“No Other Gospel” (Galatians 1:1-12)
Today is the first of six straight weeks in which the Epistle reading comes from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. And so that is what I intend to use as the basis for a sermon series over these weeks, namely, Galatians. I think you will find this series helpful, because as we make our way through Galatians, we will gain great insight into some very important topics, for example: the exclusive nature of the gospel of Christ, that it alone saves; the proper distinction of Law and Gospel; the central doctrine of the Christian faith, that is, justification; the Sacrament of Baptism; and the Christian life of sanctification, the fruit of the Spirit vs. the works of the flesh. Galatians is a very rich epistle in its teaching.
And may I suggest a little devotional exercise to do over these coming weeks: Try reading through Galatians at least once a week, each time all the way through, in one sitting. It won’t take you that long, it’s only six chapters. It may take you, oh, a half-hour or less each time. Get to become very familiar with this epistle as we preach our way through it.
To begin with, then, since we’re going to spend a good amount of time in this epistle, I suppose it would be helpful to start out with a little background information. Who were these Galatians? Where was this place, Galatia? And what was it that prompted Paul to write this letter?
Who were the Galatians who received this letter? They were the people who belonged to the churches of Galatia. Galatia was a region in Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey. St. Paul had visited a number of cities in that region early on in his missionary journeys, working to establish and strengthen churches in those cities, for example, in Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe, and in Pisidian Antioch. You can read about those visits in the Book of Acts. So these are most likely the churches Paul is writing to when he writes this Letter to the Galatians.
What was it that prompted Paul to write this letter? Why did he write it? That’s what we’ll get at now, under the heading, our theme for today, “No Other Gospel.”
So let’s begin at the beginning, the opening verses of Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. Paul starts out as he usually does in his epistles, identifying himself as the sender and then naming the recipients of his letter: “Paul, an apostle–not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead–and all the brothers who are with me, To the churches of Galatia.”
Now that bit about Paul being an apostle “not from man nor through man”–that’s a little bit different from what he usually writes, it’s a little odd-sounding, and we’ll find out why he mentions that as we go in this letter–but other than that, this opening is pretty standard format so far.
As is the next thing Paul says–his usual apostolic greeting, with some expansion on that: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”
Paul almost always has this type of greeting at the start of his letters, and, by the way, you’ll notice that’s how I and most other preachers begin our sermons, “Grace to you and peace,” etc. And here in Galatians, Paul expands on his mention of Christ to speak of Christ’s great work of giving himself for our sins, delivering us, to the glory of God the Father. Paul delights to make these kinds of statements of what Christ has done for us, giving praise and glory to God for it.
So far, business as usual. This is Paul’s customary opening for an epistle. This is the format he generally follows. Identifying the sender, identifying the recipients, and the apostolic greeting. So what would you expect next? Next you would expect something like this, to cite a few examples from Paul’s other letters: From Romans: “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you. . . .” From 1 Corinthians: “I give thanks to God always for you. . . .” From Philippians: “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy. . . .”
But what do we get next in Galatians? “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.” Whoa! Where did that come from? From Paul! The same apostle who cares so deeply for these churches and their spiritual welfare. But here in Galatians, he comes right out and blasts them! No “I thank my God for you.” No “And here is my prayer for you.” No, but rather, “You guys astonish me at how quickly you’re getting away from the gospel of grace I preached to you! What happened?” Later on, in chapter 3, he will even say, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?”
This is rather a harsh tone, isn’t it? Imagine if your pastor opened his sermon by saying, “Grace and peace to you,” and so on, but then, right after that: “What are you people thinking? Have you lost your minds? Have you gone crazy?” You might think the pastor is the one who has gone crazy! But no, here Paul is using this strong tone with them for a reason, for a very important reason: They were in danger of losing hold of the one and only saving gospel. The gospel was a stake! The Galatians were on the brink of blowing the whole thing! And that would be disastrous for them! And so Paul, ever the good pastor, is deeply concerned for them. He is using shock therapy, if you will, to get their attention and to underscore the seriousness of what he is about to say to them.
What the Galatians are about to hear is that they have fallen for something very different from the gospel Paul had preached to them. The gospel of grace in Christ had become distorted, perverted, by certain false teachers who had wormed their way into these congregations and undermined Paul’s ministry and had gotten the Galatians to believe that their salvation was dependent on their own works–that they had to keep the law of Moses in order to be saved. “Yes, Jesus did his thing–that was good–but there’s something Paul hasn’t told you. You Galatians now also have to do the works of the law in order to be saved. You’ve got to get circumcised, keep the dietary laws, observe the Sabbath–the whole nine yards.”
But here in our text, Paul is saying–Paul is insisting, in the strongest possible language–that if you fall for that, you have lost the very essence of the gospel. You are believing in another gospel, and–guess what–there is no other gospel! You have perverted the gospel of grace in Christ into a religion of works, and that will not save you!
Friends, this is an important message for us to hear. For there are many going around today–there always have been–false teachers who would twist and distort the true gospel of Christ into something else, into a gospel that depends on what we do. And that is no gospel at all.
The reason God saves you is not because of how well you keep his commandments. Now should we keep his commandments? Yes, of course. The Ten Commandments express God’s good and holy will for us, his human creatures. But the problem is, we don’t keep them without sin. And so the law condemns us, condemns us to hell. Because of our sinful nature, we can never keep the law well enough to earn our salvation. And then, on top of that, when you talk about keeping the ceremonial laws of ancient Israel–circumcision, dietary laws, the Saturday Sabbath–all those laws did play a role in pointing ahead to their fulfillment in Christ. But their time has passed. We are no longer bound to those preparatory ceremonial laws, much less are we bound to keep them in order to be saved.
Friends, if we make our salvation dependent of what we do, on how well we perform, then we have lost sight of Christ and are falling for another gospel that is no gospel at all. How good of a person you are, how moral of a life you lead compared to others–that will not save you, because it will never be good enough. Don’t fall for that trap.
There is only one true gospel, and it is this–just as Paul said in that verse earlier we may have just passed over: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father. . . .” There it is! This is the only gospel that saves. Christ Jesus gave himself for us, for our sins, into death, death on the cross. This was necessary because we were not able to save ourselves, and yet, God out of his great grace and love, wanted to save us from death and damnation. And this was the only way to do that. Christ, God’s Son, had to take on our flesh and bear our load, and he kept the law, perfectly, on our behalf. And then he took the punishment we deserved, to free us from the just penalty the law requires for sin. Jesus suffered death under God’s judgment, on the cross, in our place. He is our righteousness. He is our redemption. He is our perfect keeping of the law. He is the atonement for our sins. This is the gospel of Christ. Believe in him. Trust in him and his works for you. Your works will not save. His works will. There is no other gospel.
If you want to get Paul’s dander up, just start preaching and teaching something else. It’s not that Paul is a cranky old guy. It’s just that he knows that Christ’s works are the only works that work. And people’s lives–and your eternal salvation, beloved–depend solely upon this gospel, for there is no other.