It is perhaps the worst-kept secret that the Book of Galatians is brimming with good news. Like its doctrinal cousin, the letter to the Romans, Paul’s letter to the “churches of Galatia” has remained one of the most revered New Testament books for centuries. Unlike Romans, however, Galatians isn’t exactly a letter that boasts of “legal precision.” Whereas Romans reads like a lawyer’s meticulously meditated argument, Galatians is raw, unvarnished, and unapologetic. It’s a letter that sees the apostle employ some of the most abrasive language in the entire canon. Indeed, if Romans is similar to a surgeon’s scalpel, Galatians is akin to a butcher’s cleaver. While the message of both treatises is largely the same, the approach is different, which is likely due to the dissimilar circumstances that preceded them.
Of greater importance than detailing the historical background, though, is getting to the heart of the matter at hand, which is precisely what Paul does: “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. 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” (Gal. 1:1–6).
Rather than spending precious time patting these churches on the back for their fidelity, the bandaid is ripped right off with an inquiry that’s directed at their apparent disenchantment with Paul’s gospel
Paul wastes zero time addressing what was triggering this letter to be written in the first place. Rather than spending precious time patting these churches on the back for their fidelity, the bandaid is ripped right off with an inquiry that’s directed at their apparent disenchantment with Paul’s gospel. This is indicative of the tone of Galatians throughout, which sees him using quick, blunt, and forceful terms to redirect these believers to the truth of the gospel. It reads as if Paul doesn’t have any time to lose. He has one objective, and that objective is clear right from the get-go.
The opening to Galatians, in many ways, parallels all the other letters that were issued from Paul’s desk. He asserts his authority as an apostle, he mentions his partners in ministry, and he names the church to whom his address was made. The words in verse 3 are almost “standard fare” for communication from the apostle from Tarsus (cf. Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:2; Eph. 1:2; Phil. 1:2; 2 Thess. 1:2; Phlm. 1:3). But what makes the salutation of Galatians wholly unique is the way in Paul expands on both his authority and his message, setting the tone for the rest of the letter.
In verse 1, he briefly but definitively authenticates his authority as “an apostle,” but then proceeds to explain where that authority came from. “Not from men nor through man” — not from any board of directors or some established committee of peers. Paul’s apostolic title didn’t originate from any human agency. Rather, his role as an apostle of Jesus Christ was given to him by Jesus Christ himself. This, of course, is an allusion to that moment when, on the Damascus Road, he was commissioned by the risen Lord to preach the gospel. Paul has thus cut off at the knees all opposing arguments against his apostleship. He’s not just a man with a made-up message; he’s a divinely appointed apostle called to preach a divinely appointed message.
Additionally, the other element that makes this greeting so unique is Paul’s exposition of the gospel itself (Gal. 1:3–5). There’s almost nothing more Pauline than the words, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” However, what’s unheard of in the writings of the apostle is an explanation of what the gospel is while he’s still in the salutation. He hasn’t even finished, “Dear Sirs,” and he’s already preaching the gospel. Indeed, that’s what the gospel announces — namely, the grace and peace that comes to and for sinners from God the Father through God the Son. As Martin Luther explains it, “These two words, grace and peace, do contain in them the whole sum of Christianity” (6). But instead of letting that announcement stand alone, Paul proceeds to be precise with what makes the gospel, “the gospel.”
The gospel message is entirely concerned with the proclamation that God in Christ surrendered himself to be punished for the sins of the world in order to rescue sinners from this world of sin and strife (Gal. 1:4–5). The Lord himself laid his own life down on the altar where the punishment for all of our disgusting sins was to be paid. This he did “to deliver us,” to rescue us. Not because we deserved it but “according to his glorious will.” The gospel is a program initiated by God, undertaken by God, and finished by God, for the express purpose of rescuing a people for God’s glory by giving himself up as an atoning sacrifice. Amen, indeed.
The gospel is a program initiated by God, undertaken by God, and finished by God, for the express purpose of rescuing a people for God’s glory by giving himself up as an atoning sacrifice
But why does Paul begin this letter this way? Why does he start with a one-two punch of powerfully defending his authority and precisely declaring the gospel? Because the gospel itself was in danger of being lost. “I am astonished,” Paul says, “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” (Gal. 1:6–9).
Paul is flabbergasted that these “churches of Galatia” would so hastily be given over to “a different gospel.” Not that such a thing exists since there is no such thing as “a different gospel.” But the Galatians had been bamboozled into thinking that there were alternatives. They’d been deceived by the deviance of the Judaizers, a group of devoutly religious Jews who were insistent that faith in Jesus must be coupled with adherence to the law. In their minds, “true faith” was not only a matter of belief in Jesus but also a matter of obedience to Moses. And so it is that these Judaizing fearmongers were often found following on the heels of Paul’s ministry, leaving nothing but confusion in their wake as they devastated the church with a message of “Jesus-Plus.”
The logic of the Judaizers said that the efforts of man were just as necessary for salvation as the work of Christ. What Jesus had done in giving himself up to die for sinners wasn’t enough
These men were adding extra qualifications to the message of “grace and peace from God” by insisting that something more was needed in order to be forgiven and justified. “Believe in Jesus,” they’d say, “but also _____” (fill in the blank). Whether it was circumcision, good works, fidelity to the law, or doing “X, Y, and Z,” the logic of the Judaizers said that the efforts of man were just as necessary for salvation as the work of Christ. What Jesus had done in giving himself up to die for sinners wasn’t enough, apparently. And it is precisely for that reason that Paul’s brief summary of the gospel includes nothing about man’s involvement in order to pull it off.
The gospel is God’s program, God’s prerogative, God’s purpose, and God’s person making it happen. It’s not a system wherein God and man accomplish this hand-in-hand; it’s not Jesus and the sinner doing the work together. “To make men’s works necessary to salvation, even as a supplement to the work of Christ, is derogatory to His finished work,” John R. W. Stott affirms (25). Salvation from certain damnation isn’t a group project between you and the Trinity, nor is justification before a holy God something you or anyone else can “do.” The gospel is a message all about what God in Christ has done on behalf of sinners. There is no other gospel.
In the span of four verses, Paul uses the word “gospel” some five times (Gal. 1:6–9). Each time, it’s the Greek term euangelion, which literally translates to “good news” or “glad tidings.” This expression wasn’t always associated with the church. In fact, there are scores of ancient uses of the word euangelion in a wide array of contexts, often when a victory had been won on the battlefield or when the throne had been assumed by a new king. Nevertheless, Paul intends to stress the fact that the gospel, the euangelion that comes from God himself, is specifically good news that’s entirely concerned with what the Christ of God has done.
The reason why Galatians starts the way it does, the reason why Paul sounds so crotchety throughout its pages, is because the clear articulation of the good news of “grace and peace from God” was being silenced by the damnable doctrines of the Judaizers. The so-called “gospel” of the Judaizers was an entirely “different gospel,” which, to be precise, was no gospel at all. It was a distortion of the gospel, an abandonment of the euangelion. “Where the gospel has been added to,” writes Jason Micheli, “the gospel has been annulled” (4). The insistence of the Judaizers that extra stuff was necessary for “true faith” was causing nothing but “trouble” in the church. Instead of these “churches of Galatia” being comforted by the good news of the “grace of Christ,” as Paul preached, they were being disturbed by the perverted message of “Jesus plus something else.”
This is why Paul writes so unapologetically. Because as soon as anything is added to the gospel, the gospel is lost. As soon as the good news is co-mingled with anything else, everything “good” about that news is forfeit. Indeed, as Paul declares, anyone who tinkers with the good news of grace and peace for sinners because of Jesus, “let him be accursed.” And if you didn’t get it at first, he says it twice. “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” (Gal. 1:9). He’s leaving no room for anyone to misunderstand his point. The gospel is a definitive announcement about the self-donation of God’s Son for the sake of rescuing sinners from eternal condemnation. If anyone, even one of heaven’s angels, starts to preach any other message, then let God damn them to hell, including himself.
The apostle’s language gets even more caustic later on when he suggests that it would be better if these meddlesome Judaizers just castrate themselves (Gal. 5:12). But that’s how serious the gospel is. “The genuineness of the gospel is so vital,” R. C. H. Lenski comments, “because the true gospel is the one and only means by which Christ calls us, transmits his grace to us, in a word, delivers us from this wicked world. The substitution of a fake gospel loses us this call, grace, deliverance, does so whether we are aware of the fact or not” (36).
Any message other than “Christ for you” is not good news.
Paul had zero patience for anyone who thought they had the right or the authority to piddle with God’s euangelion. No matter how polished the message or how excellent the presentation is, any message other than “Christ for you” is not good news. The gospel is an announcement that is entirely concerned with what God in Christ has done for stinking scoundrels and sinners like you and me. It is the declaration of God’s only remedy for mankind’s gargantuan problem of sin. It’s news so urgent that dare not waste even a nanosecond thinking we can improve upon it. The hope of eternal redemption and everlasting life are gifts of grace that can only be received when we repent and believe in the good news that God in Christ has donated his own self to be the payment our sins demanded. This being accomplished, you are free and you are forgiven.