Identity theft is called by some, The Crime of the New Millennium. An article by that title opens with these words, “It is estimated that identity theft has become the fastest-growing financial crime in America and perhaps the fastest-growing crime of any kind in our society.” In 2012, Time magazine said the Federal Trade Commission “estimates that as many as 9 million of us have our identity stolen each year. It’s topped the list of consumer complaints filed with the agency for the past 12 years running, garnering about 15% of all complaints. And new research from ID Analytics shows that there are roughly 10,000 identity theft rings in the United States involved in this fast-growing illegal enterprise.” In 2016, Identify theft cost consumers over 16 billion dollars. Clearly, identify theft is a big problem in our society.
But it’s also a problem in the Christian church.
Through distraction and distortion, many Christians today are having their spiritual identity stolen by false gospels—gospels that are more about their goodness than about God’s holiness, more about what we should do for God, rather than what God has done to rescue us through Jesus Christ.
This was a problem at the time Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians. The book gets its name from Galatia,the region in Asia Minor where the churches that Paul wrote to were located. Today, we know this area as the country of Turkey. The province of Galatia was originally established by Gauls or Celts from western Europe. In 390 BC, the Gauls plundered Rome and then retreated to Northern Italy. In 275 BC, they conquered and settled central Asia Minor. This area then became a Roman province in 25 BC. According to the book of Acts, the gospel was brought to this area through the ministry of the apostle Paul, when he founded churches in the cities of Antioch, Idonium, Lystra, and Derbe.
Galatians is the only NT letter written to multiple churches. It’s also the only one of Paul’s letters in which he gives no words of commendation; there is only correction. Something very serious was going on here. Having preached the gospel, and poured his heart into these churches, the apostle was now grieved to hear that believers were being led astray from the one, true gospel. Shortly after Paul founded the churches, Judaizers convinced the Galatian believers that salvation was through Christ plus the rituals of Judaism. They were being taught an erroneous doctrine of salvation.
Judaizers were Jews who had become Christians, but wanted to retain their identity as Jews while also claiming Christ as their Savior. They said it was not enough to be identified as a Christian—a follower of Jesus Christ—but believers also needed to keep the Law of Moses. Specifically, they pressured Gentile Christians to become like them—Jewish, at least physically—through the rite of circumcision. Additionally, they taught that Christians are sanctified by keeping the law.
But this was contrary to the apostolic message of salvation and sanctification by grace through faith. This explains the apostle’s word choices throughout this letter. Law is used 32x, and faith 21x. So, he wrote this letter to establish his apostolic authority and defend the true gospel. To re-establish the believers firmly in Christ, he writes to expose and condemn false teaching, show the God-intended purpose of OT law, and demonstration how Christians are sanctified by learning to walk in the Spirit, not the flesh.
The best defense against spiritual identify theft is to know the gospel inside and out, to be rooted in Christ and firmly grounded in sound doctrine. You need to know your Bible. You need to understand the gospel from the biblical standpoint, not socially or psychologically. That’s why Paul begins his letter the way he does. He knows that what these believers need more than anything else is to know the gospel, and to be firmly rooted in what it is. The gospel is God’s gospel. Therefore, man has no business tampering with it to make it more palatable to sinners, more about us than about God. Paul begins his letter to the churches in Galatia with a description of the gospel according to God.
- The gospel proceeded from God, not the authority of man (vv. 1-2).
- The gospel is the only pathway to God’s grace and peace (v. 3).
- The gospel is preoccupied with the saving work of Jesus Christ (vv. 4-5).
Notice how the apostle describes the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. He uses three phrases:
- SACRIFICIAL: “who game himself for our sins”
- SAVING: “to deliver us from the present evil age”
- SUBMISSIVE: “according to the will of our God and Father”
Clearly, the gospel is about Jesus Christ. Whenever the apostle refers to the gospel, he is preoccupied with the work of Jesus Christ to save sinners from eternal judgment.
Paul was concerned about the Galatians. He was concerned about those whom he had introduced to Christ through the gospel, but were now being led astray. The same thing could happen to us if we are not vigilant to guard the gospel. Let us beware. Let us keep our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of faith.