According to the Barna Group’s 2016 State of the Church report,
- Most people in this country identify themselves as Christian. Almost three-quarters of Americans (73%) say they are a Christian.
- However, 55% believe that if a person is generally good, or does enough good things for others during their life, they will earn a place in heaven, that good works are sufficient for eternal life.
This inconsistency leads me to ask two questions, “Do people who identify themselves as Christian know the Bible’s definition?” and “What gospel are they believing?”
At best, many professing Christians are ignorant and confused about the exclusive nature of the gospel. At worst, they are believing a false gospel and the state of their own souls is in grave danger. The Bible is clear: No man, woman, or child will ever earn eternal life through good works or their own merit. Rather, the only way to be justified before God; that is, to be declared righteous, is by faith. This is the conclusion every person must come to in order to be saved. And that’s the truth a German monk named Martin Luther had to come to as well.
This month marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Though Luther was not the only leader calling the Catholic Church to account, he served as God’s catalyst when, on October 31, 1517, he posted 95 theses for debate on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg. This document exposed the corruption of the Catholic Church’s practice of selling sinful “indulgences.” Indulgences were vouchers for forgiveness which could be purchased from the church, preferably before your wild night. But the document also proclaimed two central beliefs:
- The Bible, not the Pope, is the central and final religious authority
- Sinners may receive salvation only by faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ and not by their deeds
The heart of the Reformation was a battle over the gospel. Are sinners justified by grace through faith alone, or are they justified by good works through the church? That was the question.
In his little book on the Reformation, Michael Reeves writes, “Martin Luther was concerned with people’s happiness. In fact, he would come to believe that he had found the secret of happiness. And that, at its heart, was what the Reformation was all about. Not moralizing. Not self-improvement. It was a discovery of stunningly happy news—news that would transform millions of lives and change the world.”
What was that news? The truth that transformed Luther’s life was this: The solution for a guilty conscience is not more religion, more sacrificial attempts to demonstrate love for God, but repentance and faith in the God who had already demonstrated His own love toward sinners by sending His Son to pay for their sins. This is the gospel that saved and transformed this unsaved monk.
Numerous men (not only Martin Luther) put their very lives at risk to save this gospel from corruptions and false imitations. But they were not the first to do this. The New Testament records the faithful service and sacrifice of others who fought to defend the truth. In fact, from the day Jesus ascended into heaven, and sent the Holy Spirit to fill the church, there has been a battle for the purity of the gospel. The apostles warned believers of this danger.
For example, Peter put Christians on the alert when he wrote, there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them… (2 Peter 2:1). And before sailing away from Ephesus, the apostle Paul exhorted the elders: I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them (Acts 20:28-30).
It was the corruption and distortion of the pure gospel which provoked the writing of the book of Galatians. On his first missionary journey, Paul and his companions had preached the gospel in what is now modern day Turkey. As a result, many came to saving faith in Jesus Christ. However, after he departed, false teachers known as Judaizers tried hard to bring the young believers back under Old Testament law. They thought that by doing so they could garner the praise of the Jewish authorities. As long as they could succeed in turning Gentiles into practicing Jews they could live in peace and not be persecuted like those who truly believed and preached Jesus as the only way to God.
These teachers did not openly deny salvation in Christ, but their additions to the gospel denied that faith alone was the means by which a sinner received the righteousness of God. They promoted a “Jesus + circumcision” gospel. They were basically saying that Gentile believers needed to become Jews by placing themselves under the Law of Moses. But the apostle rightly saw that to require such things was to deny the gospel of grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
Hearing of this brought grief to the apostle. He was alarmed…and rightly so…for they were in danger of turning to a different gospel. And by turning to a different gospel the possibility of eternal damnation was real. Satan loves nothing better than to deceive people into believing a “Jesus + man’s religious merit” gospel. Therefore, the apostle was moved to write this short, but strong letter. Galatians compels us to guard God’s gospel from error. The purity of God’s gospel must be preserved and guarded from distortions, additions, or subtractions.
A helicopter fly-over Galatians reveals four responsibilities to guard the gospel.
- Guard the true gospel revealed by God in Scripture from the false gospel passed on through man’s tradition or experience (1:6-12).
- Guard the true gospel of freedom in Christ from the false gospel of slavery to religious ritual and regulation (2:1-14).
- Guard the true gospel of justification by grace through faith from the false gospel of justification by obedience to works of the law (2:15-3:2).
- Guard the true gospel of transformation by the Holy Spirit from the false gospel of dead faith evidenced by continued living in the flesh (5:13-26).
[Adapted from last Sunday’s sermon, Saving the Gospel.]
This post was originally published October 3, 2017. At our church, we are currently going through the book of Galatians. The series is entitled “Free in Christ.”