Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two part series.
This article addresses The Gospel in Miniature, and The Sad Realities of False Gospels. Part two discusses examples of false gospels.
United Press International reported a few years ago that Italian police had seized $6 trillion in counterfeit U.S. bonds stored in Switzerland that were “possibly” to be used to purchase plutonium…
Police said an “organization specializing in international financial transactions guaranteed by counterfeit U.S. bonds,” had moved the bonds from Hong Kong to Zurich, Switzerland, in 2007.
The Guardian newspaper said the case was thought to involve the largest ever seizure of counterfeit Treasury bonds. The bonds, dated 1934, were found by Swiss authorities in three large trunks in a Zurich bank.
Police in Italy called the fraud a “severe threat” to international financial security.
Fake bonds are a common mafia scam, the Guardian reported. Often they are used as collateral on loans or to open a line a credit, which the fraudsters tap before disappearing.
Money is not the only kind of counterfeit product — watch a TV program like Antiques Roadshow and you will be informed weekly of many different kinds of counterfeits— counterfeit lamps, and glasswork, and rifles, and jewelry, and baseball memorabilia. But most tragically of all, there are also counterfeit gospels. There are teachers who appear to be sincere in their teaching and devout in their living who have corrupted the gospel — they are religious frauds, dispensing a “gospel” that has no credit with God. It has always been that way, and it will always be that way until Christ sets up His eternal kingdom.
The “severe threat” of counterfeit gospels is like the bonds that are sold to unsuspecting investors— some will believe and invest their lives in the false gospel to their eternal detriment and condemnation. These people will come to our churches and to our counseling ministries. They will be confused about the role Christ, salvation, and Scripture play in their lives. It is our task as counselors to be on the lookout for these false gospels and point our counselees to the true gospel to be found in Christ alone.
Paul’s introductory remarks to the Galatians serve as a reminder, warning, and antidote to these false gospels. When we receive new counselees and are helping them examine the genuineness of their faith (2 Cor. 13:5), we do well to remember this passage and the potential for counterfeit truth.
The Gospel in Miniature
Paul begins his Galatian letter with a reminder in verses 1-5 of four components of the true gospel.
Salvation is by grace. The opening salutation, grace to you and peace (v. 3) seems to be a throw away greeting akin to our “how are you?” It’s not. The greeting is a reminder of the centrality of grace to our salvation and the peace that only God’s grace can provide. These are two interrelated words: grace is the source of our salvation, while peace (with God) is the result of our salvation. Our salvation is not something earned by merit; it is a gift (that’s what “grace” means), and there is no peace with God apart from salvation by grace. The person who attempts to be saved apart from Christ and apart from grace is the enemy of God since he has rejected God’s decreed means of salvation (Rom. 5:6, 10). The Law offered no grace and provided no peace to Israel (see 5:1-5), but the salvation that is granted as a grace gift through Christ does provide peace. Luther rightly said, “These two words…do contain in them the whole sum of Christianity. Grace containeth the remission of sins, peace a quiet and joyful conscience.”
Salvation is on the basis of Christ’s substitutionary work. Verse four asserts that Christ gave Himself for our sins. This means that Christ’s death was a willing self-sacrifice; He was not compelled by any force or person, but joyfully and willing went to the cross (Heb. 12:2). The preposition “for” is also important — it denotes that He died in our place. It is a word that asserts substitutionary atonement. The (only) righteous Man, the Lord Jesus Christ (v. 3), died for unrighteous men so that they might believe in Him and be imputed with His righteousness even though they are not righteous themselves. This is the great accomplishment of the cross. Spurgeon captured the remarkable nature of this work when he wrote,
“The doctrine of the atonement is to my mind one of the surest proofs of the divine inspiration of Holy Scripture. Who would or could have thought of the just Ruler dying for the unjust rebel? This is no teaching of human mythology, or dream of poetical imagination. This method of expiation is only known among men because it is a fact; fiction could not have devised it. God Himself ordained it; it is not a matter which could have been imagined.” [All of Grace]
Salvation is a work to rescue men from sin and to God. Paul is emphatic about the purpose for which this gracious gift was given — so that He might rescue us from this present evil age. Salvation was granted as a deliverance from (a rescue from the danger of) sin. Salvation releases us from the penalty of sin and the impending wrath of God that would otherwise justly fall on us. Salvation further releases us from the power of sin so that we who were unrighteous and only able to do unrighteous things are now enabled to live righteously (though not perfectly). Christ’s death has liberated us from living in bondage to all the evils of this world. The chains of sin and loosed and we are set free, now. We can live righteously now.
This freedom is also according to the will of our God and Father (v. 4) and it is also to [His] glory forevermore (v. 5). This salvation is accomplished by God so that we might live to Him, and with Him, and for Him for all eternity. Salvation is not just to release us from something (sin), but also to rescue us for something (to live with God eternally).
We can summarize the gospel in one sentence: Our sin is imputed to Christ, and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us, so that we can enjoy God forever. This is all contained in Paul’s opening verses, and this gospel is what we must remember to teach and direct our counselees to obey as we disciple them. There is no other saving gospel than this gospel. This section in Galatians, and the entire book of Galatians, and Paul’s ministry, and our counseling and ministry are about getting the gospel right.
The Sad Reality of False Gospels
Having affirmed the nature of the true gospel, in verses 6-10 Paul also warns about the potential for false gospels to creep into the church.
Every false gospel is a desertion of Christ (v. 6). The temptation of the Galatians and the temptation in the church today is to follow a gospel of another kind. Like defecting soldiers, the Galatians were leaving the gospel of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone for another gospel. This was a different gospel — a message that was not genuinely associated with the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Paul also unequivocally states that the desertion is of Christ Himself (deserting Him who called you). They weren’t just leaving a “religious system.” They were leaving a person and the Savior. Notice also that Paul was amazed not only that Christ was being deserted, but that He was being rejected so quickly. Soon after they received His message, they rejected it for another message.
There is no indication in this book that the Galatians were denying some essential doctrines like man’s sin and depravity, or Christ’s deity (or His humanity and the hypostatic union), or substitutionary atonement, or even salvation through faith. They were “just” following slightly different variations of those doctrines that led them to another gospel. We do well to read this verse as a warning: it is possible for orthodox, mature, long-time believers in Christ to be seduced by doctrines that may not seem dangerous initially, but end up in desertion from the true gospel.
Every false gospel is a distortion of the one saving gospel (v. 7). False gospels not only desert Christ, but they also distort Christ and His gospel. Hear this well: if it is not the true gospel of Christ, then it is a perverted twisting of the gospel. If the essential nature of the true gospel is changed, it isn’t the gospel. When we get the gospel wrong, all is (literally) lost forever.
Every false gospel will produce the same (terrible) end (vv. 8-9). It doesn’t matter who the preacher is — hypothetically it could be the apostle Paul and His companions, or an angel from Heaven — if what is preached is not doctrinally correct, he is to be accursed. Paul uses the word “accursed” (literally, “anathema”) in both verses 8 and 9 for emphasis. There is no good end for preaching or believing the false gospel. If we get the gospel wrong, we are dead. Eternally. There is no greater tragedy.
Every false gospel seeks to please men (and not God) (v. 10). Why would some preach a false gospel? Why do some believe a false gospel? Because they are seeking the favor of men. It is impossible to please God and serve Him and preach a perverted gospel that doesn’t exalt Christ. When the gospel is distorted, it indicates that the person preaching and the person believing that false gospel are both more interested in what men think of them than what God thinks of them. They are more concerned about earthly appearances than heavenly realities. They would rather be honored on earth than honor God in Heaven. Every false gospel seeks the glory of man rather than the glory of God. Every false gospel twists what John the Baptist rightly said by asserting, “He must decrease, but I must increase.” The true gospel is aligned with John and is glad when I decrease and He increases (Jn. 3:30).
These verses remind us that there were perverters of the gospel in the first days of the church, there are still perverters of the gospel, and there will be until the end of time (2 Tim. 3:1-9). People who come to us with their personal needs for counseling will have heard the false gospel. Some will be disseminators of a false gospel. Many will have unwittingly believed a false gospel. We must (if we care for their eternal souls), labor to teach them the true gospel so they can be liberated from their sins and learn to enjoy God and the freedom Christ offers.