It’s not always safe to admit it in a place like this, but some of us have occasionally wondered if this Christianity thing is all true or whether it’s just a human invention. I thought about this as I read the story of Frederica Mathewes-Greene. She had a very strong faith at an early age. She wanted to go into the ministry when she grew older. But when she turned 12 or 13, she had a crisis of faith.
When I was 12 or 13, I began to doubt the entire Christian story. I felt almost as if I'd had somebody try to cheat me. They had fed me this long, complex story about virgin birth, born in a manger, died on a cross, came back to life. It just sounded preposterous to me. I thought that it was something that no normal, sane person could be expected to believe, and I'd been made a fool.
She began to consider atheism, agnosticism, and various other religions. She was really sure that she wanted to reject Christianity, but she really didn’t know what to believe. She eventually chose Hinduism because it seemed to be the most intriguing and colorful of all the different world religions.
I can relate to this because I too had a strong faith as a child. But I remember reaching a point where I began to ask, “Is this for real? Do I just believe this because it’s my mother’s religion?” You discover that there are lots of people who are willing to help you doubt Christianity. As comedian Ricky Gervais put it:
I used to believe in God. The Christian one that is. I loved Jesus. He was my hero.
[But later on] I was sitting at the kitchen table when my brother came home...I was happily drawing my hero [Jesus] when my big brother Bob asked, "Why do you believe in God?" Just a simple question. But my mum panicked. "Bob," she said in a tone that I knew meant, "Shut up." Why was that a bad thing to ask? If there was a God and my faith was strong, it didn't matter what people said.
Oh ... hang on. There is no God. [My brother] knows it, and [my mom] knows it deep down. It was as simple as that. I started thinking about it and asking more questions, and within an hour, I was an atheist.
Is this whole thing a human invention? That’s the question we have to wrestle with, because if it is we’re wasting our time. If it isn’t, then everything changes.
In fact, that is the very question that this morning’s passage deals with. The question of the passage this morning is quite simple: Where did Christianity come from? Is it a human invention?
Let me tell you a little bit about what’s behind this passage. The apostle Paul is writing to churches that he’s planted. He had visited their area - south-central Turkey - and had told them about Jesus Christ. In particular, he had told them about Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, who had died in the place of sinners so that all could become part of God’s people. This was a radical message. You didn’t have to be one of Abraham’s descendants to be included; Jesus opened the way for everyone.
But Paul is no longer on the scene. And some other teachers had come in, and they were saying something like this: “We’re well connected with the church, and we need to tell you that Paul did not give you the whole story. He’s given you the gospel on the cheap. Gentiles can become part of God’s people through faith in Christ, but you still have to obey the law of Moses.”
All of a sudden you have two competing versions of the gospel. The problem with two competing versions of the gospel is that you’re now in the realm of human opinion. We’re then left with something that’s very subjective. “Is Paul right? I don’t know, what do you think?” If Christianity is something subjective, then pretty soon we’re left wondering whose version of Christianity is really right.
Look, here’s the deal. You’re in a Fellowship Baptist church this morning. There’s a whole other Baptist denomination in our city that’s different from us. That’s not to mention all the other Baptists. And Baptists are only part of the picture. You have independent churches, and all kinds of other denominations as well: Anglicans, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, AGC, Alliance. And those are only the Protestant denominations. You also have the Roman Catholic church and the Orthodox church. And those are only the Christians. You also have other religions: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism. And you also have atheism and agnosticism, not to mention the custom-made, do-it-yourself belief systems. Who’s to say we’re right?
Don’t feel guilty asking these questions! These are the very questions that you should be asking. The good news is that Paul is going to help us sort this out. He’s going to tell us three things about the Christianity this morning. First, it’s not a matter of human opinion. Second, it didn’t originate from any human source. Finally, he’ll help us understand why there are so many churches despite the fact that there is only one gospel.
Here’s the first thing we need to know:
One: The gospel is not a matter of human opinion.
This is so important. If we don’t understand what Paul says here, we won’t have any confidence in the gospel, because who’s to say which gospel is right? Who knows whether Paul is right, or his opponents? Who’s to say that the gospel we preach is right? Paul helps us get past this problem, because the first thing he tells us here is that the gospel is not a matter of human opinion. It’s not a debate between different scholars and denominations.
Look at verse 10 with me:
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.
There’s a very important lesson in this verse. When it comes to the gospel, how much does human approval matter? Paul tells us here: it counts for nothing. Remember: Paul is countering the charge that he is preaching a gospel that’s catered to a particular audience. Paul defends himself by saying that you can’t cater the gospel to a particular audience without losing it altogether. You face a choice: please God by sticking with the gospel, or displease God by tweaking the gospel? You can’t do both. Paul is saying that human opinion doesn’t even factor into the gospel he’s preaching, because his concern is fidelity to what God has revealed. Human opinion about whether or not people like the gospel doesn’t even enter into it.
Read what Paul says in verse 11:
For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man's gospel.
Paul says that the gospel is not a matter of human opinion. The gospel did not come from anyone’s opinion, including his own. You could translate last part of verse 11, “The gospel I preached is not of human origin.” Literally, it’s not from flesh and blood. Jesus once said to Peter, his disciple, “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17).
Paul is saying that the gospel is not a matter of human opinion, because it doesn’t come from any human. What’s more, human opinion doesn’t even factor into it, because you can’t please God if you’re concerned about tweaking the gospel to please others. C.S. Lewis said it well: “Christianity must be from God, for who else could have thought it up!”
Here’s what it means: we don’t get a vote on what the gospel is, because the gospel doesn’t originate from any human being. The gospel is not something that changes according to the poll numbers. The gospel is not a matter of human opinion.
Two: The gospel comes from God himself, not from any human source.
We’ve seen Paul hint at this already. If Paul says that he didn’t get the gospel from any human source, where in the world did he get it from? If it didn’t come from church councils or secret meetings of key leaders in the church, how does Paul even know what the gospel is? Look at verse 12:
For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
This is shocking. Paul was not somebody who was going along trying to figure out what the gospel is. On the contrary, verses 13 and 14 detail his life before he encountered Jesus Christ. He was determined to wipe out the church. He hated the gospel and he wanted to eradicate the church. He was a young and rising star in Judaism and had absolutely no interest in the gospel at all.
But something happened, according to verses 15 and 16. It’s not something that happened as a result of some fluke or coincidence, according to Paul. It happened because God intended for it to happen before Paul was born. It wasn’t a matter of Paul’s doing; it is completely because God took the initiative. By the way, that’s exactly how God works in our lives too. If you’ve responded to the gospel and put your faith in Christ, it’s not the result of some fluke or coincidence. God set you apart from before you were even born, and he took the initiative.
But then Paul tells us where he got his understanding of the gospel. Read verses 12 and 15 16 together:
For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ...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...
Acts 9 tells the story. Paul was on his way to Damascus when Jesus Christ appeared to him. It wasn’t a vision; Jesus himself appeared. Paul saw the risen Jesus Christ on the Damascus road, and “the gospel in all its glory and beauty was disclosed to him” (Thomas Schreiner). Paul didn’t get the gospel second-hand or third-hand; he got the gospel right from Jesus Christ himself.
I was sitting with some friends a while ago discussing a fairly famous incident that had taken place among some prominent people years ago. I began to wonder out loud what some of the famous people involved in the incident would say now. I had some guesses because I’ve read books about the incident. One of my friends said, “It’s interesting you should ask that. I asked that person the very same question when he was at my house a few months ago, and here’s what he said.” It really ended the conversation. We could guess what someone said; my friend could tell you because he had heard directly from that person.
We can sit around and wonder, “What do you think the gospel really is?” Paul could say, “Well, when Jesus stopped me in my tracks and changed the direction of my life and ministry, this is how he explained it to me.” It really does kill the debate. Paul’s opponents were questioning whether or not Paul had the gospel right; Paul could say that he got it directly from Jesus himself. The gospel really isn’t a matter of what we think. Why? Because Paul got the gospel directly from God, directly from Jesus Christ himself, not from any human source. Not only that, but God appointed Paul to preach this gospel, so that Paul is acting as a messenger on behalf of the originator of the gospel, so that when we hear the gospel from Paul, we’re hearing it from someone appointed by God to proclaim that very message. We can have confidence that what Paul says about the gospel is a message from God himself.
Think of the confidence that this gives us. We come not to hear what I think about the gospel. Paul’s got it right. Who cares about what I think the gospel is about? We come to open the Word of God together, to read the words of someone who got the message directly from Jesus Christ himself. That is why we’re here. It’s not a subjective judgment of what you or I think; it’s about “our common salvation...the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). It’s a gospel that comes directly from God himself.
You may be thinking, “Well, that’s great, but how do you account for all the different denominations that are out there? If there’s one gospel, then why are there so many different churches?” Great question, and one that leads us to the last thing that Paul tells us in this passage.
Three: The church doesn’t create the gospel; it’s created by the gospel.
I need to unpack this a little as we come to the end of this passage. What Paul says is that the church doesn’t create the gospel; it’s created by the gospel.
Remember that Paul’s opponents were saying that Paul got the gospel wrong. Part of their argument seems to have been that they were well-connected to the Jerusalem church and so they had the official version, like the authorized version of the gospel. Paul actually makes a strange counterargument in this section. You’d think he’d argue that his version of the gospel is especially sanctioned by the most important people in Jerusalem, by the apostles who knew Jesus Christ personally. Instead he makes a completely different argument. He says that he’s only had limited contact with the apostles and those in Judea. It’s not like his gospel contradicts theirs; they know him and they’ve compared notes. It’s just that Paul didn’t get the gospel from them. He got the gospel directly from Jesus, and it lines up with their gospel very well.
So in verses 18 to 20 he says that he’s relatively unknown to the apostles. He’s spent very little time with them. And in verses 21 to 24 he says that he’s relatively unknown by the church in Judea. They know only of him by report. In other words, Paul’s credentials don’t come because he’s been approved by some official body. His credentials come from God himself. The church didn’t create the message that Paul is preaching; in fact, the church doesn’t create the gospel; the gospel creates the church. The church is the product of the gospel, not the originator of the gospel.
That means that some in the church will get it wrong, like Paul’s opponents. That’s why there are so many denominations. It’s not because the gospel is in confusion and the church can’t agree. We’re going to see in the next chapter that some of the pillars of the church themselves can get confused about the gospel. Over the past two thousand years the church has had lots of opportunities to get confused about the gospel. But there is this thing called the gospel. It’s the plumb-line that the church can use to bring us back into alignment with the gospel. That’s why we keep coming back to the Word. I guarantee that we as a church will get all wonky and drift from time to time. That’s what my car does too, by the way. Do you know what I do with my car? I take it in for a wheel alignment. Do you know what we have to do as a church? We need to continue to bring ourselves into alignment with the gospel. That’s our job: to bring our lives and ministries back into alignment with the gospel that never changes.
Two implications for us this morning.
First: It gives me a lot of confidence to know that the reason we’re here isn’t because of some cleverly invented stories created by the church years ago. I remember wondering years ago if I could believe the gospel, or whether it was some fairy tale I needed to reject. It’s very unsettling to wrestle wit this question. I’m sure many of you have wrestled with it as well. It does me good to consider what Paul says in this passage. The gospel, the news that Jesus Christ died for sinners so that we could be saved, is not a human invention. Nobody could make this up. I love the hymn: “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!” Cling to this message. It’s a message from God. Realize the duty we have to guard the good deposit of the gospel that’s been entrusted to us.
Second: This morning I urge you to respond to this message. You may have been wondering if this is something for you. I hope that you will wrestle with what we’ve talked about and see that the message of Jesus Christ is not an invention. It’s good news that comes directly from God, and that demands a response from us.
I began this sermon talking about Frederica Mathewes-Greene, who wanted to go into the ministry but who one day decided that the whole thing is preposterous at the age of 12 or 13, and who eventually chose Hinduism. Let me give you the rest of the story:
[What ultimately led me out of Hinduism] was a strange experience. I was with my husband on our honeymoon, hitchhiking around Europe. He was an atheist who had been assigned in one of his classes to read a gospel. And he kept saying, "There's something about Jesus. I've never encountered anyone like this before. I know that he's speaking the truth. I'm an atheist. But if Jesus says there's a God, there must be a God."
It was a very scary experience for me, because I didn't want him to be a Christian. He was not ready to make a full commitment to Christ at that point, but he was curious and wanted to study more...
She began to feel her heart drawn toward Christ. She began reading the Bible. Gradually she came closer to the point of placing her faith in the gospel she had chosen to reject so many years earlier.
Gradually we were able to come into faith. It was several months later that a friend of ours said, "Well, have you ever given your hearts to Jesus? Have you ever asked Jesus to be your Lord?" You have to picture that both of us grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, him Episcopalian, me Catholic, and our response was, "We're not Southern Baptists." Our association with that kind of talk is that you have to be Southern Baptist for Jesus to be your Lord.
He said, "Actually, it's for everybody."
We said, "Well, you know, we're in graduate school."
"No, even for you."
So the three of us knelt down together and prayed and asked Jesus to be our Lord, having no idea what that would mean but wanting so much to find out.
I’d love nothing more than for you to do the same thing: to come to faith in Jesus Christ who died for you. Let’s pray.