What Is the False Gospel in Galatians?
It doesn’t take too long for Paul to get to the heart of the issue in his letter to the Galatians. He’s concerned that they’re abandoning Jesus’ grace and turning to a different gospel—a false gospel.
Paul doesn’t mince words when it comes to Judaizers coming in and undermining the work he has done in Galatia. In this letter, we see Paul at his strongest and most aggressive. There is no room for a gospel that strays from the grace of Christ. As we will see, Paul feels so strongly about the good news that has been preached to the Galatians that he calls down a curse upon anyone who would dare to proffer an alternative gospel.
What can we learn about this alternative gospel from Galatians 1:6–10? What do we do when people come to us today with divine revelation that seems to contradict the gospel that Paul so ardently followed and preached?
In his online course on Galatians, Thomas R. Schreiner interprets the way Paul differentiates the two gospels in this epistles’ opening. The following post is adapted from Schreiner’s course.
Abandoning God’s gift of grace
I am astonished that you are so quickly turning away from the one who called you into the grace of Christ for another gospel—Galatians 1:6
Paul is shocked that the Galatians are departing from the gospel he preached to them. Elsewhere in Jewish literature the verb “turn” (μετατίθημι) can describe departure or apostasy from the Jewish way of life (e.g., 2 Macc 7:24).
Paul is distressed that the Galatians are moving away from the only hope they have for the forgiveness of sins, and hence the expression of astonishment also functions as a rebuke. The words “so quickly” (οὕτως ταχύς) echo Exod 32:8 and the golden calf incident. Israel had just been liberated from Egypt, received the law at Mount Sinai, and entered into covenant with the Lord. When Moses ascended the mountain, they fashioned and worshiped the golden calf, turning aside from the Lord. As Exod 32:8 says, “They have turned aside quickly (παρέβησαν ταχύ) out of the way that I commanded them” (ESV). The Galatians seem to be repeating the error of the wilderness generation by departing from the Lord shortly after being delivered.
The Galatians’ departure is shocking, for they are abandoning the gift of grace that is theirs in Christ. Paul emphasizes that God called them into the realm of Christ’s grace. The word group for “calling” (καλέω, κλῆσις, κλητός) is a Pauline favorite. The gospel is “preached” (κηρύσσω) to all, whether Jews or Greeks (1 Cor 1:22–23), but only some among all those who hear the message are “called” (κλητός, 1 Cor 1:24). Indeed, in subsequent verses the term “called” is explained in terms of those whom God has chosen (ἐκλέγομαι, 1 Cor 1:26–28).
The efficacy of God’s call is a repeated theme in Pauline writings. God “calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom 4:17 ESV). In context this refers to God’s granting Abraham and Sarah the ability to have children. He calls life into being where no ability to produce life exists. Similarly, it was God’s call that turned Paul from being a persecutor of the church to an apostle of Jesus Christ (Gal 1:13–16).
In Rom 9 God’s call is closely associated with his electing work, indicating that God effectively saves (Rom 9:7, 11, 24, 25, 26). Those whom God has chosen are called to faith through the proclamation of the gospel (2 Thess 2:13–14). The God who has powerfully called believers to himself will also complete his sanctifying work (1 Thess 5:24). God’s call stands in contrast to works (Rom 9:11; 2 Tim 1:9), for human works do not and cannot save, but only the grace of God. The power of God’s call is evident, for “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29 ESV).
It is clear, then, that “calling” in Paul is inseparable from the gospel of grace. The Galatians by turning to the law and circumcision have departed from such a gospel to one based on human achievement rather than a divine gift. The word “gospel” (εὐαγγέλιον) hearkens back to the promise of return from exile in the OT (Isa 40:9; 52:7; 60:6; 61:1). In Isa 40–66 the return from exile is linked with the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel and the inauguration of the new creation (Isa 65:17; 66:22). Paul sees this gospel—the fulfillment of God’s saving promises—as realized in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The forgiveness of sins accomplished in the cross represents the fulfillment of God’s eschatological promises.
Altering the gospel of Christ
“In fact, it is not another gospel but there are some who are disturbing you and wanting to alter the gospel of Christ”—Galatians 1:7
Paul clarifies that the so-called gospel of the intruders is no gospel at all.
The reason for the Galatians’ defection is now provided. Others were troubling them and causing them to doubt the validity of the gospel Paul proclaimed. It’s likely that these troublemakers came from outside and argued that the gospel preached by Paul was seriously defective.
Here the phrase “some who are disturbing” (οἱ ταράσσοντες) is in the plural, indicating a number of opponents. In 5:10 the same word is used in the singular. “The one disturbing (ὁ ταράσσων) you will bear his judgment, whoever he is.” The use of the singular in 5:10 may indicate the leader among those who are annoying the Galatians, but it is more probable that the singular is generic in 5:10, so that the latter verse refers to the same group identified in 1:7.
Those disturbing the Galatians are criticized for desiring “to alter” (μεταστρέψαι) Christ’s gospel. The word “alter” (from μεταστρέφω) is often used to denote strong contrasts, “denoting a radical change, as of water into blood, or fresh water into salt, or feasting into mourning, or daylight into darkness.”
The opponents have been trying to seduce the Galatians to turn from the light of the true gospel to the darkness of a false gospel. How did the troublemakers alter Christ’s gospel? We know from the remainder of the letter that they tried to persuade the Galatians to accept circumcision and submit to the OT law to become members of the people of God:
“But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery—to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.”—Galatians 2:3–5
“Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified[a] by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.”—Galatians 5:2–6
“It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh.”—Galatians 6:12–13
Such requirements, according to Paul, amounted to a distortion of the gospel, for it compelled Gentiles to adopt the Mosaic covenant for salvation.
“Indeed, even if we or an angel from heaven preach a gospel to you contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed”—Galatians 1:8
The truth of the message depends on its content (whether it accords with the gospel), not the credentials of the messenger. Therefore, even if Paul or an angel proclaimed a false gospel, they would stand under God’s curse. The word ἀλλά, which introduces 1:8, does not signify a contrast here, but should be translated as “yet” or “indeed.” Verses 8–9 indicate that proclaiming another gospel is not a minor defect. Paul does not view the other gospel as a trivial departure from what he taught and preached in Galatia. Note that curse and blessing frame the letter (cf. 6:16).
Paul uses hyperbolic language to exclude any source that might claim divine authority. There is no suggestion here that the Galatian agitators actually claimed to have received revelation from an angel. Paul uses conditional clauses in both 1:8–9, and he includes himself and angels, not because either was preaching a false gospel or alleged to do so, but to highlight the unchangeable nature of the gospel.
Furthermore, the inclusion of Paul demonstrates that Paul is rebuking the Galatians, not in order to further his own agenda, but for the sake of the gospel, and for their sake. The troublemakers did not appeal to angels but to the OT to argue for the necessity of circumcision (Gen 17:9–14). Still, the reference to angels demonstrates that preaching another gospel cannot be defended, even if the proclamation is defended by appealing to a heavenly source or a heavenly revelation.
Judgment to those who preach a false gospel
“As we have said before and I am again saying now, ‘If anyone preaches a gospel to you contrary to that which you have received, let him be accursed’”—Galatians 1:9
Paul reaffirms the curse pronounced in v. 8 but applies it more broadly. Here Paul likely has in mind the Judaizers who were proclaiming a false gospel, and he pronounces a curse on them or anyone else who preaches a message contrary to what he previously preached.
Before pronouncing the curse, Paul reminds the Galatians that he’s not saying anything new. He had instructed them that the gospel could not be altered when he first evangelized them. The argument progresses from 1:8 to 1:9. If a curse falls on an apostle like Paul or even an angel if they proclaim a deviant gospel, then surely anyone else who propagates a false gospel will be cursed.
Paul uses a conditional clause to summon the readers to consider whether the condition is fulfilled. The conditional clause here differs from 1:8, for now an indicative is used rather than a subjunctive. The use of the indicative here invites an altogether less hypothetical application. In other words, the opponents who proclaim another gospel are likely in view, and Paul affirms that those who promote a divergent gospel will be cursed.
Paul reaffirms, then, that the Galatians had already heard and received the true gospel when he first preached to them. Therefore, anyone who evangelizes in Galatia must proclaim the same gospel taught by Paul. If they teach a gospel contrary to Paul’s, they will face an eschatological curse. By repeating the threat of God’s curse in v. 9, the gravity of the offense of those who proclaim another gospel is underlined.
Paul reestablishes his apostleship
“Therefore, am I pleasing human beings now or God? Or, am I seeking to please people?”—Galatians 1:10a–b
Paul uses rhetorical questions to emphasize that he is not trying to please people. The conjunction in this context should be translated as “therefore” (γάρ). The meaning of this term must be discerned in context, and in 1:10 it does not provide a reason for what is stated in 1:8–9 but a conclusion. Because Paul pronounces a curse on those who preach a false gospel (1:8–9), therefore it follows that he is not attempting to please people but only God himself (1:10).
The word πείθω usually means “persuade,” but in this context it refers to the desire to please human beings or God. Apparently, the Jewish opponents claimed that Paul failed to preach the whole gospel, which included the requirement of circumcision. Paul omitted circumcision to curry favor with the Gentiles in Galatia (cf. 5:11). Paul began the letter defending his apostolic authority, and here he rebuts the notion that he is pleasing people. Hence, it seems that Paul engages in an apologetic of his apostleship.
“For if I were still attempting to please people, I would never have become a slave of Christ”—Galatians 1:10c
We have a second class, contrary-to-fact condition here. If Paul had desired to please people, then he would never have become Christ’s slave. Paul’s curse on those who proclaim another gospel demonstrates that his aim is to please God rather than people. He clinches the case here by affirming that if he longed for the praise of fellow human beings, he would not have become a follower of Christ.
In the subsequent verses Paul will explain further how this is so, for he will argue shortly that he was respected in Judaism for his zeal and learning:
“For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.”—Galatians 1:13–14
Conversely, as a Christian he is persecuted (5:11) and beaten (6:17). His suffering as an apostle verifies that he had become a “slave” (δοῦλος) of Christ, that he was vilified and attacked just like his Lord. Paul’s willingness to suffer supports the truth that his goal in life is not to please people but God, that he is committed, as a slave of Christ, to do whatever the Lord commands.
Proneness to Wander
Even after we become believers, we are prone to wander from God and the good news of free grace in Christ. Various influences may draw us away, including the sinfulness of our own hearts. In Galatians we see the influence of false teachers, who probably swayed the Galatians with their knowledge of the OT.
An effective antidote against false teaching is both a head and heart knowledge of the gospel. When we truly understand that our righteousness is only in Christ, we will not be deceived by any other gospel. One of the practical ways to ensure that we stay true to the gospel is to join and become involved in a church that proclaims the gospel. Thereby we are accountable to other believers and do not try to live the Christian life on our own.
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