The Galatian believers probably thought they were simply adding a few Jewish customs to the gospel in order to enhance the value of their faith in Christ. But this addition to the gospel actually negated the essence of the gospel. First Paul rebukes the Galatians for their desertion; next he blames the confusion on those who perverted the gospel; and then he pronounces a solemn condemnation of all who tamper with the truth of the gospel.
Paul's expression of astonishment is actually a stinging rebuke: 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. The present tense of the verb deserting tells us that the Galatian Christians had not yet decisively carried out their desertion. They were just starting to turn around and leave. Paul's letter was designed to arrest them before they had gone too far. The one they were deserting was the one who had called them by the grace of Christ. While this may be read as a reference to Paul himself, similar references to God's call by his grace in Paul's life (1:15) and in the Galatians' experience (5:8) indicate that the reference is to God. Paul is stunned that people who had just recently experienced so much of God's miraculous power by his Spirit in their lives (3:1-5) would now turn away from him. They are turning their backs on God in order to follow a different gospel.
The content of this different gospel will become evident as we read the letter. But it is clear already that this gospel was not God-centered. It was drawing people away from God to focus on themselves. Preoccupation with racial identity, religious observance and ceremonial rituals was robbing them of their experience of God's grace expressed in Christ. The irony and tragedy of the situation was that in their pious pursuit of spiritual perfection (3:3) they were actually turning away from God.
The Galatian tragedy is a warning for us that not every quest for spirituality is in reality a quest for God. The emphasis in our day on "spirituality" and "spiritual formation" may be a way of finding God. But it may also be a way of running and hiding from God. When we are enticed by provocative books on New Age spirituality, we must remember that the Galatian Christians were trapped by a message that promised spiritual perfection but turned them away from God.
The fascinating, even spellbinding teaching of some people in the Galatian churches had turned the Galatian believers away from the true gospel. Paul boldly asserts that the different gospel which is so attractive to the Galatian Christians is really no gospel at all. It is a perversion of the gospel of Christ, perpetrated by some people who are trying to cause confusion in the Galatian churches.
Probably these people claimed that their message supplemented and completed Paul's message. They would not have viewed their version of the gospel as heretical. After all, they did not deny the deity of Christ, the cross of Christ or the resurrection of Christ. They subtracted nothing from Paul's message. They only added to it.
But Paul does not allow their gospel to stand as a legitimate option. He sets forth a radical antithesis. His gospel cannot be served alongside other gospels, buffet-style. There is only one true gospel of Christ. The rest of his letter defines the true gospel in antithesis to the false gospel, so that the readers will reject the false and embrace the true.
Paul places all advocates of a gospel that differs from his gospel under condemnation. Adherence to the true gospel is the final test of true authority. Even the authority of a messenger from heaven or the authority of Paul himself must be tested by loyalty to the gospel. It is important to note that Paul holds himself accountable to this ultimate measure of authority. His apostolic authority is not arbitrary; it is valid only as long as he is faithful to the true gospel.
In the history of the church we can observe two extremes in the use of authority. Sometimes those who have leadership roles do not exercise their God-given authority; leaderless churches drift into compromise and divide into competing factions. This was the condition of the Corinthian church. But on the other hand, some persons in leadership roles attempt to exercise absolute control over the church and place themselves above any criticism; enslaved churches lack freedom to grow in faith and love. This was the condition of the Galatian churches. The intruders campaigned for the exclusive devotion of the Galatian Christians (4:17).
The extremes of anarchy and tyranny can be avoided in the church only when we implement Paul's combination of authority and accountability. Leaders in the church should lead with authority, because God is the ultimate source for their position; but they should also lead with humility, because God has set the final standard in the truth of the gospel, by which all are judged. Leaders must be held accountable to this final standard by those who are led.
In verse 9 Paul repeats his previous instruction, which eternally condemns anybody for preaching a gospel other than what the Galatian converts had originally accepted from Paul. Paul's double condemnation sounds terribly harsh and severe in our ears. It expresses an absolute intolerance for anyone who differs from his gospel. How can we seek to maintain harmony in a context of religious pluralism, we might respond, except by showing tolerance for all religious alternatives? Doesn't Paul himself argue for a tolerant acceptance of differences in other situations?
We need to understand that Paul was willing to accommodate himself to differences in matters such as what foods to eat or what days to celebrate (Rom 14--15; 1 Cor 8--10), but when the central truth of the gospel was at stake, he drew a clear line and refused to compromise. He was unyielding in his defense of "the truth of the gospel" (2:5, 14), because he wanted to protect the freedom of God's people. Paul did teach that Christians should "live at peace with everyone" (Rom 12:18); but when anyone negated the core of the gospel, especially the significance of the cross, he did not hesitate to forcefully refute that person, as we see here in Galatians and in his other letters (see 2 Cor 11:13-15; Col 2:8). While we should seek to maintain harmony in a context of religious pluralism by showing tolerance and respect for people of other religious persuasions, this should not lead us to compromise in any way the exclusiveness of the true gospel of Christ.
Of course our unwillingness to compromise the truth of the gospel will sometimes make us quite unpopular. In verse 10 Paul recognizes that his double condemnation of all who preach a gospel different from his gospel will certainly not be seen as an attempt to please people. His rhetorical questions call for a negative answer: "No, Paul, you are obviously not trying to win human approval, but God's." Perhaps Paul had been accused of trying to please people by preaching a gospel that did not require Gentiles to follow Jewish customs. But now after pronouncing judgment on all who preach a perversion of his gospel, he considers himself to be cleared of any accusation that his ambition is to please people. Such an ambition would indicate that he was not a true servant of Christ. By his loyalty to the gospel despite opposition, Paul proves his complete submission to the lordship of Christ. As a faithful servant to Christ, he is a rebuke to the Galatian believers who are so quickly deserting the One who called them and turning to a different gospel (1:6).
True servants of Christ will not win popularity contests with people who "gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear" (2 Tim 4:3). But even when they are unpopular, true servants of Christ are marked by unswerving loyalty to Christ. We can still hear the clear gospel message today because courageous men and women suffered greatly for their uncompromising defense of it in years past. They resisted immense pressure to renounce their faith in Christ, and they boldly declared, as Martin Luther did, "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me."