February 17, 2005

Galatians I: The Truth

(This blog post makes use of the BWGRKL font for some Greek text, available for download from BibleWorks at no charge.)

Paul, an apostle, (not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead;) and all the brethren which are with me, unto the churches of Galatia: Grace be to you and peace from God the Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father: To whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.

For do I now persuade men, or God? or do I seek to please men? for if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ.

Last week I introduced a series on Paul's letter to the Galatians. This was likely the earliest letter Paul wrote, and it was to address what was probably the earliest major doctrinal crisis to face the early Church. This was the issue of "Judaizers," really Jewish legalists, who were trying to persuade the early Church that in order to become Christians, they had to become circumcised, and effectively to be made subject to the Law of Moses.

To Paul, however, this was more than merely a checklist of things for Christians to do or not do. It cut to the very core of Christianity: What is the Gospel? He wrote this brief, strongly worded letter to the church at Galatia defending the true Gospel against the errors of the Judaizers. He specifically focuses on the basis of the Gospel, faith alone - faith in Christ,not mixed with the works of the Law.

Legalism is still with us and around us, not merely in the form of "classical" Judaizers such as the Seventh-day Adventists, but also different forms of the same error: baptismal regeneration as practiced by the International Churches of Christ and other "Campbellite" groups; the whole system of confessions, prayers, penances and other rituals of the Roman church, which is the error the Reformers so effectively wielded this book against; the superstitious works-righteousness of Islam, and so forth.

Paul's Gospel

But what is the true Gospel, then? Paul actually gives a quick thumbnail sketch of his preaching in Galatians 1:3-5. I want to focus on those three verses for the most part, but also cross-reference heavily from other parts of the New Testament, in particular Paul's letter to the Romans, where he systematizes this teaching more comprehensively than he does in Galatians.

Galatians 1:3 begins: "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." It's worth noting, as an aside, that even if Paul is upset with the Galatians, he hasn't lost his graciousness. He still wishes them grace and peace. His correction of their error is an act of love, not spite or malice.

Gal. 1:4 continues: "Who gave himself for our sins". Paul doesn't really touch on the problem of sin in Galatians, but he gives it a much fuller treatment in the first few chapters of Romans:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse . . . (Rom. 1:18-20)

Man is not ignorant of God. Man knows there is a God because the evidence is all around him. He knows there is a Creator who ought to be worshiped and obeyed. But he doesn't do this. Paul continues:

Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. (Rom. 1:21)

And a little further down, he adds:

Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things. (Rom. 1:22-23)

In other words, the natural man is in a state of denial where God is concerned. And what is the consequence of this?

Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves: who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen. (Rom. 1:24-25)

God turns people over to their own desires, and their first inclination is to sin some more. Paul says that they turn to "uncleanness" - and, specifically, he is thinking of sexual impurity as well as idolatry. The natural tendency of man without God is to turn to perversion and paganism. That's not a pretty picture, is it?

But Paul isn't finished yet. So far, he's only dealt with the pagans. But "there is no respect of persons with God" (Rom. 2:11). So he turns his focus on his own people, the Jews. Focusing on their pride in being the chosen race, Paul writes this:

Behold, thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God, and knowest his will, and approvest the things that are more excellent, being instructed out of the law; and art confident that thou thyself art a guide of the blind, a light of them which are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form of knowledge and of the truth in the law. (Rom. 2:17-20)

But then he brings the hammer down:

Thou therefore which teachest another, teachest thou not thyself? thou that preachest a man should not steal, dost thou steal? Thou that sayest a man should not commit adultery, dost thou commit adultery? thou that abhorrest idols, dost thou commit sacrilege? Thou that makest thy boast of the law, through breaking the law dishonourest thou God? For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles through you, as it is written. (Rom. 2:21-24)

No one on earth has any excuse that will wash before God. Paul sums up his teaching on the sinfulness of man with a litany of verses drawn from throughout the Old Testament:

There is none righteous, no, not one:
There is none that understandeth,
there is none that seeketh after God.
They are all gone out of the way,
they are together become unprofitable;
there is none that doeth good, no, not one.
Their throat is an open sepulchre;
with their tongues they have used deceit;
the poison of asps is under their lips:
Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness:
Their feet are swift to shed blood:
Destruction and misery are in their ways:
And the way of peace have they not known:
There is no fear of God before their eyes. (Rom. 3:10-18)

Is there any wonder that the wrath of God is directed against the world? Man, in his natural state, is the very opposite of what God is. The wrath of the perfect Judge, the morally perfect Creator of the universe, whose creation has spurned him, is directed against the unjust. Paul doesn't even have to defend the idea that God will judge his creation; that is a given. All men, without exception, stand accused and condemned for their sin because they have spurned the good God and ignored his laws. The penalty for sin is death: eternal separation from God and eternal punishment in a state the Bible describes as a "lake of fire." That is the universal human condition.

But that's the bad news. Paul has good news for fallen man. Suppose someone else paid the penalty? None of us could do it, because we all stand condemned ourselves. But one man, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, God in the flesh, was completely without sin. When he died on the cross, it wasn't for his own sins that he was put to death, but for ours. And Paul goes on to write that:

[N]ow the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood . . . (Rom. 3:21-25)

"Propitiation" isn't a word we tend to use anymore. But it has a simple enough meaning: Christ's death satisfied the Father. It was an acceptable sacrifice. It met the requirements of justice, and it took away God's wrath.

On the basis of Christ's death on the cross, it is possible for God to both declare us sinful men righteous, and to meet the demands of justice. It is not that God actually makes us righteous. But he treats the righteousness of Christ as though it belongs to us. The theological term is imputed righteousness. It is imputed to anyone who will put his faith in Christ's ability to save him from the penalty for sin. Because Christ was not guilty, we are also declared "not guilty."

Furthermore, it is this faith alone that is a sufficient basis for our justification, as Paul writes:

Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. (Rom. 3:27-28)

This is "faith alone." The Judaizers were trying to persuade the Galatians that "faith alone" was not true, and that it was also necessary to obey the Law of Moses. But Paul shuts down that argument. If we could gain God's favour through some kind of good work, we would have ground for boasting. But since it is faith alone there is no ground. We have been saved because God is merciful, not because we earned it.

Let us leave Romans for the time being and return to Galatians. Next Paul says that Christ gave himself "that he might deliver us from this present evil world" (Gal. 1:4). We have been saved from the penalty of sin by Christ's substitutionary, atoning death on the cross. As a result we are now set apart by God from the world - we are being saved in this life from the power of sin. Romans 8:29 says that those "whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son." In the present we are being rescued from the evil age because we have the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, and one of the works of the Holy Spirit is to make us more like Christ. But there's more to it than that, because Paul goes on in the next verse to say, "whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified" (Rom. 8:30). Those whom God foreknew, that is, us Christians, he conformed to Christ-likeness; and in the end we will have eternal life in glory. God is absolutely faithful to do this.

Again, returning to Galatians: Paul says that all this is done "according to the will of God and our Father" (Gal. 1:4). Salvation isn't a contingency plan. God wasn't caught unawares by human sinfulness so that he had to send Christ to the cross as some sort of cosmic "plan B." It was planned right from the beginning, when God promised Satan, the serpent, that a descendant of Eve would crush him. When the risen Jesus walked with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, the Bible says that he "expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself" (Luke 24:27). The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is threaded throughout the entire Bible! Acts 2:23 says that Christ was handed over to be crucified "by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God."

Finally, Paul says that this was all done for the glory of God. Soli Deo gloria, as the Reformers said. Everything that God does is for his own glory, and so should 5everything we do be for his glory as well.

Beware of counterfeits

This is the Gospel Paul is guarding so closely, and what he is so upset that the Galatians abandoned. And he pronounces a very strong curse upon those who would pervert it: "But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed" (Gal. 1:8). In Greek, the word "accursed" is avna,qema (anathema), and it's the strongest curse Paul can pronounce on someone. In other words, he is saying this: "If someone comes to you preaching something different than what you learned from me, I don't care if an angel drops from the sky and does it, it's a counterfeit, and he can go to hell." And he says it again in verse 9: "If someone preaches something that contradicts what I told you, he can go to hell."

Can't we all just get along?

Paul follows this up with what is surely a cynical and sarcastic question: "So, now do you think I'm trying to please men?" Apparently he had been falsely accused of preaching a Gospel that tickled the ears of his listeners. Is claiming to have an exclusive lock on truth, then proclaiming an anathema on anyone who contradicts you, going to make friends?

Of course, there's nothing new under the sun. There is still an awful lot of man-pleasing going on in the world these days. We live today in a civilization where the cardinal sin is to be even slightly critical of what someone else thinks or does.

The prevailing ethical worldview claims that it is much better to seek understanding than insist upon truth. It's a by-product of postmodern philosophy. Like most such philosophies it has its origins in the humanities before percolating out into society in general. Contemporary literary theory, for example, often places more emphasis on the response of the reader to a text than the original intent of the author (the so-called "intentional fallacy"). Stanley Fish, professor of English and former Dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is probably the reigning king of postmodern intellectuals. His book Is There a Text in This Class?1, a classic of reader-response theory, argues that the meaning of a text arises from a reader's contact with it. There is no objective meaning to the text, only agreement within, and disagreement between, what Fish calls "interpretive communities," which filter the text through their own presuppositions. So there's no right interpretation, only competing interpretations, some of which are more competitive than others. The "right" one is the one your community believes in, and you are incapable of thinking outside of the limits of your own community.

This kind of thinking percolates outware into other disciplines. Thus it is not unusual in certain academic disciplines (particularly the non-scientific ones) to hear that society is structured to favour those in power and oppress those without it, and therefore the "truth" is nothing more than a social construct enforced by the existing power structures. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking inevitably impacts the non-academic world in very practical ways. Consider this excerpt from an opinion piece in the New York Times from October 15, 2001:

When Reuters decided to be careful about using the word "terrorism" because, according to its news director, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, Martin Kaplan, associate dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, castigated what he saw as one more instance of cultural relativism. But Reuters is simply recognizing how unhelpful the word is, because it prevents us from making distinctions that would allow us to get a better picture of where we are and what we might do. If you think of yourself as the target of terrorism with a capital T, your opponent is everywhere and nowhere. But if you think of yourself as the target of a terrorist who comes from somewhere, even if he operates internationally, you can at least try to anticipate his future assaults.

Is this the end of relativism? If by relativism one means a cast of mind that renders you unable to prefer your own convictions to those of your adversary, then relativism could hardly end because it never began. Our convictions are by definition preferred; that's what makes them our convictions. Relativizing them is neither an option nor a danger.

But if by relativism one means the practice of putting yourself in your adversary's shoes, not in order to wear them as your own but in order to have some understanding (far short of approval) of why someone else might want to wear them, then relativism will not and should not end, because it is simply another name for serious thought.2

Who authored of this op-ed? Stanley Fish, professor of English and former Dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Note the implication of what Fish is saying: We can't declare that killing thousands of people by using a loaded passenger jet as a giant cruise missile is actually, objectively, evil. That moral judgment has no basis except in our own culture's values. The perpetrators have a different culture, with different values. So the best we can do is try to understand the values of the people who would do such a thing, and hopefully we can prevent them from doing it again.

This is the prevailing sentiment of Postmodernism: no values are truly objective, no act is truly evil. We should learn to understand, not judge. The premiere episode of Enterprise summed this up quite well when T'Pol admonishes Trip after he has become upset at something an alien mother has done to her child: "You should learn to objectify other cultures so you know when to interfere and when not to." Those poor, unenlightened humans, all too ready to pass judgment rather than seek understanding!

Why doesn't secular society want to make moral judgments? They are trying to please men. They don't want to invalidate anyone or give the impression that they believe they have an exclusive lock on the truth. The ultimate anathema (no pun intended) is to insinuate that someone else might be wrong.

Unfortunately, this kind of thinking has made some inroads into the Church as well. Ever heard someone say something like, "Doctrine divides, love unites"? Or, "We should focus on what unifies us rather than what separates us"? Even in the Church we don't want to say anything that might displease someone else. Thus a televangelist like like Robert Schuller can recast Calvary in terms of "sanctify[ing] the ego trip" rather than showing mercy to condemned sinners. In his own words, Schuller could never address an audience as a group of sinners or speak of the wrath of God, because:

If you preach that . . . I sure hope you give it the kind of interpretation that I do or, I'll tell you, you'll drive them farther away and they'll be madder than hell at you and they'll turn the Bible off, and they'll switch you off, and they'll turn on the rock music and Madonna. Just because it's in the Bible doesn't mean you should preach it.3


Never compromise the integrity of the Gospel, even for a second, even if it gains you a few brownie points with the people you are witnessing to. Heed the advice that Paul gave to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:15: "15Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." It's God's approval we should seek, not men's. Peter and John understood this; they were called before the Sanhedrin for preaching the Gospel, and told to stop. They replied, "Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:19-20). Paul said that if he were to trying to please men, he would not be Christ's servant. If we are Christ's, we cannot compromise on the truth. We can't afford to.


1 Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1980).

2 Fish, "Condemnation Without Absolutes," New York Times 15 October 2001, late ed.: A19.

3 "A Discussion with Robert Schuller," On Doctrine, 21 February 2005, <http://www.ondoctrine.com/1schul01.htm>. [Originally published in Modern Reformation, Nov/Dec. 1992.]


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