Galatians 1:6-12

Galatians 1:6-12


I’d like to start this morning with a question.  “How many of you consider yourselves to be reasonably tolerant individuals?”  Will you raise your hands?  I suppose that most of those who haven’t raised their hands are worried that I have asked a trick question.  A few may even honestly recognize some significant areas of intolerance in your life.  I want to communicate a radical idea to you today, namely that . . .

Tolerance can be intolerable.

Tolerance is the Number One value in American culture today.  Josh McDowell wrote that he asked his son, Sean (at the time a 17-year-old high school senior), “Were you taught any absolutes at school?”  He responded, “Yes.”  Encouraged, Josh asked him, “What?”  And his answer was “Tolerance.” [i]  

There is something sacrosanct about tolerance in modern political and social life.  Without much exaggeration it can be said that the ultimate (and almost only) generally acceptable litmus test of morality is tolerance.  No other single category–not justice, not equality, not even freedom–has won such wide support in the Western world as tolerance.  

On November 25, 1981 the United Nations General Assembly adopted a “Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.”[ii]  Now listen to that wording carefully: “Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.” 

Now with that in mind let’s read our Scripture text for today, Galatians 1:6-12:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel‑‑ {7} which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. {8} 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! {9} As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!  

Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ. {11} I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. {12} I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.”

How would Paul fare if judged by the U.N.’s “Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief”?  Not very well, at least not when it comes to discussing the Gospel.  Paul was completely intolerant of anyone who would mess with the message of the Gospel.  So serious is their offense that he anathematizes them–i.e. he calls for their eternal condemnation to hell.  

What are we to make of this?  Do we hang our heads with shame at this blatant example of intolerance on the part of one of the leading spokesmen of Christianity?  Do we cut Galatians out of our Bibles?  Do we ignore Paul’s militant narrow-mindedness and instead try to focus people’s attention on the meek and mild Jesus of Nazareth?  Do we explain it away as the view of a relatively primitive man who knew no better?  No, I think a better choice is to recognize that . . .

Tolerance is clearly a relative value, not an absolute one.  Even our cultural elites treat tolerance as an absolute only when it is being applied to what they consider politically correct ideas.  They demand that we be tolerant of all religions, but they themselves cannot tolerate a faith that claims Jesus as the only Way.  They demand tolerance for abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia, yet they themselves cannot tolerate the death of a lab rat to save human life.  They demand that we be tolerant of homosexuality, bisexuality, pornography, etc., but they are intolerant of those who even suggest that sexual orientation can possibly change through the power of the Gospel.  

But I really don’t mean to complain when I say that tolerance is a relative thing for these people, because it is for us, too.  No one is tolerant of everything or intolerant of everything.  The fact is, what all of us need is a careful analysis of the basis for our attitudes toward tolerance.  How do we determine what we should tolerate and what we should not tolerate.  Obviously emotions are not an appropriate guide, because they change constantly.  Political correctness will not serve as a valid guide because political correctness is established by the elites currently in power, and that changes too.  The church is not even an infallible guide, because the church down through the centuries has tolerated some things that everyone of us are scandalized by today–slavery, for example, or the execution of heretics and witches.

Earlier this year our own Marilyn McDonald wrote an editorial for the Maneater, the student newspaper at Mizzou, where she has two children attending.  The newspaper had polled its readers, asking, “Are Christian values and tolerance toward gays, lesbians, and bisexuals mutually exclusive?”  Marilyn very astutely pointed out that it depends upon what one means by tolerance. Traditionally tolerance has meant living at peace with those whose values and beliefs may differ from one’s own, being able to distinguish between what a person thinks (and does) and the person himself, being able to love the sinner while not loving the sin.  By that definition, Christian values and tolerance toward LGBT values are not mutually exclusive.

But, she pointed out, the postmodern definition of tolerance tends to view all values, beliefs, lifestyles and truth claims as equal.  What a person values and believes now is the same thing as who he is.  No longer can you accept only the person; you must also accept, endorse and promote his values and beliefs as equal to your own.  By that definition, Christian values and tolerance toward LGBT values may be mutually exclusive.   

She goes on to say that the uninformed will often argue that Jesus himself was “tolerant,” but the Gospels show he was tolerant of people only in the traditional sense of the word.  He valued, respected and accepted people as made in the image of God, but He did not tolerate their behavior that violated the standards laid down in Scripture.  In countless instances, He showed love to people, but at the same time commanded them to quit sinning.

I applaud Marilyn for her insight and also for her boldness in speaking truthfully to a hostile audience.  I think she was right on the money.  But Paul introduces here still another level of difficulty for us in this matter of tolerance.  Perhaps I can explain it best by setting up the following contrast:

Postmodernism seems to be calling on us to tolerate the sinner and the sin.

         Christianity generally responds that we can tolerate the sinner but not the sin. 

But here Paul seems to be intolerant of both the sin and the sinner.  

He completely rejects the new gospel the Galatian heretics offer and then calls for their eternal damnation.  What’s going on here?

I suggest to you that the sin of the Galatian heretics–distorting the Gospel message–is a uniquely serious sin–a truly mortal sin, if I may borrow a concept we Protestants don’t often use.  Traditional Christian tolerance does not apply, much less postmodern tolerance. 

Paul was actually a pretty tolerant individual on most occasions.  You will perhaps recall his words from prison in Philippians 1.  I read them to you from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message:

It’s true that some here preach Christ because with me out of the way, they think they’ll step right into the spotlight.  But the others do it with the best heart in the world.  One group is motivated by pure love, knowing that I am here defending the Message, wanting to help.  The others, now that I’m out of the picture, are merely greedy, hoping to get something out of it for themselves.  Their motives are bad.  They see me as their competition, and so the worse it goes for me, the better–they think–for them.

So how am I to respond?  I’ve decided that I really don’t care about their motives, whether mixed, bad, or indifferent.  Every time one of them opens his mouth, Christ is proclaimed, so I just cheer them on! (Phil. 1:12-18)

Paul could tolerate bad motives, selfish ambition, even persecution, so long as the Gospel was being preserved and preached, as it was in Philippi.  But when the fundamentals of the faith were at stake, particularly the truth of the Gospel, Paul was intolerant to the extreme. 

What I want to communicate today is that . . .

The Bible is our only reliable guide as to when and how to exercise tolerance.  The Bibleinforms us of what we should be tolerant and what we should not tolerate.  And the Bible informs us of whom we should be tolerant and whom we should not tolerate.  Galatians 1 is not our pattern for dealing with any and all disagreements in the church or in society; but it is a clear warning that we must not “mess with the message.”

Now all that is by way of introduction to this brief passage.  The most unusual thing about Paul’s opening words in verse 6, “I am astonished,” lies in what’s missing, for this is where he normally gives thanks to God.  In virtually all of his letters he offers first the greeting, then the gratitude.  Even in his letter to the messed‑up church at Corinth, the salutation is followed by the statement, “I always thank God for you.”  But not here.  Instead we read, in effect, “I am amazed, shocked, stunned that you have so quickly turned traitor to Him who called you by the grace of Christ for a different Gospel.  So quickly, even before the Gospel has had time to lose its freshness, you have started looking around for something new.  You have surrendered without a struggle.” 

You will recall from last week that we said the purpose of the Book of Galatians is to defend the Gospel of grace and to substantiate that a man is saved by believing, not by achieving.  The false teachers in Galatia, as we will discover in a few weeks, were demanding, among other things, that new converts be circumcised before they could be considered saved.  They didn’t deny that one must believe in Jesus for salvation.  But they added that one must keep the Law as well.  One must add his own works to the work of Christ.  Such a view, Paul tells us, amounts to a different Gospel.  It’s an extremely serious matter to accept another Gospel and an even more serious matter to teach another Gospel.  He addresses first those who are toying with accepting.

Anyone who tolerates additions to or subtractions from the Gospel message is in effect deserting God.  (6) 

There is a lesson in the fact that Paul lays blame on the Galatian Christians before attacking their false teachers, and it is that we are individually responsible to God for what we believe.  When you stand before God you will never be able to lay the blame for your spiritual condition on a false teacher or on a cult leader or even on a pastor who may not have been well-balanced.  The Word of God is near you–in your hands and in your heart–and it is your responsibility to know it and to live it.  

The Apostle says, in effect, that to allow oneself to be misled into believing another Gospel is to become guilty of deserting God.  This is not simply a matter of exchanging one theological opinion for another.  They are in the process of abandoning a personal loving God, because every attempt to add anything to or take anything from God’s grace is in effect an assertion that His plan of salvation is insufficient.

No human failing is more universally despised than desertion.  Everyone despises turncoats, traitors, people whose loyalty is rightfully expected.  Parents who desert their children, spouses who desert their mates, players who desert their team, leaders who desert their followers, soldiers who desert their ranks, are routinely and universally despised.  Yet Paul says, “You are deserting the One who called you by the grace of Christ.”

Now I grant you the Galatians who were toying with this heresy didn’t see it that way.  On the contrary, they probably considered themselves loyal and sincere enthusiasts for God in that they were advocating the necessity of keeping His Law.  But who should know better than Paul that a person can be sincere in his religious pursuits and still be sincerely wrong?  After all, Paul himself had once sought to destroy the church, believing he was doing God a service.  Listen to his own testimony when he was about to go on trial in Jerusalem:

(Acts 22:2‑5)  “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. Under Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers and was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. {4} I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, {5} as also the high priest and all the Council can testify. I even obtained letters from them to their brothers in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.”

But then he met Christ on the Road to Damascus and discovered the truth.  Paul learned how dangerous it is to put religious feelings above revealed truth.  No matter how sincere the Galatians might be in their pursuit of the Law as a requirement for salvation, they are wrong and their action is actually an act of rebellion against God.

Stop and think about that for a moment.  A good thing can become wrong if done for the wrong reason.  Keeping the Law of God is good, but not as a requirement for salvation.  A modern example, more relevant today than circumcision, would be baptism.  God’s Word makes it clear that baptism is His desire and will for every believer.  To submit to baptism is an act of obedience to God’s law and, I believe, allows many people to reach a new level in their walk with God.

However, there are many in the church today who teach that a person must be baptized in order to be saved and that if you are not baptized for the remission of sins, you are not saved.  Salvation, then, is viewed as being achieved through God’s 

grace in Christ, plus obedience in baptism.  That, friends, is a different Gospel. 

Now a second point Paul makes is that . . .

Anyone who tolerates additions to or subtractions from the Gospel message is turning from the “Good News” to bad news.

I’m sure most of you are aware that the term Gospel means “Good News.”  It is the good news that God has taken care of our sin problem by means of the payment Jesus made by dying on the cross.  Paul tells us that if we mess with that message we are turning to “a different Gospel–which is really no gospel at all.”  A distorted Gospel may look similar, but it is no longer good news but bad news.  

Now the reason this particular distortion of the Gospel spells bad news is that we can never be confident we have kept enough laws or kept them sufficiently to be sure of our salvation.  After all, why stop at baptism as a requirement for salvation?  Why not add communion or tithing or church attendance or avoiding gossip, etc.  There are dozens of biblical laws we are commanded to keep besides baptism. 

When you boil it all down, the Bible itself offers us two ways of salvation.  One is to keep the law of God.  But it must be kept perfectly, all of it, always, without exception, and not just outwardly, but inwardly.  But that way of salvation is only theoretical, because no one but Jesus Christ has ever fully kept God’s Law.  The other way of salvation is to accept the forgiveness for our sins which Christ offers us freely through His death.  There are no other ways, and the two ways cannot be mixed.  A man must choose as the way of salvation either law or grace.  Trying to mix them turns the good news into bad news.

In verse 7 the Apostle turns his attention from the confused Christians to the false teachers who are confusing them, as he tells the Galatians and us that 

Anyone who adds to or subtracts from the Gospel message is troubling the Church and deserves eternal condemnation.  (7-10)

“Evidently,” he writes in verse 7, “some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the Gospel of Christ.”  Since the Church lives by the Gospel, its message cannot be changed without her existence being threatened.  A confused Gospel message produces doubt, uncertainty, and bewilderment in the lives of God’s people.   And, as Jesus observed of those who cause others to stumble, “It would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”  (Mark 9:42).  That’s, in effect, exactly what Paul says here:  Let him be “eternally condemned!”

The term translated here, “eternally condemned” or “cursed” is the Greek word “anathema.”  It is used to translate a Hebrew word which is graphically rendered in the OT, “devoted to destruction.”  And the curse of God, if not removed by repentance, results ultimately in eternal damnation.  Those who would deliberately deny people the Gospel based on the grace of Christ, and who pollute the stream and ruin it for everybody else downstream, deserve to be cursed.

Please note that in denying to the false teachers in Galatia the right to change the Gospel, the Apostle is not denying to them a privilege he is attempting to reserve for himself.  For he says in verse 8:  “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!”  In other words, “Even I who brought you the Gospel have no right to change it.  It is not my property anymore than it is any other man’s property.  Indeed, even the angels in heaven have no power over this Gospel.”  

It seems to me Paul’s assertion that even angels are not free to change the Gospel has some rather significant implications for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  Mormonism teaches that an angel from heaven named Moroni, whose image is seen in gold on the top of the Temple over on Highway 40, enabled Joseph Smith to discover and read some golden tablets which, without anyquestion, convey a different Gospel than the one Paul taught.  Isn’t it just amazing how successful false teaching can be despite the fact that we are so clearly warned of its dangers? 

But friends, the greatest enemies of the Church are not those who blatantly oppose the Gospel from without, but rather those within her ranks who tamper with God’s Word.  Today’s heretics are often well-educated, persuasive, and confident.  We are appalled that the church once burned heretics, and rightly so.  But now we make celebrities of them and reward them with six‑figure salaries in our seminaries.[iii]  Some of the most successful religious leaders in our country are the very ones who feel perfectly free to modify elements of the apostolic message to suit their taste.  Friends, preachers and teachers and leaders in the church must be judged by the Gospel, not the Gospel by them!

Just in case the Galatians hadn’t caught his point that those who distort the Gospel deserve eternal condemnation, Paul repeats himself in verse 9, changing only the subject of the conditional clause, but the change is not insignificant.  Whereas verse 8 speaks of an impossible hypothetical condition, verse 9 is a distinct possibility.  What an angel from heaven would never actually do, some people in Galatia were in fact doing.  Whoever they are, let them be eternally condemned. 

Almost as an afterthought, Paul follows his uncompromising intolerance with a couple of rhetorical questions in verse 10.  I read them from The Message:  “Do you think I speak this strongly in order to manipulate crowds?  Or curry favor with God?  Or get popular applause?  If my goal was popularity, I wouldn’t bother being Christ’s slave.”  Paul is here arguing that the accusation by his enemies that he taught an “easy believism” (since he didn’t demand obedience to the Law as a requirement for salvation) and that he did so in order to gain popularity, is patently ridiculous.  If you’re trying to win friends and influence people, you don’t do it by going around telling ecclesiastical prima donnas to go to Hell, but that was, in effect, what his assertion, “let them be anathema” amounted to.  No, it wasn’t the approval of men he was after, but the approval of God. 

When Verdi produced his first opera in Florence, the composer stood by himself in the shadows and kept his eye on the face of one man in the audience–the great Rossini.  It mattered not to Verdi whether the people in the hall were cheering him or jeering him; it didn’t matter what the critics wrote; all he wanted was a smile of approval from the master musician.  So it was with Paul.  His one ambition was to be “pleasing to Him.”  (2 Cor. 5:9)

There is one more point our text reveals, and that is the reason why tolerance is absolutely intolerable when the Gospel is being tampered with.

The reason the Gospel message cannot be tampered with is that it has a divine, not human, origin.  (11-12)

Verse 11, again from The Message:  “Know this–I am most emphatic here, friends–this great Message I delivered to you is not mere human (opinion).  I didn’t receive it through the traditions, and I wasn’t taught it in some school.  I got it straight from God, (I) received the Message directly from Jesus Christ.”   That’s the long and the short of it.  The plan of salvation belongs to God and none of us has the right to fiddle with it, massage it, add to it, subtract from it, or ignore it.


I want to recap a few truths to make sure that we’re all clear on the essentials of our text.  First of all, the central point at issue between Paul and the false teachers of Galatia was the logical order of three steps:

1.  Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.

2.  Receive the gift of salvation.

3.  Be obedient to the commandments of Christ.

The Galatian heretics rearranged those three steps.  They said that 1 & 3 have to come before 2.

It seems like such a small difference, doesn’t it?  Couldn’t it just be semantics?  Since many of those who teach baptismal regeneration believe in the deity of Christ, the Virgin Birth, the inspiration of the Bible, the Second Coming, etc., can’t we overlook their little hangup on baptism, to the effect that you have to be water baptized in order to be saved?  The Word says, “No.  Let them be eternally condemned.”  

But what about the liberal preachers who are constantly telling their people that you become a Christian by acting like one and obeying the Sermon on the Mount?  They mean well when they preach good works as a means of salvation.  And they talk of the death and resurrection of Christ and the immortality of the soul.  Can’t we be a little more tolerant toward them; after all, they claim to be our brothers.  The Word says, “They are teaching a different Gospel.  Let them be eternally condemned!”

But what about some of the immensely popular media preachers who are preaching that if you haven’t been baptized with the Holy Spirit, with the resultant reception of the gift of speaking in tongues, you aren’t part of God’s family?  They seem to have most other doctrines right.  They’re drawing enormous crowds and doing such fine missionary work all over the world.  Can’t we tolerate that one area of doctrinal indiscretion?  The Word says that if you add anything to the message of grace you have a different Gospel.  “Let them be eternally condemned!”

But, you say, if we anathematize everyone with whom we disagree we’re going to end up being terribly exclusive.  Is there no room for tolerance?  Oh, indeed there is.  We can be tolerant of those who hold differing views of the Second Coming, of divorce and remarriage, of when and how and how often to practice the ordinances of the Church, of the use of sign gifts in the Church, of modes of worship, and of 10,000 other issues.  

We can be tolerant of different personalities, different styles, different goals, different methodologies. We can even be tolerant of scoundrels in the pulpit, as Paul was in Philippians 1, and as you have been for the past 15 years. 

Well, what is the difference between Phil. 1 and Galatians 1?  In Philippians there were some scoundrels who despite messing up on nearly everything else, preached accurately the Gospel of Christ.  In Galatia there were some scoundrels who may have gotten nearly everything else right, but they distorted the Gospel.  Paul could be tolerant of and even rejoice in the ministry of the first group of scoundrels.  He could not tolerate the others.  The Gospel is not negotiable and it cannot be compromised!

I’ll never forget playing “Capture the Flag” in the church yard of Old Orchard Chapel in north Webster when I was a kid.  There were plenty of bushes and trees, and few street lights, so at night it was a perfect setting for Capture the Flag.  There were two teams and two ways to advance in the game.  One objective was to capture members of the other team when they came into your territory, and put them in jail.  The other objective was to capture the flag of the opposing team.  Capturing their flag resulted in outright victory.  

In the Christian life we are called upon on occasion to skirmish with the agents of the opposition, to fight individual battles and gain important territory–get a bill passed to try to stop partial birth abortion, remove pornography from some newsstands, or achieve balanced textbooks in public schools.  But Paul is not writing about skirmishes here in the book of Galatians:  he is writing about the flag.  If the Gospel is lost, the game is over, no matter how many of our opponents are out of commission.One more thing.  It’s one thing to know exactly what the Gospel is‑‑the good news that salvation is a free gift from God, purchased by the death of His Son.  It’s another thing to receive the gift.  I could offer you a check for $100 right now‑‑a real bona fide offer, but it wouldn’t be yours unless you actually accepted it.  The Bible says of Jesus, “As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.” 

[i]. Josh McDowell, “Tolerating the Intolerable: A Mandate to Love,” Extended notes by Josh McDowell, n.d.

[ii]. Ibid.

[iii]. Eugene Peterson, Traveling Light, Intervarsity Press, 1982, p. 33.