There are many beautiful and challenging sections in the book of Galatians. In chapter 2 Paul eloquently speaks of being crucified with Christ and how he has died to self in order to live more fully for God. In chapter 3 Paul declares that all human barriers are brought down in Christ, and there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female, but all are one in Christ. Finally, in chapter 5 Paul shares what a Christian life should look like as it is transformed by the Spirit and the fruits it should display; love, joy, peace…. But the heart of the book of Galatians centers around one very important thought; Christ and Christ alone,is sufficient for salvation. And anyone who preaches any other gospel or adds any requirements to that gospel is to be accursed.
Paul is angry while writing Galatians, possibly more angry than at any other time. He skips the customary blessing and prayer at the beginning of his letter and instead immediately jumps into his argument against them. “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (1:6) Paul calls this other gospel a perversion and those who proclaim it are to be accursed. What exactly this other gospel entails is not exactly clear but it appears that some have come into the Galatian churches and are requiring Christians to still follow Jewish procedures in order to receive salvation, especially the commandment of circumcision. Paul is angry because he believes that the good news is that Christ came to restore salvation and rescue the world from sin and this group that is demanding that Christians must be circumcised and follow other Jewish religious laws is actually adding something to the gospel and thus distorting it. Paul is so angry he even says in chapter 5 that he wishes that this group of false teachers would go all the way and castrate themselves. Paul is not happy.
It is not that Paul is opposed to Jewish customs. Paul was Jewish and even after becoming a Christian still maintained many Jewish customs. He still visited the synagogues, he still made vows and sacrifices, and he still encouraged Timothy, whose mother was Jewish, to be circumcised. However, Paul was against adding extra requirements to salvation. In this instance it was circumcision, but it could have just as easily been something else. Any message that added requirements for salvation besides faith in Christ alone was to be accursed.
The heart of Galatians is that salvation is based on Christ alone, not Christ and something else. It’s not Christ and the proper baptism. It’s not Christ and belonging to the proper denomination. It’s not Christ and believing the right doctrine about the Trinity or what happens at the Eucharist. It’s not Christ and living the right ethical life. Salvation is in Christ alone, period, end of story. It’s not that baptism, or church life, or doctrine, or ethical living aren’t important; they are. God promises to act in baptism to cleanse sins. Christians should follow the ethic of Jesus, especially as it is revealed in the Sermon on the Mount. However, according to Paul the proper understanding of baptism is not what saves you and living the right life is not what saves you, Christ saves you. Anything else is adding to the gospel.
Thus the question becomes, when am I guilty of adding to the gospel? When do my traditions, or my preferences, or my understandings of scripture become so important that I make them a requirement for being right with God? What church practices are so vital to my understanding of God that one can not be a Christian without practicing them? When does a name, or an organizational structure, or a focus of mission become so paramount that it begins to define who is in and who is out? Is it Christ that saves me, or is it Christ and ____________? When am I guilty of preaching a different gospel?
These are difficult questions to answer, but important ones because as Paul says, “if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!”
May we resolve to proclaim nothing but Christ and him crucified which to us who are called is the power and wisdom of God.