A few years ago I was sitting in a cabin at a camp on one of the bunks. I was playing with my wedding ring, which is something you do when you’re fidgety. Suddenly the ring went flying off of my finger and across the cabin. I was on the top bunk and couldn’t see exactly where it landed. Remember, it’s a cabin. There are holes in the floorboards and little cracks where the sheets of plywood meet. I jumped down and began a frantic search for that ring. I’m happy to say that I found it, and it’s on my ring finger this morning.
What’s the worst thing that you’ve ever lost? A ring? A passport? Your wallet or purse? Do you remember the feeling of panic as you realize that something valuable has gone missing? Sometimes what you lose is replaceable. Other times it’s not − a family heirloom, like your grandmother’s wedding ring passed down to you. There are some things that you just don’t want to lose.
This morning I’d like to talk about not just the things that are hard to lose, but some of the things that are fatal to lose. This morning, right now, you’re breathing at a rate of somewhere around 12 to 18 breaths a minute. If you lose your ability to breathe, you have only minutes left. Right now, your heart is beating every second. Some of you are really fit so your heart is taking the odd second off. Some of you are sitting beside somebody you really like, so your heart is beating a bit faster. But if you lose your heartbeat, you only have seconds to live.
You see, there are some things that you hate to lose, like a wedding ring. And there are some things that are fatal to lose, like your breath or heartbeat. But this morning we’re going to see that there are some things that are fatal to lose, and one of them, according to the passage we’re about to read, is the Gospel.
But let’s back up a second. Let me introduce the book that we’re about to look at together. This morning we’re beginning to look at Galatians, a book written to a group of churches planted by the apostle Paul on his first missionary journey. They’re in what we would call today south central Turkey. Paul had come to this area a few years earlier, an area full of the worship of local gods and goddesses with a smattering of monotheistic Jews. This quirky guy, the apostle Paul, came to town, and began to teach that there is one God, and that this one God had unveiled his plan for the world through a Jewish man named Jesus. He was executed by the Romans, but Paul argued that God had raised Jesus from the dead. And now God is building a new family with no divisions between different racial groups. Paul has taught this, and people have believed. And by the time Paul moves on, churches have started all over the area filled with people who have accepted the good news of this Jesus Christ.
But now a few years have passed. Others have come in who claim to know a little more about Jesus. They have said something like this: Paul is a good man, but he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. Paul, they say, has some funny ideas. He’s muddled. We’ve talked to the real authorities, and here’s the real scoop. You need a little bit more if you’re going to be a good Christian. Yes, you need to believe the gospel, but there’s more. It’s Jesus plus something else.
Paul gets wind of this, and that’s where we find ourselves as we start this letter. I want you to notice two things before I tell you why this is important to us this morning.
First: Paul is ticked. Have you ever received an angry letter in the mail? You have to use oven mitts or tongs to hold the letter? This is one of those letters. Now, don’t misunderstand. Paul hasn’t blown his lid. This isn’t a letter that he’s going to regret having written later. No, this is a reasoned and well-thought out letter. But make no mistake: Paul is ticked here. Letters like this usually begin with a prayer of thanksgiving for the recipients. Paul skips that and gets right down to business, and he doesn’t mince any words. He’s very honest about the problems with a Jesus plus something else approach.
Second: Paul goes to great lengths in verses 1 and 2 to establish is authority. Here’s why this is important. I’m a pastor, and I sometimes get love letters from people. Actually, some of them aren’t full of a lot of love. One of the first things I do is to look at who wrote the letter. If it’s anonymous, I honestly don’t pay too much attention to it. I still read it, but it doesn’t come with a lot of authority. But if it’s written by the chair of our elders, I pay a lot more attention. Paul writes, and he’s not just any schmo. He is “an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father.” He is an apostle hand-selected by God and by Christ. He is writing with divine authority here. What’s more, he writes with “all the brothers who are with me.” Paul isn’t some lone ranger who’s off by himself. Paul’s coworkers are united with him and what he teaches. He has credibility among the leaders of the church. Paul is someone that they need to pay attention to.
Here’s why this is important. We need to receive this letter as one that comes with divine authority. This is not somebody’s opinion; this is the apostolic message handed down to us, and we had better pay attention. Here’s another reason why we need to pay attention to this message: because we face the same danger that the Galatians faced, which is a lack of clarity on the gospel. And if we lose the gospel, it’s not like losing a ring or a passport. It’s a fatal loss. If we lose the gospel, we lose everything.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “What is this gospel that you’re talking about? If it’s so important, then define it.” And, “Come on, get real. How can you say we’re in danger of losing the gospel?” Both are good questions, and both are actually the questions that Paul answers in this passage.
Here’s what he does in this passage. He says two things: the gospel has content, and don’t lose it by adding to it. By looking at what Paul says I’m hoping we’ll grasp the gospel, and then we’ll grasp the very real danger we face of losing the gospel by adding to it.
So let’s look at the first thing that Paul says:
First: the gospel has content.
Read verses 1 to 5 with me:
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.
Haddon Robinson, a renowned Christian leader and professor of preaching, says something very sobering:
We don't preach the gospel! As I listen to some preachers, if I were an outsider, I honestly wouldn't know what I was to respond to…We want to reach people, but the clear terms of the gospel are seldom enunciated. It's probably an exaggeration, but I don't think in my lifetime I've heard twenty messages that I would say were clear gospel messages. If you didn't know any jargon, didn't have any religious background—if you came to church and wanted to know how to have a relationship with a holy God—the sermon would not tell you.
Think about that. That scares me as a preacher. It’s very easy to be unclear about the gospel, and to do a bad job of communicating it. So Paul’s going to do us a very big favor in this passage. He’s going to define it for us. He’s going to give us a gospel nutshell. What do I mean? Martyn Lloyd Jones, a great preacher from the last century, observed that there are “thirty or forty gospel nutshells” in the Bible, and this is one of them. Verses 3 to 5 give us a snapshot of the gospel, or the gospel in a nutshell:
Here it is. Three parts to what Paul says:
What Jesus did - He “gave himself for our sins” in verse 4. The word “for” here means “on behalf of” or “in place of.” The heart of the gospel is right here: what Jesus Christ did at the cross. He gave his life in our place. He was our substitute. At the cross, Jesus suffered and died in the place of sinners so that they could be forgiven of their sins. This is the heart of the gospel. The gospel takes us right to the cross.
What the Father did - Verses 1 says that God the Father “raised him from the dead.” Verse 3 says that we have “grace” and “peace” from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The gospel is also the good news that God the Father accepted what Jesus accomplished for us at the cross. When God the Father raised Jesus from the dead, it was evidence that he accepted Jesus work and that a new age has dawned. As a result, we have grace (God’s unmerited favor) and peace (God’s blessing of well-being) in our lives.
Finally, why he did it - Verses 4 and 5 say, “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.” God’s intention was to rescue us, to deliver his people from this present age in which there is evil and opposition to God. And he did all of this ultimately for his glory. “God’s glory and honor and praise are displayed supremely in Christ and the cross…Indeed, God will be praised forever because of his saving work in Christ” (Thomas R. Schreiner).
I hope this is clear. I’ve heard interviews with pastors in which they’ve been asked to define the gospel. Many of them fumbled around and really didn’t have a clear answer. Some of them actually had a wrong answer, like the golden rule (to love others as yourself) or the Great Commandment (to love God and your neighbor as yourself). That’s not the gospel; that’s law. It’s good; it’s just not the gospel.
The gospel is the news that Jesus gave himself for our sins; God has accepted his work so that we could be saved, and that we have grace and peace to his glory. The gospel is the good news of what Jesus Christ did for us at the cross. The worst person can be completely forgiven and made right with God through the substitutionary death of Christ at the cross; we must respond by trusting in what Christ has done for us. The gospel has content, and this content takes us right to the cross.
But then Paul tells us something that we need to know:
Don’t ever add to the gospel, because if you do you’ll lose it completely.
Don’t ever add to the gospel, because the gospel plus is no gospel at all. You can add to your house and you won’t lose it. You may actually improve it. You can add to your education, and you’ll just have more education and more degrees. But don’t ever add to the gospel, Paul says, because if you do, you’ll lose it completely, and losing the gospel is fatal to churches and to individuals.
Read verses 6 to 9:
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.
What’s the problem? There were some people in this church saying that Paul’s gospel was incomplete. It was good as far as it goes, but you have to add something to it. In their case, they were adding obedience to the Mosaic Law and covenant. They wanted people to become Jewish and to obey Jewish laws like circumcision. But Paul says they’re not simply adding to the gospel; they’re deserting it. Look at the words Paul uses: deserting, distorting. He says that they’re turning to not just a slightly wrong version of the gospel but to a different gospel, one that’s contrary to the correct one, one that is no gospel at all. Paul goes so far to say that if anyone - even an apostle, even an angel - comes preaching a different gospel, let them be accursed. What’s shocking is that accursed is the harshest possible term you could ever imagine. It mean to be finally condemned and destroyed. If anyone preaches a different gospel, Paul says, let them be irrevocably punished by God and completely wiped out.
What Paul is saying here is very important for us to hear. He’s given us the gospel very clearly. Now he says that if we ever add to that gospel, then we completely lose it. Any gospel that makes anything else other than the what Jesus did at the cross the basis of our relationship with God is deadly. If anyone tells you it’s the gospel plus your behavior or the gospel plus doing something else, then they’re telling you a false gospel. We’ve got to be clear on the gospel, or else we’ll lose it completely.
Two applications for us this morning.
Do you know how easy it is to drift? I’ve told you before about swimming in the ocean when there are strong currents. I look and see our beach umbrella and think, “Okay, I’m good here.” I look up a few minutes later and I’ve drifted hundreds of feet down the beach. I’ve drifted with the current. The same thing can happen so easily in our churches and in our lives. Thomas Schreiner writes:
The clarity and the truth of the gospel could easily be lost. So many other things may clutter our minds, hearts, and lives that we may forget about the gospel, thinking all the while that we have not strayed from it. In our churches we may begin to concentrate on what it means to be good parents, to have a good marriage, to form meaningful relationships, and to make an impact on the world (all good things of course!), so that we slowly and inadvertently drift from the gospel of free grace.
It’s so easy. The gospel is accepted —> The gospel is assumed —> The gospel is confused —> The gospel is lost. I hope you realize this morning how easy it is to drift from the gospel. Remember the beach umbrella? I knew I’d drifted when it was no longer in front of me. I’m suggesting that we use the cross of Christ as our marker. Any time that it’s not right in front of us, any time it’s not front and center, let’s just assume that we’ve drifted and that we’d better get back urgently, because to drift from the gospel is to lose it altogether.
Second, I want to ask you if you are clear on the gospel yourself. Do you understand that the heart of the good news is not that you must be a good person, or that you must try harder, or that your good deeds must outweigh your bad deeds? Do you understand that coming to church and being a good person or even being a Sunday school teacher or deacon or pastor does not make you a Christian? The gospel is the good news that Jesus has taken our place, that he has given himself for us, so that we could be delivered and have grace and peace to the glory of God. This morning you can look to the cross for the first time and put your trust in the one you took your place. That is the gospel. That is our hope.
The gospel has content, and that content is the cross. Don’t lose it by adding to it.