By Paul Koch –
Today we pick up where we left off last week with St. Paul’s powerful letter to the churches in Galatia. If you recall, the letter began much the way all of Paul’s letters begin with those great words of peace being proclaimed to those who received his words. But we also recall how suddenly the tone of the letter changed. It moved quickly from “Grace to you and peace from God our Father” to “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ.” It turns out that the Galatians had been turning away from the Gospel that Paul first preached there, the Good News that had established them and brought them together as a family of believers and had been chasing off after other false teachings. Paul rightly sees that this turn from the pure Gospel is no honest mistake but a deadly trap that leads to a divine curse. So his letter takes the form of a passionate plea and corrective to the errors that are taking place.
For Paul to give such a stern warning about following after a different gospel alerts us all, I think, to this present danger in the church. For just as there were those who distorted the gospel of Christ in Paul’s day, so there are multitudes who strive to do that very thing in our day. And so we might very well wonder how it is that we remain in the true Gospel. How do we know that we are on the right side; that we are believing, teaching, and confessing the one true faith? In the end we need to know what the source of the Gospel is so that we have the confidence, the lasting assurance that we have not bought into a curse. In addition, if we know the source then we know that anything that comes from a different source is certainly not the Gospel.
Now Paul seems to anticipate this line of thinking in his letter to the Galatians. After he calls them out for chasing after false teaching he lays out the source of the true faith. He says, “I would have you know brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” When Paul speaks of the source of the gospel which preaches, when he explains how he came to possess the truth he proclaimed, what we find is nothing short of the story of his conversion to the faith. If we follow the story of Paul’s conversion and then his work as an apostle, if we pay attention to what it was St. Paul did and how he went about it, we are given a clear picture of the foundation from which the true faith springs.
There is no doubt that Paul is the most prolific and influential of all the apostles. The bulk of our New Testament is written by his hand and his travels account for the first major missionary efforts to reach out with the good news of salvation in Christ alone. But equally as important to the great things Paul does is the place from which he began. As he says in his own words, “You have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.” It is important to remember that this great apostle was first a destroyer of the church. He was zealous for the traditions of the fathers. We recall how he was there when Steven was stoned to death and how he would organize men to drag believers in Jesus out of their homes and cast them into prison.
And so when he was called by Christ, when he was knocked to the ground by the revelation of our Lord on the road to Damascus, he didn’t come from some indifferent position. He wasn’t one of those guys with the “Coexist” bumper sticker wondering why we can’t just all get along. No, he was an outspoken and bold enemy of Christ.
The reason why this is important, why this part of Paul’s life is necessary for us to remember is that it stands as a testimony to the source of the Gospel message he proclaims. This message of life and hope in Christ alone did not, in fact, could not have begun with him. He isn’t the source. He isn’t the creator or teacher of this good news. He received it. The Gospel came from outside of St. Paul. In fact, it knocked him to the ground and made him blind for three days. And so Paul says, “When he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called 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…” The point he is driving home is that in his preaching he is handing on that which he received. He is simply delivering the goods entrusted to him by our Lord Jesus Christ.
The source of the Gospel is Christ himself. Christ is the Gospel message and he is the one who proclaims it to us all. It was Christ who came to Paul on the road to Damascus and it is Christ who comes to us even now through his holy Word. Like Paul we are not the originators of the Gospel. We didn’t create it or shape the message. We’ve received it, and like Paul we hand it on. Now this may sound like simple stuff to you. You may be wondering why we need to spend so much time discussing the source of the Good News. Of course it’s Christ. Of course it doesn’t come from within ourselves but is received from outside. But this is precisely the place where those other gospels Paul warns about try to worm their way into our fellowship. It is a subtle and deliberate move from looking outside of ourselves and the gifts we receive to looking within ourselves to find the assurance of the good news.
This move from the outside to the inside is a rampant problem throughout the church. We are encouraged time and again to look within for our confidence and assurance. There are the prosperity preachers who say that if you have enough faith you will be blessed in greater riches. If you have not yet received such richest the problem is within, something you are not doing, something you are not giving up for Jesus. There are the churches that call for proof of your new life in Christ, either it is speaking in tongues or living a more righteous life or supporting the right causes. Baptism then becomes a public testimony of an inner faith. The Lord’s Supper becomes a willing demonstration of my choice to belong to this or that household of faith. I prayed the right prayer, I decided to follow Jesus, I have made the right sacrifice, what have you done? Salvation becomes an act of our will, something we do, something we have to strive for if we are to be saved.
So we are sent diving deep within ourselves for hope and confidence, but there is none to be found within. Within Paul was a persecutor of the church par excellence, a hater of the Gospel. Within you is sin and fear and judgment and anger and spite and lust and all matter of evil and shame.
The hope, the confidence, the assurance of our salvation comes from the outside. For us it comes from the Word. The Word of God speaks the truth about us and about the works of Christ. The Word delivers then to us the great actions of God. The Word kills you in your sin, it declares that the inside is the way of the lost and condemned. And then that Word declares what Christ has done and is doing to you and for you from the outside. He who knew no sin became sin on your behalf. He dies for the ungodly, he justifies the wicked. In fact, he has sought and saved each and every one of you. The gospel has not abandoned you to your own devices. It has not left you to work from the inside. The gospel has come at you from the outside, knocked you to the ground, blinded your eyes, and then lifted you up to a new life in Christ.
Our saving faith is something we have received. Like Paul before us we were chosen and selected by God. We are the receivers of the greatest treasure to ever grace the world of man. A word from the outside, a word that says, “I forgive you; so go in peace, for you are free!”