Irenaeus, an early church father, observed, “Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced more true that truth itself.” Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.2
The nature of deception and heresy is insidious in how it seems sensible at first glance but turns out, upon careful study, to be a corruption of the Gospel. Paul faced this in the churches of Galatia who wanted to add circumcision to righteousness by faith.
Timothy George, in his excellent commentary on Galatians, sums up the problem as follows. “Christ was still prominent in their preaching, but only as an adjunct to the law. Grace was a word they used as well, but grace for them meant simply one’s natural ability to obey the laws and rites required in the Torah. This kind of gospel Paul saw as a total perversion. But the Galatian Christians, naïve and immature, were intrigued by its promise of an even more elevated spiritual status. What the false teachers offered was a way to enhance and elevate their already robust spirituality. Galatians, pg.96
Luther wrote concerning the thinking behind these false teachers and how they had infiltrated the Galatian churches, “Christ’s a fine master. He makes the beginning, but Moses must complete the structure. The devil’s nature shows itself therein; if he cannot ruin people by wronging and persecuting them, he will do it by improving them.” Luther 1519 Galatians Commentary LW 26:50
Paul wasn’t facing a rejection of the foundational principles of grace in the Galatian Christian community, but a corruption of the principles. These Christians were saying, “yes we are saved by grace, and we accept that Jesus died for our sins to redeem us, but there is more.” Just as Luther pointed out they started with Jesus but ended up adding Moses to the mix.
Look at how adamant Paul is regarding the purity of the Gospel. “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. 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.” Galatians 1:8, 9
Could Paul have been anymore explicit? If we teach and preach anything that adds to the Gospel then he cries out for us to be eternally condemned. The NIV says, “let him be under God’s curse.” For anyone who has spent any amount of time studying and reading in Galatians it becomes obvious that Paul is defending the Gospel against teachers that would add law to it.
Let me quote George again, “ The heretics of Galatian did not deny that Jesus was the Messiah, or that He had died and risen from the grave. Nor did they claim some new and special revelation; rather they based their arguments on the O.T. scriptures. They had many valid theological ideas with which Paul himself was in perfect agreement; the oneness of God, the holiness of the law, God’s faithfulness to His people Israel, the importance of the Ten Commandments, and so on. So far as we know they did not openly deny either the deity or humanity of Jesus. Their error was to add to the finished work of Christ a measure of human achievement as the basis of right standing with God. Yet, to do this was to change the nature of the Christian faith so drastically that it could no longer be trusted to be saving faith.” Galatians, p. 104
The heresy of the Galatians wasn’t that they rejected orthodox teachings concerning Christ and salvation, they just added to them thinking that by doing so they would make themselves more pleasing to God. Instead Paul comes down on them like a ton of bricks because he knows that to add one iota of self-merit to the saving work of Christ is to belittle and undermine all that Christ accomplished on the cross.
Paul wasn’t fooling around when he told the Philippian jailor, “Believe on the Lord, Jesus Christ.” Acts 16:31 This was Paul’s response to the jailor’s straight forward question, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” On the day of Pentecost Peter was confronted with the same question by the thousands who were under conviction through the power of the Holy Spirit. “Brother, what shall we do?” Peter’s reply, “repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Acts 2:37, 38 Then there were the crowds that followed Jesus who asked, “ ‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’ Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this; to believe in the one He has sent.’ “ John 6:28, 29
Do you notice a trend in these verses? The people all wanted to add something or do something of merit to earn God’s love and acceptance. Jesus, Peter and Paul all agreed in their answers to the questions that it is belief in God that saves not works. The book of Hebrews states, “And without faith it is impossible to please Him because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him.” Hebrews 11:6
Notice that to believe means to understand that God exists and rewards those who seek Him. Paul writes in Romans 10:9 “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” He goes on in verse 10 to state, “For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.” Where are the works in these texts?
Paul loved the Galatians, he had planted the churches and nurtured them into life and now he was watching legalism and works come crashing into the lives of the people he loved. He made it clear; not only in chapter 1:8-9, but also throughout the book that adding law keeping to grace was wrong. In fact he says people who attempt to do that are, “bewitched,” “under a curse,” “severed and fallen away from God,” “under a schoolmaster,” and “alienated from Christ.”
I belong to a couple of Bible Study groups, as I’ve mentioned many times, and we are making our way through the Gospel of John. What we have noticed is that every chapter of John is a challenge to us to believe in Jesus. John makes it crystal clear that it is the unmerited love of God (grace) that redeems us. Jesus didn’t die to prove anything to anyone or somehow uphold the standards of the law and law keeping; He died because He loves us. God doesn’t love us because Jesus died for us, Jesus died for us because God loves us. The Cross is all about love and the wonder of grace. “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16 (NIV) To believe that is eternal life and to want to add to it is heresy.