Several years before Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door of the Wittenburg Church and boldly declared to the Roman Catholic Church that he stood only on the Word of God for doctrine, Martin Luther was a man who wrestled with assurance. One could probably even describe his path to salvation as nothing short of tumultuous. From a young age, Luther struggled with the notion that he was accepted by God. He feared God. He feared judgment. He lived in a continual state of anxiety that he would ultimately be rejected and destroyed by God. This is because Luther understood the depth of God’s holiness and the law’s righteous requirements. Due to his sin, he was at enmity or war with God. Yet, he longed for a relationship with Jesus. So, he worked to find peace with God.
One of the ways Luther tried to work out his salvation was to commit his life to ministry as a Monk. So, in 1505 he did so. At this time, Luther’s days were consumed with house chores, prayer, theological studies, and confession. It was not uncommon to have the monks spend 30 minutes or so in confession; however, it is said that Luther would spend hours. He would meet with his Father Confessor, and he would recount every little thing he had done wrong since his last confession – from passions of lust, to bursts of anger, to waves of discontentedness, to even coveting his friend’s potato salad at lunch.
A few years later in his studies, Luther was reading Romans 1:16-17, which reads, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” He became stuck on the phrase “the righteousness of God”. Eventually, he would come to understand that the righteousness of God is not something he or we can never achieve – no matter how hard he worked.
Due to our sin, there is no amount of good works you can do to earn God’s favor. We cannot create it, earn it, or produce it. Rather, “the righteousness of God” is something that God achieves in us by grace, through faith in Christ. That is, we are justified by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. We are imputed with this righteousness, and when God looks at us, He doesn’t see our sins. He sees the blood of Christ.
This beauty of the truth (the gospel) hit Luther like a truck; it changed his life. Later, he described this moment like this, “The righteousness of God is revealed by the Gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which the merciful God justifies us by faith. Here, I felt that I was altogether born again, and the very gates of paradise opened up before me.”
Given his history with a works-based theology, I suspect Galatians 1:6-10 was a text that resonated with Luther. Paul writes:
“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.”
Not long before writing this letter to the churches in Galatia (modern-day Turkey), the Apostle Paul labored to teach these Christians the gospel. The same gospel Luther rediscovered in the early 1500s – justification by faith alone. However, Galatians is an indicator that things did not stick.
Notice how Paul begins addressing this situation. In verse 6 he says, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel”. Many of Paul’s letters begin with happy greetings and encouragements – not this one. Paul is extremely concerned by what is happening in Galatia and the teaching these Christians were falling prey to. He is on a mission to set things straight and correct doctrinal errors.
If you read the entire letter, you learn additional details about what is happening. Namely, These false teachers came in teaching that Paul was not a real apostle and that, in addition to their forgiveness of sins in Christ, they also needed to start following the Old Testament law. They were in effect saying “In Christ, your old sins may be forgiven, but going forward you’ve got to follow the ceremonial law and practice circumcision” – it was a “Jesus plus works” theology. In light of this, Paul is “astonished” and filled with righteous indignation. That is, he is rightfully angry at what these false teachers are doing and saying. They’re distorting the gospel of Jesus Christ. As Paul writes later, he wants to remind the Christians in Galatia and us today, that in Christ, “we have freedom” and to “stand firm and not submit again to the yoke of slavery”. (Galatians 5:1).
In modern times, it might seem odd to us that anyone would elevate the practice of the law and circumcision to such a level as to place it in the salvation equation. But in the 1st century, the practice of the law and circumcision was built into the core identity of who Israel was. It was the sign of their covenant with God. To circumcise was to properly honor and worship God. So, I can imagine for many of the new converts in Galatia it was tempting to listen to these Judaizers. It is not hard to imagine some very charismatic and compelling teachers explaining how circumcision was what God commanded and it needed to be added to what Christ had done.
Yet, Paul doesn’t see this referring back to the old as good or doctrinally sound. In this letter, he pleads with Galatians to remember what he taught about the gospel. Listen to what Paul says In Galatians 5:2-3. He writes, “Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.”
This is the seriousness of error when we add/remove anything to the gospel and work of Christ. Notice that Paul says in our text they are “deserting” Christ. The word there has a sense of change of factions or affiliation. It carries with it a tone of betrayal. This is the net effect when we add or change anything about the gospel of Jesus Christ – we abandon Christianity.
Today, we don’t have to often combat false teachers who say we must be circumcised or adhere to the ceremonial law to be saved. But we still deal with the same root sin. We are all prone to let the “Jesus plus something mentality creep into our Christian living, and this is dangerous.
We must be Christians who know the gospel. We must know and believe the gospel so well that it flows through veins like life-giving blood. We must know it so well that if you hear someone distorting the true gospel you can recognize it, as Paul did, and call it out as a “different gospel”.
I also want to encourage you to not be so bold as to think, “Well, that could never happen to me.” We learn later in Galatians that even Barnabas and The Apostle Peter had fallen prey to these false teachers. We must never underestimate the seriousness and deception of sin in our hearts. Maintaining the integrity of the gospel is a battle Christians have been fighting for 2000 years and we will continue to fight for it until Jesus returns. Anything that suggests there is a part of salvation that is not all of Christ, is a false gospel. That is to say, it is no gospel at all.
Today, there are entire denominations that refuse to teach the core, elemental aspect of the gospel. They refuse to teach that God is holy and just and that sin is real. In the name of “love and acceptance” any doctrinal practice is deemed “OK”. If Galatians teaches us anything, it’s that we must be people who are resolute to preserve, teach, and uphold the integrity and sanctity of the gospel. As the church, we don’t exist to make people feel good about themselves and their sins. We exist to show people the hope of grace and love we have in Christ. We exist to point them to the cross. We exist, as Paul lines out, to be pleasers of God and not pleasers of men.
Paul sums things up well for the church of Galatia and us today in verse 16. He writes. “yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law, no one will be justified.” (Galatians 2:16). Here is the crux of the whole thing: justification comes by faith alone – not by works of the law. Justification by faith alone is tantamount to the gospel. If we lose justification by faith alone, we lose Christianity.