Imaginary Trevor is a typical Irishman. He likes to believe he is tolerant. Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and atheism are all legitimate viewpoints, according to Trevor. He believes no-one should claim that what they believe is uniquely true. However, Trevor is not really that tolerant. If a Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or atheist claims that their belief-system is right, and all others are wrong, then Trevor writes them off as a dangerous narrow-minded fundamentalist. He is intolerant of those he judges to be intolerant! Trevor’s understanding of religious tolerance is not only intolerant, it’s illogical.
Can you imagine if Trevor applied his understanding of tolerance to other areas of his life?
So, Trevor is a pharmacist. One day an elderly man with a heart condition comes in asking for his advice. Trevor recommends the best heart medication on the market. However, the old man thinks that Trevor is mistaken. This old man explains that his uncle lived off a diet of Mars bars, and never had a heart problem. ‘Mars bars must be the key to a healthy heart’, the old man proclaims. According to Trevor’s understanding of tolerance it would be arrogant to disagree. ‘Surely it doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you are sincere’, doesn’t actually make sense in matters of life and death!
As Trevor walks home through the village he comes across a tourist. He greets this stranger, ‘Good evening, I hope you are enjoying your holiday.’
‘Oh yes,’ replies the tourist, ‘I am off to see the beautiful castle.’ Trevor knows that the castle is in the other direction. Trevor considers pointing this out, but if he is consistent with his understanding of tolerance it would be unloving to suggest that the tourist was on the wrong path? ‘All paths lead to the same place’ doesn’t actually make any sense in the real world! (Illustration adapted from Melvin Tinker).
Many people have accused the Apostle Paul of intolerance, but I want to show that what he teaches about Jesus is very logical.
1. What right has the Apostle Paul to define the gospel?
It is obvious that not every opinion carries equal authority. The pharmacist has a better idea about what drugs to use than the customer. The doctor knows more about treating illness than the patient. The mechanic will do a better job fixing your car than you will. But what makes the Apostle Paul’s opinions about God’s gospel so special? There were people in Galatia asking just that sort of question. So, Paul begins by asserting his authority as a teacher of Christian truth.
Paul, an apostle… This word ‘apostle’ means ‘someone sent’. It was used of an ordinary massager, but also of an ambassador or envoy. In the Christian church it was applied to the twelve whom Jesus had called to be his close associates. The early church devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. The message of the apostles focused on the beautiful life and sacrificial death of Christ. The apostles laid down the foundation of the church. The important thing about these apostles was their divine appointment. Paul’s divine appointment was wrapped up in his personal story. The people in Galatia knew Paul’s story. They knew how this persecutor of the church became a missionary and church planter. They knew that encountering the risen Jesus had turned his world upside-down. Not long after his conversion Paul claims that Jesus commissioned him as an apostle. He is an apostle, not from men or through man but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead. The other apostles recognised Paul’s apostleship. The apostle Peter refers to Paul’s teaching as Scripture.
It is pretty hard to argue with Paul’s qualifications to define the Christian gospel. A friend of mine exclaimed that she didn’t really care what the apostle Paul taught on a certain issue; that is not a healthy thing for a person who calls themselves a Christian to think.
2. What was the Apostle Paul’s message?
Apostles were sent with a message. But what was the Apostle Paul’s message? What did Jesus tell him to go and proclaim? Paul opens all his letters by mentioning grace and peace. Paul’s gospel is the gospel of the grace of Christ that leads to peace.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace is God’s free, unmerited and undeserved favour. In fact grace and merit are opposites. If you do a week’s work for me and I pay you at the end of the week that is not grace—that is a wage that you deserve and have earned. But if you come to my house, break my windows and let the air out of my car tyres, yet I respond by going to you with a delicious apple tart that’s grace—you have done nothing to deserve it, in fact you have done everything not to deserve. In a song entitled ‘Grace’ U2 sing, Grace ‘she takes the blame, she covers the shame, removes the stain … Grace makes beauty out of ugly things.’
Jesus took the blame, covers our shame, removes the stain and makes beauty out of ugly things. For this grace comes through the life and death of the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins, in order to deliver us from the present evil age according to the will of our God the Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever, amen. This gospel leads to peace, as we come to terms with the beautiful truth that, in Christ, God has done everything to deal with our guilt and accept us as his dearly loved children.
3. Why was Apostle Paul angry?
Normally at this stage in his letters the apostle commends his hearers in some way. He writes something like ‘I thank my God every time I remember you because of you faith which demonstrates itself in a love for God’s people.’ But in his letter to the Galatians he heads straight into rebuke. I cannot believe that you are so quickly turning away from him who called you in Christ’s grace to a different gospel which is not a gospel at all.
Let’s step back in time to somewhere between fifteen and eighteen years after the death of Jesus. We are in the Roman province of Galatia, which is now in modern Turkey. The apostle Paul had been in that part of the world, and his missionary efforts had resulted in the establishment of a number of churches. These churches meet in people’s homes, and these church members are sharing the good news of Jesus with their neighbours, work colleagues and friends. The message had been beautifully clear: ‘Jesus lived the perfect life and died for our sins, so that we could be forgiven and treated by God as if we had always obeyed him.’
But then a group of Jewish leaders, who claimed to be Christians, infiltrated those churches and insisted that in addition to believing in Jesus you needed to obey the Jewish laws and be circumcised if you were to be saved. In other words they were teaching a gospel of faith plus rituals and effort. Such religion dishonours God because it says that the life and death of Jesus was not sufficient to deal with my guilt. Such religion cannot save people, so the apostle Paul says that even if he or an angel preaches a distorted gospel they deserve to be accursed.
4. Why would anyone oppose the Apostle Paul’s gospel?
Finally, notice that sharing this gospel won’t make you popular. Am I now trying to appeal to men, or to God? Or am I seeking to please men? The implication is that the apostle’s message will be opposed by people.
Why would anyone want to oppose the gospel of grace? People oppose the gospel of grace because of pride. As one writer explains, ‘there is a natural (and sinful) inclination within us which resists the notion that there is nothing we can bring or contribute … The message of the cross is not only that there is nothing you can do to oblige God to accept you, but nothing you need to do. It’s all been done. But we have to have the humility to accept it, and luxuriate in it.’
People want to take some credit for a right standing before God. I remember a woman visiting the last church I was in—this respectable woman was offended by the suggestion that our goodness is not good enough for God. The apostle Paul says that even the faith that puts out an empty hand to accept grace is itself a gift from God.
I started by telling you about Trevor. Trevor says that it doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you are sincere. Trevor likes to talk about his neighbour, who is an atheist, ‘a finer person you will not meet.’ ‘How could God send him to hell?’ Trevor thinks it is arrogant to claim that what you believe is truer than what other people believe. Trevor is a typical Irishman. Typical Irishmen don’t like the gospel. But we are to prayerfully share the gospel of grace with people like Trevor. We are to ask God to show Trevor that he is worse than he ever imagined, and yet more loved than he ever dreamed. We long for Trevor to stop saying that is not such a bad lad, and delight that God offers to save a wretch like me. We long to see that God’s grace abounds to the worst of sinners, and that it is only those who see themselves as the worst of sinners who abound in grace. We want Trevor to see that, ‘nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling.’