Sunday, July 21, 2013

The true Gospel and the false gospel: letter to the Galatians

The letter to the Galatians reflects a central theme and concern - the essence of the true gospel of Jesus Christ set in contrast to a false imposter gospel. In his letter, the apostle Paul exposes a false teaching threatening to ensnare the new Gentile believers and corrupt their faith in the work of their Lord and Saviour. In essence, subtle in its workings, this false gospel does not openly deny Christ yet preaches that justification is attained through the works of the Law. It replaces God’s grace with man’s righteousness, faith in Jesus with faith in one’s works – thus essentially denying the cross.
The letter by Paul the apostle to the Galatians is set as a champion for the true gospel and a polemic response to a false gospel. At first glance, one wishes for more insight into the apostle’s thought behind his text, or into the experience of the Galatians which led to receiving such a communication. The letter is an affectionate display of the apostle’s fatherly love toward the Galatians; yet this extends to a tone of serious chastisement and correction. At the heart of the message to the Galatians lies the contrast between the true gospel and the false gospel.

We are introduced to the ‘other gospel’ early in the opening of the letter. Following an assertion of his authority as an apostle of Jesus, Paul does not delay bringing up the reason for his letter: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.” (1:6-7).  

The apostle goes as far as calling down a curse upon anyone (not excluding himself) if they preach another gospel to the one of Jesus (1:7, 8). Further, he assures the Galatians of the divine origin of the true gospel, establishing Jesus Christ himself as the authority, and to the exclusion of any human influence (1:12). Evidently, the apostle goes to great lengths to state that the gospel he delivered to the Galatians was entrusted to him by God and not by man (1:1, 10, 11). In support of this he cites his background as a persecutor of the church and subsequently his true conversion, moreover, also citing the acceptance of leadership of the early church of his appointment as an apostle to the Gentiles (1:6-10).

In the second chapter, two issues give us insight into the concerns for the Galatians; the issue of circumcision and the issue of eating with Gentiles. Separation from the Gentiles, as well as forcing Gentiles to follow Jewish customs is seen as not acting in line with the true gospel (2:14). With regards to circumcision, the apostle Paul affirms that his companion Titus was not compelled to be circumcised and that in doing so he held on to the ‘freedom we have in Christ Jesus’ (2:3). Along similar lines, he cites open criticism of Peter for ceasing to eat with the Gentiles for the purpose of appeasing the ‘circumcision group’ (2:11-14). In light of circumcision being a sign of the Old Covenant and signifying inclusion to the people of God; Paul often cites circumcision as a representation of living under the Old Covenant. This is evident in his letter to the Galatians, where he draws the distinction between the Old and the New Covenants - being that the true gospel is for the circumcised and the uncircumcised. Therein lays the difference between the true gospel of Jesus and the imposter false gospel.

The heart of the matter

Justification is not by works of the Law but by faith in Jesus Christ – In 2:16 Paul stands as a Jew and testifies that: ‘We…know that a man is not justified by observing the Law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.’ The matter is summed up in verse 2:21 ‘I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the Law, Christ died for nothing!’

In the third chapter we encounter the famous phrase ‘You foolish Galatians’ – we glimpse Paul’s zeal for them not wanting to see them turn from the good beginning they had – where they witnessed Jesus crucified, the purpose being to attain for them righteousness before God. He reminds them that they did not receive the Holy Spirit by observing the Law (which they could not uphold to begin with), but directly from God by faith in Jesus.

Paul bolsters his argument by citing Abraham – who received the promise of blessing not through observing the Law, but through faith in the promise of God – essentially Abraham received the gospel ahead of time, “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (3:6 cf Gen 15:6)[1] – Later in verse 3:17 Paul reiterates the point that the Law came after Abraham, and certainly did not nullify the promise of God’s grace to Abraham.

The apostle uses the Law (and the Prophets) to drive his point home. He cites the curse of the Law (Deut 27:26) necessarily applying to all who were yoked to the covenant of the Law, since all failed to uphold the whole Law. He thus demonstrates that reliance on the Law is futile for seeking righteousness. He then quotes the Prophets, ‘the righteous will live by faith’ (3:11, cf Hab 2:4), showing that the Law, as a vehicle for justification, has nothing to do with, and is contrary to faith. In Paul’s eyes, Jesus’ died on our behalf (necessarily becoming a curse for us in order to redeem us from the curse of the Law) (3:13 cf Deut 21:23) so that by faith we might receive the promise of the spirit made to Abraham (v 14) – thus the inheritance depends on the promise, it never depended on keeping the Law (v 18).

Paul clearly makes the point that whilst the Law is not opposed to the promises, justification is not attained through observing the Law (3:21). The crucial message to the Galatians is that righteousness is attained only through faith in Jesus. The apostle explains that the Law was our guardian until Christ, that we might be justified by faith in Christ (3:26) – now we, Jew or Gentile, are all baptised as children of God, clothed with Christ. In the New Covenant baptism in Christ is viewed as a parallel to the Old Covenant sign of circumcision in Israel. All who belong to Christ are Abraham’s true seed and inherit the promise. ‘Neither Jew nor Gentile’ meaning that being a Jew (by observing the Law) does not make you belonging to God, rather, faith in Christ does.

In the forth chapter, we see more of the apostle’s thought on the function of the Law. He uses the analogy of the underage son – who is being subjected to a guardian (the Law) whilst he waits for the inheritance (the spirit through faith) – God sent his son under the Law to redeem those under the Law that we might receive adoption to sonship (4:5). Here we witness yet again this swapping of roles which God performs to save us – earlier in 3:13, Christ becomes the curse to free us from the curse; here God’s Son comes under the Law redeeming to sonship those under the Law!

Speaking to the Gentile believers, the apostle calls them heirs and sons of God, who can call out ‘Abba father’ through the spirit of his son which they received into their hearts – what a gospel! This is the true gospel.

The grave concern expressed for the Galatians is that they should not be ensnared as slaves again – likening such an entanglement to their past as worshipers of pagan gods; ‘Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?’ (4:8, 9) It appears that the apostle views their past somewhat as his own, tied to ‘observing days, months, seasons and years’. Lovingly he entreats them and exhorts them to become like him as he becomes like them (4:12), as if they both meet in the middle where the gospel of Christ unites them.

As a Jew, he then argues effectively from the Law that there can only be one covenant of relationship with God – just as only one son, Isaac, was the child of the promise. Paul recognises in the Galatians a need to belong to the family of God – but he says that they should not seek the illegitimate means to attain this, for through faith in Jesus they are Isaac’s sons and the true children of the promise, children of the free woman (Christ’s supernatural righteousness by God’s grace) and not of the slave woman (natural righteousness through works of the Law).

‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free’

Finally, the Apostle Paul urges them to stand in the freedom afforded to them by Jesus – affirming that circumcision, taken to mean obligation to the Law, constitutes falling away from Christ. Those who by keeping the Law try to attain justification are fallen away from grace. Circumcision, in as far as it represents a way to God, counts for nothing (5:4). In his view ‘The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.’ (5:6) – and flowing from that is the living out of the Law of God; ‘The entire Law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbours as yourself.’ (5:14). How are they to live now? They are urged to now be led by the Spirit, upholding the law of Christ – a contrast is made between the acts of the sinful nature to the fruit of the Spirit – ‘against which there is no law’.

Essentially the message to the Galatians is that they can not have it both ways – one must choose either the way of faith in Jesus or the way of works of the Law. While looking like a Jew may have saved him from persecution, the Apostle states that he has chosen to place his faith in Jesus; as a result, he is persecuted for not preaching the works of the Law, rather, for preaching Christ crucified!

Paul ends his letter by stating: ‘May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (6:14) He does not boast in his circumcision, neither does he commend it to anyone, ‘Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God.’ (6:15, 16).

Insight from other letters by the apostle Paul

The argument made by Paul on the true gospel is echoed in some of his other writings. In Romans, he states: ‘Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the Law; rather, through the Law we become conscious of sin. But now a righteousness from God, apart from Law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.’ (Rom 3:20-22) ‘For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the Law.’ (Rom 3:28) ‘However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.’ (Rom 4:5); ‘Christ is the end of the Law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes’ (Rom 10:4).

In his letter to the Ephesians he writes: ‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.’ (Eph 2:8-10) Similar teaching is seen in the letter to Titus, where Paul instructs on justification by God’s grace and not through any righteous acts anyone can present before God (Ti 35, 7) To the Corinthians, it is written: ‘He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.’ (2 Cor 3:6) 


The real difference between the true gospel and the false gospel is the power of the cross. The false gospel proclaims the works of the Law as means of justification; the true gospel proclaims the work of Jesus on the cross. The false gospel is impotent in attaining righteousness before God while the true gospel of grace through faith in Jesus Christ is the way to righteousness with God. One leads to death, the other leads to life. One enslaves; the other sets free. The grace of God has always been dependant on faith, from the time of Abraham and applying to the true sons of Abraham’s seed. ‘I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the Law, Christ died for nothing!’ ‘May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ’.





All biblical citations are from New International Version 1984.


[1] Paul uses the same logic and argument in Romans 4 demonstrating that righteousness is not attained through personal works.

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