What we can see immediately in this first chapter of Galatians, and at the end of verse 9 in particular (“If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” —anathema, damned), is that this letter, and in this conference focused on this letter, and the 500-year-old Reformation enflamed by this letter, and the Christian faith that stands or falls with this letter — what you can see is that the Christian faith, and that Reformation, and this conference, and this letter deal with matters on which your eternal destiny hangs. “If anyone brings you another gospel, let him be damned!”
“Every day, people in your church and your family are being lured away from Christ as their supreme treasure.”
And therefore, this letter and this conference and the Reformation and Christianity should echo in us with unparalleled seriousness.
– Unparalleled seriousness in joy at the grace and peace that is ours in verse 3, and the deliverance from evil and destruction that is ours in verse 4, and the soul-satisfying glory of God in verse 5.
– Unparalleled seriousness of astonishment (like we see in verse 6) that we or our children or friends would turn away from this grace to a gospel that is no gospel.
– Unparalleled seriousness of anger at anyone who, like those in verse 7, distort the gospel and destroy human souls — let them be accursed.
Eternity at Stake
Just think of it. Accursed. Whose curse? Paul’s? Paul’s curse is as nothing compared to God’s curse. Paul says in Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” But now we have a group, purporting to come from James in Jerusalem (Galatians 2:12), who are directing the Galatians away from the all-sufficient, curse-removing substitution of Christ. So Paul says, Cursed — damned — be those who lead people away from the curse-removing gospel of Christ. Damned be the damners.
This is happening to people in your church and your family. They are being exposed to kinds of “gospel” — which are no gospel — every day. They are being lured away from Christ as their supreme treasure and away from grace. And they need to hear from you a very serious word.
You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. (Galatians 5:4)
O foolish one! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. . . . Did you suffer so many things in vain — if indeed it was in vain? (Galatians 3:1, 4)
Woe to the pastor and worship leader who create an entertainment atmosphere in their church where this kind of seriousness feels out of place.
Authority and Justification
Two of the great, indispensable truths of the Christian faith that the protestant Reformation recovered in Scripture out from under the mountains of sacramentalism and ritual and meritorious works in the Roman Catholic church were
- the supreme authority of Scripture over all human authority (including the Pope and all Councils), and
- the truth that sinful human beings stand justified before God not on the basis of any righteousness of their own doing, but only on the basis of Christ — crucified, risen, righteous.
Those two recoveries are sometimes called the formal principle of the Reformation (the supreme authority of Scripture) and the material principle of the Reformation (the truth of justification by grace alone through faith alone on the basis of Christ alone).
The reason Paul’s letter to the Galatians was so crucial in the recovery of these truths is that these two principles are exactly what this book deals with. Chapters 1 and 2 deal mainly with the formal principle — Paul’s apostolic authority. Chapters 3 and 4 deal mainly with the material principle — the truth of justification by faith apart from works of the law. Chapters 5 and 6 deal mainly with what that looks like in life.
From the Bottom Up
My assignment is chapter 1, and so the focus falls heavily not on the material content of the gospel of justification, but on the foundation of the gospel in its divine origin through Paul’s apostolic authority. The way I am going to tackle this is by focusing on Paul’s argument, not in the order that he gave it, but by rebuilding his argument from the deepest foundation that he mentions to the final outcome, with each step in the argument being built on the one that most immediately supports it.
Let me illustrate, since this is hard to grasp in the abstract, but easy to see from examples. Suppose you say to me, “I can’t talk now, I’m late, I have to hurry, or I’ll miss my train.” Now if I want to tell someone what you said, I could just repeat it as you said it. Or I could analyze it, and then rebuild it starting with the deepest foundation and ending with the final outcome. So, it would go like this: “He was late. Therefore, he was about to miss his train. Therefore, he was in a great hurry. Therefore, he couldn’t talk to you.” The order of the four statements in my exposition is totally different from the order you spoke them. But the logic is exactly the same.
“Be done with man-pleasing, or you will not be a reliable witness to the truth.”
Here’s the reason I find this so helpful to preach like this (It’s not the only way!). Where there are only four statements you can see immediately and intuitively what the logical connections are — what’s the cause and what’s the effect. But when you are dealing with 24 verses, as we are in Galatians 1, you can easily lose track of how the pieces fit together. That’s one of the things I think preaching is for: to make the structure of the argument plain. One way to do that is to rebuild it from the most foundational to the final outcome, with each step in the argument built on the one that most immediately supports it.
We’re going to work our way from the bottom up through eight steps in Paul’s argument to the final outcome of his astonishment at the Galatians’ departure from the gospel — which he hopes he can stop.
1. God set Paul apart for his salvation and his apostleship before he was born.
That’s where everything starts.
But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone.” (Galatians 1:15–16)
God chose Paul before he was born to be his emissary to the Gentiles. This is not even a main clause. Why point this out, as if in passing? It has at least two relevant implications:
The mission to include Gentiles through Paul was not an afterthought in the mind of God.
It’s not as though God looked down and saw how slow the twelve apostles were going about the Great Commission and said, “Well they are not doing the job I gave them; I’ll need plan B. I’ll find an enterprising Jew with some real diaspora experience and see what we can get going among the Gentiles with him. Hardly! God planned to spearhead the Gentile mission in the world with Paul before Paul was born (verses 15–16). Neither the Gentile mission nor Paul’s leadership in it was Plan B. God planned Paul’s apostleship before there were any apostles. That’s the first implication of Paul’s being set aside before birth. The apostleship he is defending was plan A, not an afterthought.
Paul did not simply put himself forward for the job.
God put Paul forward for the job, and he did it on the Damascus Road when Paul was a Christ-hating, Christian-persecuting Pharisee. Look at verses 13 and 14:
For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.
In other words, when God chose me before I was born to be his apostle to the Gentiles, he planned to let me become a hateful persecutor of his children, so that it would be crystal clear that, when he called me, it was totally his doing. “He chose me before I was born and let me become an enemy of the church for all those years so that it would be plain that his calling me was utterly and totally gracious. I had no desire to be an apostle or even a Christian. I hated Christians. I was advancing in zeal against the church, not for the church.”
The fact that Paul is a Christian and an apostle to the Gentiles is utterly inexplicable from any human standpoint. This leads now to step two in Paul’s argument.
2. God called Paul to himself by revealing Christ to him.
As Paul said in Romans 8:30, “Those whom he predestined he also called.” So, again verses 15-16:
But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me . . .
Before he was born, God destines him for his calling, then decades later in the midst of Paul’s hatred of Christians, God sovereignly takes what he had predestined. He calls Paul to himself. How? By revealing Christ to him on the Damascus Road. Verse 16: “He was pleased to reveal his Son to me.” It was more than a blinding physical encounter. God revealed Christ deeply to Paul — in Paul as verse 16 literally says. Paul saw the utter truth and beauty and worth of the Jesus he had been persecuting. And he saw that here was the end — the destruction — of all his religion. All his achievements were rubbish. And if this Jesus was anything, he was everything.
“Christ alone is the sum and total of your right standing with God. Don’t leave him as your supreme treasure.”
What would he do? Everything had to change. How could he even imagine what it would be like to serve the one he had tried to destroy? How could he imagine preaching a gospel that he hated and rethinking his entire understanding of the Old Testament? His answer is step three in the argument.
3. He avoided all contact with the twelve apostles by going to Arabia for three years and then spent only fifteen days getting to know Peter.
The point of verses 16–21 is that Paul did not consult with flesh and blood while his understanding of the gospel was taking shape. He did not depend on the twelve for his gospel or his apostolic commissioning. He only went to get to know Peter after three years. If his gospel and his authority were going to be valid, two things would need to be true: (1) His apostleship and gospel would need to be from Christ, not the apostles, and (2) his message — his gospel — would need to be in harmony with theirs. Independence in authority. Unity in message. That’s what verses 16–21 aim to show.
When God was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone [literally flesh and blood — I realized immediately this is not a time to depend on any human input; God is calling me to be a agent of divine revelation]; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me [you can hear the implication that he realizes he is being made an apostle like them], but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.
Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit [historeō — to get to know] Cephas and remained with him fifteen days [the implication being: I did not go to school with him. I did not get my gospel from him. The time was short — two weeks. I had been preparing for three years already, and the aim was to meet him. You’ll see in chapter 2 that the next visit was fourteen years later and Paul explicitly says in 2:6, “they added nothing to me.”]. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ.
So the point of those verses (16–21) was that, flesh and blood — that is neither the Jerusalem apostles nor any other human — did not call me; flesh and blood did not reveal Christ to me; and flesh and blood did not teach me the gospel. I am not dependent on Peter, James, and John. There is no apostolic succession to me. I am not secondary in apostolic authority.
4. Paul is a radically new man whose change can only be accounted for by the risen Christ and to the glory of God.
He ends his description of this period of non-influence from the apostles in verses 21–24 with the amazing impact he had on the Christians in Judea.
Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ [during all these years he was not circulating in the territory of the apostles — they don’t know him in that region]. They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they glorified God because of me.
Paul the persecutor and destroyer of Christians, Paul the Pharisee, “who was advancing in Judaism beyond many of [his] own age among my people, so extremely zealous was [he] for the traditions of [the] fathers” (verse 14) — this Paul was preaching the faith he had tried to destroy. Indeed, at enormous cost. And they gave God glory. Paul’s point is: there is no adequate explanation for my life, apart from the glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
This leads, then, to step five in the argument. All of verses 13– 24 are written in support for this.
You can read the rest of the sermon at DesiringGod.org.
By John Piper. © Desiring God Foundation. Source: desiringGod.org
Sermon video, pictures, and text originally found at DesiringGod.org. Used with permission.