The Gospel Alarm (Galatians 4:8-20)
If you went to the Clarke’s house, you would meet their dog Shadow. You would quickly come to realize that Shadow is a people-dog. Shadow is very happy to see you when you go to visit. If you ever feel that nobody cares about you, you should go visit their house, because you will quickly realize that this dog doesn’t even know you, but still thinks the world of you.
But one night last week, Jonathan came home late. And that evening, Shadow was anything but welcoming. Shadow sounded the alarm that somebody was coming up the driveway, and let the whole household know.
Question: Why did Shadow sound the alarm? What happened to Shadow’s friendliness?
Parallel question: We’ve been in Galatians, and Paul is clearly agitated. You’ll remember that the issue is what it takes to be accepted by God. Paul is saying that it’s Jesus plus nothing. Others are saying that it’s Jesus plus something else. It doesn’t take long to realize that Paul is agitated over this issue. He basically says that he’s ready to beat up an angel who preaches that we need Jesus plus anything else to be saved. So here’s the question: Why is Paul sounding the alarm? This morning’s passage gets to the heart of this question. And it’s important because we’re going to see why we need to sound the alarm as well whenever the gospel is lost, whenever anyone adds anything to Jesus in order to find acceptance with God.
So here’s the big idea. I’ll give it to you and then we’ll unpack it. Sound the gospel alarm because of what’s at stake, and because of love.
First: Sound the gospel alarm because of what’s at stake.
Look at verses 8 to 11:
Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.
In these few verses Paul tells us what’s at stake. This is so important for us to see, because we don’t easily see what’s at risk when we add something to Jesus in order to be accepted by God. So Paul gives us three pictures in these verses. He gives us a picture of what we’re like before Christ. Then he gives us a picture of what we’re like when we trust Christ. Then he gives us a picture of what we’re like when we add something to Christ in order to be accepted.
Before Christ - Paul says, “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods.” This is a very insightful description. Paul says that before Christ, we’re enslaved to false gods. He’s talking about their pagan idol-worship. He doesn’t name their false gods, but they would have known the various gods worshiped in the temples. But Paul says something radical. Worshiping anyone or anything other than God through Christ is slavery. He says in 1 Corinthians 10:20:
No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. (1 Corinthians 10:20)
This is our before picture. We’re all by nature worshipers. We’re hardwired to attribute ultimate worth to someone or something bigger than ourselves. It could be a religion. It could be anything: a hobby, a political system, a philosophy, a sport, a job. Everyone worships someone or something bigger than themselves and looks for ultimate meaning.
Paul says that two things are true about all of our worship before we come to Christ. First: it’s demonic. That’s shocking, but think about it. The demons know we’re built to worship, and they’re delighted if we worship anyone or anything other than Christ. They really don’t care what it is as long as it’s not God. Second: it’s enslaving. Whatever we worship other than God will enslave us. Tim Keller says, “If anything but Jesus is a requirement for being happy or worthy, that thing will become our slavemaster.” David Powlison puts it like this:
“[Your] idols define good and evil in ways contrary to God's definitions. [They spin out a whole false belief system.] They establish a locus of control that is earth-bound: either in objects (e.g. lust for money), other people (e.g.‘I need to please my father’), or myself (e.g. attainment of my personal goals). Such false gods create false laws, false definitions of success and failure, of values and stigma. Idols promise blessings and warn of curses for those who succeed or fail [their standards]. ‘If I [make enough money], I will be secure. If I can get these certain people to like and respect me, then my life will be valid.’....”
Let’s just pause here because this is so important. This is the picture of everyone who does not know Jesus Christ. We’re all worshipers. We all look to someone or something other than God for our ultimate meaning. And we’re all enslaved to whatever that is. The demons love for us to worship, as long as we’re worshiping someone or something other than God.
When we trust Christ - But then Paul gives us a picture of what happens when we come to know the power of the gospel. He says, “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God…” Before, we didn’t know God. When we heard the gospel, we came to know God. Know doesn’t mean just head knowledge. It means to know personally and relationally. It’s the knowledge that comes from friendship, not from reading a set of facts.
But I love what Paul says here. He does say we came to know God, but then he stops himself and says, “or rather to be known by God.” This reminds me of the ending of Tim Keller’s excellent book The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. A woman prayed “God, help me find you,” but she never seem to get anywhere. One day a friend told her to try praying, “God, come and find me.” And he did. God finds us more than we find him. Before we ever knew God, God knew us. God chose us. We became the objects of his love. We know God because God knew us first. He loves us and graciously chose us to be his own.
So that’s the before picture: enslaved to false gods. Then we have the gospel picture: knowing God because he first knew us. Then we have one more picture.
When we add something to Christ - He writes, “…how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?” Don’t miss what Paul is saying here. Paul is saying that adding anything to Jesus in order to be accepted by God is another form of idol-worship. This is shocking! Trying to earn God’s approval by our own efforts is no better than paganism. Justification by works is just as demonic and enslaving as idol-worship.
What Paul is saying is that there are two ways to be lost. There are two ways to reject God, and the demons are happy with either one. One way to reject God is to worship idols and look for our ultimate meaning and satisfaction in anything other than God. The other way to be lost and enslaved is to be religious and to base our acceptance on anything other than Jesus.
Do you see what Paul is saying? He’s saying that there are a lot of people who think they’re Christians who are no better off than idol-worshipers. He’s saying that the demons are quite happy if we come to church and read our Bibles and be really good people, as long as we’re basing our acceptance on our good behavior rather than on the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ. It’s demonic and it’s enslaving, and the demons are thrilled with this version of Christianity. Nobody’s put it better than Michael Horton:
What would things look like if Satan actually took over a city? The first frames in our imaginative slide show probably depict mayhem on a massive scale: Widespread violence, deviant sexualities, pornography in every vending machine, churches closed down and worshipers dragged off to City Hall. Over a half-century ago, Donald Grey Barnhouse, pastor of Philadelphia's Tenth Presbyterian Church, gave his CBS radio audience a different picture of what it would look like if Satan took control of a town in America. He said that all of the bars and pool halls would be closed, pornography banished, pristine streets and sidewalks would be occupied by tidy pedestrians who smiled at each other. There would be no swearing. The kids would answer 'Yes, sir,' 'No, ma'am,' and the churches would be full on Sunday ... where Christ is not preached.
Do you see what’s at stake? We’re in danger of embracing something that looks like Christianity but is basically just a Christian version of paganism. Why should we sound the gospel alarm? Because when we get fuzzy on the gospel, when we begin to trust our own performance, when we lose sight of the cross, it’s actually more dangerous than when we were pagans because we don’t even realize what’s going on.
Paul is saying that there are two ways to be demonically enslaved. One is to reject Christ and Christianity and find ultimate meaning in worshiping something or someone else. But the other way is to attend church and sing hymns and worship God but trust in something other than Christ in order to be accepted by God. If you do this, you’re just as lost, and the demons are just as happy.
There’s only one way to avoid being demonically enslaved: to put your hope in Jesus and nothing else for your salvation; to look to Christ and the cross as your only hope. This is why Paul sounds the alarm. There’s so much at stake. It’s why we have to sound the alarm as well.
There’s a second reason why we need to sound the gospel alarm.
Second: Sound the gospel alarm out of love.
The next few verses are some of the most intimate and painful verses to read in all of Paul’s writings. In these next verses Paul sound the alarm not just because of what’s at stake; he sounds the alarm because he loves the Galatians. We see that one of the reasons we need to speak up is because he loves the Galatians and he wants them to experience the gospel in all its dimensions.
To go back to Shadow: it’s sometimes hard to see much love in a bark. A bark can be annoying. That’s why they sell bark collars. People get tired of hearing dogs bark. When we first moved into our current house, the dog next door would sometimes bark well into the night. We repeated a phrase when we heard the dog bark a lot: Shoot the dog. We never did, but we seriously thought about it. Barking isn’t always welcome, and it’s hard to see much love in a bark. It’s the same with Paul. Paul has raised the alarm, and it may have been hard at first to see Paul’s heart. But in this passage he opens his heart, and we see nothing but love. Love is the reason that Paul is so concerned about the Galatians losing the gospel.
You see Paul’s love for the Galatians in three ways in this passage. You actually get a beautiful picture of what ministry is like from this passage. It applies whether you’re a pastor or a youth leader or a Sunday school teacher.
Ministry involves entering people’s worlds. “Brothers, I entreat you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are” (Galatians 4:12). Paul was a Jew, a Pharisee. He was very committed to the law. But the Galatians were Gentiles. To reach them, Paul became as they were, free from the Mosaic law. Paul, even though he was Jewish, became like a Gentile, and now he’s amazed that they as Gentiles are trying to live like Jews. But here you see the lengths to which Paul was prepared to go to reach them. He entered their world and lived in it. You can’t minister from a distance. You need to get close enough and enter into their lives.
Ministry involves reciprocity. You see in verses 13 to 15 that the relationship became a mutual one. The Galatians received Paul and cared for him. They were prepared to sacrifice for him. They loved him. They welcomed him with joy, and his presence gave them a blessing. You see that. Ministry is highly relational. Not only did Paul serve the Galatians, but the Galatians also served him.
Ministry involves anguish. You see this in verses 16 to 20. The false teachers wanted to benefit from the Galatians so that they could receive flattery in return. When you need someone to need you, then you can’t give them what they really need. In contrast, Paul was willing to give the Galatians what they need even if caused him anguish — and it did. In verse 19, he compares what he’s feeling with the anguish of childbirth. Paul, a man, compares himself to a mother who’s giving birth to them for the second time. I’m certain that most mothers here would say that one birth per child is about all that you can take. As wonderful as your children are, you don’t want to give birth to any one of them more than once. But Paul’s saying that it’s almost like going back to the beginning, going through all that pain again. He finds himself in anguish and perplexed because of what is going on.
I like what somebody said about writing. Writing is simple; you just open a vein and bleed. The same is true about parenting. It’s incredibly simple. You just have a child and then devote the next 40 or so years of your life sacrificing everything for them. Simple. Paul would say the same thing about ministry. All that it takes is entering their world, loving and being loved, and being in anguish for their sakes.
Paul is concerned because of what’s at stake, but he’s also concerned because he loves them. Paul wants the best for them. I’m glad that he included this part of the letter because it gives us a window into his heart.
I’m glad this passage came up, because it really gets to the heart of why I wanted us to look at Galatians this Fall. This passage really gets at the heart of why we’re spending so much time going through this book.
First, there’s so much at stake. I hope you see the importance of the gospel. I hope you understand that there are two ways to be lost. One is to reject the Christ and the gospel. The other is to appear to accept it, but then to add to Christ. Both are demonic. Both lead to enslavement. The devil is delighted with both. I hope you are seeing that the gospel is different from either option. Whenever you add anything to Jesus, you subtract from him. I hope you are getting the importance of the gospel, which is that Jesus has done everything necessary for us to be right with God. He is the only basis of our acceptance with God.
Second, I hope you know how much I love you. That’s my concern. I’ve been here 13 years. What Paul says, I think I can say. We have a history. I’ve sacrificed for you; you’ve sacrificed for me. I’ve been in anguish many times over you. That’s why I care.
If you want to know why I’m barking mad about the gospel, those are the two reasons why. I’m sounding the gospel alarm because of what’s at stake, and because of love.