The Church in Corinth had experienced the ‘weighty and strong’ writings of the Apostle Paul, but the Galatians had even more cause to feel the force of his pen. Their actions brought forth the sharpest response from Paul. His language in Galatians 1:6-9 is as strong as anywhere in his writings. Verse 6: ‘I am astonished (I marvel, I wonder, I am amazed) that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel’.
And yet Paul is not to be viewed simply as an irate headmaster ticking off some errant pupils. This is far more than a rap across the knuckles for some childish misdemeanour. The whole man is deeply affected. ‘This is something incredible for me to take in’, he is effectively saying. ‘I’m shaken, troubled, deeply distressed – I can’t believe what I’m hearing about you.’ What these Galatians are guilty of doing is, as the ESV translates it, ‘nullifying the grace of God’ (2:21). The word ‘nullify’, atheteo, means to reject something, dismiss it, do without it, to regard it as something that is unwanted. They are emptying the gospel of its grace and substituting in its place their own works. It is the simplest thing in the world for fallen human beings, with all their pride and arrogance, to slip in a bit of self-achievement alongside God’s grace – and the next thing they know, their boast is not in God’s grace but in their own efforts. ‘Yes, Jesus is my Saviour and I’m saved by grace . . . but!’ This is the essence of the Galatian heresy. And when their gospel becomes one of works rather than of grace, it ceases to be the gospel at all.
What is Paul effectively saying in all this? He will fight to the death to maintain and preserve the gospel of grace. He will pull out all the stops. He will deploy the heavy artillery of his own apostleship and the commission which Jesus Christ has given him. He will be prepared to invoke the language of anathema. In fact he’s prepared to stick his neck out this far and tell them that even if a celestial, angelic being came down to earth, clothed in the brightness and glory of heaven, claiming to be an ambassador of God, and preached to them a ‘gospel’ where grace did not have the highest, most exalted, pre-eminent place, then that angel would be a messenger of Satan. He feels it so strongly that he says it again in verse 9.; ‘Anathema’! To be under God’s curse, cut off and condemned.
This whole episode came like a black cloud into a clear blue sky. In the Book of Acts we read of the wonderful, miraculous, stirring work of the Holy Spirit in the early church, but then halfway through it we come across this development: ‘But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved”‘ (Acts 15:1). These Judaisers, Paul tells us, were ‘false brothers secretly brought in – who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery’ (Galatians 2:4).
The danger of false teaching is ever present. Turn to any page in the letters of the New Testament and it will never be far away. What do these men want to do? They want to trouble the disciples. False teaching always springs from bitter and twisted motives. The gospel is holy and pure. It is a stream of water without impurity. Along comes a false teacher who adds a putrefying, polluting chemical to this stream. This chemical works its way through. The whole water system becomes a deadly poison rather than a life-giving spring. False teachers had created such an effect that they were carrying all before them, everyone, it seems, except Paul himself. Their teaching had spread like gangrene.
What had happened? In Antioch, to all intents and purposes, there no longer seemed to be the one church of Jesus Christ but two, a Gentile church and a Jewish church. The Jewish believers were withdrawing into their clique, rigidly keeping as much of the ceremonial law as they could, and insisting on the necessity of circumcision. Upon this issue stood the entire future of a free and worldwide Christian church. The stakes were that high. It seems that on this question it was Paulus contra mundum, Paul against the whole world. Even Barnabas, the son of encouragement, the man full of the Holy Spirit and full of faith, had been led astray! Even the apostle Peter, whose bold and magnificent words to the Sadducees thrill us as we read the early chapters of Acts, was plainly terrified of the Judaisers! When we reflect on that situation in Antioch, we can see just how chilling it was. In October 1962, the world drew perilously close to nuclear war at the time of the Cuban Missiles Crisis. Desperate brinkmanship saved millions of people from potential destruction. Here in Antioch, the infant church, a church in which the apostles and prophets were still alive and well, drew alarmingly close to forfeiting its entire basis of existence.
Thanks be to God that in his mercy he gave his servant Paul the understanding of true grace, grace that exults in Christ and him crucified, alone! ‘O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?’ It is as though these Galatians had been placed under a spell. What has been staring them in the face, what has been set before them as the one, only, all-glorious, all-sufficient cause of their salvation – the grace of God in the death of Jesus Christ – is something that they have simply overlooked. How can we nullify grace when we see how vast it is? The man in our Lord’s parable was forgiven ten thousand talents – yes, millions and millions of pounds, but once he was out of his master’s presence he forgot all about it. Likewise, these Galatians, before whom the cross of Christ had been set with such power and persuasion, had overlooked it. Imagine, on the clearest of days, taking a friend to the edge of the Grand Canyon, or to a viewpoint where he can survey an Alpine panorama. He makes no comment, other than to wonder when he will be permitted to get back into the comfort of the car. What blindness!
Who cannot see that every involvement of God with sinful man, from the very beginning, was motivated by nothing less than grace – the amazing, wonderful, incomprehensible love of God for wretched, hell-deserving sinners? The earliest patriarchs knew grace – Adam, Cain, Noah, Abraham! It is the theme tune of redemptive history.
Who dare nullify the grace of God when faced with its amazing, climactic demonstration? Because when we fasten our eyes upon the cross, we see nothing but pure grace. We see the Son of God ‘who loved me and gave himself for me’. We see the infinite God, not only taking upon himself our humanity, but subjecting himself to death – the death of the cross! As Hendriksen comments, the Lord Jesus did not simply ‘give’ himself, but ‘gave up’ himself. He allowed himself to be betrayed, arrested, mocked, ridiculed, flogged and nailed to a cross. He became a punch-bag for the most vicious and brutal assaults of all his enemies. Would Jesus Christ have come and suffered and died as he did, if all along grace was something unnecessary, surplus to requirements, and we could all have achieved a state of righteousness just by doing our best to fulfil the law? The death of Christ might be seen as a martyr’s death, a marvellous display of non-retaliation, a supreme example of meekness in the face of evil, but it is a death without any meaning, power or virtue as far as our souls are concerned. In Galatians 2:20 Paul says, literally, ‘With Christ I stand crucified’. I, Paul, the self-righteous Pharisee who had a string of PhDs against my name! PhD might stand for ‘Pharisaic Deeds’! I did them all, and no-one advanced as far as I did in this ritualistic, works-dominated way of life. But now, by the mercy and grace of God, I count all this rubbish. Everything I once was is dead, crucified with Christ.
And here is grace. Yes, I have been crucified with Christ, but no nails have ever pierced my hands or my feet. I went to the cross with Jesus, but I have never known what it is to wear a crown of thorns, or to carry a cross to Calvary. I no longer live, I died with Jesus, but my body was never laid in a cold tomb. My Saviour did it all for me, enduring the forsakenness and dereliction of that black afternoon.
O victory in Jesus,
My Saviour, forever,
He sought me, and bought me
With His redeeming blood;
He loved me ere I knew Him
And all my love is due Him,
He plunged me to victory,
Beneath the cleansing flood.
On 11 June 1940, Winston Churchill addressed the House of Commons thus:
The Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad sunlit uplands. But if we fail, the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth lasts for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’
Many people find the speeches of Winston Churchill and the lone fight of Britain against Nazi Germany deeply moving and captivating. But here was an issue and a war far more sinister that the one unleashed by Hitler. And the finest hours in human history have been those when men have contended for the truth against the enemies of the gospel, bent on destroying the freedom and peace of the Christian believer, the whole Christian church. We hear Luther at the Diet of Worms in 1517:
‘My conscience is captive to the Word of God, I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither honest nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.’
We must all come to that ground-zero position which says ‘There is none righteous, no, not one’. Once we stand there and understand that our human prospects are hopelessly bleak, we can only cry out ‘Lord have mercy’. And he does! – mercy and grace which are infinite, free and eternally powerful.
Paul Yeulett is Pastor of Shrewsbury Evangelical Church.
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