What is the Gospel? Part 2 – Greg Albrecht

When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?
We who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.
If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker.
For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.
The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!—Galatians 2:14-21

In What Is the Gospel?—Part 1 we studied Romans 1:16-17, and we found that the gospel is the power of God, and that a righteousness from God (not from a human source) is revealed in the gospel. All the power we need as Christians is found in the gospel, all the righteousness we need as Christians is revealed in the gospel.

We noted that Jesus is the gospel. We concluded that God uses the gospel to deliver an invitation to us, an invitation to his house, his eternal dwelling place. He’s inviting us, via the gospel, to a banquet, a wedding party at his heavenly mansion. The invitation comes with a request that we respond. God wants to know if we accept his invitation.

There is no way on God’s green earth (or in his eternal heavenly home) that we can make our way to this gala celebration on our own. We don’t know the way, we don’t have adequate transportation, we don’t have enough spiritual gasoline in our tank to get us there.

Everything that needs to be done for this party, the transportation we need to get there, the robes of righteousness, the wedding garment we are given by his grace, the Bread of life that we eat—everything is provided by the power of God. The power proclaimed by the gospel is the basis of our decision to accept or reject this invitation.

If we feel that we will be able to get to this celebration on our own spiritual steam, if we feel that God needs our help in getting us there, then that belief is a de facto admission on our part that we are rejecting the invitation.

We are considering eight verses in Galatians—Galatians 2:14-21. The book of Galatians is a sustained argument, an insistence about the truth of the gospel, while at the same time a prolonged and passionate diatribe against the insidious virus of legalism.

In the first chapter, here’s what Paul says, in Galatians 1:6-9, about the 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. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 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!

Paul leaves no doubt about the gospel. The gospel is Jesus—the gospel is God’s grace. Any other idea about the gospel, any changes or deletions, means that the message falls short of the gospel. Modifications of the gospel are counterfeit, and they don’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the gospel.

Once again, we see that Paul develops the full Christ-centered definition of the gospel, based and grounded in Jesus, fueled by the dynamic, life-giving power of God, resting in his grace. Faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone.

Galatians 2:14-21 begins with Paul’s confrontation with Peter. Both of these men were apostles, they were co-equals. They were on the same team. But Paul had a huge issue with Peter.

Paul felt, and rightly so, that Peter was compromising the gospel. The issue was about the relationships that Jews and gentiles, non-Jews, could have with each other.

The Christian church started with Jews. Jesus was a Jew, the vast majority of his ministry was to Jews, and of course his disciples were Jews. When the church was born on Pentecost, as recorded in Acts 2, all of the initial Christians were Jews. But, these racial Jews should have, by virtue of accepting Christ, become former Jews religiously.

But Paul is writing here in Galatians, well over a decade after the church started, and many Jewish Christians were more inclined to make Christianity over into their Jewish religious and cultural customs than they were to be completely transformed into the new life of Christ.

Peter had actually left a meal where gentiles were present because he received a lot of heat from his fellow Jewish-Christians. In Judaism it was forbidden to have what was called “table fellowship” with a non-Jew. Peter was doing so because he felt that the gospel had abolished such silly, man-made religious traditions, but when he received pressure from his fellow Jewish-Christians who were in reality not Christ-followers at all, Peter caved in.

Paul was horrified. Not only was racism involved, but more than that, so was the toxic idea that God only loved those who performed certain specific religious duties.

Paul was protesting the perversion of the gospel by adding cultural and religious expectations to it. Just as he had said in the first chapter, verses 6-10, a different gospel is really no gospel at all. A different gospel was a corruption, he said, and it is this very commitment to the truth of the gospel that motivated Paul to oppose Peter to his face (2:11).

Paul saw, according to verse 14, that Peter and those who agreed with him were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel. Once again, Paul insists, it’s either the gospel, or it isn’t. There is no middle ground. There is no accommodation. It is either the truth or it isn’t.

The gospel transforms every dimension of our lives. Paul said it was not appropriate to drag old cultural/religious traditions into the gospel (in this case Jewish religious traditions). Paul insisted, as Jesus said, that we cannot put the new wine of the gospel into the old wineskins of some former belief, some former religion, some former set of teachings.

Jesus said that the new wine of the gospel cannot be enclosed in any religious container. Eventually the gospel, as it grows, will ferment and then explode. The gospel will blow up any religious container that tries to remake the gospel into its own image.

We cannot take the gospel and institutionalize it or domesticate it. We cannot take the gospel and put it in the attic or basement, we can’t put a lid on it, we can’t bottle it and put our logo or brand on it. The gospel is spiritually “organic” and pure—it can’t be humanly processed.

The gospel is the power of God—no human church or denomination can control it or own it. The gospel is bigger than all human corporations, groups, movements, efforts and outreaches.

Do not presume to add stuff to the gospel. Do not come to God’s house and assume he wants you to start redecorating. He doesn’t need our religious stuff—in fact he says to leave it behind. When we come to the Lord’s Table, it’s not a potluck meal. He doesn’t want you to bring a covered or uncovered dish. He doesn’t want our religious pies and cakes. The kingdom of God is not a bring-your-own-bottle party. God has all the wine we will need, and he doesn’t need our old wineskins either.

When we come to Christ, we don’t come hanging on to our religious rubbish, for indeed, that is what it is. He doesn’t want it. He doesn’t need it. He wants us, but not our religion. Leave your religion behind when you come to Christ.

Our passage today insists that the gospel of Jesus Christ is all about him, as verse 16 says, we are not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. And here, as the rest of the book of Galatians discusses, is the big lie of religious legalism. What is the big lie?

The big lie is that the gospel is, at the very least, partially about what we need to do in order to please God. The big religious lie doesn’t attempt to completely deny Jesus, it doesn’t attempt to completely deny God’s grace. Instead, the big lie insists that the gospel is a combination of what we do and what Jesus has done, is doing and will do.

The big religious lie teaches things like this—”of course we’re saved by grace—by grace and by our works.” Or, it will claim something like this: “of course we are saved by grace, initially, but God doesn’t do it all for us. We must maintain the salvation he gives us initially, God gets us started and then it’s up to us.” The big religious lie is the absolute, fundamental distinction between authentic Christianity and Christ-less religion. The gospel is the way in which we know whether we are in Christ, or whether we are simply falling for the lies of some religious pied-piper.

The truth of the gospel is that we are saved by grace. The truth of the gospel is that Jesus alone has done, is doing, and will do all that is necessary to save us. The truth is that no religious traditions, ceremonies, pills, prescriptions, or rituals can attach themselves like leeches to the gospel—they are, as they pretend to be necessary and required—the enemies of the gospel.

Take it or leave it, says the gospel, if you want a relationship with God it will be on his terms, not on ours.

When I was a young boy growing up in southeast Texas, just outside of Houston, I admired my uncle Alvin. Uncle Alvin smoked cigarettes. He didn’t smoke, as we used to say then, “store-bought” cigarettes. The cigarettes that my uncle Alvin smoked were definitely not made in a factory.

Uncle Alvin “rolled his own.” He carried the two items necessary to create a cigarette. He always seemed to have a pack of cigarette paper handy, the kind of paper specially produced to allow tobacco inside of it to burn and be smoked.

And he also carried a thin can of tobacco. You may have seen these cans or tins in the attic or garage of your grandparent’s home or in an antique store. When Uncle Alvin wanted a smoke, he would take out the container of tobacco, and pour some of it into a piece of the cigarette wrapping paper that he had creased so that it would hold the tobacco he placed on the paper.

That was step one. In step two he evenly distributed all of the tobacco so that the paper could be rolled over the tobacco, somewhat like evenly distributing items on a throw carpet and then rolling the carpet over them. Hence the term rolling your own. Then the final step was to lick the end of the cigarette paper, moistening it enough so that the moist paper would adhere to the other end after it was rolled into a cigarette shaped cylinder.

And that, my friends, is what rolling your own is all about. Now what in the world does rolling your own have to do with the gospel?

I often think of rolling your own as somewhat like the home-grown liberties that religion has taken with the gospel. The true gospel has come down to us from heaven, in the person of Jesus. We either accept it or we don’t. Religion comes along and says—”We don’t mind smoking that cigarette, but we would rather roll our own. We want to improvise, we want to make the cigarette of the gospel over into our own image, we’ll roll our own.”

You might be appalled that I would compare the gospel of Jesus Christ to a known-to-cause-cancer cigarette and you may be right. I probably won’t be on the parable writing committee in heaven. Jesus will say to me, “Stay away from the parables, Greg—I’ve got them covered.”

But, for now, let’s get back to rolling your own.

When it comes to the gospel, rolling your own is a big lie. Of course it’s attractive to think that you are an independent cowboy, a maverick who doesn’t need Jesus, and that you have all the skill and talent necessary to roll your own relationship with God.

The gospel is well summarized by verses 20 and 21 of our keynote passage in Galatians 2:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!

Spiritual life, eternal life, comes to us only when our past life in this flesh is put to death (symbolically, of course), but in God’s eyes, this death is just as real as the end of our physical lives.

Jesus said,

“…whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”—Matthew 10:39

Those who are desperately trying to hang on to their physical life, whether that be their idols, their possessions, or like Peter in our keynote passage, the forms and practices and traditions of their religion, will not experience life in Christ.

The gospel means that God will not take who we are apart from him, and just add a few cosmetic touches. He isn’t interested in taking us as we are, spraying a little perfume on our wrists or behind our ears, and maybe giving us a new haircut.

That’s not new life in Christ—that’s just a touched-up version of who we are, apart from God. The gospel is not a pig with lipstick. The gospel is about complete transformation. When we accept Jesus, we are crucified with him and the life that we live from that point on is the life that Jesus lives in us. We’re dead, but we’ve never been more alive!

Our new life is all about God, it is a gift of God.

When we accept Christ we no longer need to be held hostage or in bondage to religious ideas that we must constantly be worried about in order to please God—that’s our old life. When we believe in Christ, when we are crucified with him and resurrected in him, we live for him and we depend on him.

The gospel is about being in Christ, and religion is all about what we are humanly capable of doing in attempting to please a religious god or comply with a religious teaching about God.

Thank God for the liberating, glorious gospel of Jesus Christ.