Several years after Jesus’ death and resurrection a missionary and pastor named Paul was home in Antioch when he got word of a crisis within the churches he had started sometime earlier. These churches were spread throughout a Roman provincial area called Galatia–modern day Turkey.
The crisis regarded the nature of the gospel–that good news that Jesus’ death, resurrection, ascension, and session at the Father’s right hand meant sin, death, and the devil no longer had the final word. Upon receiving this news Paul sat down and with his own hand penned the hard-punching letter found in our Bibles called Galatians. Here is a key piece:
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–not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.Galatians 1:6-7
Paul is astonished. He marvels. He is amazed at how fast the Galatian Christians were betraying God. Do not miss that. It is a betrayal not merely of God’s purposes but God himself–turning to a distorted view of the gospel. But what might that actually mean? To what had they turned?
Clarity is found throughout Paul’s letter. A group of Jewish-Christian agitators have come upon the Galatian churches suggesting rightness with God came by obedience to Jewish law–Torah. Particularly, and this is important, they highlighted parts of Torah keeping Jews and Gentiles separate from one another by means of circumcision. It was as if those agitators were saying, “You Gentiles are welcome to join our Christianity, but only if you become like us Jews. Otherwise, you’re not welcome.”
A Personal Moment
Indeed, Paul he shared a personal moment between himself and, of all people, the Apostle Peter, one of the early church’s greatest voices, but who himself as a Jewish Christian got caught up in this thinking and pulled away from fellowship with Gentile Christians. Paul declared Peter was “not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). Regarding such an attitude of divisiveness, power, and protectionism, Paul wrote this letter. He forcefully called out the problem. Consider the following:
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. 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.Galatians 1:8-9
I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!Galatians 5:12
Years ago while teaching through Galatians people in our church became upset because I suggested Paul was angry–as if anger was unbecoming of a pastor. But he was angry! This precious gospel, the good news, and the Savior who is the center of this good news, was being distorted; assaulted. But from what clarity were these agitators turning? This is important.
Grace to you and peace from 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.Galatians 1:3-5
Note Jesus is fully God. Jesus and the Father are not the same person, but are on the same plane. Moreover, Jesus gave his life unto death for our sins, what Philippians 2:8 literally calls “a cross-kind of death.” He died on the cross to pay for our sins–yours and mine. Yet he also died to rescue us from the broken systems and structures of this age. That is what is implied with the language of “the present evil age.” Jesus delivered us not merely from our sin and its penalty, but all that is broken by sin. Importantly, we read this is “the will of our God and Father.”
A New Society
The effect is that those confessing Jesus as Lord and Savior are placed in a new society, a new humanity. Such is the consecrated, beloved community called the Church. Absorb Paul’s words penned in Ephesians:
In [Jesus] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.Ephesians 1:7
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.Ephesians 2:13-16
This is the holistic gospel encompassing God’s total rescue and restoration through Jesus–yes, from sin; and yes, to a new consecrated community. It is not that one ethnicity, the Gentiles, the less powerful in this matter, become like the other ethnicity, the more powerful in this matter, the Jews. It is that both Gentiles and Jews, by means of the shed blood of Christ, step into a whole new world united as one redeemed community. This is the reach of the gospel, and why Paul was fighting mad over the agitators and their distortions.
But Which Gospel?
Significantly, we note these issues are at play today. They are at play when we remember the Old Testament prophets who tell us to care for the immigrant and the poor, only for people to say, “just preach the gospel, we don’t want to hear that.” They are at play when we invite all to see historical narratives of pain among people of color, only for people to say, “just preach the gospel, we don’t want to hear that.”
“Just preach the gospel and don’t add all that other stuff.”
But which gospel? The truncated one focusing only on individual personal sin, vital as that is? Or the more fully-orbed, holistic gospel having power through the blood of Christ to forgive sins and break down walls and build a new community? It is about this the Apostle Paul is so fiery.
There is a lot of talk in the public square about Christians deconstructing their faith. Some may be wandering for purely hedonistic reasons. Yet a number are weary of what I call a nationalistic Christianity conflating Jesus and country, idolizing patriotism with the cross in a way the early church would have never envisioned; elevating earthly power and glory above eternal, Kingdom of God values. From these the sentiment is, “You are welcome to my version of Christianity as long as you vote like me. Otherwise, you may not be a legitimate Christian.”
Advocates of nationalistic Christianity take their cues from the agitators of old who minimize the gospel for the sake of power and identity. It is abhorrent. It betrays Jesus of Nazareth. It distorts the gospel that obliterates condemnation while forging us who believe into a new consecrated, beloved community–a new creation.
But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.Galatians 6:14-16
A new creation, with the world crucified to us and us to it.
Let us walk accordingly.