KEY THOT: The word “gospel” means good news (Greek eu-angelion: eu = good and angelion = news). And this “good news” has to do with the grace of Christ. Grace literally means divine favour or lovingkindness. It’s the attitude of graciousness and forgiveness of Christ towards sinners, instead of judgment and condemnation. Paul summarizes the grace as coming “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age” (Gal 1:3-4).
So, grace is Christ dying for our sins to deliver us from our bondage to sin and Satan. Grace also explains how sinners are justified before God: “we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Gal 2:16).
Apparently, a group of Jewish believers (Paul describes them as the “circumcision party” in verse 12) has tried to convince the Galatian believers that faith in Christ is not enough to be fully justified before God: they still need to keep the Jewish traditions, in particular circumcision, to be fully justified before God. In other words, they must become Jews by getting circumcised, keeping the Sabbath, eating only kosher food permitted in Leviticus and observing all kinds of religious festivals, ceremonial cleansing rites and rituals prescribed in the Jewish traditions—the whole work! To Paul, this is not the freedom the gospel promises--but a kind of religious bondage all over again.
So, Paul was strongly against this attempt to mix Judaism with the gospel. At one point, even Peter and Barnabas (who were Jews) lost their spiritual balance when the circumcision party dropped in and saw them eating food with Gentiles. They quickly withdrew from eating with the Gentile believers for fear of the Jewish party. Paul rebuked them openly for their hypocritical behavior (verses 11-14). In theory, Peter and Barnabas preached the freedom of the gospel from the works of the Law. But when the circumcision party (Jewish Christians) arrived, they succumbed to the pressure to affirm their Jewishness by separating themselves from eating with the Gentiles. Though converted to Christ, their strong identification with the Jewish traditions makes them feel guilty to be seen eating with Gentiles.
Fast forwards 2,000 years and we have to now ask ourselves whether the gospel has been corrupted in any way, so that we end up preaching "another gospel." In the case of the Galatians, the gospel was in danger of slipping backwards into justification by works of the law because of the pressure from the circumcision party. But in our generation, we no longer face this pressure as we are not Jewish. However, in the last 2,000 years, the church has also accumulated its own set of ecclesiastical traditions and customs that has become as binding as the Jewish religious traditions. Conformity to these traditions and customs sometime takes precedence over the freedom promised by the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is no longer justification by faith alone—but justification by faith alone plus observing ecclesiastical traditions.
At the other extreme corner, there is now a "new gospel" that promises total freedom--not only freedom from evil but also freedom from law, including the law of Christ as contained in the Gospels. Law is rejected because it is said to produce “sin-consciousness” and sin-consciousness is bad because it makes us feel guilty—and guilt and condemnation is the antithesis of grace. While the gospel among the Galatian believers was in danger of being undermined by a return to the "works of the law" as defined by Judaism, the gospel now is in danger of being undermined by the complete rejection of all Law in the name of freedom from sin. If the Law brings sin-consciousness, then by eliminating the Law, there will be no more sin or sin-consciousness. And therefore, no need for confession of sin too since confession of sin makes us sin-conscious--and that is opposed to grace.
However, this teaching is contrary to Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Firstly, Jesus did not come to reject the Law; he came to fulfill it: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt 5:17). Secondly, Jesus did not come to reject righteousness derived from the Law per se but He came to reject the righteousness based on Jewish traditions and customs which is supposedly derived from the Law. In fact, Jesus went on to say that “whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:19-20).
So, Jesus is not against the Law but against the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees based on keeping the Jewish traditions and customs. Jesus says that the righteousness of kingdom believers must exceed the “righteousness” of the scribes and Pharisees. In subsequent part of the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:21-48), Jesus re-defines grace-righteousness as inward attitudes and motivations based on the Law in contrast to work-righteousness derived from human traditions.
Therefore, grace is not a repudiation of the Law, but it’s a repudiation of righteousness derived from human interpretations of the Law. Grace in fact results in the internalization of the Law through the indwelling Spirit. When Paul says that “Christ is the end of the Law” (Rom. 10:4), he is not repudiating the Law, but repudiating justification based on works of the Law: “Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (Rom 10:4). Paul did not say grace makes righteousness unnecessary, but rather grace makes righteousness possible through faith--to everyone who believes. This righteousness is not derived from human traditions, but from the indwelling Spirit: “And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws” (Ezek 36:27).
May the gospel not be corrupted in either directions—a return to bondage to justification by observing ecclesiastical traditions on the one hand and a repudiation of God’s moral law entirely on the other hand. The gospel of Christ is not grace over law, but law within (heart transformed by the Spirit) as opposed to law without (behavior conformed to human traditions).
Grace makes righteousness no longer a work of outward conforming to human traditions which results in bondage. Grace makes righteousness an inward conversion to the new life of the Spirit which brings freedom in Christ.
May God grant us wisdom to know the difference.
Father, grant us Your Holy Spirit to keep Your gospel pure and uncontaminated by human traditions and customs. Amen.