How to Respond to False Teachers
In America free speech is a high value, but we all recognize on some level that not all speech is helpful for us to listen to. How do we know what speech we shouldn’t listen to? In this passage, we see that we shouldn’t listen to speech that is contrary to the gospel.
Galatians (Geneva Commentaries), John Brown
Galatians (Crossway Classic Commentaries), Martin Luther
Galatians For You, Timothy Keller
America is a nation that has historically prided itself on the right to speak freely. In Russia, if you criticize the war in Ukraine, you can get arrested. But here, if you criticize the president, the government doesn’t have the authority to arrest you. Nonetheless, over our short life as a nation, we have recognized certain limits on free speech. You can’t get up in a movie theater and scream, “Fire!” if in fact there is no fire. The conversation has intensified recently as universities, spaces that typically pride themselves on the free exchange of ideas, have banned certain speakers who they deem do not comport with their values. And even on an individual level, it’s common to hear people talk about cutting “toxic voices” out of their lives. What we’re all recognizing on some level is that not all speech is helpful speech to which to listen. Some of it is downright harmful. But if you cut out all dissenting speech that bothers you, you run the risk of ending up in an echo chamber and never learning anything new. So how do you know what speech to reject? You must be convinced of some foundational truth that then filters what truth claims you’re willing to entertain in the future. As we begin a series of sermons through the book of Galatians today, we are going to see that that foundational truth is called “the gospel.” It’s a message that the recipients of this letter had believed, and that brought them together into communities called churches. However, at the time this letter was written, they were being led astray by false teachers of a different gospel, which it turns out was no gospel at all. So Paul, the author of this letter, and the one who originally preached the gospel to the churches of Galatia, tells them, and through them, tells us today: Reject false teachers, and he gives us four reasons to do so: There were true teachers of a true gospel, there are false teachers of what is no gospel at all, false teaching is false, no matter who teaches it, and the stakes are high.
There were true teachers of a true gospel
Paul’s letter to the Galatians begins in the standard way his letters do, and the way I still often begin emails: He introduces himself. His name is Paul, and his office is an apostle, an office he got not from men nor through men, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead. The apostles were those who saw the risen Jesus with their own eyes, and were commissioned by him to tell others what they witnessed. In Paul’s case, he was actually a persecutor of the church, but the risen Jesus appeared to him, converted him, and commissioned him to preach the gospel. We’ll hear more of his story next week Lord willing, but for now Paul simply says he is an apostle, not from men, nor through men, but through Jesus Christ.
From this introduction we already get a hint of one of the issues going on in the churches of Galatia: False teachers are claiming that Paul is not a genuine apostle. So Paul, not as a matter of boasting, but as a matter of fact, asserts that he is a true teacher. There really was the group of apostles who saw the risen Lord Jesus and who were personally commissioned by him to proclaim the gospel. It’s one thing to reject the gospel; it’s another to claim the gospel is different, that the message of Christianity is something other than what those who actually saw the risen Jesus and were personally commissioned by him claim that it is. That’s been part of the issue with the Critical Race Theory debates of the past few years: Anyone is free to disagree with CRT, but what you aren’t free to do is take an idea you don’t like and just label it CRT. There were real founders of that movement: Derrick Bell, Kimberle Crenshaw, Richard Delgado, and others, so that, as many were pointing out, if we want to define what Critical Race Theory is, we must look at their writings. And, of course, some of them are still alive, and so have been able to explain to critics, “Hey, I’m one of the founders, and that’s not Critical Race Theory.”
So here, Paul is essentially saying, “Hey, I’m one of the founders” and later in the passage we’ll hear him saying, “Hey, that message you’re accepting…That’s not Christianity.” You’ll ultimately have to decide whether to accept or reject the Christian gospel, but what you aren’t free to do is redefine it. There were true teachers who saw the risen Jesus and were personally commissioned by him to tell others about him. And while Paul isn’t here now to say, “Hey, that’s not Christianity,” we still have his writings, and we don’t even just have his writings: We have the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, James, Peter, and Jude. Notice in verse two Paul says he is writing with “all the brothers” who are with him. He’s not alone in this message, nor is he the only apostle. We just spent a year preaching through the Gospel of John, and you will find substantially the same gospel message in John as you will find in this letter to the Galatians, and in every other book of the Bible. There really were true teachers who proclaimed a true gospel.
And in his greeting, Paul even gives us the basic pieces of the true gospel. Look at his statement in verse 4. Describing Jesus, Paul says he gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age. In the Bible, there are three big ages: The age of innocence, when humans were created, but had not yet sinned, the present evil age, in which all humans are born dead in their sins, and the age to come, where sin will be removed from the earth and a new heaven and new earth will be created, in which righteousness dwells forever. In verse 4 Paul tells us that Jesus died for our sins in order to deliver us from that present evil age. In saying he died for our sins, he indicates that we all are part of that present evil age. It’s not as though the culture is evil, but we are not. If that were the case, we wouldn’t need someone to die for our sins. But, in fact, we all are born with the seeds of sin in our hearts, so that even though those seeds are watered differently in each of our lives, so that some grow up to be murderers and abusers, while others grow up to be outwardly nice people, who inside are totally indifferent to God and his glory, all of us are guilty in God’s sight, and therefore there is a sentence of judgment against us which the Bible describes as “the wrath of God,” God’s intense opposition to all that is evil. The present evil age, therefore, of which we are all naturally a part, is currently under the wrath of God, and will one day face that wrath in its full fury.
How, then, can we be delivered from the present evil age? God the Father sent God the Son to become human, and to give himself for our sins, as verse 4 puts it, in our place, to die under the wrath of God for us, thus satisfying the demand of God’s justice against our sin. And then, back to verse 1: God raised him from the dead, never to die again. In other words, God brought him into the age to come, where death is no more, where righteousness dwells forever. In Jesus, the coming age has broken into the present evil age, so that now, all those who receive and rest upon Jesus for salvation are delivered from the present evil age, and from the wrath to come. The word gospel literally means “good news,” and that’s good news! Receive and rest upon Jesus, and he will deliver you from the present evil age. And the result of all this, verse 5, is the glory of God. God is glorified in the gospel because God is the subject of the verbs. The gospel is the good news about what God has done. God sent his son; God the Son, Jesus Christ, gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age; God the Father raised him from the dead.
Though we are sinners, God sent his Son to die for our sins and rose him from the dead so that whoever believes in him would be delivered from the present evil age, all for His glory. That’s the true gospel, the apostolic gospel. That’s the message of Christianity. You’re free to reject it; you aren’t free to change it and still call it Christianity. So reject false teachers who do that. They aren’t apostles; I’m not an apostle. But Paul was, along with the other apostles, and we have the true gospel, true good news, written down for us in the Bible.
Next Paul starts talking about the false teachers, and his tone is going to change a bit. It’s not mean; it’s not harsh; to read it that way is to misread the text. But it is sharp. So before we move on to look at that, there’s just one more thing I don’t want you to miss in Paul’s introduction to the letter. Don’t miss his heart for the churches of Galatia. Look at verse 3: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul longs not for their condemnation, but for them to experience the grace and peace of God. Grace is God’s unmerited favor, and peace in the Bible speaks to a kind of comprehensive happiness. The older commentator John Brown summarizes Paul’s prayer in verse 3 in this way: “May you receive from God the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ, all that is necessary to your happiness both here and hereafter.” That’s Paul’s heart for the churches of Galatia, and that’s ultimately God’s heart for all His churches. So, like a parent who truly wants their children to be happy, and who therefore corrects them, Paul moves to a word of correction. False teachers flatter you to get you to follow them; true teachers are willing to give sharp correction for the sake of your happiness both here and hereafter, even risking that you might not like them for it. And Paul must do this because there are false teachers of what are no gospels at all.
There are false teachers of what are no gospels at all
So in verse 6 we read Paul say this: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” There is only one gospel, but there are some, Paul says, who under the title of “gospel” preach something else, which is in fact a distortion of the true gospel, the gospel of Christ, and is therefore no gospel at all.
Who are these people troubling them? Throughout the history of the church, they’ve been called the “Judaizers,” because as we’ll learn later in the letter, they were teaching the churches of Galatia that in addition to believing in Jesus, they needed to be circumcised according to the law of Moses, the law God had given to Moses when God founded the Israelite nation. And you might understand why someone would do that: Jesus was Jewish, and in calling Jesus the “Christ” they were calling him the Jewish Messiah; Christ is just the Greek word for that. So if Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, wouldn’t he want us to keep the Jewish law? After all, for over a thousand years, the Jewish people had been taught by God to think that circumcision was necessary. So now to suddenly think that someone would be acceptable to God without being circumcised…how could that be?
Paul doesn’t describe the false teachers in such sympathetic terms, though. He describes them as those who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. It’s of course more comfortable, and more common in 21st century America, to think that everyone is just doing their best, but Paul’s more interested in the truth: There are real false teachers whose desire is to distort the gospel of Christ. While it may make us more comfortable to pretend that’s not the case, it also makes us more vulnerable to false teaching. Bear in mind that these false teachers claimed to be Christians, and we get no indication throughout the letter to the Galatians that their disagreement with Paul and the other apostles was over the divinity of Christ or the humanity of Christ. From everything we know about them, they could have affirmed the words of the Apostles’ Creed. How different were they then, really?
According to Paul, they were different enough that the gospel they proclaimed was no gospel at all, even though they seemed to have just changed it at just this one point, and a somewhat understandable point at that: They added “You must be circumcised.” And that’s enough for Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to say: That’s a different gospel. Any distortion of the gospel is not just a difference of opinion; it’s no gospel at all. In verses 8-9, Paul expands beyond the context of these false teachers: There he simply speaks of “a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you” or “a gospel contrary to the one you received.” Here he doesn’t even mention the specific false teaching of the Judaizers; I had to fill that in for you from the rest of the letter so you’d know what’s going on. He doesn’t get into the specifics of that now because his concern is not just for that false gospel; it’s for any gospel that is contrary to the one he preached to the churches of Galatia, and which they received. Any gospel that is contrary to that gospel is no gospel at all. It’s not Christianity.
Now, there are ways of communicating the gospel that are the same in substance, but use different words. The exact words “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age” appear nowhere in the writings of the apostle John (or even anywhere else in Paul’s own writings), for example, but John preached the same gospel. Similarly, not every theological difference is a different gospel. At this church we don’t baptize infants because we don’t believe the Bible authorizes us to do so. But there are other churches in the city that do, and we don’t go around saying they are preaching a different gospel, because some of them at least are still preaching the apostolic gospel written down for us in scripture. However, there are other false teachers today who teach what is no gospel at all.
There is one true gospel, so that’s easy to summarize, but there are infinitely many false gospels, which are therefore impossible to fully summarize. Nonetheless, I’ll try to summarize some of the most dangerous ones we see today. Maybe the most famous would be the gospel of the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches, which while professing Christ and agreeing with the great creeds of the church, make our works either the ground or the means of our salvation, so that it is no longer Jesus Christ who delivers us from the present evil age, but Jesus Christ who makes us deliverable, and we who, cooperating with him, must deliver ourselves from the present evil age. Of course, they deny my allegation, as we can trust the Judaizers denied Paul’s, and I won’t do a deep dive on that question today, but we will have opportunity to do so throughout the book of Galatians. This letter was, in fact, one of the key pieces that led Martin Luther to reject the dominant teaching of the Roman Catholic Church in his day and spark the Protestant Reformation.
So that’s kind of a historically famous example, though it is hard for Christians in a pluralistic culture that tends to blur distinctions to see the distortion there. Another probably less famous but also older distortion of the gospel is the one normal in liberal or mainline churches. By liberal I don’t mean politically liberal, but theologically liberal, a technical term for “liberal Protestantism,” the kind of thing on which you can read a Wikipedia article. If you see an old, architecturally impressive church building in Philadelphia, this would characterize 9/10 of them. Tim Keller summarizes their message this way: “It doesn’t really matter what you believe as long as you are a loving and good person.” In this way of thinking, we aren’t really sinners: At most, we’re imperfect, and therefore we don’t really need to be delivered by a real savior from wrath that’s really coming. They would typically deny that God is wrathful at all, that Jesus died for our sins, and that Jesus literally rose from the dead. None of that is really necessary in their scheme, because what you really need is to be inspired by Jesus and learn from his teachings to be a more loving, tolerant, and just person. That’s another gospel that is no gospel at all. It’s not even news really, let alone good news. It’s good inspiration for living better.
We could call that a kind of moralistic false gospel: The basic message is live differently, with maybe the addition that Jesus will help you do that in some way. There are other more subtle moralistic false gospels. Another would be the message that if you want to really be saved, you need to give up drinking and sex and instead start going to church and reading your Bible. Some think that’s what it means to become a Christian: “I started living for God.” That’s not the gospel! Again, nothing about Jesus delivering you there; it’s about you improving yourself. Of course the prosperity gospel is another easy and somewhat famous target today: The prosperity gospel teaches that if you believe in Jesus, God will bless you with health and material wealth in this life. But Jesus didn’t die to make us healthy and wealthy in the present evil age; he died to deliver us from the present evil age.
I’ll conclude this summary by mentioning one more subtle one: What we might call a therapeutic false gospel, rather than a moralistic false gospel or the prosperity gospel. This is common under the name of Christianity today. Therapy isn’t all bad, just like prosperity and morality aren’t all bad; don’t hear me say that. I’m referring more to a therapeutic worldview, a therapeutic false gospel, which goes something like this: Your big problem in life is not that you are actually a sinner. Your big problem in life is that you’ve been told lies all your life about how worthless you are. In a Christian context, it’s probably added that the devil is the one who’s told you these lies: He’s told you you aren’t good enough, you aren’t smart enough, you aren’t attractive enough. And the good news of the gospel, in this false gospel, is that Jesus thinks you are so great, that he was willing to die for you, so that you could know that you are loved, affirmed, and perfect just the way you are. Again, so close, right? But our big problem is not that we think we’re sinners; it’s that we really are sinners. And we need a real savior, not just positive thoughts. Jesus died for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, not simply to affirm us. And the goal of the gospel is ultimately the glory of God, not our positive feelings, although faith in the true gospel does inevitably bring a host of positive feelings.
There are false teachers of what are no gospels at all. There were in Paul’s day, there are now. To distort the gospel is to change the gospel into something that is no gospel at all. It’s an uncomfortable thought, but it’s true. But the issue isn’t so much with the teachers themselves, as though they are inherently bad, because false teaching is false, no matter who teaches it.
False teaching is false, no matter who teaches it
So notice where Paul goes next. In verse 7 he makes very clear that there are false teachers, they trouble you, and they want to distort the gospel of Christ. But he doesn’t exempt himself from fallibility. He says in verse 8: “But even if we or angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” Then in verse 9, just in case he stuttered: “As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” In other words, even though Paul was a true teacher, he allows for the possibility that even he or an angel from heaven could preach a gospel contrary to the one he and the apostles had preached previously, which the churches of Galatia before had heard and believed, and through which they were saved.
Think about what Paul is saying here. He’s saying, “Don’t even trust me ultimately. Trust the gospel.” And remember to whom this letter is addressed, verse 2: To the churches of Galatia. It was not addressed to the bishops, the presbytery, the seminary, the theologians, or even to the elders. It was addressed to the churches, made up of ordinary Christians, churches like ours, like Greater Exodus Baptist, like 10th Presbyterian, and so on. And Paul expected those churches to be able to recognize whether even he or an angel was preaching to them a gospel contrary to the apostolic gospel, and then says of them, “Let them be accursed.” In other words, treat them as those under the curse of God. Reject those false teachers. Don’t listen to their sermons, don’t financially support them, and if they’re members of your churches, pronounce God’s curse on them by excommunicating them.
In verses 8-9 we can see the problem with the argument that is used to uphold the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox false gospels. The argument is that tradition is on their side. The Roman Catholic Church claims to be the genuine preserver of tradition, the Eastern Orthodox church claims it is, but both say that local churches cannot reject their officers without being disobedient to God, whether the officer be the bishop, the archbishop, the patriarch, a church council, or in the case of the Roman Catholic Church, the pope. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the pope cannot err when speaking ex cathedra, and the Eastern Orthodox Church teaches that church councils cannot err. But here is Paul telling churches that if even he, an apostle, or an angel from heaven should preach to them a gospel contrary to the one they received, they can realize that is happening, and reject such teachers. If it’s possible for an apostle to err, if it’s possible for an angel from heaven to err, and it’s possible for churches to realize it, then it’s possible for a pope to err, it’s possible for a church council to err, and it’s possible for churches to realize it, and reject them. That’s exactly what God commands us to do in this passage. False teaching is still false, whether an apostle, an angel, a pope, or a church council teaches it. If the church tradition teaches anything contrary to the apostolic gospel recorded for us in scripture, reject it.
And, for that matter, if I or any preacher in this church preach to you a gospel contrary to the one in scripture, reject us. In our church, the church has the authority to do that, due in large measure to this passage. Let me read you section 5.2.6 of our Constitution: “An elder’s term of office may be terminated by resignation or by dismissal. Any two members with reason to believe that an elder should be dismissed should express their concern to at least two elders and only afterwards, if need be, to the congregation. Any such action shall be done in accordance with the instructions of our Lord in Matt. 18:15-17 and 1 Tim. 5:17-21. Any elder may be dismissed by a simple majority vote of the members at any formally called members’ meeting of the church, recognizing that members of Christ’s church should strive for unity in all things (Eph. 4:1-6).” It’s important that you know this. If you believe I or any other elder is teaching something contrary to the gospel, you should first express your concern to at least two elders. Ideally, they will address the issue and if the allegation is true, they will bring it to the congregation. If they don’t, but you’re still convinced the allegation is true, there is a section in the agenda at every members’ meeting called “other business.” At that time, you should make a motion to remove the elder teaching something contrary to the gospel. If a majority of the church agrees with your assessment, the elder will be removed. I’m telling you, if I or any other elder in this church preach to you a gospel contrary to the biblical gospel, do that.
You say, “Well how could I ever know whether what I’m hearing is false? Mike’s gone to seminary and knows so much more than I do.” You need to be a student of the Bible yourself. We’ve taught classes here about how to study the Bible so that you aren’t at the mercy of whoever gets up and preaches next week. We do a Sunday school class every week to teach biblical theology so that you actually know it. Come to that. Read your Bible. Listen to good podcasts, read good theology books, not just what’s entertaining or inspiring. That’s a way we can help one another as a church actually. There are so many forms of media now that it’s easy for false teachers to get to you: TV, podcasts, YouTube, TikTok, twitter, your counselor, whatever. Let’s be a church where we’re commonly asking one another, “Hey, I came across this teaching the other day. Are you familiar with it? Is it biblical? Is that consistent with the gospel?” That’s part of why you have pastors; please, ask us. And if you see a fellow member teaching something contrary to the gospel or listening to teaching contrary to the gospel, talk to them about it. If they won’t listen to you, take 1 or 2 others. If they won’t listen to them, tell the elders.
Now you say, “This all feels a bit extreme. Do we really need to be so nitpicky?” There is a way to overdo this and become a heresy hunter, but I don’t think that’s our problem in this church. Think of it like this: There’s crime in Philly, right? Now if, in response to that, you become a black belt in jiu jitsu, conceal carry multiple firearms, wear a bulletproof vest every day, purchase the most advanced alarm system available, and never leave your house when it’s dark, we’d probably consider that excessive. But we’d also consider it foolish for you to walk around aimlessly on the roughest blocks at 3am. You need to develop some street smarts to live here, and you need to develop some street smarts to live the Christian life. Not everyone is a criminal, but some are, and not everyone is a false teacher, but some are. And it’s a big deal, finally, because the stakes are high.
The stakes are high
This is just something to notice throughout the passage for those of you who may be feeling that, “Come on, do we really need to be so intolerant of other views?” Notice in verse 6, when Paul says he’s astonished, what it is that astonishes him. He says he’s astonished that the churches of Galatia are “so quickly deserting” not the gospel, and not even Paul. He says he’s astonished the churches of Galatia are so quickly deserting “him who called” them. To turn from the biblical gospel is to turn from God himself. It’s his Word ultimately. It’s the gospel of Christ as he puts it in verse 7, not just the gospel of Paul. Reject false teachers because if you don’t, you are turning from God himself. You are trusting them more than you trust God’s Word.
And then look at the words of verses 8 and 9 again. Paul says of even himself or an angel, if anyone who preaches a gospel contrary to the one the churches of Galatia had received: Let him be accursed. I already talked about how this means the churches of Galatia should treat them: Treat them as one under the curse of God. But it’s more than that. It’s also a pronouncement, from Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that those false teachers will be eternally damned. This text is teaching us that those who teach false gospels will be eternally condemned in hell.
So the stakes are high. Those who reject the biblical gospel are rejecting God, and those who preach another gospel will be eternally condemned. Eternity is long, and souls are at stake. False teachers exist; it does no one any lasting good to deny it. And even true teachers can become false teachers. False teaching is false, no matter who teaches it. But there were true teachers. There were those who saw the risen Jesus, and who were commissioned by him to proclaim that we are sinners, but that Jesus died for our sins and rose again to deliver us from the present evil age, for the glory of God. That’s the true gospel. That’s good news. For the sake of your happiness here and hereafter, believe it, and reject false teachers.