Paul and the False Teachers
Apr 2, 2010 5012
God is looking for believers with enough spiritual fortitude to stand and directly oppose the deception of legalism with humility.
When it came to certain non-essential matters of faith Paul called for tolerance. For example, in Romans 14:1 he says ‘Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgement on disputable matters.’ His attitude changed however whenever he detected that the integrity of the gospel of grace was in jeopardy. ‘But even if we, or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!’ (Gal. 1:8).
The church at Galatia had been infected by legalism; the purity of the Gospel had been compromised. ‘Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ’ (Gal. 1:7).
Gal. 1:7 tells us a number of important things. First, it tells us that this false gospel had its origin from within the community of believers, not unbelievers. Secondly, it tells us that the content of the message of the false gospel includes a message about faith in Jesus for salvation. How do we know that? Paul says that the false teachers were ‘perverting the Gospel of Christ.’ So it was still a message claiming to be a gospel about Jesus, albeit a perversion! For the Galatian believers to get confused about this there must have been a certain amount of truth and similarities with the message that Paul preached. If these false teachers had told the Galatian Christians to totally abandon faith in Jesus altogether, they would not have attracted a credible following. This means that the message had to sound orthodox enough to be taken seriously.
So what is a perversion? The New American Standard Bible calls it a ‘distortion’ of the Gospel. The New Living Translation says that the false teachers at Galatia were ‘twisting’ the Gospel of Christ. So this begs the question: how did these false teachers twist and distort the gospel of Jesus in such a way that they confused believers at Galatia? Does Paul tell us exactly what the nature of this perversion was? He surely does! He discusses and clearly defines this false Gospel in the remainder of the book. As we read on in this letter we will find that the false gospel had something to do with God’s law being mixed together with the message of grace and faith.
In Galatians 3:1-3 Paul gives a clear description of the legalism, the false gospel that had infiltrated the Church at Galatia. As we look at these verses carefully we will note that the false Gospel was not simply ‘salvation by obedience to the law’. The false teachers were believers in Jesus (See Gal. 2:4 cf. Acts 15:1,5,24). The false gospel, the legalism Paul was facing, was a mixture of faith in Jesus, plus obedience to the law. Look at what Paul says: ‘After beginning with the Spirit [by believing as the previous verse points out] … you are now trying to attain your goal by human effort.’ The New Century Version puts it like this: ‘You began your life in Christ by the Spirit. Now are you trying to make it complete by your own power? That is foolish.’ So the false gospel doesn’t advocate that faith in Jesus is not necessary. It is saying that faith in Jesus is not enough.
The false gospel of Christ, the false message of salvation is faith in Jesus plus something else! The false gospel is not salvation by works, as many believe but salvation by faith plus works. This means that the true and only gospel of Christ is faith alone in the doing and dying of Jesus. Any message about faith in Jesus’ death for salvation, that adds human efforts into the equation, according to Paul ‘is really no gospel at all’ (Gal. 1:7).
Unfortunately this is what many sincere Christians are taught and believe today. They believe that a person is saved when they come to faith in Jesus, but then they must obey God in order to maintain and keep that salvation. This has been the cause of much despair, guilt and condemnation. We may think that we are not deceived by this false gospel, but consider this; how is your connection with God when you have blown it? Can you boldly and joyful enter into his presence, or do you feel distant? If it is the latter, then maybe the false gospel is more real to you than what you are willing to admit.
Whenever we read of Paul’s attitude and reaction to this false gospel we see another side of him emerge. The Paul who calls for tolerance, forgiveness and mercy becomes a lion. Let’s look at some of Paul’s reactions. In Galatians 2:11, 13-14 Paul tells us that even the great apostle Peter was influenced by this false Gospel. When Peter had met up with Paul in Antioch, he called him a hypocrite to his face, because he had not been straightforward about the truth of the Gospel (Gal. 2:11, 13-14). Imagine that! Peter himself had been affected by this false teaching. How would you feel about the idea of confronting the apostle Peter and calling him a hypocrite? Remember, this was the guy who carried a sword with him and cut off a man’s ear. This was the guy that Jesus called the rock! This was the guy whose shadow healed a multitude. Yet when Paul heard that the Gospel was compromised by Peter, he directly and passionately opposed him and called him a hypocrite.
Now let’s notice the way Paul speaks about the false teachers themselves. The false teachers called for faith in Jesus, plus obedience to the law in general, and circumcision in particular, as a means of gaining and maintaining salvation.
The Jerusalem council faced the same situation addressed in Galatians by Paul. It seems the false teachers claimed that their message represented the message of the apostles at Jerusalem (See Acts 15:1, 5, 10, 24 cf. Gal. 1:7; 2:4). Now look at the way Paul speaks about those advocating ‘circumcision’ [a catchphrase including obedience to the law in general] plus faith in Jesus. In Galatians 5:12 Paul calls them not to stop at circumcision but to go the whole way and castrate themselves. The New King James Version says ‘cut themselves off’. The marginal reading informs us that this means to ‘mutilate themselves’. The New International Version reads: ‘I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves’. The Contemporary English Version graphically and accurately translates the Greek by saying: ‘not only get circumcised but would cut off much more!’ The Greek actually means to castrate.
This is embarrassing for western Christians today. This seems very brutal, crude, uncaring, insensitive and impolite. Any pastor who would stand up against legalism today in such graphic terms would be labelled, and would possibly lose credibility or even be sacked. Nonetheless, under divine inspiration Paul felt free enough to record, in graphic terms, his holy hatred towards any perversion of the Gospel of grace. And this is Scripture. While this may be embarrassing for us today, it certainly was not the case for Paul. His explicit language has become part of our New Testament and God has not seen it fit to change his word in any way regards this matter.
This is not the only place where Paul speaks out aggressively against legalistic teachers. In Philippians 3:2 Paul refers to these false teachers as dogs! ‘Watch out for those dogs.’ As we read further in this chapter Paul identifies ‘those dogs’ as false teachers who distort the gospel. He tells us that they were putting ‘confidence in the flesh’, that is, in human works (Phil. 3:4).
So that we don’t misunderstand what ‘confidence in the flesh’ means, Paul tells us in Phil. 3:6 and 9 that he himself had been guilty of this same thing: ‘… as for legalistic righteousness, [he was] faultless [when it came to earning] … righteousness that comes through the law’. In retrospect and in commenting on legalistic righteousness Paul employs even more graphic sanctified language. After having abandoned the law as a means of gaining and maintaining acceptance with God, Paul can say, ‘But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ … I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes through the law, but that which is through faith in Christ’ (Phil. 4:7-9). The New International Version has politely translated the Greek word skubalon as ‘rubbish’ however, the word is more graphic than this and has been accurately translated ‘dung’ in the King James Version. Strong’s Enhanced Lexicon informs us that this word means, ‘any refuse, as the excrement of animals.’1
We need to understand that Paul was very passionate and protective about the pure message of the grace of God. He was a patient, humble and merciful man. As we saw in Romans 14:1 Paul made room for alternate theologies and called for tolerance. However, as soon as Paul detected the presence of legalism in the Church he was quick to assertively confront it, defending the Gospel and jealously protecting the flock. He wrote: ‘Some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. We did not give in to them for a moment so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you’ (Gal. 2:4-5).
Legalism is still rampant today. Jesus plus, is still the catchphrase preached in many pulpits: Jesus plus the sacraments; Jesus plus baptism by immersion; Jesus plus speaking in tongues; Jesus plus holiness; Jesus plus the Sabbath. Where are the ‘Paul’s’ of our day? Where are the believers who will humbly, yet directly and passionately preach the purity of the gospel of grace: faith in Jesus, plus nothing?
1. Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon, (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.) 1995.