Not That There is Another Gospel
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.
In was in1985 that the Toronto Blue Jays made their first appearance in a Major League Baseball playoff series—a feat they achieved again in 1989 and 1991. And then in 1992 and 1993 they won baseball’s highest prize, emerging as World Series champions in both years. Those were heady days for Major League Baseball’s Toronto franchise. From 1990 through 1994 average attendance per game was close to 50,000 fans. Everybody was a baseball fan; most of us living in the Greater Toronto Area, along with many other Canadians, know where we were when Joe Carter hit for a home run that pitch from Philadelphia’s Mitch Williams that ended the game, securing the win of the 1993 World Series. Things have changed much since then; many fans have drifted away—average attendance in recent years has been less than half of what it was during those heady days.
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting”; it sounds like a sentence that could have come from a communication written by a recent president of the Toronto Blue Jays. Instead it comes from the pen of the Apostle Paul. You can tell that Paul is troubled. In other of his letters an encouraging word, such as a prayer of thanksgiving, typically follows his opening greeting. But not in this case; he gets right to the point. “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting”.
Is Paul’s concern that church attendance has been cut by half? It is often our modern concern with respect to church life; we would be delighted if our once full churches were half full—if only. But is the significance of something to be judged on the basis of its general popularity? Is the best sport in the world a measure of the number of players and fans? Is religion like this—the biggest fan base wins? One day after Jesus had given some difficult, hard-to-accept teaching we are told that “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went with him”. He turned to the twelve and asked, “Do you also wish to go away?” Peter answered for the twelve, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:60-65) Jesus did not change his message in order to be popular; the ebb and flow of his popularity did not diminish the significance of his message. Further, whether his message was palatable to people or no; this did not change him or his mission.
I am not suggesting that numbers are unimportant; whenever you are presented with the statistical reality of church life every number represents a person for whom Jesus gave his life. According to the International Bulletin of Missionary Research there are 2.3 billion Christians in the world. It is a testimony to the gospel conviction that the good news that is Jesus Christ is for everyone; the love of God knows no boundaries. It is on this point that the Apostle Paul is so exercised; I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7not that there is another gospel. There were teachers who had come to the Galatian churches teaching that older ethnic barriers were—contrary to Paul’s teaching—important; one table for Jews another for Gentiles (and if you wanted a place at the best table you should be circumcised). No, Paul insists the good news can be called “good” only if such news is for everyone.
On the very first occasion when someone stood up in public to tell people about Jesus, he made it very clear; this message was for everyone. It was Peter on the day we call Pentecost, who only a few weeks before had been crying like a baby because he’d lied and cursed and denied even knowing Jesus, found himself on his feet explaining to a huge crowd that something had happened which had changed the world for ever. A new age had begun in which the living God was going to do new things in the world—“the promise is for you, for your children,” declared Peter, “and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” (Acts 2:39) It is a message for everyone.
1. … not that there is another gospel. In our postmodern era Paul’s claim insisting on the singularity of this gospel is heard with suspicion. It is held to be particularly so because, by its own internal claim, it is said to be a gospel that is for everyone. Many regard the current era one of those moments of history when a great philosophical shift is taking place. Left behind is the Enlightenment idea that truth is objective; unfolding before us is post-modern idea that truth is personal, a matter of feeling or impression.
Think of how many times in conversation with others we preface our comments about this or that subject with, “Well, for me, I think or I believe that …” We say “for me” because making any general pronouncement about something is considered out-of –bounds, or presumptuous, or even bigoted. Consider the prevalence in advertising and other speech of the word “your”. Your day, your weather, your world, your Upper Unionville, your Toronto Blue Jays, etc; as if the word “your” added to things somehow penetrates or slips past those barriers people have erected in their thinking that is prone to reject ideas that have the smell or sound of “general-pronouncements.” If the weather forecast is presented as “the weather today” it sounds objective, authoritarian, too much like doctrine; if it’s “your weather” then it is heard as personal, something for me in my world of feelings and impressions. (By the way, either way rain will make you wet).
Another indicator of post-modern thought is seen in the growth of the number of people who self-identify as having no religion. Last year the Pew Foundation released a research report on religious adherence that was culled from 2,500 different data sources across 232 countries. Those who claimed no religious affiliation—“nones,” as the foundation playfully calls them—are the third-largest group worldwide, trailing only Christians and Muslims in population. The conclusion drawn is that much of the western world is at the gates of a transformation, leaving behind religion in favour of more individualized spirituality.
The letter to the Galatians was written a long time ago; how does its message help us in midst of this transformation (so-called) of people leaving behind religion for individualized spirituality? The gospel the Paul announces, what does it say to us in this emerging post-modern mindset?
Some describe this moment as the clash between modernity and postmodernity; the clash between two metanarratives about the nature of our existence, of truth, of knowledge, of what it means to be human. The clash is regarded as a seismic shift in perception that will chart the course of unfolding human history. The point of the gospel to be underlined is the dawning of this millennium is that the single moment by which history was changed forever was the moment when Jesus the Messiah died and rose again. The message of the letter of Galatians insists that the real turnaround, the real moment of liberation, occurred not with some great cultural shift in the Western world of the last few centuries, but when Jesus of Nazareth rose for the dead, “having given himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age.” (Galatians 1:4)
The whole idea of knowledge, for example, and with it truth itself, is set on a new footing in the gospel. No longer is it the brittle and arrogant knowledge of modernity, making the hard sciences its primary paradigm and relationships simply a matter of feeling. Nor is it the soft and fuzzy knowledge of the post-modern world, where “feeling” and “impression” are all that there is. The primary knowledge, declares Paul, is the knowledge of God—God’s knowledge of you, and yours of God in grateful answer. This is a relationship, one the produces the deepest feelings ever known, but it is true knowledge nonetheless—both in that it is knowledge of the truth and in that it constitutes the truest mode of knowing. This is a knowing like no other, because it is a reality like no other.
There is only one Lord Jesus Christ; it is no surprise that Paul concludes…not that there is another gospel.
2. What is at the heart of this gospel that Paul insists not be perverted or diverted into something else? What is this news that is for everyone? Paul gives a succinct summary in the introduction to his letter: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.” The gospel Paul speaks about can never be reduced to some essence like forgiveness, inclusion, justice, diversity, grace or the like. This would be to presume that God is subject to these things as if positioned above God so we could assess God—look God is being forgiving, inclusive, diverse, just or gracious. Paul speaks of the gospel as the action of God—Jesus Christ who gives himself and sets us free. Jesus Christ is the gospel; the good news isn’t information to show us some new way of being religious; the gospel is a person—namely Jesus Christ in his actions for us and in us.
To understand the gospel we need to read it in light of the Older Testament story of God with his people Israel. Paul says that in Jesus Christ there is another exodus; Jesus is God acting to set people free; free from that which binds and blinds; free from sin; free from sin’s penalty and power. A release that is available to anyone who would believe.
A new ad campaign by the Dove corporation (maker of skin care, hair care products, etc.) was recently launched. Dove engaged the services of a forensic illustrator to sketch two pictures of various women. Each woman comes into the room that had a curtain between her and the illustrator; the illustrator asks each woman to describe herself, probes with questions and sketches her image based what he hears. Next a stranger is introduced to the woman and then the illustrator draws a picture of the woman according to the stranger’s description. The results are poignant. The two portraits are hung side by side and each woman is then invited to see the results. It becomes clear that we are, often, our own worst critics; in each case the sketch created on the basis of the stranger’s description was more attractive than the one on the basis of the self-description.
Consider now if Jesus were next in that chair describing you to the forensic artist what would the sketch look like—are you afraid to look? The sketch that would emerge is the one based on him and his work for us and in us; the sketch is of the person he sees and knows—the one he gave his life to set free. When God sees his people God sees Jesus Christ; Paul wrote in his Colossian letter that “your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Furthermore, “when Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory”. (Colossians 3:3-4) The portrait that will emerge on that day is one Jesus sees in you now, sees you becoming.
All of our self-portraits and portraits that emerge from others as they see us reveal flaws—do they not? Yes, the sketches that emerged from the description of others depicted a more attractive person—but still not completely satisfying. The point being that even in this we sense things could be better. Where does that sense come from? Why are we ever dissatisfied? And even when we “come-to- terms” with whom we are and achieve some sense of happiness with that why does it so often feel like it is something less that it could be? Why does it seem as if we merely settled? Something is amiss; we sense it but cannot get a handle of what “it” is. We can describe its affect—insecurity, poor self-esteem, low regard for others—but a complete solution eludes humanity.
Jesus gave himself for what is amiss; he gave himself for our sins. The good news of the gospel is that we are not left to the ultimately-unsatisfying self-sketches or “as-others-see-us” sketches. Jesus is both the sketch artist and the one describing what he sees and the one forging in us the very portrait of his glory. He can see us for what we truly can become; setting us free. The portrait is the one that is emerging by faith as we walk in company with him. There is only one Lord Jesus Christ; hence Paul declares… not that there is another gospel.
A minister named David Gibson tells the story of his friend who bought a 19-foot jet boat and invited her along for her maiden voyage. David writes; “The boat is made of steel and fitted with a V-8 engine. We put the boat in the North Fork of the Snake River. The water was quite low because of a drought and heavy irrigation. We eased the throttle up until we were going 35 miles per hour. We grinned at each other as we raced across the water's surface. Suddenly we hit a hidden sandbar, and the boat came to an abrupt stop. We stepped onto the sandbar, barely covered with one inch of water. Another boater came along, and after three hours of digging and pushing, we once again had my friend's boat floating in the open channel. The boater who rescued us offered to lead us back to the landing since he knew the river well. He instructed us to follow exactly behind him so we would avoid hidden sand and gravel bars.
Our leader pushed his boat up to 35 miles per hour, we fell in behind him, and once again we enjoyed the power of the machine as it skimmed over the water. After a couple of minutes, my friend steered our boat just a few feet to the right of where the lead boat had gone. Within seconds, we hit a gravel bar, and I was thrown into the windshield, injuring me and breaking the windshield. When the lead boat came back, the driver reminded us, "I told you to follow me."
There is a parable here. The gospel’s great news is that the one who calls us to follow him is ever ready to come back and help us off of the gravel bars so we again can follow him. There is no one like Jesus… not that there is another gospel.