Preaching on Galatians 1.6–9

2 08 2009

The underlying message of 1.6–9 is that there is one true gospel. This underlying message entails three corollaries, which give shape to the passage before us. First, because there is one true gospel, the Galatians are gravely mistaken to turn to a different gospel (1.6–7). Second, because there is one true gospel, no one—not even the apostle Paul—has the authority to proclaim an alternate gospel (1.8). Third, because there is one true gospel, anyone who does proclaim an alternate (and therefore false) gospel is condemned (1.9).

In preaching this passage, these three points could shape a sermon, with each point contributing to the central point, that there is one true gospel. The first two points offer direct and immediate challenges to the contemporary church.

1. First, there is always the risk of deviating from the true gospel message. Churches face the continual pressure from our society and culture to weaken the claims of Christ and to offer a less offensive version of Christianity than that which the true gospel creates. Almost every element of the gospel is challenged by the values of popular culture and mainstream thinking. But perhaps more in line with the direct interest of this passage is the threat to the true gospel that is presented from within the church. Our churches are always vulnerable to the (sometimes) subtle false-paths that are offered by those who appear to hold the same commitments. Those who want to change the gospel are those who are already regarded as under the gospel, otherwise their error would hold little threat. It is relatively easy to discern falsehood that comes from those who openly oppose Christ; error that comes from within, however, is an entirely different matter.

2. Second, no one has the authority to alter the gospel, and this is as true today as in Paul’s day. And the practice of proclaiming a false gospel appears no less prevalent today as in Paul’s day; perhaps it is even more so. It seems to me that it is possible to classify false-gospel proclamation into two broad types. On the one hand, there is the kind of proclamation that does not regard itself as altering the gospel. It sees itself as being consistent with the apostolic witness, true to the Scriptures, and sometimes as a return to the true gospel, while other proclamations have deviated from the truth. Clearly this kind of proclamation does not regard itself as falling under Paul’s severe warning in 1.8–9, since it does not consider itself a deviation from the true gospel. And so, this proclamation is not easily identified for what it is. On the other hand, there is the kind of proclamation that happily alters the gospel, without fear of consequence or difficulty of conscience. This kind will normally stem from a belief that the apostolic witness is but one manifestation of the Spirit—a body of teaching appropriate for its day, but no longer binding. The Spirit leads the church into all truth, and today’s expression of that truth brings a different gospel, a new message from God. Whether or not this kind of proclamation sees itself as falling under Paul’s warning is irrelevant; the warning itself is part of a previous revelation of the Spirit.

3. While the first two points offer direct and immediate challenges to the church, the third point really serves to underscore the seriousness of the issue and the severity of its consequences. Those involved in proclaiming a false gospel are to be accursed; the issue could hardly be more significant. In preaching this point, my own inclination is not to pronounce judgment on those whom I may regard as falling under this warning. No doubt this inclination will not be shared by all preachers, but I contend that it is not the most helpful option for the encouragement of our churches. Without wanting to weaken what Paul says here, a better approach may be to allow 1.8–9 to provide gravitas. This is a serious issue and is to be reflected upon with utmost concern. It is not the occasion to label false-teachers and pronounce curses upon them. Rather, it is the occasion to reflect upon our own preaching to be sure that we have not unwittingly altered the gospel ourselves; to be sure that we are not at risk of subtly shifting away from the truth; of preparing ourselves to know the gospel in its richness, and hence to know when it has become corrupted.

Posted by Con Campbell