As I've been reading through Martin Luther's commentary on Galatians again after many years, I've come to that DAMN passage in Chapter 1 where Paul DAMNS anyone who preaches a false gospel. Yes, I'm intentionally using that word, and intentionally using it twice because of Paul's repeated use of the Greek word anathema in verses 6-10 of Chapter 1:
6 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— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 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. 9 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. 10 For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.
As Luther writes, "The Greek word anathema, Hebrew herem, means to accurse, execrate, to damn."
Let's talk about what the apostle Paul, and the great Reformer, were so worked up about, and how it might apply to us today... [I am trying to post about relatively small sections of the text in these early articles, so that any of you who would like to read through Luther's commentary with me can get caught up and not get too far behind. See the end of my first post from last week for recommendations on which versions of the commentary to read...I'm planning to cover about half a chapter per week from now on.]
Luther summarizes the Galatian problem in this way:
Paul calls the false apostles troublers of the church because they taught circumcision and the keeping of the Law as needful unto salvation. They insisted that the Law must be observed in every detail. They were supporters in this contention by the Jews, with the result that those who were not firmly established in faith were easily persuaded that Paul was not a sincere teacher of God because he ignored the Law. The Jews were offended at the idea that the Law of God should be entirely ignored by Paul and that the Gentiles, former idol-worshippers, should gratuitously attain to the station of God's people without circumcision, without the penitentiary performance of the law, by grace alone through faith in Christ Jesus.
Luther also makes practical application and encouragement from the text to his readers:
When the devil sees that he cannot hurt the cause of the Gospel by destructive methods, he does it under the guise of correcting and advancing the cause of the Gospel. He would like best of all to persecute us with fire and sword, but this method has availed him little because through the blood of martyrs the church has been watered. Unable to prevail by force, he engages wicked and ungodly teachers who at first make common cause with us, then claim that they are particularly called to teach the hidden mysteries of the Scriptures to superimpose upon the first principles of Christian doctrine that we teach. This sort of thing brings the Gospel into trouble.
May we all cling to the Word of Christ against the wiles of the devil, "for we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places."
So what about today? What are some examples of "false gospels" that we need to beware of? Here are some suggestions for you to think about...
The legality gospel. This is what the Paul and Luther were most concerned about in their times, and the problem still exists today in different forms. Something is added to grace and faith alone as necessary for us to be justified (declared righteous) before God. We are told that we cannot be saved without Roman Catholic sacraments, speaking in tongues, water baptism, membership in a specific church, or a plethora of other "works" that are stated or implied to be necessary additions to faith in Christ.
The morality gospel. This is similar to the first, but defined more by what is not included. Moral virtues and cultural values are encouraged, while Christ's atonement is minimized or even excluded. This kind of teaching has been called "Christless Christianity" and "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism," and has difficulty answering the question, "If your message was delivered in a Mormon Church (or even in a Muslim mosque), would anyone be offended by it?"
The immorality gospel. This is the opposite extreme from the first two, saying that our repentance and obedience to God's law is unnecessary as a consequence or proof of saving faith, or even undesirable because we might somehow become legalistic or moralistic. In other words, this false gospel says that people can be Christians and go to heaven even though they live a life of disbelief, disobedience and even disregard for what God has said in the Bible. But although we should never think of our good works as the cause of our justification, we must realize that they are always the inevitable consequence of it. As James said, faith without works is dead and cannot save.
The prosperity gospel. Earthly "health and wealth" are not what God promised in His gospel--in fact Jesus said "in this world you will have tribulation." That's not commonly thought of as one of God's promises, but it was. And it's more realistic (and consistent with the true gospel) to expect and even embrace suffering and self-denial as an essential part of our journey down the narrow road, which is the way of the cross rather than the couch.
The universality gospel. "All roads lead to heaven" is a slogan of this false teaching, which rejects the necessary element of exclusivity that is in almost all New Testament gospel passages (and illustrated repeatedly in the Old Testament). Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me," and anyone who contradicts that is promoting a damnable lie.
The individuality gospel. This is the idea, which has no precedent in Scripture or church history, that people can be Christians but have no connection to the visible church. Especially prevalent in American culture, this is tantamount to saying "I want God as my Father but I don't want to be in his family" (see 1 Timothy 3:15, where the local church is called the household of God).
The liberality gospel. This used to be called "the social gospel," but the primary purveyors of it have exchanged the term "socialism" for "liberalism." But they have continued to espouse the idea that salvation is essentially achieved by the practice and advocacy of works of mercy and social justice. They quote the Golden Rule, but fail to recognize that it is a summary of the law of God (which cannot save), and need to hear Luther on the crucial distinction between law and gospel.
The doctrinality gospel. While perusing our shelves of books recently, my wife unearthed one that had been given to us years ago by some friends. It was written by a pastor who taught that only Five-Point Calvinists are really saved....if people believed that Jesus died for everybody, for example, they were not trusting in Him alone and would be lost. Ironically, I fear that was an example of people trusting in their theology rather than in Christ alone. And I'm concerned that more subtle versions of this problem exist (especially among "Reformed" people), where we think "If anyone is saved, it's surely me" because we've come to a particular understanding of doctrinal truth.
Other thoughts? What other kinds of teaching do you think the apostle Paul might be worried about today? Tell us in the comments section below. And if anything I've said here has made you uncomfortable, from my use of a "four-letter word" (for emphasis) to my pointed criticisms of contemporary teaching, please remember that I, like Paul, am not "trying to please man." As Luther wrote about verse 10...
To this day you will find many who seek to please men in order that they may live in peace and security. They teach whatever is agreeable to men, no matter whether it is contrary to God's Word or their own conscience. But we who endeavor to please God and not men, stir up hell itself.
Oops, there goes another four-letter word! But all false gospels are truly damnable and hellish and deserve to be addressed in the strongest terms, because people's souls are on the line.