In Galatians 1, verses 6 and 7, Paul, with great economy of language, begins to address what had occasioned the writing of this letter to the churches in Galatia. “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- not that there is another one….” It is hard to know if Paul is more “astonished” that they are buying into this “different gospel” in the first place, or how “quickly” it happened, although it is probably safe to assume some combination of both. Sufficed to say, this church, that Paul had so recently planted, had begun to let go of the gospel he delivered to them and take hold “another one,” a false one, a non-gospel which- as he will begin to address in the coming chapters- would only serve to steal their freedom in Christ and return them to bondage. Perhaps only months earlier, these same Galatians were joyfully receiving the good news of Jesus Christ, taking hold of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone, but now they were beginning to lay hold of a “different gospel,”
How did this sudden shift happen? Paul goes on to give an answer as to the cause, “there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” It would seem that within months of Paul leaving Galatia, others had slipped in, desiring to twist the gospel. A little later, when Paul recounts his second visit to the Jerusalem Church, he speaks of “false brothers… who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery- to them we did not yield… so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you” (Gal 2:4-6).
It’s a pretty safe bet that the crowd that showed up after Paul in Galatia- spreading a false word- were of the same ilk as those he had to address, with the Apostles, in Jerusalem. It is likely that these “false brothers” did not deny the gospel that Paul preached to the Galatians, but rather labeled it incomplete. Sure, they might say, grace though Faith in Christ is good, but that’s not enough, that just gets you started. You also have to be circumcised, adhere to the Mosaic dietary laws, take part in the festivals and feasts of Israel, etc. Essentially, they taught that believing in Jesus- and His work on the Cross- was a good start, but if you really want ‘in,’ you must become Jewish- you had to join the physical family of Abraham and keep all the laws of Moses. To the Galatian churches, which were mostly comprised of Gentile Greeks, who had come to faith through the ministry of Paul, this teaching probably rang true(ish). After all, Jesus was Jewish, Christianity was founded on the ancient religion of Judaism, the Apostolic Church was located in Jerusalem, wouldn’t it make sense that in order to follow Christ- to truly belong to Him- they too would have to become Jewish?
However, Paul saw that there was more at stake here than just whether Gentiles believers had to take part in Jewish religious practices in order to be Christian. He saw, in this distortion of the gospel, an attempt to undo what Christ had done. Jesus came to free his people from the bondage of sin and death, but these teachers sought to enslave them again. Jesus came to fulfill the law of Moses and reveal God the Father to His people, but these false brothers sought to reestablish the law and obscure the face of the Father. As Charles Haddon Spurgeon so aptly wrote, “Human wisdom delights to trim and arrange the doctrines of the cross into a system more artificial and more congenial with the depraved tastes of fallen nature; instead, however, of improving the gospel carnal wisdom pollutes it, until it becomes another gospel, and not the truth of God at all.”
How did these false teacher distort the gospel? By saying that the finished work of Christ on your behalf, on its own, is inadequate, that you must also add to it works of the Law, or religious practices, or righteousness of your own. Again, Spurgeon spoke truly when he wrote, “There is an inherent blasphemy in seeking to add to what Christ Jesus in His dying moments declared to be finished, or to improve that in which the Lord Jehovah finds perfect satisfaction.” At the end of the day, this different gospel, that the Galatians were beginning to buy into, stood in stark contrast- even antithesis- to the true gospel of Jesus Christ, which- as Paul would later write to the Ephesian believers- proclaimed that, “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Paul will spend the rest of this letter reminding the churches in Galatia that nothing may be added to, or taken away from, this gospel, without losing it entirely!