It's been said bank tellers are trained to detect counterfeit money, not by studying counterfeits but by methodically analyzing authentic dollar bills. Having memorized real currency front and back, they develop the skill to detect a counterfeit when it enters the bank. Bogus bills will get you busted.
What if we studied the gospel (and its implications) with the fervor of bank tellers? Would we spot counterfeit systems that promise phony acceptance, approval and identity? In Paul's brief letter to the Galatians, he's dumbfounded by their inability to spot the spiritual counterfeits of the authentic gospel.
A Different Gospel?
"I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all..." Galatians 1:6-7
Paul is concerned that the Galatian church has absorbed a false iteration of the gospel, a sneaky substitute devoid of the joy and truth of the original. A charade. A wisp of self-exalting air, powerless for their need. A fake gospel that relies on self-effort and self-promotion to gain God's seal-of-approval. This different gospel is really no gospel at all. It is not the Emancipation Proclamation, but the Enslavement Prolongation.
9 Fake Bills
Like bad money, what counterfeit marks do Paul's trained eyes detect in this different gospel? Here are Galatians' top 9 fake bills. This different gospel ...
1. Contrasted with Paul's gospel. (2:2)
2. Demanded full adherence to Jewish customs (i.e. dietary and personal practices). Some customs were extrapolations from OT Law. (2:14)
3. Declared a person justified before God by observing the Law. Effectively, the counterfeit formula became: Obedience to Law + Jesus = Standing With God. This mutates the gospel from a rescue by Jesus to a self-salvation project. It minimizes Jesus and maximizes self. (2:15-16, 5:4)
For example, imagine you're drowning in the frigid ocean. Applying the Galatian counterfeit, Jesus wouldn't pull you aboard his ship to begin CPR. Instead, he'd merely toss you a life jacket and sail away, expecting you to swim to shore – despite hypothermia and exhaustion – while hungry sharks encircle you. That is not merely a different gospel – it is no gospel at all (since gospel means good news).
4. Believed right standing with God is achieved by self's performance, negating the need for Jesus' substitutionary death. Salvation depends on what I do, not what Jesus did. It is based on earning, not receiving; trusting my performance not His performance. (2:21; 3:2-3; also see: 2:16, 3:5, 3:10-11, 4:21, 5:18)
6. Demanded observing special days/months/seasons, ritualistically organizing one's life around rules. (e.g. "Fast on this day; it's obligatory. You must.") (4:10)
7. Demanded circumcision (external ritual) as the lynchpin for self-earned salvation. (5:2-3, 6, 11; 6:12)
8. Eviscerated joy from the heart. (4:15)
9. Exalted false teachers of the scam, who would boast about your membership and let you avoid persecution. (6:12-15)
Note the bolded words above: customs, observing the law, do-do-do, performance, slave, rules, ritual. Ugh. Sounds oppressive, doesn't it? Whenever a system diminishes Jesus and his work on the Cross – even a trifle – it exalts our idol of self and declares war against God's plan. This is an eternal insult against God.
A Galatian Counterfeit Today?
The potential for a different gospel is as relevant today as it was in 48AD (when Galatians was written). It seems one night of sleep "erases our spiritual hard drive," which reboots the next morning in a Galatians operating system. We attempt to patch our infected OS by our smidgeons of obedience and virtue-signalling, to earn the approval of God and others. But the malware within is not so easily extracted. We need to refresh the system entirely. A new daily install, with the coded merit of Jesus as our only system.
The human heart desperately wants a system that avoids the humiliation of conceding the primary problem is self. Any system that promises identity and good-standing in exchange for my performance trades away the Gospel of Undeserved Grace for a transactional, self-salvation, self-improvement ideology of despair. Whatever you're convinced you must do-do-do in order to be right in God's eyes (or other's eyes) is a different gospel. It is a virus declaring: "I don't need a rescue; I've got this."
Then Why Obey? Engine or Caboose?
If we rode a train to the Grand Canyon, we would expect an Engine to pull us to our destination. First the Engine, then the Passenger cars, and finally the Caboose ... which naturally follows behind. If the train trip represents our life, would our obedience to God be the Engine that pulls us to heaven? Or, would our obedience be like the Caboose, which naturally follows Another Engine, whose performance can successfully get us to our destination? Jesus is the Engine. His performance elicits our grateful obedience.
It would be foolish to attempt to pull the train by the Caboose (obedience). Alas, this is Galatian's different gospel. Paul reminds us we are powerless Cabooses, who can esteem and thank the Only Engine able to pull this train.
So, why obey? Our thinking is often like this:
"If I obey God, then God will accept me (He will like and approve of me)."
That's a quid pro quo with God, attempting to earn standing by our performance. It makes our obedience the engine that pulls the train. Instead, we can think this:
"I do not (and never will) fully obey God, but Someone did (Jesus), and he paid for my awful behavior. Having secured acceptance with God for me (by His perfect performance credited to me), I now overflow with such gratitude that every act of obedience is an opportunity, not a duty.
"Because God has accepted me (by Jesus' obedience, credited to me), I want to obey Him!"
"Because God has accepted me, I obey Him!"
My obedience is the Caboose. Jesus' life, death, and resurrection is the Engine that pulls my train. Obedience is the natural outworking of gratitude for what He has done for me. Disobedience is like a caboose jumping the track. Every caboose with a fresh apprehension of the Engine's performance wants to stay on the track, pulled by the great Engine's heart.
Our Mighty Engine, Jesus, is the secret power to obey. Our obedience is natural response, not reluctant duty. And it feels right.
Let's sit back and enjoy the ride! Choo-choo!