Why Faithful Ministry Must be Counter-Cultural

One of the most pernicious tendencies in the church today is an obsessive hankering for applause, academic stature, political clout, large crowds, personal celebrity, and all the other badges of social standing and earthly esteem. Evangelicals seem to have forgotten that we are forbidden be conformed to this world (Rom 12:2). Our minds are supposed to be set “on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Col 3:2). We are not to crave accolades—especially from a world that is filled with hatred for our Master (John 15:18–20).

But if you read popular blogs and bestselling books on church growth and ministry philosophy, you might get a different impression. It seems evangelicals no longer believe that worldliness is a sin. The movement’s main trendsetters relentlessly pressure pastors to contextualize their ministry and message so that the church can stay in step with these postmodern times. The result is an army of young ecclesiastical entrepreneurs and would-be megachurch moguls desperately trying to be as inclusive, pluralistic, and broad-minded as possible, in order to accommodate the new values of a postmodern culture. If we appeal to the world that way, they suggest, we can find favor in the eyes of unbelievers and thereby win them for Christ.

But the unbelieving world will never be won by entertainment, public relations campaigns, or a toned-down message that caters to people’s felt needs. God’s plan for evangelism in every age is the same: the church must proclaim the unadulterated gospel with clarity and conviction—and without change or compromise. “It is the power of God for salvation” (Rom 1:16), and “God [is] well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” (1 Cor 1:21).

Missional strategies that truncate the gospel or overshadow it with gimmickry and entertainment are not going to win the culture in this or any other age (Rom 10). In fact, the quest for the world’s approval is nothing less than spiritual harlotry. That is precisely the imagery the apostle James used. He wrote: “[Adulterers and] adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4).

There is and always has been a fundamental, irreconcilable incompatibility between the church and the world. The Bible’s message of sin and redemption is inherently counter-cultural in a fallen world. Christian thought is out of harmony with all the world’s philosophies. Genuine faith in Christ entails a denial of every worldly value. Biblical truth contradicts all the world’s religions. Above all, we believe in the exclusivity of Christ—the truth that Christ alone is “the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through [Him]” (John 14:6). That runs counter to every popular value of this age. Christianity itself is therefore antithetical to virtually everything this world admires. “Do not be surprised, brethren, if the world hates you” (1 John 3:13).
It is impossible to be faithful to Christ while currying the world’s favor. In fact, Jesus expressly repudiated the notion that worldly popularity is a measure of effectiveness in ministry: “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for their fathers used to treat the false prophets in the same way” (Luke 6:26).

He further explained: “The world . . . hates Me because I testify of it, that its deeds are evil” (John 7:7). In other words, the world’s contempt for Christianity stems from moral, not intellectual, motives: “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed” (John 3:19–20). No matter how dramatically worldly opinion may vary, Christian truth will never be popular with the world.

Yet, in virtually every era of church history there have been people in the church who are convinced that the best way to win the world is by catering to worldly tastes. Such an approach has always been to the detriment of the gospel message. The church has only made any significant impact on the world when the people of God have stood firm, refused to compromise, and boldly proclaimed the truth despite the world’s hostility. When Christians have shrunk away from the task of confronting popular worldly delusions with unpopular biblical truths, the church has invariably lost influence and impotently blended into the world. Both Scripture and history attest to that fact.

And the Christian message simply cannot be twisted to conform to the vicissitudes of worldly opinion. Biblical truth is fixed and constant, not subject to change or adaptation. Worldly opinion, on the other hand, is in constant flux. The various fads and philosophies that dominate the world change radically and regularly from generation to generation. The only thing that remains constant is the world’s hatred of Christ and His gospel.

In all likelihood, the world will not long embrace whatever ideology is in vogue this year. If the pattern of history is any indicator, by the time our great-grandchildren become adults, worldly opinion will be dominated by a completely new system of belief and a whole different set of values. Tomorrow’s generation will renounce all of today’s fads and philosophies. But one thing will remain unchanged: until the Lord Himself returns and establishes His kingdom on earth, whatever ideology gains popularity in the world will be as hostile to biblical truth as all its predecessors have been.

Consider the record of the past century, for example. A hundred years ago, the church was beset by modernism. Modernism was a worldview based on the notion that only science could explain reality. Modernism stems from the presupposition that nothing supernatural is real.

It ought to have been instantly obvious that modernism and Christianity were incompatible at the most fundamental level. If nothing supernatural is real, then much of the Bible is untrue and has no authority; the incarnation of Christ is a myth (this nullifies Christ’s authority as well); and all the supernatural elements of Christianity—including God Himself—must be utterly redefined in naturalistic terms. Modernism was anti-Christian at its core.

Nonetheless, the visible church at the beginning of the twentieth century was filled with people who were convinced modernism and Christianity could and should be reconciled. They insisted that if the church did not keep in step with the times by embracing modernism, Christianity would not survive the twentieth century. The church would become increasingly irrelevant to modern people, they said, and soon it would die. So they devised a “social gospel,” devoid of any message about personal sin, salvation, or substitutionary atonement.

Of course, biblical Christianity survived the twentieth century just fine. Wherever Christians remained committed to the truthfulness and authority of Scripture, the church flourished. But ironically, those churches and denominations that embraced modernism were the ones that became irrelevant and all but died out before the century was over. Many grandiose but nearly empty stone buildings offer mute testimony to the deadliness of compromise with modernism.

Modernism is now regarded as yesterday’s way of thinking. The dominant worldview in secular and academic circles today is called postmodernism.

Postmodernists have repudiated modernism’s absolute confidence in science as the only pathway to the truth. In fact, postmodernism has completely lost interest in “the truth,” insisting that it is impossible to be certain of any absolute, objective, or universal truth.

Modernism was indeed folly and needed to be abandoned. But postmodernism is a tragic step in the wrong direction. Unlike modernism, which was still concerned with whether basic convictions, beliefs, and ideologies are objectively true or false, postmodernism simply denies the possibility of settled knowledge.

To the postmodernist, reality is whatever the individual imagines it to be. This means that what is “true” is determined subjectively, as a social construct, and it is therefore subject to change. According to the postmodern way of thinking, there can be no such thing as objective, authoritative truth that governs or applies to all humanity universally.

The postmodernist naturally believes it is pointless to argue whether opinion A is superior to opinion B. Having given up on knowing objective truth, the postmodernist occupies himself instead with the quest for “understanding” the other person’s point of view. Seen in this light, the words truth and understanding take on radical new meanings. Ironically, “understanding” requires that we first of all disavow the possibility of knowing any truth at all. And “truth” becomes nothing more than a personal opinion, usually best kept to oneself.

That is the one essential, non-negotiable demand postmodernism makes of everyone: we are not supposed to think we know any objective truth. Postmodernists often suggest that every opinion should be shown equal respect. And therefore, on the surface, postmodernism seems driven by a broad-minded concern for harmony and tolerance. It all sounds very charitable and altruistic. But what really underlies the postmodernist belief system is an utter intolerance for every worldview that makes any universal truth-claims—particularly biblical Christianity.

In other words, postmodernism begins with a presupposition that is irreconcilable with the objective, divinely-revealed truth of Scripture. Like modernism, postmodernism is fundamentally and diametrically opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Postmodernism and the Church
Nonetheless, the church today is filled with people who are advocating postmodern ideas. Some of them do it self-consciously and deliberately, but most do it unwittingly. (Having imbibed too much of the spirit of the age, they are simply regurgitating worldly opinion.) The evangelical movement as a whole, still recovering from its long battle with modernism, is not prepared for a new and different adversary. Many Christians have therefore not yet recognized the extreme danger posed by postmodernist thought.

Postmodernism’s influence has clearly infected the church already. It’s the very reason so many churches want to tone down their message so that the gospel’s stark truth claims don’t sound so jarring to the postmodern ear. It’s why evangelicals now shy away from stating unequivocally that the Bible is true and all other religious systems and worldviews are false. It’s why some who call themselves Christians have gone even further, purposefully denying the exclusivity of Christ and openly questioning His claim that He is the only way to God.

The biblical message is clear. The apostle Peter proclaimed to a hostile audience, “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” The apostle John wrote, “He who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36). Again and again, Scripture stresses that Jesus Christ is the only hope of salvation for the world. “There is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5). Only Christ can atone for sin, and therefore only Christ can provide salvation. “And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life” (1 John 5:11–12).

Those truths are antithetical to the central tenet of postmodernism. They make exclusive, universal truth claims declaring that Christ is the only true way to heaven and that all other belief-systems are erroneous. This is what Scripture teaches. It is what the true church has proclaimed throughout her history. It is the message of Christianity. And it simply cannot be adjusted to accommodate postmodern sensitivities.

Instead, many Christians simply pass over the exclusive claims of Christ in embarrassed silence. Even worse, some in the church—including a few of evangelicalism’s best-known leaders—have begun to suggest that perhaps people can be saved apart from knowing Christ.

Christians cannot capitulate to postmodernism without sacrificing the very essence of our faith. The Bible’s claim that Christ is the only way of salvation is certainly out of harmony with the postmodern notion of “tolerance.” But it is, after all, just what the Bible plainly teaches. And the Bible—not postmodern opinion—is the supreme authority for the Christian. The Bible alone should determine what we believe and proclaim to the world. We cannot waver on this, no matter how much this postmodern world complains that our beliefs make us “intolerant.”

Tolerant Intolerance
Postmodernism’s veneration of tolerance is its most obvious feature. But the version of “tolerance” peddled by postmodernists is actually a twisted and dangerous corruption of true virtue.

Incidentally, tolerance is never mentioned in the Bible as a virtue, except in the sense of patience, forbearance, and longsuffering (cf. Eph 4:2). In fact, the contemporary notion of tolerance is a pathetically feeble concept compared to the love Scripture commands Christians to show even to their enemies. Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27–28; cf. vv. 29–36).

When our grandparents spoke of tolerance as a virtue, they had something like that in mind. The word used to mean respecting people and treating them kindly even when we believe they are wrong. But the postmodern notion of tolerance means we must never regard anyone else’s opinions as “wrong.” Biblical tolerance is for people; postmodern tolerance is for ideas.

Accepting every belief as equally valid is hardly a real virtue, but it is about the kind of only “virtue” postmodernism knows anything about. Traditional virtues (including humility, self-control, and chastity) are openly scorned—and even regarded as transgressions—in the world of postmodern thought.

Predictably, the beatification of postmodern tolerance has had a disastrous effect on real virtue in our society. In this age of tolerance, what was once forbidden is now encouraged. What was once universally deemed immoral is now celebrated. Marital infidelity and divorce have been normalized. Profanity is commonplace. Abortion, homosexuality, and moral perversions of all kinds are championed by large advocacy groups and enthusiastically promoted by the popular media. The postmodern notion of “tolerance” is systematically turning genuine virtue on its head.

Why does authentic biblical Christianity find such ferocious opposition from people who think they are paragons of tolerance? It is because the truth claims of Scripture—and particularly Jesus’ claim to be the only way to God—are diametrically opposed to the fundamental presuppositions of the postmodern mind. The Christian message represents a death blow to the postmodernist worldview.

But as long as Christians are being duped or intimidated into softening the bold claims of Christ and widening the narrow road, the church will make no headway against postmodernism. We need to recover the distinctiveness of the gospel. We need to regain our confidence in the power of God’s truth. And we need to proclaim boldly that Christ is the only true hope for the people of this world.

That may not be what people want to hear in this pseudo-tolerant age of postmodernism. But it is true nonetheless. And precisely because it is true and the gospel of Christ is the only hope for a lost world, it is all the more urgent that we rise above all the voices of confusion in the world and say so.


Preaching an Exclusive Gospel in an Inclusive Age

Deep within the soul of every expositor, there must reside an unwavering commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Regardless of the cultural currents of the day, and regardless of the changing of the times, he must be persuaded that faith in Jesus Christ alone is the only way of salvation. From Genesis to Revelation, the whole Scripture speaks with one voice, testifying that there is not one drop of saving grace outside the cross of Jesus Christ. Though the world is constantly changing, this truth of salvation in Christ alone never changes.

No preacher can afford to be wrong at this point, as though the gospel can ever be adapted. To be wrong about the gospel is to be wrong everywhere else that truly matters. To be wrong here is to stand in opposition to the saving mission and sin-bearing death of Jesus Christ. To be wrong here is to contradict the meaning of the substitutionary death and bodily resurrection of Christ. To be wrong here is to divert souls away from the only way that leads to God and to usher them onto the broad path that leads to destruction.

The very essence of the gospel itself demands that every pulpit guard its exclusivity. When the message of the cross is rightly defined, the singularity of the saving purposes of God is automatically established. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone—period, end of paragraph, end of discussion. To this truth, the Bible has a “zero tolerance” policy for any equivocation outside of its borders.

This cuts against the grain of the spirit of this age. In this postmodern world, tolerance is the new virtue. An acceptance of every opinion about religion and morality is applauded. We find ourselves preaching in a postmodern culture in which there are no moral absolutes. What is truth for one person may not be truth for another. In this complex maze of competing worldviews today, every philosophy and ideology has some contribution to make to contribute to the larger body of knowledge.

This eclectic approach to finding the truth may look attractive to some. But the Scripture is adamant that truth is absolute. Further, it asserts that Jesus Christ is the only way to find acceptance with God.

This exclusive nature of the gospel desperately needs to be guarded. So-called efforts to contextualize the gospel today often result in its disappearance. In many cases, the issue is not what is being said from the pulpit, but what is not said. A gospel message that does not present Jesus as the only way is not the gospel message. The singular nature of the Christian gospel must be proclaimed with conviction and clarity. To be sure, there is no other way of salvation.

The apostle Paul addresses this very issue in the opening section of his letter to the Galatians. In the churches of this region, the gospel had come under siege. The message of salvation had been conflated with another gospel, which is, Paul says, no gospel at all. The message of saving grace of God in Christ had come under attack and was no longer being preached as Paul had delivered it.

Within the churches of Galatia, false teachers known as Judaizers were mixing law with grace and fusing works with faith. These defilers of the gospel claimed that salvation must be earned by keeping the law and that sanctification was achieved through the works of the flesh. These perverters of the promises of God sought to change the good news into claiming that salvation was not a gift for the guilty, but a reward for the righteous. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In light of these damning distortions, the apostle Paul could no longer remain quiet. He penned a fiery letter to the Galatians in order to fight the noblest fight any preacher could undertake. Paul contended for the faith, that salvation solely comes through the grace of God in the Lord Jesus Christ alone.

In the opening verses of Galatians, Paul minces no words. He breathes holy fire. He tells all corrupters of the gospel they are going to hell. He is shocked with the Galatians, who have so quickly been duped by these false teachers. Paul must speak directly to the believers in Galatia and confront them with this present danger at hand. He does not try to win them over by emphasizing the common ground between the gospel of Christ and this “different gospel” (v. 6). He does not say it is merely a matter of simatics. Instead, he goes straight to the heart of the matter: this gospel is a false message.
Such words need to be proclaimed today by every man who stands before an open Bible to declare its truths. The gospel is not subject to negotiation. Those who think so are, in Paul’s words, “accursed.” This is all the more reason that the whole gospel of Christ—including its exclusive nature—must be heralded by every preacher.

Deserting the Gospel
Paul begins this epistle to the Galatians by expressing his astonishment over how easily they have been led astray. He writes, “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him” (v. 6).  This word, amazed (thaumazo), means “to be astounded, bewildered, or shocked.” Paul is dumbfounded and perplexed with the Galatians. He is stunned that they have so quickly deserted the gospel he had preached to them. He had just been with them in person and proclaimed to them the truth. It was this apostolic message they received by faith, and by it they were saved. But Paul had no more left town than these Judaizers had moved into the vacuum created by his absence and seduced the gullible Galatians.

According to the apostle, to desert the gospel is to abandon “Him,” namely God Himself. This is to say, God is the gospel. To believe the gospel is, in reality, to receive God into one’s life. No one has God in his or her life without having put their whole trust in the message of the gospel. Apart from the gospel, every person is separated from God. An enormous chasm separates holy God from sinful man. If anyone is to know God, that person must believe His saving gospel.

Deserting God and forsaking the gospel is one and the same. If anyone alters the gospel, he has become a spiritual turncoat toward God. The word “deserting” (metatithēmi) is a military term used to refer to a soldier who abandons his post in the heat of battle. By falling prey to the false teachers, the Galatians were doing just this. They were forsaking their singular loyalty to God and were abandoning their exclusive allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ. The verb “you (plural) are deserting” is in the present tense. Even as Paul is writing this, they are at that very moment falling away from their fidelity to the true gospel. This makes them defectors of the worst kind, leaving God and joining with the enemy of their soul, the devil.

Paul has to remind the Galatians that it was God, “who called you by the grace of Christ” (v. 6). By sovereign grace, God irresistibly summoned them out of darkness into the glory of the light of Jesus Christ. Apart from any foreseen goodness in them, the Lord Jesus Christ effectually drew them into fellowship with God the Father. Paul charges them with abandoning the very saving call of Christ upon their lives.

The Galatians are leaving the truth, Paul writes, “for a different gospel” (v. 6). This implies there are two kinds of gospels. There is the true gospel, and there is a false gospel. Put another way, there is the saving gospel and a non-saving gospel. There is the message of divine accomplishment, and there is a message of human achievement.

The Galatians had been saved under the true gospel based upon the finished work of Jesus Christ at the cross. But now, they were giving up this truth in order that they might have a different gospel, a gospel of man, one that linked salvation to man’s actions. The word “different” (heteros) denotes a message of a totally different kind. This gospel is not simply a little different; it is completely different. Those who have been deceived have exchanged the gospel of God for a lie. This gospel offers no true salvation at all. This other gospel is a sham—a counterfeit gospel with a mangled message. It is nothing more than a rip-off religion that will damn its followers.

Concerning this contrary gospel, Paul asserts it is “really not another” (v. 7). This is to say, a false gospel is not a gospel at all. There is no other gospel by which holy God and sinful man may be reconciled than the gospel of Jesus Christ. Only by the true gospel is the wrath of God propitiated toward sinners. Only by this gospel are sinners redeemed from the curse of the law. Only by this gospel is the righteousness of Jesus Christ imputed to hell-bound sinners. Only by this gospel can unworthy rebels be presented faultless to stand before the throne of God. The gospel of Christ is the only true gospel. When Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6), He meant it. The Lord Jesus tells us that He is the one and only entryway into the presence of God. Every other path leads to eternal perishing.

The rest of the Bible affirms this reality. Jesus emphatically declared, “Enter through the narrow gate” (Matt 7:13). This passageway is not a gate, but the gate. Standing before the Sanhedrin, the religious leaders in Israel, the apostle Peter declares, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). What part of “no” could they—or we—not understand?

To Paul’s son in the faith, the aged apostle asserts, “There is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ” (1 Tim 2:5). There are not multiple mediators between God and man from which to choose, but only one. The apostle John was equally definitive about who inherits eternal life when he stated, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36). Nothing could be more clear. There are not many ways to God, but only one way, and it is through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone.

For every preacher there are hills worth dying on. Wise is the expositor who knows upon which hills to lay down his life. This truth of the exclusive gospel is one of the hills that he is called to guard and defend. Paul’s amazement at the Galatians should be our amazement at so-called Christian preachers in this hour who tolerate another gospel. Now we can understand why the apostle Paul is so dogmatic. To abandon the gospel of Christ is to abandon salvation altogether.

As we look around Christendom, we note those who have tampered with the gospel by adding the necessity of human works or who preach that other religions can lead one to God. We, too, should be astonished at such widespread apostasy. We, too, should imitate Paul by confronting such error head-on.

Diluting the Gospel
As Paul addresses the Galatians, he describes the enemies of the cross who have become his avowed adversaries. He writes, “there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ” (v. 7). This is Paul’s first reference to the false teachers who are seeking to retain old covenant practices in the new covenant church. These teachers give primacy to Mosaic law, not the gospel, in matters of salvation. But the truth is, even under the old covenant, sinners were saved not by keeping the Law, but by the grace of God in Christ.  

When Paul uses the word “disturb” (tarassō), it means “to trouble, agitate, shake up, shake back and forth.” This is precisely what the false teachers were doing to the spiritual lives of the Galatian believers. They were not causing true believers to lose their salvation. Such is impossible. But they were weakening their allegiance to God by diluting the gospel. And in so doing, they were undermining the stability of the church. No church can stand strong when it has forfeited the purity of its gospel message.

These who are disturbing the Galatians are “distorting” the gospel of Christ. This word “distort” (metastrepsai) carries the idea of “changing something into its opposite form.” These false preachers were changing the gospel into the very antithesis of grace. They were modifying the message of Christ into what is entirely contrary to true grace. They were tampering with the saving message by diluting it. To be sure, to alter the gospel is to trouble the church at its deepest level.

More specifically, these Judaizers were teaching that faith in the gospel of grace is good, but only as far as it goes. They claimed this message was not enough to save. Neither can it sanctify. They maintained that, for salvation, human works are necessary to be added to the gospel. They asserted that the Galatians must keep the law in order to be righteous before God. Moreover, they taught that believers are sanctified by obedience through their own strength, apart from the inward ministry of the Holy Spirit. They even taught that Gentile believers must be circumcised like Jews in order to find acceptance with God. They asserted that Christians must keep the Ten Commandments and observe the holy days in order to be received by God. In short, Gentiles must become Jewish proselytes and submit to all the Mosaic Law, or they cannot be saved and sanctified.

To combat this heretical error, Paul wrote, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly” (Gal 2:21). This is to say, if the Galatians could become right with God through law-keeping, then the cross was the blunder of the ages. In fact, if a person could be accepted by God apart from the death of Jesus Christ, then God was guilty of child abuse by needlessly subjecting His only Son to the cruelty of the cross.

Throughout church history, and especially during the Middle Ages, some form of “works-righteousness” has infiltrated the true teaching of the church. But in the sixteenth century, the Reformers stood firm upon Scripture, raised their voices, and declared that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The whole Reformation was fought over this little word, alone. Where the Church of Rome said and, the Reformers pronounced alone. That, in a nutshell, is the entirety of Protestant Reformation. It is this message that must be declared again in our day. Today many claim that salvation is by faith and water baptism, faith and speaking in tongues, faith and hail Marys, faith and taking Mass, faith and last rites, faith and the treasury of merit, faith and buying indulgences. There is no end to what can be added to faith and.

These false additions to the gospel continue today. Most modern-day preachers acknowledge a place for the cross in their message. But they do not preach the primacy and centrality of the cross. Neither do they proclaim the finality and sufficiency of the cross. These religious hucksters use the right Christian vocabulary, all while assigning different meanings to these biblical words. They claim that salvation is by faith and many additional things such as water baptism, church membership, and good works.

Yet another type of adversary is also prevalent today. These are the cult leaders who deny the doctrine of the Trinity. These blind leaders of the blind disavow the absolute deity of Jesus Christ. These whitewashed sepulchers reject the Bible’s teaching on the virgin birth of Christ, His sinless life, His substitutionary atonement, His bodily resurrection, and His second coming. Still others withhold the exclusivity of salvation in Christ alone. But if Jesus is not the only way to heaven, then He is not any way to heaven. In a world enamored with “both-and” thinking, here we have an “either-or”: Jesus Christ either is the one, true way to His Father, or He is not who He says He is.

Deviation from the Gospel
In order to propagate their lies, these false teachers had to undermine Paul’s teaching. Consequently, the apostle must respond boldly, because the purity of the gospel was at stake. Paul writes, “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, let him be accursed” (v. 8). When he says “we,” he is referring to himself or any of his associates, whether it be Barnabas, Silas, Timothy, or Luke. When he adds “an angel from heaven,” he includes Michael, Gabriel, a seraphim, a cherubim, a ruling or guardian angel, or any elect angel. If any creature speaks a different gospel, Paul announces, he is to be accursed. This word accursed (anathema) means “to be devoted to destruction.” It indicates to be imprisoned in the flames of hell. The idea is to be eternally condemned. To put it bluntly, such a messenger is to be damned.

By focusing on the true gospel and not on himself as the messenger of the gospel, Paul makes another important point for Christian teachers and preachers. The gospel is not about the one proclaiming it. The gospel is not true because of one’s individual authority or the sanction of his associates. Rather, the gospel is the gospel and speaks magisterially for itself. No matter who God choses to use in the proclamation of His good news, what matters is that the teaching is true to Christ’s gospel as stated in the Bible, and not because of any preacher’s individual words. This is a helpful reminder that the expositor’s job is not to get others to agree with him. Rather, his task is to proclaim the gospel of Christ to all who will hear it, and to take issue with those who proclaim another gospel.

As Paul comes to this point in the passage, he is absolutely seething. He is rightly filled with holy indignation. Martin Luther put it this way, “Here Paul is breathing fire. His zeal is so fervent that he almost begins to curse the angels themselves.” The German reformer is an example to every preacher, who likewise should be worked up over that which angers the heart of God. No one who stands in a pulpit should ever be indifferent toward that which violates the way of salvation. There can be no room for neutrality when it comes to preaching the gospel. There must ber no place for passivity in the ministry of the Word. When the way of salvation is at stake, the man of God must step forward and repudiate any false gospel threatening his flock.

To this very point, James Montgomery Boice writes in his commentary:

How can it be otherwise, if the gospel Paul preaches is true, then both the glory of Jesus Christ and the salvation of men are at stake. If men can be saved by works, Christ has died in vain; and the cross is emptied of all meaning. If men are taught a false gospel, they are being led from the one thing that can save them and are being turned to destruction.

Boice is right. Those who contaminate the gospel contribute to the damnation of lost souls. Jesus said, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt 18:6). By these words, Jesus means, it is better for a person to suffer death than to teach a false gospel. It would be better not to be alive than to lead others down a path that ends in eternal punishment.

Rather than back down from these strong words, Paul reloads. He will not merely gloss over the damning errors of these false teachers. He reiterates what he previously said with yet stronger language. Mind you, Paul is putting this on the front doorsteps of this book. At this very place in his other epistles, he brings his thanksgiving, saying, “how I thank God for you,” or “you are in my every thought.” But there are no such encouraging words of appreciation here. Paul is not thankful. Rather, he is rightly filled with holy anger because the gospel has been corrupted in the churches of Galatia. His righteous indignation cannot be contained.

So, Paul must confront this damning error again. The apostle restates, “As we have said before, so I say now again” (v.9). He is referring to that time in the recent past when he was there in person. As Paul said to the elders in Ephesus, he undoubtedly told the churches in Galatia that after his departure, there will be ravenous wolves who will come into this church. With such a danger lurking, the shepherds must defend the flock. These spiritual leaders must not give a warm reception to these troublers who will inevitably come. Where the truth is preached, false teachers will be drawn to infiltrate those churches. But they must be exposed and repudiated.

When Paul writes “if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received,” he uses the present tense. This implies that, presently, at that very moment, men are preaching another gospel to them. This is not a hypothetical situation about what might happen in the future. As Paul writes, there are dangerous men in their midst preaching this false gospel. The Galatians had received the true gospel from Paul when he was there in person. He preached the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ in His substitutionary death. That is what they had welcomed into their hearts. But now, these teachers of another gospel were administering death with their listeners.

In no uncertain terms, Paul states that such purveyors of perversion will be devoted to the destruction of hell. They will reside where there is the weeping and the gnashing of teeth. They will be consigned where there is utter darkness and no relief for the soul. And those unbelievers who follow them share in their destruction. Paul’s strong words of damnation speak to the seriousness of corrupting the gospel. Unless such false teachers repent, they will be in the lake of fire and brimstone.

The idea of false teachers was not new with Paul. Jesus Christ had already warned there would be propagators of a false gospel. Wherever there is the preaching of the true gospel, there will be those who will seek to divert people onto the broad road headed for destruction. By way of analogy, Jesus said there are two gates standing closely positioned next to each other (Matt. 7:13-14). Travelers in life must exercise great caution concerning which gate through which they pass. Both gates are marked as leading to heaven, but only one actually takes a person there. The other gate—easily accessed and heavily traveled—leads to hell.

There are deceptive men, Jesus asserted, standing beside the broad gate that is headed to destruction, urging people onto the broad road (Matt. 7:15-20). They are positioned between the two gates, exerting their deceptions to dupe people through the broad gate. People must look past these slick-talking hucksters and examine their fruit. Some do not think we should examine other people’s fruit. But we must open our eyes and examine their personal conduct, twisted message, and false converts. Examine the kind of fruit being produced and subject it to this one test: is this the saving gospel of Jesus Christ?.

Devotion to the Gospel
Paul concludes this section by getting down to the bottom line. Here are the two questions that Paul asked himself: “For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men” (v.10)? If Paul were seeking the favor of men, he would certainly tone down his rhetoric about these false teachers. Such stinging polemics is no way to expand his ministry base. But Paul is not courting the approval of men. Neither is he seeking the favor of the Judaizers. Nor is he courting the support of anyone sympathetic to their soul-damning message. By stating what he is expressing, Paul is seeking the approbation of God alone. This confrontational language by Paul was hardly calculated to win the approval of men. Men-pleasers do not speak such anathemas. Paul understood that if you please God, it does not matter whom you displease. And if you displease God, it does not matter whom you please. In this sense, preaching is very simple. Put simply, please God.

Paul concludes, “If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ” (v. 10). Paul says that seeking to please men and serving Christ are polar opposites. These two are mutually exclusive, not mutually inclusive. Such diametrical extremes are either/or, never both/and. Either you are primarily seeking to please God, or you are seeking to please men. It can never be both. Any preacher seeking to please men will be displeasing God. And the expositor who seeks to please God will often be displeasing men. No preacher can have it both ways. Jesus affirmed it this way: “No one can serve two masters. For either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other” (Matt 6:24). The one who preaches will either be a servant of Christ or a slave of the approval of men. Choose wisely which it will be.

For every preacher, the bottom line in the pulpit must be a preeminent desire to please God and never modify or adjust the truth in order to please men. The expositor must lovingly share the truth of God’s gospel despite the repercussions they will receive from those who oppose such truth. We demonstrate authentic love to individuals by speaking the truth of God to them. We genuinely desire their best when the truth is proclaimed to them. But when we seek the applause of men over the approval of heaven, we are in serious danger of compromising the truth and bringing devastation to those under our preaching.

The apostle Paul wrote elsewhere, “we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts” (1 Thess. 2:4). In the last day, it will not be before men that we will stand and give an account. Rather, it will be before God that every preacher will stand. The Bible says, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment” (James 3:1). It is certain that those who preach and teach the word will be judged with a far stricter scrutiny by God for what they have said because their words effect others. Paul warned that too many preachers succumb to the snare of pandering to people and becoming ear-ticklers. Paul warned, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths” (2 Tim 4:3–4). Men-pleasing preachers are, in reality, little more than ear-ticklers, back-slappers, and ego-massagers, but certainly not God-pleasers.

As Paul makes this statement at the very beginning of this epistle, he is saying to the Galatians—and he is saying to us—there is only one way of salvation. Anyone who tampers with this exclusive message of salvation in Christ alone is accursed. Fighting the good fight of the gospel requires that every preacher uphold the standard of sound words and guard the treasure entrusted us.

In a postmodern world, every expositor must decide whether he will cave in to the spirit of this age or uphold the standard of sound words. If he is to win the approbation of God, he must proclaim the unchanging message of God’s unmerited grace. Of those who corrupt this message of the sufficiency and the finality of the substitutionary death of Christ for sinners, he must say with Paul, “let them be accursed.” May this never be said of us.

Dr. Steven J. Lawson

Dr. Steven J. Lawson is President and founder of OnePassion Ministries, a ministry designed to equip biblical expositors to bring about a new reformation in the church. Dr. Lawson hosts The Institute for Expository Preaching in cities around the world. Dr. Lawson is also a Teaching Fellow for Ligonier Ministries, where he serves on its board. Moreover, he is Professor of Preaching and oversees the Doctor of Ministry program at The Master’s Seminary, where he also serves on its board. Dr. Lawson is also Professor in Residence for Truth Remains, a work designed to promote and proclaim God’s written Word. Further, Dr. Lawson serves as the Executive Editor for Expositor Magazine published by OnePassion Ministries.