Shortly after I was accepted into seminary back in 1976, a letter came in the mail for me from a dear friend whom I respected a great deal. He was congratulating me on being accepted into training for the ministry. He told me how excited he was that I was sensing a calling into the Lord’s service, and he encouraged me by saying he thought I had what it takes to be a good pastor. Then he gave me some great advice in the closing of that letter. He said my faith would be challenged a great deal as I attended classes, and I would hear things that could possibly shake my foundational faith, but I should hold on to that simple gospel I had been raised in all the way through my early years. He said, “Hang onto the evangelical gospel your parents taught you and you’ve heard from me.”
I kept that letter all the way through my seminary experience, and I would frequently pull it out and read it for encouragement to keep my head on straight as I went through my great seminary training.
By the way, the friend who wrote that letter was my predecessor, Pastor Homer Larsen. It was an important letter in my life that helped me stay on track.
We have a letter before us today that was also very important and continues to be very important. It was written from a pastor out of love and concern for some younger Christians in congregations in what we now know as modern-day Turkey. They are referred to as the Galatians. This letter was written about 50 A.D. The pastor who wrote it was Paul, who had started the churches. He heard of some issues that had come up Ð some strange things being talked about and being believed Ð and it caused Paul great alarm. His intention in this letter is to help them get back on track.
He begins by saying, Paul, an apostle . . . sent by Jesus. It was his way of reestablishing his credentials in the minds of these people who were wondering, I suppose, if Paul really had the answers they needed in regard to God, and salvation, and so on.
Paul says, I am an apostle with a capital A. In other words, Jesus, who Paul met face-to-face sent him. Jesus gave Paul this revelation that he shared with the Galatians. And he adds, “To the churches of Galatia.” He was writing to a number of congregations.
The feel of the letter is a little different from the rest of Paul’s letters in the New Testament. It is tinged with a bit of frustration and disappointment as he cuts right through the formalities. In most letters, for instance, after the salutation he expresses his thanks to God for them. Not in this letter. Paul gets right at the heart of the message. He says, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.” Paul’s ire is up. It appears they have turned away from the gospel message Paul gave them. They were drifting away from the truth. And so we hear disappointment in these words of Paul. It’s kind of like a parent saying, I can’t believe you are doing this after the way I’ve brought you up.
We see what’s going on, Paul goes on to explain. Some are confusing you and perverting the gospel of Christ. Who are they? A group of Jewish Christians, perhaps from Jerusalem, who would follow Paul into the communities where he started the churches, wait until he leaves, and then move in and teach something different from what Paul taught. For example, Paul taught that a person is saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. But when he left, the Jewish Christians said, Wait a minute! Paul didn’t give you the whole story. (He’s a Johnny-come-lately anyway.) We’ve been trained by the apostles in Jerusalem, the ones who walked with Jesus. They taught another gospel, which wasn’t a gospel at all, as Paul tells us in his letter.
The folks in Galatia were not Jewish; they were Gentiles. The Jewish Christians would tell them, You need to become Jewish like us Ð follow our dietary laws and observe the festivals and feasts we have observed for so many years as Jewish people. And, if you truly want to become a card-carrying, saved Christian, you need to become circumcised. Basically they were being told there is no such thing as a free lunch. You only get what you deserve. And the Galatian people were swallowing up this “new and improved” gospel. Jesus is nice, but you must also become Jewish to receive salvation. Their doctrines, then, and everything they believed were impacted by this belief.
I like John Stott’s words written years ago. He said, “The devil disturbs the church as much by error as by evil. When he cannot entice Christian people into sin, he deceives them with false doctrine.”
This is what was happening in these congregations. It is a big deal because people’s eternal destinies are at stake. The people were beginning to move from trusting in Christ to trusting in themselves: trying to do the right thing so God will love them and accept them for eternity. As people bought into that teaching, the possibility existed that the whole Christian Church would be split by these deferring teachings. Things were going to fall apart. So the purpose of this letter is to get these folks back on track, back to trusting the truth of the gospel Paul had given them and living in line with the gospel.
Now we ask the question, What is the gospel? The word itself means an announcement. For example, when a king left to win battles off in a faraway land, he would send messengers back to announce the good news, the gospel, to the people of his country.
Therefore, we have our king Ð King Jesus Ð who has done a great thing for us. The gospel is an announcement of what He has done for us. Paul gives us an encapsulation of it in the opening verses of this letter. He says “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever.
So, what is the gospel?
It is an announcement of what Jesus Christ has done for us.
What did He do for us?
He gave Himself for our sins to set us free. We were helplessly, hopelessly lost in our sinfulness in God’s sight. Jesus came in and substituted Himself for us. He gave Himself for us. He took our place, our punishment upon Himself. He took the hit for our sinfulness.
When we substitute ourselves for God and try to run our lives, making ourselves God, that is sin. But Jesus Christ substituted Himself for us! That is the Good News, and it equals salvation. God the Father affirmed this sacrifice as a substitution for sin when He raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus is the One in whom we place our trust.
Someone once explained that there are two kinds of religions in this world. One kind is spelled D – O. It is all the religions of the world except one. Do this and do that; then God will love you and take care of you. Christianity, however, is spelled D – O – N -E. Jesus Christ went to the cross to pay for our sins. He died and rose victorious over the grave. Whoever places their trust in what He has done is saved! We are saved by faith in Jesus Christ. This is what we proclaim to the world.
The gospel calls for our response like a beggar with empty hands. We receive what Jesus has done for us Ð the gift of salvation. The results are then, as Paul says, grace, mercy, and peace. My sins are remitted, I have peace in my conscience, and fear is gone because I am now a child of God. I belong to Him forever.
Tim Keller, a great evangelical preacher from New York, defines the gospel this way: “We are more wicked than we ever dared believe, but more loved and accepted by Christ than we ever dared hope.” This is the gospel, and it is what Paul is calling these folks in Galatia back to.
Anyone who is teaching you, Jesus plus something else equals salvation, let that person be condemned and accursed. They are steering you in the wrong direction. They are sinning against God.
Which gospel are you relying on Ð a man-made gospel or God’s gospel? The gospel of D – O or the real gospel of D – O – N – E?
Some people might be thinking, Well, we know better than that today. Those people back then were simpletons who could not figure this out. People don’t get mixed up about this today, do they? Let me tell you, they do.
Not long ago I was called to the home of some members of my congregation who were having some trouble in their home and needed to meet with me. So I sat down at their dining room table with them one Saturday morning, and they explained they had been having a Bible study with some Jehovah’s Witnesses and were getting all mixed up. “We feel so anxious. We don’t know what we are really standing on anymore. Would you help us? Explain the gospel to us again.”
That morning I led them through Scripture Ð the concrete gospel that has been passed down through the ages for two thousand years. They then recommitted themselves to trusting in that gospel for their salvation.
Some churches get caught up in customs, traditions, and so on. They began to tack on things to the gospel. You have to act this way and do this certain thing, whatever it may be. That teaching is Jesus plus something else. It is legalism, and not the gospel. In some more liberal churches, you hear mixed-up messages like these:
All roads lead to the same place.
It really doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere about it.
Just love your neighbor as yourself, and you’re in.
These messages are not the gospel. They turn the gospel into a “you-can-earn-your-way-into-God’s-favor-by-loving-your-neighbor” doctrine. It is a kick in the teeth of Jesus who gave His life on the cross for us.
Recently, I was visiting with an individual who was dying. I didn’t know him well. His wife had been attending our church. However, he had only recently begun coming since he’d been so ill. I wanted to know about his spiritual state, so I asked, “Are you afraid to die?”
He said, “No, I’m not really afraid, I guess.”
I pursued the question even further. “Do you know if you are going to go to heaven?”
He said, “I hope so.”
I said, “What do you mean, Ôyou hope so.'”
He said, “Well, I’m not sure. You see, I haven’t been a very good Christian.”
Again, the gospel is being missed. It’s Jesus plus . . . I haven’t been a very good person.
So I said to him, “I haven’t been a very good Christian either. But I know where I’m going because I’m saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Trust His promises, Bob!”
You see, your creed Ð what you believe Ð matters. Paul is telling us in this letter that there is no other gospel. The Gospel matters! There must be no compromise, no add-ons!
I have a formula I like to share with people:
This is not the gospel; it’s a dead end.
Jesus has done it ALL for you and me. This is the formula to live by. You can bet the farm on it!
Dr. Albert Einstein was a brilliant man who lived years ago. All kinds of stories have been passed around about his eccentricities. One day a cleaning lady came into his lecture hall in New Jersey. She saw all these complicated equations written on the chalkboards. Over them Einstein scrawled “Erase.” But in the corner was a little, bitty formula over which he wrote, “Do not erase.” It said, 2 + 2 = 4.
What was Dr. Einstein trying to teach his students? Could it be that the mind can go far and face the complexities of life if it hangs onto the basic truths? What I’m asking of you today is the same thing. Jesus plus nothing equals everything. Trust this formula. Do not erase.