Warning: Adding to the Gospel
Pastor Vernon Giesbrecht
During the past weeks my devotional reading has taken me through the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Outside of his first letter to the Corinthians, the one to the churches in Galatia is probably Paul’s most intense. Why? Because the gospel was at stake. As a result of his clear teaching during his first missionary journey, people had come to faith in Christ and churches had been established throughout the region of what is now southern Turkey. Scholars seem to agree that Paul wrote and sent this circular letter just a couple of years after he returned to Jerusalem, a remarkably short time, which pointed to his deep concern for these relatively new believers.
Word had got back to Paul that Jewish infiltrators – Judaizers – probably Jewish Christians, were trying to impose the Jewish way of life as the norm for both Jewish and Greek believers. These included some requirements of the Mosaic Law, especially circumcision, and other obligations such as observance of the Jewish calendar and food restrictions. They probably acknowledged that faith in Christ was the way to be saved, but adherence to the Mosaic Law was the way to remain saved. What was the motivation of these Judaizers? Paul seems to hint that it was their own prestige in pleasing the Jewish authorities; they were converting Gentiles to a form of Judaism.
Whatever their motives, from Paul’s perspective, this was a crisis of faith. They were returning to the slavery of the Law and negating the freedom that faith in Christ’s death and resurrection brought. They were adding to the gospel; Paul called it a “different or a false gospel” – a distortion of the true gospel, a gospel of works! He uses strong language in 1:8.
“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.”
To make his point, he essentially repeats himself in verse 9.
Does this concern, this warning, apply to us today? How prone are we to think that, once having trusted Christ for our salvation, our standing with God is made more secure by trying to be a good person, by improving our character, by adhering to legalistic restrictions, by attending church, by helping our neighbor, by feeding the poor, by getting involved with social justice issues? While many of these “good deeds” are good in and of themselves, they are a result of our new relationship – our new standing – with God. They do not add to our salvation. Paul makes this clear in 2:15-16.
“We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”
While there is much more in Paul’s letter of instruction to the Galatian believers, his warning of adding to the gospel is summarized by John Stott.
“This doctrine (“false gospel” – my addition) Paul simply will not tolerate. What? Add human merits to the merit of Christ and human works to the work of Christ? God forbid! The work of Christ is a finished work; and the gospel of Christ is a gospel of free grace. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, without any admixture of human works or merits. It is due solely to God’s gracious call, and not to any good works or our own…To turn from the gospel of grace is to turn from the God of grace. Let the Galatians beware, who have so readily and rashly started turning away. It is impossible to forsake it (the gospel) without forsaking Him (God).”
Let us beware, while turning from the gospel of grace, we turn from the God of grace!