by Jason Micheli
Galatians 1.6-10 (click to see Scripture text)
In his book on preaching, Between Two Worlds, the famed Anglican pastor-theologian, John Stott, recalls his ill-fated attempt to evangelize a classmate while they were both undergraduate students at Trinity College, Cambridge.
“Only recently had I come to Christ myself, and now—clumsily, I am sure—I was trying to share the good news with a fellow student. I was endeavoring to explain the great doctrine of justification by grace alone, that salvation was Christ’s free gift, and that we could neither buy it nor even contribute to its purchase, for Christ had obtained it for us and was now offering it to us gratis.
Suddenly, to my intense astonishment, my friend shouted at me three times at the top of his voice, “Horrible! Horrible! Horrible!” Such is the arrogance of the human heart that it finds the good news not glorious (which it is) but horrible (which it is not).”
In the decades that followed Christ’s resurrection and ascension, there was a faction within the fledgling Church called the Judaizers who insisted that Paul’s Gospel was horrible.
Paul’s Gospel was a Gospel of free grace for sinners. As Paul testifies before the Ephesian elders in the Book of Acts, “I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace.”
Paul’s Gospel was a Gospel of justification whereby, on account of his cross and resurrection, our performance file in the Almighty’s heavenly HR Department contains nothing but Christ’s perfect, permanent record. Or, as Paul summarizes his Gospel message for the Corinthians, “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Horrible. Horrible. Horrible.
The Judaizers found the Apostle Paul’s Gospel offensive. After all, if salvation is for sinners, then salvation is for everyone. But if salvation is free for everyone, then those of us who are good get demoted to the same rank as the ungodly, and whatever righteousness I have earned through my works and obedience no longer has any value at all. It’s like currency leftover in my wallet from a trip I took to a foreign country— a foreign country whose government has since collapsed.
Therefore, wherever Paul journeyed, the Judaizers followed close behind him and attempted to persuade the churches Paul had planted that his Gospel was wrong, That his Gospel was incomplete. That it was horrible.
And as we see today in our text, to Paul’s “astonishment,” the false teachers faced little opposition in perverting the Gospel message of grace and leading the churches in Galatia astray.
The false teachers’s teaching was an easy commodity to market because it removed the offense of the Gospel and restored to it the comfort of merit and demerit.
You can see their message plainly in the Book of Acts where St. Luke reports that they taught the Christians in Antioch that “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Realize—- circumcision was not merely a religious ritual, and it was more than a sign of membership in the People of God. Circumcision was the entry point to a life of obedience under the Law. In other words, the false teachers were not imploring the Galatians to undergo an isolated, arbitrary, antiquated operation; they were insisting the Galatians undertake all the obligations of the Law (in both the Old Testament and in the earthly teaching of Christ).
The success of the false teachers’s rival message owed to its subtlety.
They did not deny that you must rely upon Jesus Christ for your salvation. They instead preached that you must reply upon Jesus Christ and the Law for your salvation. You must turn back to Moses, the false teachers taught, to finish what Christ began. God’s done his part, wiping your slate clean in Jesus Christ, but now you’ve got to do your part, stomping out the sin in your life, standing up to sin in the world, and faithfully following his commands.
The false teachers—
They did not deny the Gospel.
They muddled it with the Law.
A mixture that turned it into a different message entirely, Glawspel.
We’re all book-keepers at heart, Paul writes in Romans.
And what makes the Gospel offensive is not what it demands from us but what it gives to us, to all of us, without regard to worth.
Free forgiveness?! For him?!
But he drank away his life savings and walked out on his wife and three kids with nary a regret!
Christ’s own righteousness?! For them?!
But they’re so racist they’ve done everything but burn a cross in their neighbor’s yard.
Horrible. Horrible. Horrible.
Sure, we all fall short of the glory of God, but if there are good works we must do, sin we must be killing, as our necessary response to the Gospel— if there’s something we must do, then at least some of us can inch closer to glory, climb higher in holiness, and score better than others.
We all desperately want our Heavenly Father to sport a bumpersticker on his celestial Cadillac that says, “My child is an Honor Roll Student at the School of the Life.” We don’t want a Gospel where the God says to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” only on the basis of Christ’s work.
Faith + Something of Our Own always appeals to our inner accountant.
But Glawspel is no Gospel at all, the Apostle Paul writes to the Galatians today. And actually the word Paul uses in verse seven, metastrepho, means “to turn inside out.” In other words, when we alter the Gospel in any way we not only annul the Gospel, we pervert it into its opposite.
This is what Paul calls in his letter to the Corinthians, “a ministry of death.”
“Even if a cute, chubby cherub angel with ivory wings and golden fleece diapers showed up on the Rachel Maddow Show proclaiming to you a Gospel contrary to the one given to us by the Risen Christ, then let that one be anathema!” Paul hollers today (in the Jason Micheli paraphrase edition of the Bible).
It’s worse than horrible.
Literally, it means, “God-damned.”
In August 1960, not long before he graced the cover of Time Magazine, the renowned Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, met the still more famous American preacher, Billy Graham, while they both vacationed in the Valais region of Switzerland.
According to the letters Barth wrote to friends, their meeting was a friendly one.
“He’s a jolly good fellow,” Barth wrote of Graham, “
with whom one can talk easily and openly; one has the impression that he is even capable of listening, which is not always the case with such trumpeters of the Gospel.”
Two weeks later, Barth had the same good impression of Billy Graham after they met for a second time at Barth’s home in Basel. It was during that second visit that Graham invited Barth to be a guest at the revival he would be preaching that night in the city. Over fifteen thousand showed up at the St. Jacob Stadium in downtown Basel. Hearing Graham preach his message and witnessing his influence over the mass of young people, Karl Barth was not impressed.
He was outraged.
“I was quite horrified,” Barth wrote to his son, “Graham acted like a madman, and what he presented was certainly not the Gospel. It was the Gospel with a gun. It was the Gospel with a threat attached. An urgent appeal was made to the people: You must do this! You should not do that! It was a proclamation of the Law not the message of the Gospel. He attempted to terrify people into the Gospel. Threats, they always make an impression. Imperatives— this you must do— make sense to us. But even this preacher’s success and the size of his crowds and the breadth of his fame does not justify such preaching. The messenger and his success does not validate the message. The message validates the messenger. It is illegitimate to pervert the Gospel into Law. We must leave God the freedom to do all the work. When the good news of the grace of God in Jesus Christ coms with anything else attached it is no longer the Gospel. It is a different Gospel altogether, which is no Gospel at all.”
A few years later during his first and only visit to the United States, at a press conference at the University of Chicago, reporters asked Karl Barth to elaborate on his exasperation with the rival preacher’s message and method. “Christian faith begins with joy not with fear,” Barth replied, “because the Gospel is that there is nothing we must do because everything has already been done for us.”
“Mr. Graham,” Barth said to the press, “he begins by making people afraid.”
The good news of the Gospel is that you can rest in the work of Christ Jesus.
Faith does nothing but grasp ahold of what Christ has already done for you. There is now no sin other than forgiven sin. And there is now no work that is necessary for you to do for anyone other than for your neighbor.
The good news of the Gospel is that you can rest in the work of Christ.
Anything else, anything extra is anathema.
When I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, I applied and interviewed to be a leader for Young Life’s campus ministry.
During my face-to-face interview, the assistant to the regional manager (or whatever his title was) indicated his expectation that, included with any presentation of the Gospel I offered to them, I would steer students away from drugs, drunkenness, and casual sex.
He wanted me to preach Faith in Christ’s work + Some work of their own.
And because I was a relatively new Christian, I hadn’t had the time to drift away from the Gospel. So I didn’t know any better. Attempting to sound decisive whilst sitting enveloped in an overstuffed sofa, I said: “But that’s not the Gospel. No doubt, everyone would be better off if students stayed away from drugs, drank a little less, and kept it in their pants, but their failure to do so does not undo the truth of the Gospel. They can have a joint on their lips, empties all around their feet, and a girl whose name they don’t remember in the morning…and it still doesn’t change the Gospel.”
He made notes in the margins of my application as I spoke.
Horrible. Horrible. Horrible.
Because I was a relatively new Christian, I was surprised— astonished— to discover, a week later, that my application had been rejected.
Once you understand the offense of the Gospel and the attraction of the Law, you realize that, as the Church, we are always on the precipice of the Galatian heresy.
We’re forever tempted to rip the pillow out from underneath your head, to give you something you must do, to prevent you from resting in Christ and his righteousness alone.
So here’s how you spot a false Gospel:
If it makes you anxious or afraid, it’s another Gospel.
If it leaves you feeling exhausted or burn-out or guilty, it’s some other Gospel.
If it insists that in order to be good Christian, you must belong to this political party, you must not support that candidate, you should have this interpretation of scripture for that issue, you ought to abstain from these critical theories, it’s a different Gospel.
If it’s about your behavior rather than Christ’s, if it’s about your need to believe in anything other than his saving work for you, it’s not the Gospel.
And— I say this for all the Mainline preachers who might listen to this or read it later— if what you are preaching can be true without
requiring the shed blood of Jesus Christ for sinners, it’s no Gospel at all.
The message has been turned inside out.
St. Paul today summons a solemn, fearful anathema for all those dare to alter the Gospel.
Notice, Paul issues the anathema twice.
This is more than hyperbole or rhetorical passion. In the Greek Old Testament, it’s the same word for the divine curse that God executes at the Fall. Paul’s praying for there to be pillars of salt in every pulpit where anything but the Gospel is proclaimed.
So I got it wrong this Sunday, there’s always next Sunday, right?
Why does Paul make getting the Gospel right a matter of four-letter fire and brimstone?
The answer is in verse six.
Paul uses the language of betrayal.
Paul doesn’t say that in turning to a different gospel they’ve turned traitor to Paul. Paul doesn’t accuse them of betraying the other apostles or the Church. Paul writes that they have spurned “…the one who called you in the grace of Christ…”
The one who called you.
The verb in Greek is kaleo.
Here’s the thing—
Paul never uses the verb kaleo for himself or any other person. Throughout all of scripture, “the one who calls,” (ho kalon) functions as a name for God. Paul is filled with four-letter fury over the Galatians being led astray from the Gospel because God himself gives himself to you in the Gospel.
Ex nihilo, the Living Word words you into existence as a new creation in the Gospel announcement.
The reason the Gospel alone has the power to change you is that the Gospel is a promise that gives you Christ himself.
And with him, everything that belongs to him.
All of his righteousness, all of his faithfulness, all of his forgiveness and mercy.
To turn to a different gospel isn’t merely to turn a different message.
It’s to lay the Maker of all that is back down in his manger and walk away.
One afternoon here at church, a few months before the pandemic, a young woman wandered into the church.
The hijab wrapped loosely around her head was as brightly colored as her MacBook was covered in stickers.
“I’m looking for a preacher,” she said.
I greeted her as the pastor, and she introduced herself as a student at George Mason University.
“I’m enrolled in a class on Comparative Religions,” she explained, “and as part of our final paper, we’re supposed to interview religious leaders about how their communities worship and why.”
Her name was Adeela.
Because she’d wandered in through the narthex, I showed Adeela around the sanctuary.
I told her how the first Christians built their sanctuaries in the shape of a cross and oriented them to face east, the direction of the rising sun. I showed her my robe and explained how the color black symbolized sin, and I added how, in John Wesley’s day, preachers would a white surplice overtop the black cassock as a visual reminder of baptism clothing us in Christ’s righteousness.
I showed her the lectern, and the pulpit.
“From the one, we read the Word of God. From the other, we hear the Word of God.”
“How do you decide what scripture to preach?” she asked me.
“Well, the text determines the sermon,” I said, “but we believe every passage points us to Christ, to the Gospel, so, in theory, every sermon should be a variation on the same theme.”
She looked at me funny, not following.
“For instance,” I said, “this coming Sunday— it’s the Parable of the Prodigal Son, from Luke’s Gospel.”
I saw her sounding out the word prodigal like she’d never heard it before.
So I summarized the story Jesus tells about the father who had two sons, the youngest of whom one day wishes his father dead, demands his share of the inheritance, forsakes his family’s home, and departs for a different life in a far country.
Only after the spoiled, rotten kid has wasted his last dime and finds himself panhandling along the median on Columbia Pike— only then does the prodigal son decide to press his luck by returning to his father’s house.
“What happens when he comes home?” Adeela asked with an interest that, to be honest, I am unaccustomed.
“As soon as he appears on the horizon, his father runs out to embrace him,” I said, “The whole time he was gone his father had been rocking the front porch rocker waiting for his return.”
“And then what happens?” Adeela asked, her voice on the edge of her seat.
“Well, then, the father wraps the prodigal son in his own robe, gives him the family ring off his finger, and orders the foreman of the ranch to kill the fatted calf because they’ve got no excuse not to throw a party.”
“But wait,” Adeela said, “Hold up. Didn’t the son apologize? Make amends? Do something to restore his father’s honor?”
“No,” I replied, “No, the father forgives him without an ounce of repenting.”
“But surely his father punishes him in some way, right?”
“Alright, but tell me he pays back the inheritance he’d squandered?
She looked at me with something shy of contempt.
“Well, does he at least learn his lesson? Change? Become a different person?”
“Jesus never says,” I told her, “the story’s about the father’s forgiveness and love not the son’s sin and repentance.”
“I think Jesus should’ve at least mentioned it,” she said, shaking her head.
“That’s what all religious people think,” I replied, “But if you add anything else to the story— the prodigal cleaning up his act, say, or the father warning him there’ll be no next time second changes— if you add anything to the story, you’ve irreparably changed the story.”
“You said every story in the Bible points to Jesus. Where’s he in the story then?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” I said, “Jesus is the fatted calf whose sole purpose is to die in order for the spendthrift father to throw a party for his undeserving son.”
I could read it on her face: Horrible, horrible, horrible.
“If that’s true,” she said, “then that’s why I could never be a Christian.”
And sure, I wasn’t trying to evangelize her exactly, but, notice, she said no to the Gospel because of the Gospel’s offensiveness.
That is, she said no to Christianity for the right reason.
She didn’t say no to Christianity because Christians are partisan.
She didn’t say no to Christianity because Christians are hypocritical.
She didn’t say no to Christianity because Christians are judgmental.
She didn’t say no to Christianity for the wrong reasons.
She said no for the right reason. She said no because the Gospel is offensive.
I showed her around the church a bit more, answering her questions and asking her about her studies.
Just before she left to catch a bus, she turned around and looked at me, the sanctuary door half-open.
“A lot of my classmates think all religions are basically the same, “she said, “But if what you said about that story is true, then they’re wrong. Your message is completely different and it’s why I could never be a Christian.”
And then she walked away.
May God have mercy on me— we’re all in this together: may God have mercy on you too— if we ever add anything to our message in order to win over someone like her.
But thank God that even if we do turn traitor and turn the message inside out, God has nonetheless promised to meet us at this Table.
Even if we confuse his Gospel, God has seen to hiding it in creatures of bread and wine.
God has made it impossible for you to leave her today without the Gospel by which he gives himself to you.
For even if you did not hear the Gospel proclaimed from the pulpit, nevertheless, in a few moments, you will have the Gospel placed in your hands and on your lips today.
The body of Christ, broken for you, a sinner.
The blood of Christ, poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.
So come to the table.
Taste and see the good news our prodigal God wants the whole world to hear.
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! 9As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!
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