Theologian Timothy George says Galatians is a tornado warning. It is not only an ancient letter; it is a present message. Like the clouds forming to the west, it announces storms upon the theological landscape. We know Paul wrote this letter, but we aren’t sure of the outcome. That means we should heed its message as if we’re the first to hear it. What is that message? It’s the gospel. In the book of Galatians, Paul tells us what the gospel is and what it isn’t so that we stick close to it. Who would stray from the gospel, you may ask? You and I, that’s who. The storms are always forming on the horizon. Let’s beware lest we deny the message that saved us.
1 Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— 2 and all the brothers who are with me, To the churches of Galatia: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
We are introduced immediately to the letter’s author, the Apostle Paul. An apostle is one who is sent in the service of another. Paul’s use of antithesis highlights his source of authority. Jesus Christ and God the Father gave him what he has not man. Therefore, no man can add to it or take from it. He needed no greater authority. Paul is eager to identify himself not only as the author but as the qualified author. This matters because there was a problem in Galatia. The gospel Paul proclaimed, and that the Galatians quickly accepted, has been distorted by another message. Someone has added to the gospel of God’s grace and, consequently, become something less than grace. The attack came on two fronts. On the one side was the attack on the gospel message, seen in verse 6. On the other side was the attack on the gospel messenger, Paul, as we see in verse 1.
Paul begins this letter with his qualification as an approved messenger of the gospel. It was not men who called him. It was Jesus Christ and God the Father who called him. And heaping qualification upon qualification, Jesus is the one whom God raised from the dead. Paul is pointing to a historic person and a historic event. It is not from some unknown god that Paul received his message, and it is not from some impressive-but-mortal man. It is from the risen Christ, the God-Man. If a dead man rises from the grave and grants his authority, you’ve got something better than a diploma from seminary. You have a divine appointment. As John Stott said, “What Paul spoke was Christ's message on Christ's authority. So he defended his apostolic authority in order to defend his message.”
Though Paul was called individually as an apostle, he did not stand alone in his work. He also writes with the voice of the brothers standing with him. These are the brothers who have watched his life and doctrine. They can testify to the grace of God in his life and in their own. Proclaiming the gospel is not a lone-ranger activity. It is a brotherhood on mission as heralds of the King. God lends credibility to his message by joining many around himself.
So, it is Paul, the qualified apostle, empowered by Jesus Christ and God the Father, along with his brothers who penned this letter to the churches of Galatia. Paul took the gospel to Galatia on his second missionary journey. Luke records in Acts 16:5 that the churches grew daily in numbers, so we know the gospel found success. He’s writing to an area that received the gospel gladly and wholeheartedly. They were not on the fence, awaiting additional proof.
In verse 3, Paul adds his traditional greeting of grace and peace. As Timothy George says, “Galatians begins and ends with ‘grace.’” George defines grace as, “God’s unmerited goodwill freely given and decisively effective in the saving work of Jesus Christ.” He defines peace as, “a state of wholeness and freedom that the grace of God brings.” Martin Luther said, “These two words, grace and peace, include all that belong to Christianity. Grace releases sin, and peace makes the conscience quiet. The two fiends that torment us are sin and conscience. But Christ has vanquished these two monsters and has trodden them underfoot, both in this life and in the life to come…The words are simple; but during temptation, to be convinced in our hearts that we have forgiveness of sins and peace with God by grace alone is the hardest thing.” It is fitting that Paul would begin his message with these two words, grace and peace, for it is these two that the Galatians need most. It is what we all need. If Paul is to make any headway whatsoever with the hard things he must say, they (and we) need the grace and peace of God to hear it.
Grace and peace come from nowhere but God. That’s why Paul goes on to explain the God who grants it, “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.” It is the gospel message from this gracious God of peace that the Galatians so desperately need to rediscover.
To understand the gospel and the grace of God, we must understand who Jesus Christ is. He is the one who gave. Martin Luther sums it up, “Gave what? Not gold or silver or animals or paschal lambs or an angel, but himself! What for? Not for a crown or a kingdom or our holiness and righteousness, but for our sins. These words are great thunderclaps from heaven against all kinds of righteousness.” By righteousness, Luther means self-righteousness. It is not our goodness that causes our salvation. It is the death of Christ on the cross because of our wickedness that grants our salvation from God. That’s why Paul says he’s delivered us from this evil age. Luther goes on to say, “The force and power of sin is made quite clear by these words: who gave himself for our sins. Here we must note the infinite price given for our wickedness, and then it will be clear that its power is so great that it could not be put away by any means except by the Son of God giving himself for it.”
Our sin is our downfall. With it, we have lost all closeness to God. We cannot atone for our sin, and we cannot come to him with any gift to make us right. We must rely solely on the grace of Christ. And it is his grace that we can have in the gospel message. It is only there, and nowhere else. That is the problem Paul is confronting. It is as if the gospel of the free grace of God that was originally preached and accepted has been hijacked by other “teachers” who would add onto it a bit of the law to perfect the Christians in the sight of God. This angers Paul because to add to the gospel is to destroy the gospel and to set the believer back to an uncertain future with God. What God has given as a certainty who is man to come in and cast doubt?
Luther helps us see something in verse 4 that we are prone to overlook. Who is it that Jesus gave his life for? Luther says, “Consider very carefully every word of Paul, and especially note the pronoun our, for the effect consists altogether in the correct application of the pronouns that are found in the Scriptures…It is easy, in general and without the pronoun, to say how great was the benefit of Christ—that he was given for our sins, but for other people’s sins, worthy people’s sins. But when it comes to this pronoun our, our weak nature and reason recoil and dare not come near God, nor promise that so great a treasure shall be freely given to us; and therefore we will have nothing to do with God unless we are pure and sinless first. Therefore, although we read the words who gave himself for our sins, we do not apply the pronoun our to ourselves, but to others whom we deem worthy and holy; as for ourselves, we will wait until we are made worthy by our own works…In short, human reason wants to present to God not a real sinner but a pretend one, unafraid of anything, without any feeling of sin. It wants to bring to God one who is well, not one who needs a physician; and when it feels no sin, then it wants to believe that Christ was given for our sins.”
Of course, we gospel-centered people know we cannot make ourselves worthy by our own works. It is only the work of Christ that makes us worthy. But that doesn’t stop us from trying. Our flesh wants so badly to justify ourselves that we take any small proof of goodness to his throne as if it makes up for the whole of our sin. But to do this is to deny the gospel and refute the grace of Christ. What we need is to forsake our righteousness and cling to the grace of Christ with all our heart. As Ray Ortlund says, “What is it about this present age that’s evil? That’s a strong word, “evil.” What is evil about our era of history? Primarily, as we’ll see in Galatians, the most evil thing about this world is its righteousness. A brokenhearted whore clinging to Jesus is closer to God than the most upright solid citizen who does so much good that he’s too good for Jesus. That is what’s evil about this world – false righteousness.”
Therefore, let’s deny our self-righteousness and cling to Christ alone. But some of us look at this and laugh. We could never think of ourselves as righteous. We are wicked. We not only know it, we feel it. We feel it so deeply, in fact, that we believe God could never save us. Why would he want such a failure? But before we throw ourselves down Pity Lane, let’s see that this is just another form of self-righteousness. Are we the only sinner in the world so great that God couldn’t save us? How could we think so highly of ourselves such that we deny God’s grace in our life alone? This was Martin Luther’s problem. He couldn’t reach God’s righteousness, so he hated himself and God because he thought God hated him. But when he finally saw God’s grace, he refused to let anyone tell him it wasn’t for him.
“I have often proven by experience, and I continue to find out every day, how hard it is to believe, especially during conflicts of conscience, that Christ was given not for the holy, righteous, worthy, and those who were his friends, but for wicked sinners, for the unworthy, and for his enemies who deserved God’s wrath and everlasting death.
“Let us therefore arm ourselves with these and similar sentences of the Holy Scriptures, so that when the devil tells us we are sinners and therefore damned, we may answer, “Because you say I am a sinner, I will be righteous and saved.” Then the devil will say, “No, you will be damned.” And I will reply, “No, for I fly to Christ who has given himself for my sins. Therefore, Satan, you will not prevail against me when you try to terrify me by telling me how great my sins are and try to reduce me to heaviness, distrust, despair, hatred, contempt, and blasphemy. On the contrary, when you say I am a sinner, you give me armor and weapons against yourself, so that I can cut your throat with your own sword and tread you under my feet, for Christ died for sinners. Moreover, you yourself preach God’s glory to me, for you remind me of God’s fatherly love toward me, that ‘he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16). And whenever you object that I am a sinner, you remind me of the benefit of Christ my Redeemer. It is on his shoulders, not mine, that all my sins lie, for ‘the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all … for the transgression of my people he was stricken’ (Isaiah 53:6, 8). So when you say I am a sinner, you do not terrify me but comfort me immeasurably.”
Satan loves this present evil age. But Jesus has delivered us from it because it was the Father’s will. Let us not think that it is Jesus who twisted the Father’s arm to accept us. It was the Father and Son together who set out to save our souls. And when they accomplished the work, they smiled from the throne and poured out the Holy Spirit so that we could behold their happiness. As J.B. Lightfoot says, “The gospel is a rescue, and emancipation from a state of bondage.” This present age is evil, and we still have much evil residing inside our own heart of sin. But Jesus has delivered, is delivering, and one day will deliver us finally and fully from it all. God’s rescue plan isn’t done yet. He’s still got more to give. All we must do is stay in the center of his grace, and we will inherit it all. It is this gospel of God’s grace that Paul earnestly desires to protect. And it is this gospel of God’s grace that compels him to write the bold letter to the Galatians.
6 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— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 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. 9 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. 10 For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.
African Scholar, Samuel Ngewa, comments on Galatians 1:6.
On May 10, 2004, a headline in the East African Standard read, “Illegally Imported Fake Drugs Flood Kenya”. Traders were smuggling in suitcases full of counterfeit pills, which they sold at a much lower price than the legal drugs. Those who sold the legal drugs lost much of their business, and the buyers were not helped by taking pills that contained only chalk dust. There was an urgent need to warn the public to beware of cheap pills. This portion of Galatians could equally well be entitled, “Illegally Imported Fake Gospel Floods Galatia.” Paul writes to warn the Galatians that a fake gospel will not save them. Only the true one will do that. He is no longer defending his apostleship as he did in 1:1–5, but is defending the gospel he preached. This gospel is under attack, and some of the Galatians are beginning to swallow what the attackers are saying about the gospel and about Paul. Paul responds by showing the Galatians what they are doing, describing the activities and motives of the false teachers, and setting out the true nature of the gospel.
Paul is astonished that the Galatians are so quickly deserting the gospel. It is not just a new layer of the gospel that they are focusing on. It is a complete denial of the gospel because they are adding law on top of Jesus for salvation. Paul’s charge is that they’re deserting not only truth but the Person of Truth. They’re deserting God. More than mere desertion, however, Paul says this is the activity of a turncoat. This is what traitors do. But Paul hasn’t completely given up on them yet. The verb he uses in verse 1, for the phrase “so quickly deserting,” indicates they are in the process of leaving, but they haven’t yet fully left God. There is still hope, and that hope is why Paul writes the letter. They need a re-centering on the gospel. Paul aims to give it to them.
There is only one gospel, but there are many distorters. The gospel is good news of God’s grace, and God’s grace, strangely, is very hard for us to handle. We struggle with the idea of salvation without merit. So, some come up with alternative messages that join God’s grace with human effort and preach it as gospel, distorting the message Jesus came to live, die, and rise for. This has two effects. On the one hand, it gives extra credibility to those who can live up to the “gospel plus” doctrine. On the other hand, it keeps down those who can never obey. In the end, what Jesus has loosed in heaven has been bound on earth again.
Because there is only one gospel but many distorters, the Galatians must be careful not to accept any preaching other than that which they first received. It was Paul who brought the gospel to them, but even if he is to return and preach a different message and call it “the gospel,” they should reject it outright. The gospel is not a message to be replaced, no matter who preaches it or what it sounds like. To preach another gospel leads to being cursed by God.
As Samuel Ngewa says, “The Galatians are behaving like children who have inherited some family treasure and are now listening to someone who is encouraging them to exchange it for something that looks like the original but is actually a fake.”
For the Galatians, only a few years had passed since Jesus rose from the grave. Such a recent mammoth event should keep the hearers of this news rapt in attention. But that they entertained new ideas and messages helps us see just why the gospel is so urgent. Sin dulls our sense of God. Though Jesus lived the perfect life on our behalf, we still make up new laws to add righteousness to righteousness. Though he says we are saved by faith alone, we still sprinkle something on top to make it more appetizing to the fallen mind. Though he rose from the dead to defeat death and sin and Satan on our behalf, we scheme and strategize ways to continue the battle on our own. We desperately want to be our own saviors. That’s why we need the gospel daily.
The final destination of the gospel is the glory of God. Being glory-hungerers ourselves, we find it hard to pursue his glory above our own. Can’t we have both, as some maintain? Can’t God have his glory and we have ours? Can’t we share the attention? Paul’s answer is a resounding “No!” Jesus stands alone in the spotlight of history. It is his work alone that brings redemption.
Paul is serving God, not man. Therefore, he has a power in the message of God that no man can have by creating his own, and that no man can remove through denial of the truth. Timothy George says, “Paul was reminding the Galatians that the gospel was not a product to be peddled on the marketplace of life. It has no need of shrewd salesmen to make it more palatable to modern tastes. The gospel has its own self-generating, dynamic authority and need not be propped up by artificial means, however sophisticated or alluring.”
Serving Christ and pleasing men are mutually exclusive pursuits. To please Christ is to invite the wrath of fallen man, and to please man is to invite the wrath of the risen Christ. We must pay attention to whom we work. Are we shaving off the radical edge of the gospel to fit the worldview of fallen man, or are we sharpening the radical edge of the gospel to cut off the self-righteousness of fallen man? The gospel is the most outrageous message the world has ever heard. None but God accepts sinners so freely. None but God brings life out of death. None but God gives righteousness to the unrighteous. Why would we want to change the message of the gospel that has come to us through the person of Jesus Christ? Only fools would trade the assurance of the free gift of grace for the uncertainty of meritorious righteousness. Are we such fools?
If Timothy George is correct in saying the book of Galatians is a tornado warning, what then should we pay attention to? We live in an age of false gospels. We seem never to cease from creating new ones. But it is the pure gospel of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ who saves all his people on the same basis of grace through faith that endures throughout the ages. Let’s not add anything to it or take anything away from it. Let it stand on its own two feet and watch as it knocks out of its way every enemy that would advance toward the children of God. Watch the one who refused to save himself use his resurrection power to save the world.