Galatians 1:6-9, “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. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 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.” (ESV)

Paul begins this short passage by stating he is “astonished. ” Something unthinkable has happened.   Paul is shocked in his spirit. How could the Galatians do something like this? How could they turn from the gospel so quickly?  How could they desert the God who called them?

To understand Paul’s astonishment, we have to step back a little bit and see what he means by the “gospel. ” Fortunately, Paul has given us a simple statement of the gospel in the preceding verses. Jesus Christ gave himself – died on the cross — for our sins (verse 4). God the Father then raised Jesus from the dead (verse 1). This was according to God the Father’s plan before time (verse 4). As a result, we have grace and peace, where we were once under God’s wrath (verse 3). In addition, we are delivered from the present evil age – we can look forward to our heavenly home (verse 4). And God receives all the glory (verse 5).

Paul emphasizes that this gospel “is not man’s gospel,” and his authority as an apostle is “not from men” (verses 1, 11). If the gospel were given by man, then it would be subject to amendment and revision. But Paul received this gospel by special revelation from Christ (verse 12). This is why the gospel cannot change. It does not evolve. The gospel is fixed in the words and life of Christ, and we know Christ is “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).

For this reason, not even Paul can change the gospel. Not even an angel from heaven (verse 8). After all, even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. (2 Corinthians 11:14-15). Paul tells the Galatians, Don’t be fooled! A speaker may be fit and attractive, dressed in designer duds. She may keep her listeners in stitches, or brings them to tears. We must ignore all that, and only ask:  Are they preaching the gospel?

Those who distort the gospel are in grave spiritual danger; “their end will correspond to their deeds.” (2 Corinthians 11:14-15). This theme is repeated in the book of Revelation:  those who add to, or take away from, the word of God will not share in the heavenly kingdom (Revelation 22:18-19). In fact, Paul is willing to hasten their damnation: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” Paul not only calls double curses on them, later he wishes that they would “emasculate themselves”! (5:12).

So just who are these teachers who distort the gospel of Christ? Paul makes clear, there is no true gospel other than what Christ has already revealed.  But there are people who “trouble” and “unsettle” the new believers in Galatia (verse 7, 5:12). Paul is talking about the Judaizers.

The Judaizers believed that circumcision, and keeping the Law of Moses, was necessary to be saved (Acts 15:1-5).  As background, Paul taught that the law is good (Romans 7:12). And we know Christ did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). At the same time, none of us are capable of following God’s law (Romans 3:23). This is why Christ had to come to earth, had to take the punishment for our sin and rebellion. We are saved by faith in the finished and sufficient work of Christ, not by any works we do on our own (Ephesians 2:8-9). The gospel changes our hearts, saves us from the inside out.

Put simply, the Judaizers were adding to the work of Christ. They were saying, you need Christ plus circumcision. You need Christ plus keeping the Mosaic law. This may have seemed natural to Jewish believers, who were circumcised as children and grew up keeping kosher. But it was a huge stumbling block to Gentile believers, who were not part of the Jewish culture. And Paul was determined, by all means, to remove all barriers to the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). This was his passion.

Paul does not hide his emotions.  You can hear his shock and anger, over both the false teachers and the way the Galatians are blindly led astray. Reading these words, I wonder.  Am I astonished by those who distort the gospel? Do I use all means to remove barriers to faith?  Am I passionate for the simple truth of the grace of God? Paul has given us a sober warning:  no matter how charming, the teacher who adds to the gospel is leading his followers to hell.