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What was the gospel that Paul preached (Galatians 1:8)?

‘But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!’

Paul’s distinctive way of expressing the gospel owes much to his extraordinary conversion on the road to Damascus. (Acts 9:1-19)  Prior to that Paul, a Roman citizen born in Tarsus, had been a harsh critic and active persecutor of the fledgling Christian church.  He was a Pharisee who had been through a long and detailed training on Jewish Law and who observed it to the very best of his ability. He was incensed by the claims that Jesus was the fulfilment of the Law and felt it his duty to eradicate the blasphemers who supported this view.  This starting point made his personal encounter with Jesus all the more remarkable.  He was converted intellectually as well as emotionally and spiritually.

The verse referred to in the question, taken together with the two verses immediately preceding it, suggest that Paul had visited the Galatians at least twice before writing his letter; the first time to preach the gospel and the second to discover that they had turned away from it.  This implication is central to a long dispute amongst scholars about the location of the churches to whom the letter was addressed and the year in which it was written.

The term ‘Galatians’ was first used to describe a group of Celtic people who settled in the area around what is now Ankara, the capital city of modern Turkey.  However, the Roman province of Galatia extended much further south to include the cities of Iconium, Lystra and Derbe where, according to Acts 14:1-23, Paul and Barnabas founded churches.  Some scholars believe that it was to these churches that Paul was writing but others believe that it was to churches in the north.

The dating of the letter is closely linked to where the churches were as a later date is required to allow Paul time to have made two visits to churches in the north.  A further key issue is whether or not the meeting in Galatians 2:1-10 is the ‘Council of Jerusalem’ as described in Acts 15 which is generally held to have taken place around 50 AD.  Majority opinion considers that it was and that Paul’s letter was written to churches in northern Galatia sometime in the mid to late 50s AD after the Council of Jerusalem. 

Whichever of these views is correct the use of the past tense ‘proclaimed’ in Galatians 1:8 implies that Paul had visited the Galatians before writing his letter to them on which occasion he preached his gospel to them.  It is not possible to deduce very much about the tenets of his gospel by reference to his letter to the Galatians alone as it is both short and highly focused.  I shall therefore attempt to draw them out by reference to all of Paul’s letters, not just Galatians.

On the surface Paul’s letter to the Galatians is about a single issue – whether or not Christians need to be circumcised.  Just as with the two current so-called ‘single issue’ debates in the Church of England on the ordination of practicing homosexuals and women bishops the debate was, in reality, about far deeper and more fundamental issues.

Paul had discovered that since he originally founded the churches in Galatia some Jewish Christians had visited them and told them that Christians must be circumcised (5:2-12).  Furthermore, they appear to have told them that Christians must follow other aspects of Jewish Law such as observing the Sabbath and Jewish Festivals (4:10).  Paul was very angry about this as can be deduced by the intemperate language he used in 1:8 as quoted above and 4:12
“I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!”

 

Righteousness comes from faith in Christ alone

The reason for Paul’s anger was that these un-named Jewish Christians had failed to understand a central tenet of his gospel that righteousness (having a ‘right’ relationship with God) depends, not on the observance of Jewish Law but by faith in Christ alone:

Romans 3:28   For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.

Galatians 2:16  Yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.

So important does Paul hold this tenet to be that he restates it in Galatians and elsewhere using the metaphor of Christ’s crucifixion.  Unfortunately this frequently exposes one of Paul’s greatest weaknesses as an evangelist – the use of tortuous prose that is extremely difficult to follow.  The following quotation has therefore been taken from The Message in which the authors have made a valiant attempt to unravel Paul’s meaning:

Galatians 2:19-21  What actually took place is this: I tried keeping rules and working my head off to please God, and it didn’t work. So I quit being a “law man” so that I could be God’s man. Christ’s life showed me how, and enabled me to do it.  I identified myself completely with him. Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ.  My ego is no longer central.  It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God.  Christ lives in me.  The life you see me living is not ‘mine,’ but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  I am not going to go back on that.

This tenet of Paul’s gospel runs against the traditional belief that Jews could accumulate merit before God by doing good deeds and keeping the law, an idea that Jesus himself apparently contributed to on more than one occasion, for example:

Luke 18:22  When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ‘There is still one thing lacking.  Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’

The concept of righteousness (or justification) coming from faith alone is closely tied to another important tenet of Paul’s gospel:

 

Christianity is for all

If righteousness does not depend upon the keeping of Jewish Law then it is open to Gentiles as well as Jews.  Coming to terms with this fundamental concept was a major pre-occupation of the early church with many references to it in both Acts and the Epistles.  Two examples are:

Romans 10:12..For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13 For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Galatians 3:28  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Paul was quite clear that he was specifically commissioned by Jesus himself to take the gospel to the Gentiles referring back to his encounter on the road to Damascus:

Galatians 1:11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. ... ...15 But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles

 

Jesus was the son of God

Throughout his letters Paul refers to Jesus as ‘the son of God’. (See examples in Galatians 1:16 and 2:20 quoted above)  He also frequently uses the phrase ‘Jesus is Lord’, a title reserved exclusively for God in the Old Testament but used as a proclamation of faith by the earliest converts to Christianity in Jerusalem.  This testament to the status of Jesus once again stems from his personal encounter with him and must have had a major impact on those who heard him preach.

 

Jesus died to save us from our sins and rose again

The belief that Jesus died to save us from our sins and that he rose again is a central tenet of Paul’s gospel.  Two examples are given below:

Romans 5:8  But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

1 Corinthians 15:3  For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.

Yet again, these firmly-held beliefs can be traced back to Paul’s dramatic personal encounter with the risen Lord on the road to Damascus, the single incident that shaped the whole of his ministry.

 

The importance of Love

No description of the gospel preached by Paul could be complete without reference to his recurring theme of the importance of love.

Galatians5:13  For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’

Paul’s ‘Hymn of Love’ in 1 Corinthians: 13:1-13 is arguably the best known and most loved passage from all of Paul’s letters.  However, doubts have been cast over his authorship of this passage based upon the marked difference in style between it and the rest of his letters.  Perhaps it was written by someone else or perhaps he did have a gentle, non-combative side after all!

 

Conclusion

To draw these disparate threads together to present a coherent picture of Paul’s gospel is extremely difficult and it is something that, to the best of our knowledge, he never did himself.  He imparted his gospel to those whom he encountered as a personal verbal testimony of which unfortunately we have no record but from the evidence of his success in spreading the Word it must have been compelling listening.  From what we can learn from his letters the framework of his testimony may have been something along the following lines:

Brothers and Sisters, I bring you Good News.  We have been freed from the slavery of sin and death.  For 5,000 years we and our forefathers have struggled to prove our righteousness in the eyes of God by following his law only to fail time and time again.  Through our failure we have been condemned to eternal damnation but now we have been set free!  How can this be?

God has been watching over us through all these years of our failure.  He has grieved for us and wept for us and finally, through his great love for us he has sent his only son to save us – Jesus Christ, the Messiah. 

“But wait,” I hear you cry, “this Jesus was condemned to die a blasphemer’s death on the cross.  He was no Messiah.”  That is where you are wrong my friends, for this Jesus was indeed the Messiah.  It is true that he died upon the cross, but on the third day he rose again and sits today on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.  How do I know this?  Because he appeared to me, wretched and sinful as I am, on the road to Damascus and spoke to me in person.  What is more, he gave me the task to bring the Good News of his message to you; not to my brother Jews, for his message is for all people.

So why did Jesus have to die on the cross?  As I have told you my friends, he died as the perfect sacrifice to save all who believe on his name from the slavery of sin and the snare of death.  For years we have struggled to keep God’s laws but always we have failed and we know that he who lives by the law must die by the law.  But I tell you this.  In the new way, salvation comes not from doing good works but by faith in Christ Jesus alone.  If you put your faith in him; give your whole to him as I have, you will be raised up to heaven as he was raised up and you will have eternal life.