Of all the Pauline writings, which represent almost half of the New Testament books, the letter to the Galatians is the best defense against those who seek to “complement” the gospel of Christ with other practices, doctrines, or philosophies. It is a different kind of letter, where the apostle showed his total indignation at the attitude of the Judaizers, who were troubling the churches of Galatia. For Paul, the true gospel is non-negotiable.
There is no doubt that Paul is the author of this letter. He wrote it between ad 55 and 58 to warn the Galatians of the danger that heretics and false teachers represented. These troublemakers ignored Paul’s authority, though he and Barnabas planted this church during his first missionary journey (Acts 13).
Among the heresies that threatened the church in the first few centuries were these:
Greek Docetism. This false teaching claimed that Jesus was not a real man but simply seemed to be. It denied that Jesus had a body of flesh and blood like any human being. According to the Greeks, no god would become human, because for the Docetists, matter was bad in and of itself. The concept of Docetism undermines not only the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus but also the atonement for our sins.
Marcionism. Marcion, a second century Gnostic, accepted only parts of the New Testament and disassociated himself from the Old Testament. He rejected that the God of creation and Israel was the same God as the Father of Jesus Christ. This deeply undermined the unity of God and the authority of all Scripture.
Esoteric Judaism (also gnosticism). This was a kind of occultism in which only certain enlightened ones could reach full knowledge of the Supreme Being — something similar to what is known today as the Jewish kabbalah. Esoteric Judaism undermined the free gift of salvation through Christ to all who believe.
Problem in Galatia
In addition to these, the Galatian church faced a heresy of another kind.
Some leaders did not recognize Paul’s apostleship, arguing that since he was not one of the original twelve apostles, his teachings were not authoritative. Against this, Paul wrote in the first verse of the letter that he was chosen as an apostle: “Not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead” (1:1).
But Paul was not that concerned about his prestige. He devoted only a verse about that. What really concerned him was the dangerous influence of the false leaders who sought to lead the churches to practice certain Jewish rites as a means of salvation. This was the heart of the problem that the apostle faced, and it amounted to a false gospel. Paul wrote, “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel” (1:6; cf. 2:4).
“O foolish Galatians!” Paul chided (3:1). For the apostle, it was incomprehensible that having known the gospel of Christ, these believers should think something more needed to be done. He strongly warned them that there is no other gospel, going so far as to say, “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed” (1:8; accursed is anathema in Greek and means “to be cursed”).
There are at least three reasons for Paul reacting so strongly. First, the entire old covenant was superseded by the new. This does not mean that the Old Testament scriptures are worthless. Far from it; all Scripture is inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:15-17). Also, it is recognized that the New Testament cannot be rightly understood apart from the Old, nor it without the New, since they both relate and correspond in unity as God’s Word (unlike Marcion claimed).
But the old covenant given to Israel was clearly superseded by the new redemptive work of Christ. This included the rite of circumcision, by which one was initiated into the Jewish religion. This was at the heart of the false teaching in Galatia. And aside from the implication that only Jews could be saved, Paul explained where this teaching leads: “I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law” (Galatians 5:3).
Second, like David long before, Paul recognized that God’s law was not given for salvific purposes: “[We know] that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ” (2:16; cf. Psalm 143:2). Paul denied that justifying righteousness was possible through the law: “For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (vv. 19, 20). Paul warned that we dare not assign to the law, or ourselves, what only Christ can do: “I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain” (v. 21; 3:21).
The law does have a role to play in God’s plan. Paul articulated three purposes:
- to reveal the perfect character of God (Romans 7:12);
- to reveal human sin and transgression (v. 7);
- to function as a guard, or tutor, who leads to Christ (Galatians 3:19-25); the word tutor in verse 24 is from the Greek word paidagógos, meaning someone who guides or educates children.
The third reason for Paul’s strong reaction — and the most delicate of all — is the fact of believing that the sacrifice made by Christ on the cross of Calvary is not enough for salvation, that it must be completed with self-righteousness and “good” works.
This constitutes a sad and painful heresy, since a human being naturally lives in sin, and the only way to be freed from this condition is to live in Christ. The extent to which we remain in Christ is the extent to which we are justified (and sanctified!). When someone rejects or departs from Christ, pretending to be justified on their own merits, they are brutally exposed with all their sin before God and, unfortunately, remain under condemnation.
What the gospel is
First, the gospel is glad tidings from God. The literal translation of the Greek euangelion as “good news” is generic, insufficient by itself. A full definition needs the precision that only the Bible imprints on the word. The gospel of Jesus Christ resolves the sinful condition human beings live in. This is not just one piece of good news among others; it’s the good news because it addresses our greatest need. By it we hear that salvation is found in Christ. And only Christ.
Furthermore, the gospel is the act of God in Jesus Christ, not of human origin nor of human power. It is God who takes the initiative and gives His only Son as a sacrifice for the salvation of all believers. And it is Christ who willingly gives His life for all humanity (John 3:16; 10:18). It’s a pure gift of God, and we humans can receive the gift only in faith and humility (Ephesians 2:8; see “Q & A,” p. 11).
Additionally, the gospel is a historical event. It happened two thousand years ago. On the outskirts of Jerusalem, on the hill called Golgotha, Christ was crucified, paying the price for sin. The law ordained the price, and Jesus paid it, as Romans says: “For the wages of sin is death.” And from His death for us comes life: “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (6:23). Because it is a historical event determined by God, the gospel cannot be changed.
Finally, as an act of God, the gospel is perfect and complete. God loves humans so much that He totally assures their salvation, with the perfect and finished sacrifice of His son Jesus Christ. What is perfect in its nature cannot be improved, increased, or refined, because it is already complete in itself. For all this, and much more, the apostle Paul categorically denied any so-called gospel and defended the superiority of the gospel of Christ against the harassment of the Judaizers. They futilely tried to justify themselves, but Paul adamantly taught this truth:
Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified (Galatians 2:16).
When we face so many false teachings about Jesus and the Christian faith in our own day, may Paul’s bold defense of the true gospel be our defense too.