Thrust Statement: The Gospel is the good news about salvation through faith in Christ.

Scripture Reading: Galatians 1:6-9

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. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!  As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned![1]

INTRODUCTION

The objective of this essay is to capture the heart of the gospel of Christ, that is to say, the substance of the good news of God.  In order for one to identify the gospel of God, one must first understand what the gospel is all about. The question is: What is the gospel? Is it the twenty-seven books called the New Testament? Or is it the good news about a method of salvation through faith, not works? When Paul speaks of the gospel in his letter to the churches in the province of Galatia, just what does he refer to? An answer to this most important question is essential for unity among God’s people. Unless believers correctly identify the gospel, then unity will not exist as a whole among the saints.[2]

Christians frequently identify the gospel with their particular brand of orthodoxy. In other words, if you participate in the use of individual communion cups in the observance of the Lord’s Supper, then you are preaching another gospel. If you sing with the accompaniment of an instrument, then you are preaching another gospel. If you participate in teaching children and adults in a Bible study, separate and apart from the regular Sunday service, then you are preaching another gospel. If you accept Bible colleges as okay, then you are preaching another gospel. This list is almost ad infinitum. Carl Ketcherside wrote, almost thirty-five years ago, about the evils arising from one’s failure to differentiate between gospel and doctrine. He says,

Those who mistake unity with conformity and who predicate fellowship upon endorsement, brand as “another gospel” every view, opinion and interpretation, which is divergent from their own. Under the fallacious notion that every religious concept which they enunciate is “gospel” they pronounce an anathema upon every person who dares to question their orthodox procedures in any respect. Thus they splinter the family into fragments unless all are willing to make them the inviolable and inerrant interpreters of the sacred oracles.[3]

The following is a classic example of how sincere Christians abuse Galatians 1:8-9. On September 25, 1996, Ray Dutton wrote a letter to the elders of the Landmark Church of Christ concerning their employment of Buddy Bell as their pulpit minister. In this letter he cites Galatians 1:8-9 for his justification for his tongue-lashing of the Landmark elders. In this letter, he names many doctrinal issues—baptism, instrumental music, denominationalism, solos, choirs, quartets and other special music, the role of women in the church, fellowship with the denominations—that he takes issue with Bell.  Dutton cites Galatians 1:8-9 to justify his rejection of Bell and the elders at the Landmark church. He accuses Bell of preaching another gospel since Bell accepts fellowship with the denominations. He explains:

Did not Paul tell us, “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let hem 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.” (Gal. 1:8-9)[4]

            As observed above, Kevin Presley—one-cup and non-Sunday school—also cites Galatians 1:8-9 to condemn men like Ray Dutton as well as Buddy Bell. There are approximately twenty-five divisions (some say more) that claim this citation as their own unique property. Leroy Garrett calls attention to this much-abused passage by going right to the heart of another gospel:

It was a gospel that destroyed that grace through the introduction of Jewish rites and ceremonies as essential to salvation. . . . What the Judaizers proclaimed was perverted in that it made salvation a matter of law and works rather than faith and grace. . . . Any message that bases justification on anything but the merits of the Lord Jesus is a perversion, and that was the problem in Galatia. Paul concedes that “if a law had been given which could

make alive, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.” This could never be, so Jesus Christ was given as the sin-bearer to those that believe.[5]

            It is not uncommon for interpreters to impose their own conceptual grids on a text without due reflection. When one approaches the Word of God, one should approach with a hermeneutics of suspicion. In other words, one should be conscious of his/her own fallibility in interpreting Scriptures. One’s interpretation should always remain the object of suspicion and of critical evaluation. Everyone must have a self-critical stance toward the tendency to impose one’s own agenda upon the exposition of Scripture. This is especially true in the above Scripture citations (Galatians 1:6-9).

            One cannot just take the Scriptures at face value without seeking to understand the intent of the author. Everyone is to employ sound methods of interpretation in seeking to unfold the intended meaning of any text. One needs to develop the habit of working with the text in order to hear what the original hearers heard. Hopefully, this essay will assist one’s understanding of the original setting in order to help remove twentieth century bifocals and journey back into the first century, to stand upon their threshold, to see through their eyes, and to think their thoughts. God’s people must seek to read the Bible without colored glasses, which often leads to distortions; one must guard against his/her interpretation as equal to that of Scripture. To accomplish these objectives, it is necessary to learn how to read the Word of God afresh.

HISTORICAL OVERVIEW

            In order for one to ascertain the full import of the word gospel, one should seek to understand the word as employed by Paul in his missionary journeys. An observation of his speeches during his first missionary travels should shed some light on Paul’s understanding of what the “gospel” of God is all about. To begin this investigation, this study will travel with Paul, Barnabas, and John Mark on the first missionary voyage. Then, this research will listen in on the Jerusalem conference that occurred between the first and second missionary journeys of Paul in order to see if there is any hint from the various speakers as to what the gospel of God is relating to. Then, an observation of two of Paul’s letters—Romans and Galatians—will be called forth as evidence to determine if there is any hint as to the nature of the gospel. These two letters were probably written during Paul’s third missionary journey.

First Missionary Journey (46—48 CE)

            Paul, Barnabas, and John Mark set sail from Seleucia (15 miles SW of Antioch of Syria) to the island of Cyprus.[6] Immediately upon their arrival at Salamis (approximately 135 Miles SW of Seleucia), Luke informs his readers about the proclamation of the good news upon their arrival on the island of Cyprus: “they proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues” (Acts 13:5). Next, Luke records that they went to Paphos (83 miles SW of Salamis). Upon their arrival, Sergius Paulus, the proconsul, sent for Paul and Barnabas because he wanted to hear the word of God (13:7). Thus far, one knows that they preached the word of God. But what did they say when they preached the word of God? Did they preach that God had ordained a worship service with five-acts to be performed in a prescribed manner? Did they talk about “bread-pinching” instead of “bread-breaking” in the observance of the Lord’s Supper? Did they talk about singing a cappella instead of singing with an instrument? Just what did they broadcast? The answer to these questions can be found in their stop in Pisidian Antioch (275 Miles NW of Paphos).

Pisidian Antioch

This visit of Paul and Barnabas is a little more descriptive of the “word of God.” Luke tells his readers that they entered the synagogue and proclaimed Jesus (see 13:13-38 for the whole of this message). After giving a brief history of God’s involvement in the nations of Israel, Paul proclaims that the history of salvation reaches its climax in Jesus as God’s way of salvation. He declares to the Jews and the Gentiles who worship God: “We tell you the good news: What God promised our fathers he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus” (13:32). Now, Paul begins to define this message of redemption: “Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses” (13:38-39). After proclaiming God’s method of justification, the Jews stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas and expelled them from their region (13:50-51). What is the heart of the Gospel? It is forgiveness through Jesus.

Missionary Work in Iconium

            Following their work in Pisidian Antioch, they traveled to Iconium (approximately 71 miles SE of Antioch). Again, arriving at Iconium, they went into the Jewish synagogue to announce justification by grace through faith in Jesus.  Many Jews and Gentiles believed, but, on the other hand, there were many Jews who refused to accept God’s way of justification and “stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers” (14:2). When Luke records that many Jews and Gentiles believed, one cannot help but wonder what it was that they believed. One can discover what they believed by reflecting upon Luke’s statement concerning the work in Pisidian Antioch: “Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you” (13:38). This is the very heart of the gospel of God.

Lystra and Derbe

            While in Iconium, Paul and Barnabas learned of a plot “to mistreat them and stone them” (14:5). They then “fled to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra (14 miles S of Iconium) and Derbe (46 miles SE of Lystra) and to the surrounding country, where they continued to preach the good news” (14:6-7).  The Jewish hatred for the “good news” of God stretched from Pisidian Antioch and Iconium to Lystra (87 miles SE of Pisidian Antioch). Luke writes: “Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead” (14:19).

            Following this incident in Lystra, Paul and Barnabas left for Derbe. Upon their arrival, they began to preach the good news. Luke captures the essence of their ministry in few words: “They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples” (14:21). They then retraced their steps through the towns of Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch (14:21). In spite of strong opposition from the Jews, Luke says that the disciples were encouraged to remain true to the faith (14:22), that is to say, the good news about God’s way of salvation by faith, not works. Having accomplished what they could for the cause of Christ, they continued their journey back to Antioch of Syria. Upon their arrival, they shared with the brethren how God had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles (14:27).

The Council at Jerusalem

            Following this 1,158-mile trip, Paul and Barnabas found themselves involved in a controversy over the necessity of circumcision. Luke announces: “Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved’” (15:1). If the brothers from Judea left Jerusalem, one can quickly see the zeal that these men had for the Law of Moses. They traveled approximately 311 miles—if from Jerusalem—to deal with the issue of circumcision and its relationship to salvation, as they perceived it. This position brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute with these brethren (15:2). This belief system was a perversion of “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3).  This fervor over circumcision as a condition of salvation undermined the good news that justification is through faith, not works of the Law.

            The church at Antioch of Syria sent Paul and Barnabas along with some other believers to Jerusalem to discuss this matter of how a man is put in a right relationship with God (Acts 15:2). The big question that the leaders discussed was how to be saved. Luke begins the events of this meeting by saying: “When they (Paul & Barnabas) came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them” (15:1). Next, Luke records: “Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses”  (15:5). Since some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees were presenting “another gospel,” then “The apostles and elders met to consider this question” (15:6).

            After Paul, Barnabas, and some of the Pharisees’ party spoke, Peter stood up and addressed the group:

Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are (15:7-11).

The gospel message is about the purification of the heart by faith. In other words, the message of the gospel is about salvation by grace through faith.  Then, Paul and Barnabas spoke again  about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them” (15:12). Next, James, our Lord’s brother quoted from the prophet Amos to prove that the Gentiles were to be received into the fellowship of the saints through faith, not through law (15:13-21). This analysis of Paul’s and Barnabas’s first missionary journey brings one to consider two letters written by Paul to correct the perversion of the gospel of Christ by the Jews.

Letter to the Galatians

            Peter’s words concerning justification—“he purified their hearts by faith”—is Peter’s way of saying what Paul affirmed in his letter to the Christians in the province of Galatia—Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. Paul goes right to the heart of the gospel with the following words:

We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified (Galatians 2:15-16).

“Justified by faith in Christ” is the heart of the gospel. This is why Paul could say:

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. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! (1:6-10).

            Paul turns his attention to Abraham as an example of justification by faith. But in setting up this scenario, he asks questions about their receiving the Spirit to press home the heart of the gospel.

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothing—if it really was for nothing?  Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard? (Galatians 3:1-5)

From this turn of argument, Paul then addresses Abraham’s justification as well as the Christians of all nations, which includes the Christians of southern Galatia. Listen to Paul as he develops his point of view as to what the gospel of God is all about:

Consider Abraham: “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”  Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith (3:6-9).

The gospel is the good news that God will justify man through faith, not works. If any man, even an angel, proclaims any method of justification other than through faith in Jesus, then Paul says let that man or angel be accursed.

Letter to the Romans

            The letter of Paul to the Romans is also about the gospel of God. Paul goes right to the heart of the gospel with the following weighty words:

 I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith” (Romans 1:16-17).

            For Paul, justification by faith is the essence of the gospel message. Faith is the means by which justification is received, not its basis. Paul amplifies this theme of “justification by faith” in his letter to the Romans:

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. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law (3:21-28).

            Paul could not compromise the gospel of God with another gospel which is not another. In the tenth chapter of Romans, Paul details the mistakes the Israelites made concerning their understanding about how man receives the righteousness that belongs to God. He states emphatically that the Jews “are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness” (10:2-3). The Holy Spirit, through Paul, reveals, “Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (10:4). Justification by faith is the gospel that Paul preached to the Romans and it is also the gospel that Paul preached to the churches of Galatia.

CONCLUSION

            The “another gospel” in Galatians 1:6-9 is the teaching that faith in Jesus is not sufficient for salvation. It is faith—plus something else that is classified as another gospel. Many within the Churches of Christ preach another gospel which is not another. The gospel must be interpreted in light of its context, not one’s presuppositions. Remember, the gospel, by etymology, is good news that God has reached down and saved those who put their trust in Jesus as Lord. It is not a blueprint of doctrine, a code of ethics, or an outlook of life. It is good news about Jesus and what He accomplished for men and women in their impotent state, their ill-fated condition, and their unfortunate circumstances. Again, what is the gospel? Jesus explains the gospel this way in His conversation with Nicodemus:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son (John 3:16-18).

            When believers in Christ make the common cup in communion, Sunday schools, instrumental music, solos, hand-clapping, fellowship halls, and so on, the criterion of salvation, then they hinge justification upon faith in Christ PLUS SOMETHING ELSE. This “something else” is “another gospel” in Galatians 1:6-9. Faith is the belief of facts related to Christ; it is not the grasping of abstract truths that justifies one before God. When one proposes a program of justification by knowledge, then that person hangs himself/herself upon the gallows he/she has constructed to rid oneself of others, unless one is prepared to say that he/she knows as much as God.



[1] All Scripture citations are from The New International Version, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House) 1984, unless stated otherwise.

 

[2] See Kevin W. Presley, “Neo-Denominationalism in the Church of Christ,” Old Paths Advocate LXVII, no. 9 (September 1995): 1, where he declares:

 

The stream of DENOMINATIONALISM is indeed seeping into the Church of Christ. The words of Paul in Galatians 1:6-7 are certainly timely: “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 he gospel of Christ.” It is a worthy thing that we notice some of these modern assaults on the bulwarks of our faith.

 

                See also Don L. King, Editorial, “Proper Perspective,” Old Paths Advocate LXVII, no. 9 (September 1995): 2, where King expresses his views about those who disagree with him over the use of individual communion cups and Sunday school. He writes:

 

Listen, brethren: we believe it is wrong to use more than one cup. We believe people are going to be lost for using more than one cup. . . . If I can’t worship with them I can’t fellowship them and I can’t fellowship you if you do! Is that simple? (Sic).

 

[3] Carl Ketcherside, “Another Gospel,” Mission Messenger 27,  no. 1 (January 1965): 1.

[4] Ray Dutton, “To: The Elders of the Landmark church of Christ,:” Seibles Road Church of Christ Bulletin (November 3, 1996): 3.

[5] Leroy Garrett, Restoration Review 17, no. 3 (March 1975): 42.

[6] A large island in ne Mediterranean, about 60 miles (96 km) w of the Syrian coast and 40 miles (64 km) s of the coast of Cilicia (modern Turkey).