Galatians is a fire truck racing to a five-alarm fire. It’s an ambulance speeding to the site of a terrible accident. It’s a police car hurrying to the scene of a crime. Most of all, Galatians is a wake-up call for some disciples who are asleep at the wheel and heading for a disaster of the worst kind. The harsh tone and single mindedness of the letter is attributable to the fact that the people in these churches are in danger of losing the salvation they have through Jesus Christ. If Paul sounds alarmed, urgent, or upset, it is for a very simple reason—he is!
Sometime after Paul has preached the good news of Jesus in the Galatian region and established multiple churches there (1:2) and (following Dunn’s reconstruction) re-visited them in delivering the Jerusalem letter (Acts 16:1-5), these infant congregations are infiltrated by Jewish Christians who are attacking Paul’s status as an apostle and passing a counterfeit gospel. The operative word here is counterfeit. To the untrained ear or eye, it bears a resemblance to the real gospel. It does not deny the deity of Jesus, the inspiration of the Scriptures, or the significance of baptism. It embraces the death, burial, or resurrection of Jesus. It simply says that this isn’t enough. These teachers are saying that the Gentile believers (4:8) also have to live as Jews (see 2:14 ESV). They are nationalizing the gospel.
At the heart of this counterfeit gospel is plus one thinking. It doesn’t deny anything that Christ has done—it just says that while being in Christ is great, being under Moses is just as important. Connecting with God by faith in Jesus expressed through baptism is wonderful (3:26-27), but so is being circumcised and becoming part of Israel. Coming into the body of Christ is imperative, but so is becoming part of the nation of Israel. As these teachers presented it, this is the full and complete gospel. To their way of thinking, Paul was preaching a partial gospel because he was a pleaser (v. 10). To Paul’s way of thinking (and God’s), it was no gospel at all (1:6-7).
That’s because what is really taking place is subtraction by addition. By attempting to add the Jewish way of life to Christ’s atoning work, they are in reality subtracting from what He accomplished at Calvary. Jesus said, It is finished, and these teachers are saying, It is not finished.
Paul’s response to all of this is both firm and immediate. He fires off the letter to the Galatians in a state of shock and dismay (1:6). What is his verdict on such a “gospel”? Not once, but twice he pronounces a curse from heaven upon those who proclaim such a perverted message – even if it is himself or an angel from heaven (v. 7-8)! He goes on to say that those who reject the gospel for this plus one arrangement “have fallen away from grace” (5:4). It’s pretty stern stuff that Paul writes, but when you tamper with God’s grace in Jesus, you are cutting out the heart of the gospel!
While I seriously doubt that anyone is tempted to add the Jewish way of life to their faith today, there are other plus one arrangements that we can fall prey to. Candidates include our status, achievements, our church, our obedience, or a host of other things. And the tricky thing is that these things aren’t like the teachers who followed Paul in Galatia and were quite direct in their intent and actions. Our plus ones work on a much more subtle level. They have the capability of creeping up incrementally in our lives until one day they have somehow gained the status of co-savior. We turn all of these good things into bad things when we allow them to do that. There is one and only one Savior and His name is Jesus! Don’t put your trust in anything else.