared, there was "a skunk in the woodpile." Apparently some of them did realize the perversion, and they were probably the ones who initiated or participated in the delegation who traveled to give a full report of the tragic situation to Paul.

1:6 ­ Have you ever been blind-sided, or hit-up-alongside the head having never seen the approaching object that hit you? That must have been how the Christians in the Galatian congregations, and especially the religious purveyors of performance righteousness, must have felt when these forceful words of Paul were first read to them. It must have hit them like a brick!
Abruptly and explosively, like throwing a grenade into their midst or dropping a bombshell, Paul expresses his astonishment at the propensity of the Galatian Christians to abandon the gospel of Christ. "I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ." Shaking his head in incredulous disbelief, Paul must have been questioning: "How can they do this? How can they be so blind? Why are they so easily led like sheep to the slaughter? Why are they so easily led down the primrose path of religion, like pigs back to mud, or like prisoners back to the chain-gang?" He was perplexed (4:20), stupefied, and flabbergasted, as well as displeased, irritated and grieved. The unstable fickleness of the Galatians was astonishing and alarming. It had happened "so quickly," apparently indicating a short interval of time had transpired since Paul's ministry among them, and since their conversion (or perhaps, though not likely, referring to the rapidity of their transference of allegiance since the time when the false-teachers arrived).

   The charge that Paul made against them is that of desertion or defection. This was a serious charge! The Greek word was used of those who betrayed their allegiance to a community, becoming deserters, defectors, or turncoats in treasonous abandonment. Those having any Jewish background, including the Judaizing infiltrators, may have remembered God's words to Moses about the Israelites, who "having quickly turned aside from the way which I commanded them, made for themselves a molten calf and worshipped it," for which God's "anger burned against them" (Exod. 32:8; Deut. 9:16). In more recent history they may have recalled those who were turncoats and defectors during the Maccabean revolt (II Macc. 4:46; 7:24; 11:24). They would have been appalled to have their actions identified with such desertions.

   Paul makes it clear that the actions of the Galatians was the result of personal choice. Though they may have been duped and deceived, seduced and snookered, they were not passive dupes and were to be held personally responsible for their choices. Only the tense of the verb that Paul used mitigated the situation, for he did not employ a past tense that indicated they were fixed in their defection or that their apostasy was complete, but he used a present tense that implied they were only in the process of deserting which meant they could still change their minds and stop their wrong course of action.

   When Paul wrote of their "deserting Him who called you...", he was not alluding to their having forsaken their allegiance to him, Paul, who had preached to them. The obvious reference is to their falling away from and turning against God. The Christian gospel is a personal gospel of a personal God who sends His Son as a personal Savior to personally reconcile mankind to Himself. In a personal calling of His Spirit to the hearts of men (cf. 5:8), receptive individuals can enter into a personal faith-love relationship with Jesus Christ as He personally indwells our Spirit in the form of His Spirit (cf. Rom. 8:9,16). The problem was not that the Galatians were abandoning one theological ideology for another, exchanging an orthodox belief-system for one of heretical error and falsity (as these verses have often been misinterpreted and misapplied), rather, they were deserting their personal and ontological relationship with God who had "called" them, not just in the past objective "calling" of all men in the work of Jesus Christ (cf. Rom. 8:28-30), or in a solicitous summons to a decision about doctrine and church membership, but in the gracious beckoning of "calling" them into His own Being in spiritual oneness and unity.

   This divine "calling" into His own Being is "by the grace of Christ." This does not mean that grace is the instrumental means of God's calling, nor the locative position into which God calls men, but that grace is the essential action of God's calling in Christ. All that God does, including His "calling," is by the expressive dynamic of His grace-activity in His Son, Jesus Christ, as He calls mankind into an ontological relationship with Himself. What amazes Paul is that the Galatians would turn their backs on such a dynamic Christic-grace-calling of an ontological relationship with the living Lord Jesus, to settle "for a different gospel."

   Apparently the Jewish-Christian didactors who had descended upon the Galatian churches referred to their moralistic and epistemological teaching as "gospel," but with a few "different" tenets of belief. Their concept of "gospel" included traditions that attached the Jewish heritage of observance of the old covenant Law with the acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah. This was, indeed, an heterodoxically "different" concept of "gospel," for the Christian gospel is not an epistemological belief-system, nor a moralistic modification of behavior, despite the fact that the preponderance of Christian religious instruction has failed to understand this any more than the Judaizing instructors. The biblical and Christian concept of "gospel" is the good news of the vital indwelling dynamic of the risen Lord Jesus living out His life in a Christian's behavior by the power of His Spirit, thus allowing for the restoration of functional humanity as God intended. The gospel is the ontological essence and dynamic of the life of Jesus Christ. Another gospel of a different kind would, therefore, have to be something other than the grace of God in Jesus Christ; a completely different entity of authority structures, epistemological formulations, or ethical strictures, far removed from the essential Being of Christ's life. So it was that the religious rabble-rousers in Galatia were propagating a performance-package completely antithetical to God's grace in Christ, advocating meritorious law-keeping that would allegedly earn favor with God and "deliver one from the present evil age" (1:4). Paul was fully aware that this was a total denial of the all-sufficient "finished work" (cf. Jn. 19:30) of Jesus Christ, and the ongoing dynamic of the life of Jesus as the total essence of the gospel. This is why he was so distressed and dismayed at their departure from the gospel by detaching the very concept of "gospel" from the dynamic of Christ.

1:7 ­ A different concept of "gospel" is "not really another gospel" of the same kind or category with slight variations or accretions, concerning which Christians might agree to disagree. The intruding instructors in Galatia may have been intimating that their presentation of the gospel was not essentially different from that proclaimed by Paul, but they were just explaining additional implications of the gospel which could take Christians to a higher level of spirituality. Paul would have none of that amalgam and admixture. The gospel of grace in Jesus Christ allows for no adjuncts, and will never serve as an adjunct to anything else. It stands alone as nothing more and nothing less that Jesus Christ. There is no other gospel! There can be no plurality of gospels. There is only one gospel ­ the "good news" of what God has done and continues to do by His grace in His Son Jesus Christ. Anything else is so essentially different that it cannot be legitimately called "gospel." It will not be "good news," but will necessarily be the "bad news" of religious bondage.

   What is happening, Paul went on to explain, is that "there are some who are disturbing you..." He does not identify these trouble-making "disturbers of the peace" by name or theological label, but the plural pronoun "some" indicates a multiple number in the band of propagandists. Luke's account of the intrusive teachers in Antioch bears many similarities: "Some men came down from Judea and began teaching, 'unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." (Acts 15:1). After the Jerusalem council rejected such teaching, a letter of apology and explanation was written to the Christians in Antioch, noting, "We have heard that some of our number...have disturbed you with their words, unsettling your souls" (Acts 15:24), which was carried back to Antioch by Paul, Barnabas and Silas. So Paul was quite familiar with this type of Judaizing agitators, and must have suspected from whence they had come.

   Apparently there were a few of the new Christians in Galatia who were disturbed enough about the aberrant teaching they had heard from the mouths of these false teachers that they determined to send a report to Paul to inform him of the situation. Writing in response to such, Paul does not appear to have much tolerance for those who would engage in such seditious activity of harassing, intimidating, threatening and troubling (5:12) the new converts. Later in the epistle he warns that "the one who is disturbing you shall bear his judgment" (5:10).

   Though the pernicious propagandists probably explained that they were merely attempting to improve on Paul's presentation of the gospel, Paul adamantly charges that they are deliberately "wanting to distort the gospel of Christ." It wasn't just Paul's version of the gospel to which the pesky proponents of legalism were attempting to make permutations. The gospel is Christ! Christ is the gospel! It is not the gospel about or concerning Christ, nor simply the gospel introduced and preached by Christ, but it is the gospel of which Christ is the ontological essence. Any attempt to change or alter, to twist, turn or tamper with the personified Truth (cf. Jn. 14:6) of the gospel in Jesus Christ Himself, will of necessity transform the essential nature of the presentation into that which is no longer gospel. To distort the gospel is to destroy the gospel. To annotate the gospel is to annihilate the gospel. To modify the gospel is to mutilate the gospel. To emend the gospel is to eliminate the gospel. To revise the gospel is to reject the gospel. To negotiate the gospel is to negate the gospel. To attempt to improve the gospel is to invalidate the gospel. To supplement the gospel is to supplant the gospel. To reduce the gospel is to repudiate the gospel. To diminish the gospel is to decimate the gospel. The gospel is what it is (Who He is) only in the ontological dynamic of the person and work of Jesus Christ.

   The distortion of the gospel that Paul is referring to here is not a slight deformation of doctrinal data. The Greek word denotes turning something into its opposite, as in "sun turned into darkness" (Acts 2:20), or "laughter turned into mourning" (James 4:9). When any attempt is made to change the gospel into anything other than the life of Jesus Christ alone, then the essential nature of that being discussed has been turned 180 degrees from gospel to religion, from grace to law, from faith to works, from God to Satan. Such transformation Paul finds intolerable.

1:8 ­ That explains why Paul proceeded to declare that "even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed." The exclusivity of the gospel in the reality of the Being of Jesus Christ is to be maintained regardless of the messenger. Paul is not attempting to defend himself as the messenger, nor is he attempting to defend an ideological message that he presented. Rather, he defends with unshakable certainty the unchangeable and immutable gospel of "the one mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus" (I Tim. 2:5). In his German translation of the Bible, Martin Luther wrote, "That which does not teach Christ is not apostolic, even if Peter and Paul be the teachers. On the other hand, that which does teach Christ is apostolic, even if Judas, Annas, Pilate or Herod should propound it." Paul would have agreed with Luther, for he includes himself and all of his co-laborers in ministry as unqualified to alter the gospel of Christ only. Then, in a stretch of hyperbolic extension, Paul includes even Michael, Gabriel and the angels of heaven as incapable of changing the gospel without the most severe consequence. Paul knew full well that Jesus was higher than the angels (cf. Heb. 1:3-14), so he did not hesitate to state that even the angels cannot make variances to the Christocentric gospel. This comment may have been prompted by the itinerant tutors' claims to have been led by, or to have received revelations from, angels for the revision and amplification of the gospel, as such claims of angelic intervention have been employed by religious innovators through the centuries.

   Paul was so convinced that the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ alone, that he received and was commissioned to share on the road to Damascus, was the exclusive good news of the singular divine reality for the restoration of mankind, that no matter who advocated anything else, be they men or angels, were dead-wrong and damnably in jeopardy. That, of course, included, and was specifically aimed at, the Judaizers who were seeking to add legalistic observances as necessary accretions to Christianity. Any addition to Christ necessarily implies the insufficiency of the all-sufficiency of Christ, and is therefore at variance with and antithetical to the gospel.

   The consequence for those who would thus cut the heart out of the gospel by reducing Jesus Christ to an adjunct redundancy is that they should receive the anathema curse of God's condemnation to final doom and destruction. This is not Paul's personal passion or pique that pronounces a curse upon others, saying "To hell with them!" Only God can pronounce the divine ban of His wrath on those who will be damned to final destruction by His retributive judgment. Paul's reasoning is based on the fact that God's anathema curse is the opposite of His blessing, and if "God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in heavenly places in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 1:3), then the only alternative to accepting the blessings of the "finished work" of Jesus Christ is to experience God's anathema for thinking that we can finish off God's work and be blessed thereby.

   What an indictment on so much of Christian religion that sells the gospel short by demanding ethical duties in addition to the grace of God in Christ. These moralistic inculcations are not innocuous diversions and contingencies, but are diabolic misrepresentations worthy of the indictment of God's anathema for the damnableness of religion. Who could better issue the pronouncement of "Religion be damned!," than the former Pharisee who knew the bankruptcy (cf. Phil. 3:2-9) of Judaic religion, and would under no circumstances allow its encroachment upon the Christian gospel?

1:9 ­ The avalanche of justifiable reaction to the decimation of the gospel continues as Paul writes, "As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed." Based on the wording in the original Greek language, it is doubtful that Paul is merely reiterating what he said in the previous sentence. Instead, he is explaining that he had forewarned them during his previous visit to the churches of Galatia, and is "now" (as opposed to "then") repeating his warning of the consequences of attempting to make the gospel something other than the dynamic reality of Jesus Christ. Regardless of his scholarship, charisma, ecclesiastical position, or any other criteria, if "any man" without exception should attempt to advocate supplemental requirements to the simple reception of the singular reality of Christ's life, he stands culpable for the dire consequences of God's anathema.

   Paul is appealing to the Galatian Christians to recall their own experience of having "received" the essential gospel of the living dynamic of Jesus Christ. It was not that they had assented to a new belief-system, or agreed to participate in a different religious tradition, but they had "received" Christ Jesus (cf. Jn. 1:12; Col. 2:6), His very Spirit (cf. Gal. 3:2) by faith at the time of their initial conversion and regeneration. Such faith is the receptivity of His divine activity, the very life of Jesus, wherein are all the blessings of God, and apart from which are God's consequential curses upon sin. Having received the reality of the living presence of God in Christ, the Galatians should have been able to recognize that the rival teachers advocating reversion to religious rules and regulations (even though they probably claimed it was an advancement in spirituality) were promoting a fallacious gospel contrary to the ontological dynamic of Jesus Christ and the blessings of God in Christ.

1:10 ­ This verse serves as a transitional connection between the denunciatory rebuke of verses 6-9 and the defense of his divine calling to share the gospel as an apostle (1:1) in the following paragraphs of 1:11­2:21. Paul was so convinced that the only explanation of his life and ministry activity was the dynamic of Christ in him, that his defense of the gospel and the defense of his life in sharing the gospel are intertwined. To the Corinthians, he wrote, "By the grace of God I am what I am" (I Cor. 15:10), and to the Romans he testified, "I will not presume to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me" (Rom. 15:18). Paul found his identity and reason for being in the fact that Christ was his life (cf. Gal. 2:20; Col. 3:4).

   Apparently Paul's detractors in Galatia had sought to discredit him by casting aspersions on his modus operandi and his motivational ambition. It appears that his procedures and tactics of preaching may have been questioned by suggesting that he engaged in the subterfuge of cheapening the gospel into a watered-down version of "cheap grace" that did not cost anything or require anything. Perhaps he was charged with attempting to placate the people with a persuasive propaganda that cut-corners by explaining only half of the gospel. Their argument could have been: "He didn't tell you the rest of the story, as we are doing, about how you need to observe the commandments of the law, and submit to male circumcision. Paul was luring you in with a lax, less arduous, law-free gospel message of 'easy believism,' that sought to conciliate you into making a decision without counting the cost." Religion through the centuries has attempted to discount the grace of God as being too soft, too easy, too cheap, too free, because they want to impose their oppressive dictates of doctrine and duty upon people.

   Having just lambasted those who would distort the gospel the gospel into something other than the grace of God in Jesus Christ, and suggested their liability to damnation, Paul asks, "Am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God?" "Does what I have just written sound like conciliatory playing to the crowd that seeks to seduce you and sell the gospel short? If I were courting and currying to the favor of my audience, would I be expressing myself in such straightforward polarizing terms that depict the alternatives in such either/or categories of blessing or cursing, gospel or religion, grace or law, faith or works, God or Satan? No! Opportunistic flatterers don't call for the anathema of God, as I have just done. I am not inconsistent. I did not "then," when I was previously sharing the gospel with you, nor do I "now" in this letter, mince my words in rhetoric that seeks to gain your confidence by the art of persuasion. I am not a confidence-man who is trying to put something across on you or God. My only concern is that the gospel of God's grace in Jesus Christ is clearly proclaimed and maintained."

   In a slight variation on the preceding question that proceeds to address his motivation and ambition rather than persuasive procedures, Paul continues by asking, "Am I striving to please men?" Once again the challengers in Galatia had apparently suggested that Paul was seeking the accolades of prestige and popularity by engaging in his mission work. Their argument might have gone something like this: "The reason Paul omitted telling you about the need for circumcision and the observance of the Law, you know, was because he knew that by lowering the standards he could achieve greater statistical success and build a more impressive personal empire of supportive churches. That man is driven to do what he does by the desire for self-seeking significance and superiority." Paul's response to such accusations is basically that, "Men-pleasers usually 'pull their punches' and do not 'shoot as straight' as I have just done in explaining the absolute intolerance for any distortion of the gospel of Jesus Christ. If I were seeking the self-enhancement of personal popularity, then my 'all or nothing' approach to the gospel that I have just presented is certainly not the way to 'win friends and influence people.'" Though Paul knew that there were some who "proclaimed Christ out of selfish ambition, rather than from pure motives" (Phil. 1:17), he explained to the Thessalonian Christians that he and his fellow ministers "had been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so they spoke, not as pleasing men but God, who examined their hearts" (I Thess. 2:4).

   In further explanation of the logic of his argument, Paul states, "If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ." The "if" is an unfulfilled condition that is contrary to fact, and not true, either when he visited Galatia or at the time of the present correspondence. But apparently there was a time in Paul's life when he was a religious man-pleaser, for he sets up the hypothesis about "still trying to please men." As a Jewish Pharisee he was undoubtedly given to ostentatious display in his personal ambition to climb the ladder in the religious and political hierarchy of Judaism in Jerusalem. He would go to any length to please his superiors, even pursuing Christians as far away as Damascus of Syria. Paul knew well the defense of belief-system, the meticulous observance of moral Law, the propagandizing proselytizing of those driven to force all others into conformity with themselves, and the pride of "confidence in the flesh" (Phil. 3:4-7). He wanted nothing to do with such religion anymore. If he were to continue to engage in such religious activities, as the Jewish-Christian proponents in Galatia were now advocating, then he would not and could not "be a bond-servant of Christ," for they are mutually antithetical.

   Paul recognized, as few religious men ever do, the total incongruity between being a self-oriented religious man-pleaser and attempting to be pleasing to God as a selfless servant of Jesus Christ. The Roman slave was regarded as but a vessel or instrument who existed in order to serve at the disposal of his master's use or pleasure. In like manner, Paul saw himself as totally available to serve and please his Master, the Lord Jesus Christ, by abandoning himself to the control of Christ's Lordship in the dependency and receptivity of faith. Christian servanthood is not indentured coercion to the capricious dictates of the Divine Lord, but is the self-chosen willingness to be bonded to the very Being of God in Christ, and the faithful availability to serve as the ontological expression of Christ in active ministry. The incongruity that Paul is emphasizing obviates that one cannot be a slave of Jesus Christ, and at the same time a slave to men's opinions. "No man can serve two masters" (Matt. 6:24).

   These bombastic words of Paul, coming as they do, immediately after the letter's brief greeting, reveal how severe Paul regarded the situation in the churches of Galatia. This was no minor matter that could be delayed and resolved in future negotiations. The essential nature of the gospel was at stake, and had to be addressed immediately.

   Paul's understanding of the gospel was nothing other than the vital dynamic of the life of the risen Lord Jesus, "the gospel of the grace of God" (Acts 20:24) in Christ. There is no different gospel. There is no other gospel. Christianity is Christ. The entirety of the gospel is in the ontological dynamic of the life of Jesus Christ or there is no "good news." The life and activity of Jesus Christ is all of the gospel, or there is nothing that deserves the name "gospel." Everything that God has for man is in the "finished work" of Jesus Christ, or there is no hope.

   Those who would attempt to add to or subtract from the gospel have already misunderstood the essence of the gospel, and turned it into something that can be supplemented or annotated. They have already detached the gospel from the dynamic grace of God in the "finished work" of Jesus Christ. Any attempt to alter, adapt or annotate the gospel does not create a different gospel, but is a total denial of the gospel. It is not a diminishment of the gospel, but a total destruction of the gospel. It is not a distortion of the gospel, but the total dissolution of the gospel.

   How tragic, then, that religious interpretation of these verses down through the centuries, has for the most part failed to grasp Paul's understanding of the gospel and thus misused this text. The religious commentators have usually thought that Paul was arguing about the ordo salutis of an orthodox soteriological belief-system. They have therefore surmised that the "distortion of the gospel" in a "different gospel" is to be discovered in divergent doctrines or unacceptable behavioral practices, thus using these verses to justify hurling charges of "heresy" at those with differing opinions or interpretations. What they do not recognize is that their religious misinterpretations fall under the same indictment of "distorting the gospel" as did the aberrations of the Judaizers in Galatia, with the same consequent pronouncement of anathema upon their religious perversions.

   On the other hand, the more liberal religionists might fault Paul for having an unduly exclusionist concept of the gospel, and for being narrow-minded, intolerant and discriminatory towards those advocating alternative opinions and approaches. Progressive sensitivities call for open-minded, non-judgmental acceptance and accommodation of pluralistic thought. "All antitheses must be merged in syntheses. Criticism, confrontation and condemnation have no place in the undiscriminating amalgam of modern thought," argue the progressive modernists.

   Paul may well be out of step with the modern world of "political correctness" and its epidemic of tolerance, but he had the spiritual appraisal (I Cor. 2:14,15) and discernment of God's Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, to "test the spirits" (I Jn. 4:1) and ascertain that which was contrary to the singular essence of the gospel in Jesus Christ. He had the boldness of Christ to "make a defense..." (I Pet. 3:15) and "contend for the faith" (Jude 1:3), so that people would not be "taken captive through empty deception, according to the traditions of men" (Col. 2:8). Would that more Christians today would have such a clear concept of the gospel which is Christ, and take their stand against all religious distortion and perversion.



 Galatians Series