Most of the new Christians in the early church were Jews, and Jews had been raised to believe that obedience to the law was how you got close to God and obtained favor from him. After these Jews (called Judaizers) came to faith in Christ, they still kept some of this old law mentality, because—as we all know—old habits die hard.
So, they taught that in addition to faith in Christ, real believers needed to make themselves acceptable to God by forcing themselves to obey the law. By keeping the commandments, they believed, you could transform yourself into the kind of person God wanted you to be. Chief among their concerns was the Old Testament command to be circumcised, which, for 1,500 years, had been the primary distinguishing mark of the Jews.
The Apostle Paul calls what the Judaizers were teaching a different gospel (Galatians 1:6), a perverted gospel (v. 7), and a contrary gospel (v. 8).
The real gospel is that in Christ, God did for us what we were utterly incapable of doing for ourselves, and all we can do is receive it by faith. Our problem was worse than law-breaking. We were condemned and dead. In response to our condemnation, Jesus lived the perfect life we were supposed to live and then died the death we were condemned to die in our place. In response to our death, Jesus infused new life into us through his resurrection.
This is the true gospel. It teaches us that God saves us and blesses us as a free gift of unmerited grace, and in response to that, we do good works.
The perverted gospel reverses that, saying that we do some good works and then God saves and blesses us in response to that.
Now, most of us today are not hung up on circumcision or aspects of the Jewish law, but many Christians today believe the same, false, perverted gospel.
1. We believe a false gospel whenever we make something else besides faith in Christ necessary for salvation.
For example, some people believe that to become a Christian, you have to accept Christ as your Savior and take communion … accept Christ and belong to the church … and go to confession … and be baptized.
There is no “and” in the gospel. There is faith in what Christ has done plus nothing else that saves.
When we assume that God’s acceptance of us is based on how we’ve been living—or any other “and”—we reveal that we don’t really understand the gospel. The gospel teaches that God’s acceptance of us is not based on anything except what Jesus Christ did in our place. It means that we don’t measure our closeness to God by how well we live but in what Christ accomplished for us. Christ’s righteousness in enough!
There is no “and” in the gospel. There is faith in what Christ has done plus *nothing else* that saves.
2. We believe a false gospel whenever we assume that it doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you are a sincere, loving, and good person.
Some progressive Christians do this in the name of inclusivity, but really it is just another way of saying that what you do determines whether or not God accepts you. There’s still a standard you have to reach, even if it’s a loose one.
You’ve still got to be a good person, because no one, however tolerant, assumes that everyone makes it to heaven. We assume murderers, child molesters, rapists, racists, bigots, and Hitler won’t make it.
The gospel is not that God saves all good people. The gospel is the scandalous news that God saves sinners. There are no good people. There are bad people who reject Jesus and bad people who accept his rescue by faith.
3. We believe a false gospel whenever we try to grow ourselves spiritually through self-effort.
This is where you know you were saved by grace, but you believe becoming Christ-like is now all your doing. Justification was in God’s court, and he handed sanctification off to you.
Later in his letter to the Galatians, Paul says that any growth in the Christian life is the fruit of the Spirit in you. The power of the Spirit is released by faith in Christ, not by resolution or self-discipline. Sanctification is God’s work just as much as justification.
I think of it like this: When my wife wants me to take care of the weeds around her rosebushes but instead I napalm the area with Roundup and end up killing the rosebushes, I can’t fix my mistake by tying some store-bought roses to the dead rosebushes (though it crossed my mind). That might look good from a distance, but it doesn’t fix the problem.
This is the way many of us try to grow spiritually, and it’s exhausting! We don’t need more discipline. We don’t need to staple roses onto the dead rose bush of our heart. We need spiritual life. We need new hearts. And that only comes from faith in Christ’s finished work.
4. We believe a false gospel whenever we think we can produce spiritual change in other people.
A lot of times, when I am thinking about succeeding in preaching, I lean on the strength of my preparation and my ability to persuade. Or when I think about why my kids will turn out right, I assume it is because I master all the right parenting techniques.
Paul would say that’s foolish. Only the Spirit can produce eternal life in our church members and my kids, and the Spirit is not released into them because of my personality or abilities. It is released through faith in the gospel.
Often, we commit the error of the Galatians not by believing bad things but by taking a good thing and making it the central, life-giving thing.
Some of the churches I went to growing up emphasized conformity to a set of rules as the mark of a real Christian: Real Christians do this; they don’t do that. They don’t go to movies. They don’t drink, they don’t chew, and they don’t go with girls who do.
There is nothing inherently wrong with rules. The problem is when we think more about what we need to do to make ourselves more acceptable to God rather than trusting in what God has done for us and promised to do in us. Rules serve our relationship with God; the moment we reserve that order, trouble begins.
Some churches emphasize learning correct doctrine and measure how close you are to God by how much theology you know. But education does not equal transformation. Transformation comes from simple, childlike faith in the gospel, not from a mind stuffed full of knowledge.
Some churches focus on practical tips for living. Relevance and practicality are good, but the problem in these churches is you leave thinking about a “how to” list of what you are supposed to do rather than focusing on the finished work of Christ as the power to change.
Don’t ever mix up the implications of the gospel with the gospel itself. The gospel is not about what you are to do but about what Jesus has done. And, beautifully, the more we steep ourselves in what he has done, the more we’ll find the power to change.