The Offense of the Gospel
If anyone in the ancient world wanted to know how to write, he read Marcus Fabius Quintilianus’ Institutio Oratorio. Among other things, Among other things, Marcus pleaded that if you wanted to win the assent of your readers you must begin with a ‘courteous and natural opening.’ Sounds like sane advice. However, when Paul wrote to the Galatians he did not begin with ‘a courteous and natural opening’; rather, he begins by calling down God’s curse of eternal judgment on men who were undermining the gospel he had preached: ‘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’, that is, cut off from God and damned to eternity! Paul had heard news that deeply troubled him. The Galatians were in the process of ‘deserting him who called you . . . to a different gospel’ (1:6 – ‘deserting’ is in the present tense; they had not yet become ‘turncoats’, there was still hope).
Paul’s beginning stands in dramatic contrast even to the letter he wrote to the church in Corinth with all its confusions, divisions and immorality. To the Corinthians Paul wrote, ‘I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus.’ But to the Galatians Paul has no words of commendation or thanksgiving. Why is that?
Paul would tell us that the answer to our question is self-evident: the Galatians were being ‘unsettled’ (5:12) by teaching that insisted that faith alone in Christ alone is not sufficient for salvation. These ‘unsettlers’ taught that in addition to faith in Christ (notice that they did not deny ‘faith in Christ’ as such, they were subtle unsettlers), the Galatian believers needed also to be circumcised, to become Jews. For Paul what was at issue was not a minor gospel detail, but the perfection and sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work, and the eternal good of sinners. This is why he begins his letter with such white-hot passion. James Denney, the late nineteenth, early twentieth century Scottish expositor, put the matter like this:
If God has really done something in Christ on which the salvation of the world depends, and if he has made it known, then it is a Christian duty to be intolerant of everything which ignores, denies or explains it away. The man who perverts it is the worst enemy of God and men; and it is not bad temper or narrow-mindedness in St Paul which explains this vehement language, it is the jealousy of God which has kindled in a soul redeemed by the death of Christ a corresponding jealousy for the Saviour.
When you see someone about to be consumed by a raging fire, you forget all behavioural conventions and cultural niceties, and yell with all your might. You want more than anything to impress on the unsuspecting person the extreme danger of his situation and condition. So it was with Paul. Christ’s glory as Saviour was being trampled on and the eternal good of perishing sinners was being imperilled, so Paul ‘yelled’. If any professing Christian is remotely offended or even perplexed by Paul’s malediction, the reason is simply that they have little concern either for the glory of Christ or the eternal good of perishing sinners (I assure you I am speaking first to myself).
For Paul, conventional niceties meant nothing. He was not seeking to be gratuitously rude. Rather his passion for his Saviour’s honour, the Saviour who bore the weight and judgment of God on sin in the place of sinners, boiled over. Yes, of course there is a fine dividing line between godly passion and evangelical rudeness. But we live in an anodyne age, an age where everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and their opinion is considered as valid as anyone else’s. But not according to the Spirit-inspired apostle Paul! Everyone is not entitled to their own opinion, if that opinion contradicts God’s holy, revealed will in his Word. God will bring every loose word to account, so says our Lord Jesus Christ.
Why mention this in a pastoral letter? Perhaps first to challenge my own heart: Do I have anything remotely like Paul’s passion for my Saviour’s honour and for the salvation of sinners? But I also want to challenge my readers’ hearts. My dear friends, ask yourselves this question: What is your reaction to Galatians 1:6-10? If Paul’s words, inspired by the Holy Spirit, do not humble you, prick your consciences, compel you to ask the Lord to forgive your ‘unholy moderation’, then something is deeply wrong with you. You know that I am not advocating rudeness, or arrogance, or extremism of any kind – except the extremism of love to him who first loved us. It is salutary to remember that these false teachers were not outsiders, they were baptised, theologically accredited men. The gospel’s greatest enemies have always come from within its own ranks! (read Acts 20:29-31). So be on your guard, always!
Galatians 1:6-10, indeed the whole letter, is a trumpet call to the church today to avoid like the plague all ecumenical endeavours that do not unequivocally and unashamedly proclaim that salvation is by God’s grace alone, through Jesus Christ alone. The little word ‘alone’ is vital and central. Without it, Romanists, JW’s, Mormons, and even Muslims(!) could assent to the statement ‘faith in Jesus Christ’. The glory of our Saviour demands that we call a spade a spade and not a gardening implement. Heresy is damnable. It is often said that the early Christians feared heresy more than martyrdom. Do we? The salvation of the lost hangs on it. The glory of our great Saviour demands it.
Ian Hamilton is Pastor of the Cambridge Presbyterian Church, now worshipping God on Sunday mornings in All Saints’ Church, Jesus Lane, Cambridge and in the Lutheran Church, Huntingdon Road, on Sunday evenings.
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