One day, I received a phone call from an upset member of our extended family. She had just ended a phone call with a friend of hers. This friend had recently joined a church that required all of its members to tithe. Tithing, giving 10% from off the top of one’s income for God’s work in the world, is a great thing. It’s even Biblical! But what the friend of my family member said wasn’t Biblical. “Do you tithe?” the friend asked. “No,” said my family member, “we haven’t gotten to that point yet. But we’re moving in that direction.” Without pause, her “friend” said, “You’re going to hell.” A few more such “pleasantries” were shared, the conversation blessedly ended, and my relative, in a panic for her immortal soul, called me. She asked, “Am I going to hell for not tithing?”
I asked her to think of a few famous passages from the New Testament. The Gospel of Mark records only one sermon of Jesus and this is it in its entirety: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” No mention of tithing there as a condition for salvation, just repent, believe.
I reminded her of John 3:16, where Jesus says that everyone who believes in—entrusts themselves to—Him will have eternal life. Jesus didn’t say, “those who believe and tithe,” I pointed out.
I suggested that she also look in Romans, where the apostle Paul gives an extended--and not very flattering--catalog of the sins by which we violate the will of God and are separated from him. Paul talks about how we human beings think ourselves to be enlightened, yet do dark deeds condemned by God. Paul mentions—I’m using Eugene Peterson’s translation here—rampant evil, grabbing and grasping [that’s what we call covetousness], vicious backstabbing, envy, wanton killing, bickering, cheating, mean-spiritedness, fork-tongued God-bashing, bullying, swaggering, insufferable windbagging, sex outside of marriage, and men lying with men and women lying with women. And yet, Paul says, the power of all those sins to destroy our relationship with God can be erased. You don’t have to tithe. You don’t have to do proscribed religious acts. Paul says, “We hold that a person is justified by faith [in Christ] apart from the works prescribed by [religious] law.”
Turn from sin and believe in the Savior Jesus, Who did all that is necessary to free us from the death that we deserve because of our sin. Christ has done all to save us; we must repent for sin, believe in Jesus. That is the gospel—the good news--and there is no other.
Yet, as that frantic call from my relative shows, there are people who like to change this gospel with which Jesus has entrusted those of us who are part of His Church.
Some like to add conditions to our salvation. “You need to do good works to earn God’s favor,” they say. “You need to speak in tongues or you really aren’t a believer,” others will tell us. Or, as happened with my relative, some will tell us, “You have to tithe. Give more. Do more.”
There are other people who do something just as destructive to the gospel. They subtract from it and from the Word of God. “The Bible is passé,” they tell us, “we don’t have to listen to it when it tells us about things like, [pick your favorite sin]: sexual morality…or killing…or taking care of creation…or refraining from gossip…or paying our taxes.“ “Jesus died for all,” others will say, “Nobody has to believe in Him.” “The only gospel,” some say, “is the social gospel. We don’t need to tell others about Jesus. All we have to do is restructure the world’s social and economic systems.”
Yet the Bible says that the only way the world or any individual can be put right is for people to repent and believe in the Savior.
So, why is it that, in spite of the clarity of the one true gospel of Jesus Christ, Christians are constantly dogged—and tempted--by those who either want to add to or subtract from that gospel?
I think it’s because this business of adding to and subtracting from the gospel appeals to our egos. Those who want to add more to what’s necessary for our salvation are looking for brownie points and bragging rights. Those who want to subtract from what’s necessary for our salvation are looking for either easy virtue, the applause of the world, or a sainthood of their own making.
In both cases, a different gospel, an alien, ungodly gospel, turns the true gospel on its head. In the true gospel God acts, we respond; God creates, we are made new; God dies on a cross, our sins are forgiven; God sends His Holy Spirit and we are empowered to have faith, empowered to live differently.
In the fake gospels of addition or subtraction, we human beings replace God’s truth with our puny wisdom. In the fake gospels, we are the subjects and God is a holy afterthought.
I say all of this by way of introduction to the New Testament book of Galatians, the subject of a sermon series we begin today. Galatians was written by the apostle Paul sometime between 49 and 56AD, to the Christian churches in Galatia, a region of central Asia Minor. We know Asia Minor today as Turkey. Some years before, Paul had started churches there.
Galatians is a call to the freedom that only comes from the good news of Jesus. But Galatians is also an angry letter. At its beginning, Paul dispenses with his usual expressions of thankfulness for the people to whom he writes, found in his other letters. Instead, he lets the group of Galatian churches have it. “I am astonished,” he writes early on, “that you are so quickly deserting the one [God] who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is a different gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.”
Paul is angry with an anger born of deep Christian love, because the all-Gentile Galatian churches—willfully ignorant, infantile, and lazy in their faith, apathetic, willing to go along with the latest theological craze—have allowed themselves to be beguiled by other preachers who swept into their churches following Paul’s departure.
These preachers of “another gospel” were what scholars today call, Judaizers. Judaizers said that non-Jews—Gentiles—who became followers of Jesus, had to first become Jews before they could claim the free gift of new life in Christ. The men had to be circumcised, the Judaizers said. Men, women, and children all had to abide by Jewish dietary laws. They had to observe Jewish religious days. What Jesus did through His cross and resurrection were all well and good, the Judaizers effectively said, but if the Galatian Christians didn’t jump through these old religious hoops, they would lose their connection to God, they would lose their salvation. The Judaizers were adding to the gospel.
Instead of challenging the preachers of this fake gospel, the Galatian Christians simply went along. Rather than knowing Christ and God’s Word for themselves, they dodged responsibility for their own eternal lives, deferring to "experts" happy to do their thinking for them. They allowed Jesus, His cross and His empty tomb, to be moved from the center of their faith and lives. The Judaizers convinced them to instead, put their own religiosity center stage. That was great for their egos, but as Paul points out repeatedly in his letter to them, it also took them away from God and God’s grace in Christ.
In today’s lesson, Paul contends for the one true gospel. He says that, contrary to what the Judaizers said, the gospel he had preached to them came straight from God and was affirmed by Old Testament Scriptures, by the scars he'd received for Christ, and by the agreement of the Judean churches, led by Peter and Jesus’ brother James, who had been around when Jesus lived, died, and rose.
The gospel of new life as a free gift for all who believe in Jesus needs nothing added to it or taken away from it. It’s the only way to the freedom to become our true selves in this life and in the next. Paul says that because followers of Christ are certain of their eternal destinies, they’re free to rely not on human additions to or subtractions from the gospel of Christ. He tells the Galatians not to fall back into slavery to the world, but to live and be free in Christ.
There’s a lot of anger in our world today, some of it founded, some of it not. But I think that in Galatians, Paul is telling us today that the only things truly worthy of our anger as Christians are the lies told by those, who, as was true of some in the first century, claim to speak in Christ’s Name, but by their additions and subtractions, put the eternal salvation of the gullible and the well-meaning in jeopardy.
Those who embrace the one true gospel, surrendering all to Jesus Christ, do not have trouble-free lives. But they do have free lives—free from sin and death, free from stewing over ourselves because we know we’re always in God’s hands.
In the next few weeks as we look at Galatians, we’ll consider Paul’s call to live in the power of the one true gospel. The way that life looks is well summarized by New Testament scholar Charles Cousar:
At the core of the Christian experience a centrifugal force pushes believers-sometimes successfully, sometimes not-beyond the temptation to tarry forever with their own problems or with preoccupation with Christ's benefits so that they may join God's work in convincing the world of his holy love.Because of Christ, are you certain of your place in God’s kingdom?
Are you angry with those who add to and subtract from the gospel?
Do you want to convince your neighbors and friends of the holy love of God?
Then I invite you over these next few weeks to read Galatians on your own and to come to worship on Sunday morning to be fortified and empowered by this word from God and to be pushed by the centrifugal force of God—His Holy Spirit—into your daily lives to live and share the one true gospel, the new life with God that comes only through faith in Christ.
At the end of today's lesson, Paul says that as the first century churches in Judea heard reports about how we was sharing the gospel with Gentiles and they were coming into an eternal relationship with Christ, "they glorified God because of" him. My prayer is that, as was true of Paul, God will be glorified because we live and share the one true gospel of Jesus Christ! Amen