on the integrity of the gospel

“ 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 — 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. For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.”

Galatians 1:6-10

If you’ve ever visited London, you might’ve been to a place called Oxford Circus. It’s one of the glitziest, fanciest, shopping-est places in London, there’s people and high-end brands literally as far as the eye can see, it makes downtown Central look sleepy in comparison, just tens of thousands of people coming and going every Sunday. But I regularly saw one man there every weekend, this dishevelled, scraggly street preacher who’d stand around with a placard around his neck telling people that they were sinners and they had to repent, and if that failed he had a megaphone to yell at people as they walked past.

My friends teasingly called him the Jesus Man, because, well, he was clearly all about Jesus. Now I never bothered to listen to what Jesus Man had to say, to me he was just another street preacher saying the same old stuff. 

And I suppose it’s easy for us who do our sharing here, and possibly easy for all Christians, to become like that: sometimes it’s all just Jesus this and Jesus that. Just always think about Jesus and talk about Jesus and do Jesus-y things, and you’ll be fine. 

But that’s not what Paul allows his audience to do in this letter. He uses some pretty strong language to remind his readers that believing in the true gospel is a matter of life and death, that knowing and living out the truth about God is more important than doing what’s popular.

So why is Paul so worked up here? What did his readers do wrong, that made him so mad? It wasn’t the case that the Christians in Galatia (ie his readers) were gossipping or lying, or being just a bit too friendly with their non-Christian neighbours. It was that a special group had formed inside the Church in Galatia, and these particular Christians were telling everyone else that if they wanted to be true, real Christians, they had to obey the old Jewish laws.

Why was Paul so angry? Because in other words, these Christians were saying: of course you need to be saved by Jesus. But you know what else you need? You need to follow the Jewish laws. Or to put it even more bluntly, they were saying that Jesus doesn’t actually save you. Or at least Jesus alone doesn’t save you — you need to follow the Jewish laws and do what’s right, then you’ll be saved.

Do you see why Paul is so angry now? This isn’t some random theological debate: these particular Christians in Galatia — how dare they?! — had been trying to tell other Christians that Jesus doesn’t save you, you save you. It’s like they were saying yes I’m a Christian but I want everyone to know that Jesus doesn’t really matter. I’m going to enjoy the reputation of being a Christian while pulling you away from Jesus, making you listen to the rules that I give you, and killing you spiritually in the process.

Christians, what we believe about Jesus matters. It really is a matter of life and death. We can’t say that we follow Jesus and yet live and act as if Jesus doesn’t really matter. 

If we say we are Christians, but we have the same worldview and priorities, hopes and dreams as people who aren’t Christians, that shouldn’t be. If we put our trust and worth in the same things as people who aren’t Christians, that shouldn’t be. If we say we trust Jesus, but we feel like we need to achieve all sorts of things to feel good about ourselves, that shouldn’t be. If we spend our time and money exactly the same way as people who aren’t Christians, if we encounter failure and then seek the exact same comfort as people who aren’t Christians, that shouldn’t be. Just like those particular Christians that Paul was so angry about in this passage, the ones who said they trust in Jesus but actually they trusted in their own goodness — we can’t just say Jesus this and Jesus that, but forget what it actually means to follow him, what it actually means that Jesus has paid for our sins, that he is alive, that he is King. We’ve been told that we are alive and new, that all our debt has been repaid, that we have riches in Jesus we can’t even imagine — why then do we still want to go back to the idea that we have to be good enough, that we have to prove ourselves?

Non-Christians, I hope I’ve shown that when Christians say they follow Jesus, it shouldn’t just be a brand logo, not just a cultural label, not just some strange hobby that we have. It goes much, much deeper than that. It really is a matter of spiritual life and death. And if nothing else I hope I’ve shown that the name of Jesus isn’t just something we throw around to look good or sound spiritual. It matters. He matters. And I hope you’ll be able to say that someday too.

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