On Perverting the Gospel


Read the rest of the series on the Book of Galatians. This article covers Galatians 1:1-9.

It’s frustrating to be misrepresented, especially if the stakes are high. There’s an urge to set the record straight, to protect folks who are being confused by the lies. It’s even more frustrating if text messages, phone calls, or video calls aren’t an option. That’s what’s happening with Paul, and this frustration produces perhaps the most sharply worded letter in the New Testament.

Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—and all the brothers and sisters with me, to the churches in Galatia (Galatians 1:1-2).

Paul’s opponents are his rhetorical foes throughout the letter. We catch a glimpse of their tactics in the opening line. Paul stresses that he was sent by Jesus and God the Father. His authority as an apostle isn’t self-appointed or directed by others (“sent not from men nor by a man”). More than that, Paul reminds the readers that this is the same God who raised Jesus from the dead—this is the God who appointed Paul and sent him out with the Gospel message. This means his opponents are suggesting the opposite. Paul isn’t really an apostle. He isn’t really sent by God. We don’t know how they framed their slander, but we can imagine how it probably went.

“Paul is a good guy, of course. He loves the Lord.” Now would come a sad shake of the head. “But … Paul sometimes gets carried away. We all get carried away, sometimes. Nobody’s perfect! And, he’s said some things that need clarification …”

It’s this issue—the misrepresentation of Paul and the Gospel—that prompts Paul to write this letter and send it along to the churches in Galatia. This last bit is important, because it isn’t a letter to a single church. It’s addressed “to the churches in Galatia.” It was evidently meant to be passed along from one community to the other. Paul didn’t have the option to “cc” his letter, so this was the next best thing. This area is roughly equivalent to modern-day Turkey.

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Figure 1. Thomas Brisco, Holman Bible Atlas (Nashville: B&H, 1998), p. 244.

These next few lines are the last kind words Paul will write for some time.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen (Galatians 1:3-5).

This is a marvelous summary of the Good News. Grace and peace is the gift that both God the Father and God the Son are offering to us. Grace because the gift of righteousness from God isn’t earned, deserved, or merited. Peace because the reconciliation, forgiveness, and adoption into God’s family (all due to grace) brings “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” (Rom 5:1).

This gift is available because Jesus gave himself for our sins—it was knowing, willing, and voluntary. It was substitutionary. He did it to rescue us from this evil age—which means sin is a topic which the Gospel specifically targets. If we need to be rescued, it means we’re in trouble and we can’t get ourselves out of it. We need to phone a friend. We need a savior. We need help from without. This help isn’t something we earn, but a plan devised “according to the will of our God and Father.”

Now comes Paul’s complaint. Pay particular attention to the exasperation, the frustration, the “I cant believe this!” attitude which leaps from the page.

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all (Galatians 1:6-7).

The Christians in the Galatian churches are being fooled. Tricked. They’ve deserted God and have embraced a different kind of Good News. In fact, it’s so different that it’s not Good News at all. Jesus came to offer a specific message. That message has content, shape, form. There’s a point at which it changes so much that it becomes something completely different.

Whatever is at issue in Galatia at the hands of Paul’s opponents—that’s what has happened. Jesus’ message has been perverted. Switched. Changed. Perhaps worse—and this is what irritates Paul so much—the new believers in Galatia are falling for it! How can this be?

Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse! (Galatians 1:7-9).

Whoever these people are, Paul says they’re doing this all on purpose. He doesn’t elaborate on this point until the end of the letter (Gal 6:11-12), but he’s certain it’s deliberate. Their aim is to “pervert the gospel of Christ.” How serious is this? What does Paul think about people who would do such a thing? He wishes for them to be cursed by God. The New English Translation perhaps goes too far when it translates this as “let him be condemned to hell.” Paul is almost penning a wish, a plea—this person needs to be cursed.

Intent matters, and it’s difficult to imagine God moving Paul to write such a harsh thing if the conduct weren’t deliberate. This underscores how serious the issue is. Whatever the details of the misrepresentation are, whatever the motives of Paul’s opponents might be—the issue is as serious as it gets. And it all begins by criticizing Paul, who brought them the Gospel in the first place.