For anyone familiar with the New Testament account of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and high priestly intercession, there should be no mystery about what Isaiah 53 signifies. It is the complete gospel in prophetic form, a surprisingly explicit foretelling of what the Messiah would do to put away the sins of his people forever. It is the gospel according to God, set forth in the Hebrew Scriptures.
– John MacArthur, The Gospel According to God
Just as it was in the days of the early church from the very beginning, so it is today. There is intense competition among sinful men to exchange the gospel once for all delivered to the saints for one that is more palatable and pliable where human desires and interests are concerned. The original gospel, the one spoken of by the prophets and ushered in by Christ and established by his holy Apostles is far too distasteful and unbending. The original gospel does not consider the interests of men, wealthy, wise, popular or powerful.
Writing to the churches of Galatia, the apostle Paul opens his letter with a defense of his ministry in 1:11-24. Whether or not gar (for) or de (but) was the original is beyond the scope of this post. What is within the scope of this post is the thrust of Paul’s statement at v. 11: For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. This Greek construction is employed in five other locations in the NT, all of them within the Pauline corpus. It contrasts what is merely human with that which transcends humanity. Here, the use is the same. Paul’s gospel does not have its origin or source in man.
The Churches of Galatia have a real problem on their hands. Certain men are traveling from church to church in the region and they are turning the gospel upside down on its head. Lightfoot notes, “I assure you brethren, the Gospel you were taught by me is not of human devising. I did not receive it from man, but from Jesus Christ. I did not learn it, as one learns a lesson, by painful study. It flashed upon me, as a revelation from Jesus Christ. [Lightfoot, J.B. Galatians] Paul says in v. 12 that he did not receive the gospel from men, and he was not taught it by man, but instead, he received it through divine revelation. Paul had previously made it a point to emphasize that his apostolic office and calling was also not by or through the agency of men. Paul’s claim is that his apostolic calling, as well as the gospel that he had previously delivered to the Galatian churches, were of divine origin rather than human. Since this is actually the case, the implications are far-reaching for the Galatian churches. If Paul’s gospel was the gospel of God, if it was God’s gospel, then it follows that the men who were busy contradicting it were offering a gospel that did not come from God. And since it didn’t come from God, the only other possibility is that it came from human beings. Now, it might not have been as bad if these men had disclosed that their gospel was a human gospel. But they didn’t do that. They did what men have been doing from that day down to our very own: they passed off their version of the gospel as if it were God’s gospel. And this was indeed a very serious problem. In fact, passing off a gospel according to man as if it were the one true gospel according to God is the most serious transgression a preacher can possibly commit.
The Galatian heresy, as almost every heresy concerning the gospel is prone to do, was the heresy of adding requirements to the gospel that are absent from the actual gospel. To be clear, any change to the original gospel is damning. To remove components is just as serious as adding requirements. In this case, the Judaizers were adding law-keeping to the Christian gospel. Throughout the centuries, men have added requirements to the gospel. Church history is littered with a variety of additional requirements nowhere found in the original. Modern men are also busy adding requirements to the gospel.
In the book of Galatians, Paul does two very basic things where the gospel is concerned: 1) he reinforces the message of the gospel that men are saved by faith alone in Christ apart from the works of the law, and 2) he gives us some criteria for how we can know that someone has experienced genuine faith that truly saves. Paul’s letter to the Galatians talks about false brethren who had been secretly brought in for the purpose of bringing them into bondage (2:4). These false brethren brought with them, a false gospel, a gospel that had been contaminated with law-keeping requirements. But it wasn’t the law that was the problem. It was the additional requirements that were the problem. When someone adds anything to the gospel, they are engaging in behavior that prompted Paul to place a curse on those who did the exact same thing in ancient Galatia. This means that adding anything to the gospel as it was originally given by Christ and his holy apostles, is a behavior worthy of damnation. So, when someone says that something is a gospel issue, they are saying something very serious and even very dangerous. Concerning those who were contaminating the gospel, Paul says that “A little leaven leavens the whole lump.” Any foreign components added to the gospel serves to corrupt the entire gospel.
Second, Paul was also concerned about those who may, in fact, claim to have been recipients of the kind of faith that only the gospel produces, but who were liars. In the fifth chapter of this letter, Paul provides a list of characteristics that help the churches of Galatian protect and preserve the purity of their community. The one who serves the deeds of the flesh will not inherit the kingdom of God. In fact, Paul tells the churches that the ones who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions, its interests, and its lusts. As we read Galatians, it becomes obvious that there are two types of false brothers, false Christians that stand out in the ancient letter. The first is those false Christians who add requirements of their own to the gospel. They include items in the gospel that are not original to the gospel. The second kind of false Christian is the one whose faith is not working in love. To possess faith working in love is to keep God’s commandments. That is the only kind of faith that is genuine and that is the product of the gospel. If you preach a false gospel, you are a false Christian. If your faith provides no evidence that it is the same kind of faith that works in love, keeping God’s commandments, then you are a false Christian. False Christians live lives that are defined by things like sexual immorality, sensuality, drunkenness, dissensions, factions, envy, carousing, etc. But in front of other Christians, these false Christians put on their sacred mask and pretend to be something they are not.
In modern American Christianity, there are more false gospels than one can count at this point. And the number of false Christians produced by these false gospels is staggering. One could take the attitude that there isn’t anything we can do about it, shrug their shoulders and go back to doing whatever it is he does to occupy his time. Or, as a Christian, one could decide that the issues are important enough that, even though the odds are stacked against him, he must remain engaged in the conversations and do everything he can to defend the one true gospel and point people to the one true Christ who saves people into his one true body, the Church.
In a recent survey, 80% of Americans said they believe in God. Good news, right? Not so fast. Of that 80 %, only 56% said that they believed in God as described in the Bible. 23% said they believe in some other spiritual or higher power. Of the 80% who said they believe in God, only 76%, age 65+, believe that he knows everything and 67% of this group believes he has the power to direct or change everything. Only 45% of college graduates believe in God as described in the Bible. The new study from Pew Research can be found at this link: What do Americans believe about God?
There have always been competing gospels and competing versions of Christianity from the beginning. The church has had to deal with these ideas for 2,000 years. The difference today is that the digital age coupled with the independent spirit have combined to form the perfect storm for deception and confusion around the truth of the gospel. This makes good pastors and solid churches more critical than ever. It makes discipleship and church discipline indispensable. We live in a postmodern society dominated by Enlightenment philosophies. Man believes himself fully capable, having become enlightened by his own scientific discoveries, to lift himself out of his miserable condition to higher ground. This philosophy has posed not a few significant problems for the Christian Church. Enlightenment thinking has infected theology to the point that in many quarters, the gospel has been so corrupted that it no longer exists. Oh, the language is still there, but the content has long since disappeared.
The gospel tells us that Christ came specifically to save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). The prophet Isaiah prophesied that the servant would bear the iniquities of those whom he would justify (Isa. 53:11). Christ came to establish a new covenant, one that God himself would write in the hearts of those whom Christ would freely forgive (Jer. 31:34). Paul says that God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). The gospel is that Christ died to save sinners from the eternal judgment of a righteous God. The object of Christ’s redemption is the one whom God chose before the foundation of the world. Christ did all that was necessary to secure forever, the forgiveness of all those whom the Father gives to him. Garry Williams writes The sufficiency of the cross shows the sinner outside of Christ the one place where refuge from God’s wrath can be found. It assures him that there is no sin too evil to be forgiven, no sin too bad for the blood of Christ. [David and Jonathan Gibson, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her]
Let anyone who preaches a gospel that adds to this simple message or who takes from this simple message, be accursed says the apostle Paul. There is only one gospel and it is the gospel according to God.