In hopes of understanding the narrative of the letter to the Galatians, let’s start with Chapter 1 and examine a few things about Paul’s concerns and his attitude toward the issues at hand.
Paul, an apostle— not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— and all the brothers who are with me,To the churches of Galatia:
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 1:1-5 ESV)
Paul begins by offering his title… an apostle. This is to establish his authority to present his arguments as directly from God. He further defines his apostle status as having come from Jesus Christ and God the Father and not men. Then in the very greeting itself, he hits them with the exact concept he will be using throughout the letter… grace. And he wishes it upon them.
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. 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.
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
(Galatians 1:6-10 ESV)
It always amazes me, I’ve heard this passage quoted in the Churches of Christ more than most verses in this letter. And every time it seems to be used to mean exactly the opposite of what Paul means. I often hear this passage used as a warning against liberalism in the church. I hear it used as justification for dis-fellowship in the church. This is not a call for division. It is not a call to obey “the truth” as defined by an amalgamation of unrelated passages. It is a call to get back to the simplicity of the gospel.
Twenty years ago, if you had asked me to define the word “The Gospel”, my answer would be this: That we are saved by faith, confession, repentance, baptism, and continued obedience. To be absolutely and Biblically clear… that is NOT the gospel. Not to disparage any of those parts of a Christian walk, but they are not the gospel and they are not what Paul is referring to here when he uses the term. So how does Paul define the gospel? He tells us in his own words in the first Corinthian letter:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you— unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve
(1 Corinthians 15:1-5 ESV)
Gospel just means specifically, Good News. So the good news is that Jesus died for us, was buried, and resurrected so that we might share in that resurrection. Simple as that. So when Paul criticizes the Galatians for distorting the gospel he means they’ve added to the simplicity of it, and thus to what is required to be saved. They specifically are adding circumcision as part of it (which he’ll address later). So his statement is about the self-sufficiency of the sacrifice of Jesus and his resurrection for salvation. Then he states more than once if anyone makes the gospel more than just that, let him be accursed.
Is this not what we have done? We’ve taken some very good things we do as Christians, things we are even commanded to do and made them unconditionally required for salvation in addition to Jesus’ work on the cross. We’ve bound Christians with a whole plethora of works that must be done and done properly in order to actually “receive grace”. If this was the case then grace is no longer grace, and this is the argument Paul will make in the following chapters.
Another fallacy to address with my previous interpretation of this passage is Paul saying “let them be accursed”. I used to think this was an imperative to me (the truth-keeper) about those who were “preaching another gospel” in my opinion. I was to let them be accursed… which equated to what I called dis-fellowship. This is again a false interpretation of the passage. We are not the ones Paul is saying should be doing the “cursing” here. God the Father is the one doing the cursing.
For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.
(Galatians 1:11-14 ESV)
Paul then returns to his credentials. The plain and simple gospel was received by Paul from Jesus himself. He then gives his history of how he persecuted faithful Christians for what he used to think was right. In a way, I can relate. I have condemned men more faithful than myself because they didn’t follow the pattern I thought I saw in scripture, only now to realize the sin in that.
But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.
Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they glorified God because of me.
(Galatians 1:15-24 ESV)
Paul is trying to help the Galatians know that he has this message from God himself and that his traditions were strong. So by this, he can empathize with the Galatians’ legalisms, but has transcended that bondage by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. As we continue into Chapter 2 he will continue his story and how it led him to the Galatian area.