“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 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. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed (Galatians 1:6-9 ESV).”
In the verses quoted above, the Apostle Paul lays down a very important doctrine regarding the Christian faith and gospel. He does this to press upon the Galatians a proper sense of guilt in rejecting the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. More specifically, he sharply rebukes them for not embracing the doctrine of justification by faith in Jesus Christ alone (see Galatians 2:15-16, 21; 3:10-14). The Galatians had fallen prey to the Judaizers who were going around teaching that a false gospel based on good works which totally discounted the grace of God through Jesus Christ. But as a good pastor, Paul does this with great care and tenderness. He had only one goal in mind as expressed by himself in Galatians 4:19 where he passionately writes, “my little children, for whom I am in anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” That was Paul’s goal! And he teaches us a very important lesson. As Matthew Henry puts it, “In reproving others, we should be faithful, and yet endeavour to restore them in the spirit of meekness.” We all need to pay attention to that, especially pastors like me. We need to make sure that in rebuking and correcting people, we are not stepping over their heads and leaving so many casualties behind us unnecessarily. We must proclaim Christ and Him alone, “admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28). We must therefore speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). But reproving we must especially on matters that have to do with the faithful teaching and communication of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
In my Open Letter to the North American Churches, published in the Modern Reformation magazine I wrote, “The pure and unadulterated gospel of God’s grace is a nonnegotiable priority for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ” (March/April 2011, Vol. 20, No. 2, Pages 31-35, emphasis added). The Apostle Paul sought to drive this truth home to the believers in Galatia without any equivocation, fear or compromise. He was overwhelmingly fearless and sharply confrontational when it came to gospel matters demonstrated by the fact that he “opposed Peter to his face” for his compromise and hypocrisy with respect to this gospel (Galatians 2:11-14). He suffered no one (even Peter, a fellow apostle) to tamper with the life saving truth of God’s free and justifying grace based on the merits of Jesus Christ alone. In all of his life and ministry, Paul consistently maintained and taught the doctrine of justification by faith in Jesus Christ alone (see Romans 1:17; 3:21-22; 9:30-33; 10:3; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Philippians 3:9).
Paul was of course only echoing the teaching of the Old Testament Scriptures taught (see Genesis 15:16; Habakkuk 2:4, etc). Nowhere else do we see the unity and the apex of redemptive revelation more clearly than in the doctrine of justification by faith! The Old Testament saints were saved by the same gospel as the saints in the New Testament era. And that gospel is the gospel of God’s grace through His Son Jesus Christ! Although Abraham and all the other saints lived before the coming of Christ into this world, they believed in the promise of the Messiah which God had made to them beginning with Genesis 3:15, Exodus and Leviticus, all the way to Isaiah 53 and thereafter. All of the Old Testament sacrifices and rituals, as well as the Law and the prophets pointed to Christ as He Himself makes plain in Luke 24:25-27, 44-48.
There are two important aspects to this gospel which every Christ must know and seek to understand: 1). Christ’s active obedience, and 2). Christ’s passive obedience. The former has to do with Christ’s perfect righteousness. The latter has to do with His sacrificial, substitutionary/atoning death on the cross of Calvary. Both of these were offered to the LORD God by Christ on behalf of His people. In other words, this gospel necessitates a divine exchange between God and sinners through Christ. Christ’s perfect record of righteousness, His faithful law-keeping before God, is imputed (transferred) to sinners and the imperfect record of sinners (their unrighteousness before God) is imputed to Him. The Apostle Paul distils this for us when he writes in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake, He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf in order that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” This is what the Prophet Isaiah prophesied 500-700 years before Christ came when he wrote, “All we like sheep astray; we have turned everyone to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).
He was despised and rejected by men; a Man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as One from Whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we esteemed Him not. Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His wounds we are healed. Isaiah 53:3-5
Although this Man was righteous and sinless in every way, He “was numbered among with the transgressors; yet He bore the sins of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12). And thereby, Christ fulfilled His office as the Great High Priest for God’s people (Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:1-10). This is the gospel that Paul was unwilling to give up. For this gospel he was willing to die and in this gospel lay his boast (Galatians 6:14). Let us then see to it that we heed Paul’s warning to the Galatians. He stresses his point by repeating it in these short verses, “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. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8-9).
Any other “gospel” which does not point sinners to the merits of Christ’s righteousness and His atoning death on the cross of Calvary on their behalf must be passionately repudiated and clearly exposed without fear or compromise. It is of the devil! It is no gospel at all! Any “gospel” that tells sinners that they can be saved and reconciled to God by being good or doing good is lethal and must be rejected without question and vehemently opposed. Furthermore, anyone who preaches that kind of “gospel” must be “accursed” according to the Word of God.
And while we declare that to reject the moral law as a rule of life, tends to dishonour Christ, and destroy true religion, we must also declare, that all dependence for justification on good works, whether real or supposed, is as fatal to those who persist in it. While we are zealous for good works, let us be careful not to put them in the place of Christ’s righteousness, and not to advance anything which may betray others into so dreadful a delusion (see Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary)
I can’t say it any better than that. On the one hand, that leaves me flat on my face confessing my sins especially my self-righteous tendencies. And I hear myself singing with Augustus M. Toplady:
Rock of ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee;
Let the water and the blood
From thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Cleanse me from its guilt and power.
Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and thou alone.
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to thee for dress;
Helpless look to thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.
On the other hand, that puts a spring in my step and I find myself leaping and shouting with Philip P. Bliss:
Man of Sorrows! What a name
For the Son of God, who came
Ruined sinners to reclaim.
Hallelujah! What a Savior!
Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned He stood;
Sealed my pardon with His blood.
Hallelujah! What a Savior!
Indeed it is right for all who are in Christ to shout and sing: HALLELUJAH! WHAT A SAVIOR!